UK elections exposes new unpredictable political landscape

07 May 2015

The uncertainty about UK's election results reflects an important opening up of politics and expectations in the UK and an opportunity for social movements to push for anti-austerity and progressive policies

Translated from an interview with TNI fellow Hilary Wainwright by Epochi magazine in Greece.

What do you think the elections of May 7th will mean for the future of the UK?

I think these elections are indicating a diffuse but deep disaffection with the UK's undemocratic political system, with its inbuilt pressures for convergence between the Conservatives and Labour Parties, the imposition of austerity and also the present low-wage, low-employment economy.

This disaffection does not have a very clear or focused political expression because of the unproportionate electoral system for national, Westminster, elections. But whenever a challenge takes place to the dominant 'balance the books' / cut benefit/ restrict immigration consensus, it gains momentum.

This means there is no predictable outcome to the elections on May 7th. Our politics is no longer the almost automatic swinging of the pendulum, like a classical grandfather clock. The ground on which the clock stands is shaking, its mechanisms are breaking up and bursting through the clock face, interrupting it's rhythmic 'tick, tock', (Labour, Tory), to which we had become accustomed.

We can't be sure what this will mean for the future of the UK. But we can be sure electoral politics will never be the same again.

Forces have been released which are shaping new battlegrounds, within party politics and outside. On the right as well as the left. Debate and maybe action will, I think move to a more fundamental level, with a deeper questioning of the UK's unwritten constitution and the previously hidden power of the financial centre of London.  

How would you criticise the public discussion of the British parties about the relationship between the UK and the EU?

The relationship between the UK and the EU has not been a central issue in the public debates. I suspect the main parties are nervous about being open about their policies, because each of them is internally divided on the issue.

UKIP has tried to bring it to the fore but without success. There are not strong passions about it at present. The issue of relations between the nations of the UK has predominated. And the left, wherever it is located – in the Labour Party, in the Greens , or outside the parties – has not been coherent or bold enough to present a clear vision of a progressive relationship between the UK and the EU.  

The opinion surveys show that there is a hard fight between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. How do you see this?

This Labour-Tory conflict is the traditional battle and the default position of media commentators and analysts, so it's always there and generally setting the day-to-day news. But it keeps being disturbed by other new factors: the rise of the SNP (Scottish Nationalists)  and its impact across the UK, the surge of support for the Greens, the impact of anti-corporate, 'don't vote' Russell Brand.

The two party leaders are reacting very differently to the battle: Cameron trying in true Etonian, British ruling class fashion, to be 'effortlessly superior' , not bothering to engage with the people – besides children at nursery schools – showing contempt for his opponents; Miliband by contrast, is ever eager to engage, argue, reach out to everyone, courteous to everyone, taking risks by being interviewed by Russell Brand, debating with Scottish Nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon.    

Everything shows that there will be no party reliant to govern. What kind of alliance do you think could apply some efficient politics against austerity?

I have written about this in the latest issue of Red Pepper Magazine. My argument is that there is the possibility – which I think is positively desirable – of a minority Labour government which depends on the support of parties, which on the key questions of ending austerity, investing in green economic development, defending and democratising public services and supporting immigrants and challenging xenophobia, are significantly to the left of Labour.

These smaller parties – the SNP (Scottish National Party) Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalists) and the Greens are already talking about forming a 'progressive anti-austerity alliance' with left wing Labour MPs – there are still some but not many - and using their bargaining power to push Labour to the left.

This kind of alliance combining parliamentary and extra-parliamentary sources of power, is my dream

The growing network of militant extra-parliamentary, direct action campaigns are also insisting that these MPs give support to their struggles and not confine themselves to the shenanigans of parliamentary politics. All three parties and many left Labour MP's have a strong record of engagement in campaigning politics outside of parliament. The new contingent of SNP MPs who will arrive at Westminster are mainly the product of the radical movement for Scottish independence which had real roots in working class communities and was hitherto largely autonomous from the SNP. And the one Green MP, Caroline Lucas, gains her inspiration more from outside parliament than inside. Many of the leadership of the Welsh Nationalists spent time in prison as a result of direct action in support of the Welsh language.

This kind of alliance combining parliamentary and extra-parliamentary sources of power, is my dream, but there is always the possibility of a nightmare: a Conservative coalition with the radical right UKIP.   

This election, too, reveals some inability of the British Left to become a strong force, capable of expressing politically the social layers of society that suffer from this crisis. What would you attribute this to and can be done about it?

The electoral system with its lack of proportionality has tended, up till now to imprison the left inside the Labour Party which in turn produces bad habits: notably a preference for inner party debate and battles over campaigning openly to reach the wider public, and a related tendency to sectarianism.

But change is under way, proportional election systems have been won in Scotland and Wales due to a forceful combination of desire for democracy , anti-Conservative , anti-imperial sentiments and politicised nationalist cultures. This has meant a break with Labour's monopoly of working class politics, within the UK, and that has proved destabilising to the old configurations of labour movement politics as well as to the British imperial state.

Moreover, the growth  - intermittently and with setbacks as well as surges – of social movements which have created a new, more open, more welcoming and less sectarian, nerdy left political culture. The womens movement has been vital in this respect.

I think this is the energy on which we need to build: encouraging these diverse movements to ... combine their transformative, liberatory capacity with the governmental ambitions of left parties.

I think this is the energy on which we need to build: encouraging these diverse movements to come together, to ally pragmatically with political parties and to combine their transformative, liberatory capacity with the governmental ambitions of left parties. Activists in the UK have, with this in mind, been inspired by Syriza and Podemos. Non–party but infrastructural initiatives like Red Pepper Magazine are also vital resources in this new process of co-ordination and politicisation,  experimenting with new modes of unification and political expression. Watch this space.. Political life after May 7th will open new opportunities . But we have to be creative.  

Many people claim that the UK compared to the Southern European countries has some kind of economic and social stability. Is this true?

I wouldn't say 'stability' ; I would say British people have a more conservative and cautious culture. Maybe more people have historically have had more to lose in the UK. But that has been changing as a result of the effects of neoliberal economic and social policies. Since Thatcher's defeat of the miners, people have lost their  homes, stable jobs , communities, education and the future of a growing number of people looks bleak.

In this context more people are willing to take risks , to combine, to get organised to take action. We see more occupations of homes for example in working class communities facing eviction. There is still more social support in the UK than in Southern Europe. The welfare state was quite a strong institution; in spite of all its problems and bureaucracy, people had made it their own, and are fighting stubbornly to defend it. In that sense, the desire to conserve security and order can be progressive. As long as it doesn't deter people from being militant.  

What are your thoughts about the Greek issue and the attempt of the Greek government to defend the Greek people’s electoral decision during the negotiations with the European partners?

I applaud the Greek's government's loyalty to the Greek people's electoral decision. I and many other people in the UK are inspired by it and would like to do more to organise solidarity and challenge the totally vicious, authoritarian and ultimately short-sighted behaviour of the European elites.

Syriza's victory and its determined stand against the Troika, could be the beginning of change across Europe. Towards the dream of a democratic Europe governed by its peoples, for its people. The organisation of the left across Europe has proved too weak to help shift the balance of power in favour of the Greek government, to challenge Merkel, Schauble and their destructive, dictatorial rule. We must urgently do all we can to remedy this .