Why did the Tories win the general election, when their policies serve the interests of a wealthy and powerful minority rather than the mass of the people? First, it has to be remembered that Cameron & Co won only 37 per cent of the poll, 25 per cent of the electorate and little more than one in five of adults eligible to register and vote.
These figures should be of little comfort to Labour, whose percentages in each case are even lower.
Nonetheless, it is significant that the groups least likely to register to vote — tenants, especially in private rented accommodation, foreign-born residents and young people and students — are also among the least likely to vote Tory when they do register.
The failure to inspire these people to register and vote therefore helped the Tories to win a parliamentary majority.
So, too, did the first past the post electoral system, which awarded the Tories just over half of the Westminster seats with little more than one third of the votes.
But an effective and fairer system of proportional representation would still have given the Tories, Ukip and Ulster unionists around 50 per cent of the seats, with Labour, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru having only 40 per cent.
With the assistance of the mass media, Cameron and Osborne were able to perpetuate the myths that a profligate Labour government had crashed the economy, that austerity is essential and that Britain’s recovery is the spectacularly successful result.
Labour’s response to this ideological offensive has been feeble, confused and contradictory, rendering it even more incapable of challenging media orthodoxy.
The Labour leadership failed to point out on every possible occasion that bankers and speculators — not spending on welfare and public services — had plunged the whole international financial system into chaos and crisis.
Eds Miliband and Balls could have reinforced this approach by arguing for the bailed-out banks to remain in public ownership and used to promote investment in productive industry, housing and green technology.
Instead, they went along with privatisation.
Labour’s refusal to campaign for public ownership of gas, electricity, water and the railways cost it potentially wide support beyond the party’s core base. Instead, Miliband opted for an energy price freeze which sent big business and the right-wing press into a frenzy, with little to make the fight worthwhile for Labour. Indeed, the Labour leadership utterly failed to make City of London fraud, tax-dodging and overseas tax havens a major election issue, having previously supported lower taxes for super-rich “non-domiciled” residents. Nor was enough said about rebalancing the British economy away from financial services towards manufacturing and R&D. Rather than oppose more “quantitative easing” cash for the banks, Miliband and Balls spent too much time apologising for Labour’s financial record in office and promising to be better behaved in future. In this they were not helped by the puerile “no more money” note bequeathed by arch-Blairite Liam Byrne to his Treasury successors.
The Labour leaders also failed to point out incessantly that Osborne’s shock treatment from 2010 stifled an economic recovery already begun under Labour, preferring to predict a “double dip” recession that never quite arrived. Their difficulty, of course, was that the Tory Chancellor was deepening the cuts previously planned and being rolled out by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Which brings us to the biggest factor favouring a Tory victory — Cameron and Osborne winning the battle of ideas over austerity, although it was more of a walkover despite the efforts of the Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru leaders.
Miliband and Balls could have spent the past five years exposing the fraud that is austerity, privatisation and the Tories’ trite “long-term economic plan.” Instead, they carped but capitulated, playing into the hands of the SNP and — in England — the hysteria whipped up against the prospect of a minority Labour administration dependent on SNP support.
Had Labour been campaigning against austerity all along, it could have made clear its willingness to co-operate with all anti-austerity MPs at Westminster, instead of appearing shifty and insincere when rejecting it. The party might even have won an outright majority. A genuine commitment to building a federal Britain, combined with anti-austerity measures to redistribute wealth from the super-rich to all its regions and nations, might have shored up Labour support in Scotland.
Support for an EU referendum and a more critical attitude towards EU anti-democratic institutions and neo-liberal policies might have stopped at least some working-class voters defecting to Ukip. Labour’s enthusiastic support for more nuclear weapons in Britain did not only haemorrhage votes in Scotland, it might have led to crucial votes going to the Greens in quite a few marginal seats.
These are the kinds of policies Labour must now consider if it is to recover many of the four million Labour votes lost since 1997 — an election won on a social democratic manifesto, not a Blairite New Labour one. This is what the trade unions should demand, together with a fresh Labour Party leadership that will carry them out.
Otherwise, the party is heading for oblivion as the parliamentary voice of organised labour and as a vehicle for far-reaching progressive change. Immediately, the workers and peoples of Britain face an escalation of Tory attacks on public services, the welfare state, democratic local government and trade union rights. The Tories will fan the flames of English nationalism and drive Scotland closer to independence. And, with the support of far too many Labour MPs, Cameron’s government will dance to the Nato war drums and commission a new generation of nuclear weapons. We will need our trade unions, the People’s Assembly, CND and the Communist Party as much as we ever have before.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party