The Conservatives — who had drooled over poll results promising a sweeping majority just weeks earlier — were punished, losing their majority. As the incumbent governing party, they were held most responsible by some workers and others for the devastating effects of the rulers’ grinding assaults on working people and some middle-class layers, and the broader social crisis. Declining real wages, growing job insecurity, lack of affordable housing and a burgeoning health care crisis saw millions vote in protest or stay home.
Political developments — from the Brexit vote to this one — have caused a deepening crisis for all political parties in the U.K. And they raise fears in the British ruling class, who see behind the votes growing working-class anger and labor battles to come.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s authority is shattered. Former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne called her a “dead woman walking.” Events since the vote, most notably the social catastrophe resulting from the Grenfell Tower fire and the start of Brexit negotiations, deepen the factional divisions between and within the rulers’ parties.
The new Conservative government is proposing just eight substantive laws — all focused on Brexit — stretched out over two years, so as to avoid a vote next year on what would surely be a “no confidence” motion. May has secured an arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland for their support in such votes. But while the DUP deal allows the Conservatives to form a government, it threatens to add to the political crisis by undermining Northern Ireland devolution — the ongoing transfer of powers from London to the assembly in Belfast — to which the Conservative Party is committed. By associating the U.K. government with a Unionist party, they endanger alienating Republicans upon whose willing consent the Northern Ireland executive depends.
May clings to office
To cling to office, May says she will try to work “with anyone in any party.” One proposal is to bind Labour into the Brexit negotiations by offering Keir Starmer, their shadow Brexit minister, a Privy Council place. Starmer would be drawn into government discussions on negotiations with the European Union, but bound to secrecy.
The government will also look for cross-party agreement on new “anti-terror” measures. Already — with bipartisan support — armed police in Manchester have started routinely stopping and searching cars, claiming to act as a “deterrent and reassurance.” The Labour Party campaign was marked by leader Jeremy Corbyn’s call for adding 10,000 new cops to Britain’s forces.
The Scottish National Party, the governing party in the Scottish Parliament, was also punished in the poll, losing 21 of its 56 Members of Parliament. The Scottish Conservatives won 14 seats, up from one before the election. But this is a potential Trojan horse for instability. Scottish Conservatives have their own agenda, and leader Ruth Davidson is touted by some as a replacement for May.
The UK Independence Party saw its electoral support hammered. Its vote collapsed from 13 percent in the 2015 election to 2 percent. With the Brexit vote, UKIP lost its central demand, and with May leading the negotiations, the party switched to a crude anti-Muslim agenda, resulting in hemorrhaging of its working-class support.
Political crisis deepens
The Corbyn-led Labour Party received 41 percent, just two points behind the Conservatives. Corbyn campaigned around the slogan “for the many, not the few,” presenting himself as a radical outsider — both anti-Tory and outside the Labour Party old guard.
The Conservative Party leadership and much of the media ran an anti-Corbyn campaign, accusing him of being a “Marxist” for advocating some nationalizations and tax increases on those with higher incomes and being “soft on terrorism.” His prospects improved with each attack.
The “soft on terrorism” allegation especially backfired. Corbyn turned the tables, condemning the government for cutting police and competing with May in a bidding war over curtailing political rights, glorifying the rulers’ cops and spy agencies. He called for expanding “Prevent,” a central pillar of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy, that obliges civil servants, teachers and others to inform on anyone they think voices “extremist views.”
The Corbyn leadership tastes blood and is demanding a new election. But Labour’s own factional crisis, which last year saw mass resignations from the shadow cabinet, remains.
The shift to Corbyn was strongest among middle class layers, and especially among student youth whose aspirations for well-paying jobs in the U.K. and Europe are being dashed by the capitalist economic crisis and declining university standards. Corbyn made campaign pledges to end tuition fees and relieve the financial burdens on indebted students.
A layer of younger workers also voted for Labour. On average they are earning £8,000 ($10,350) less in their 20s than their parents did, while the number living with their folks has sky-rocketed.
Overall, working-class votes were evenly divided between Conservatives and Labour. May competed for working-class support, with a parallel pledge to govern for the majority, not the privileged few. Conservative MP Robert Halfon proposed renaming the party the “Conservative Workers Party.” Workers who favor Brexit and don’t trust Labour to deliver it also voted Conservative.
The election registered that party loyalty, especially along class lines, is over. The Labour Party is today more like the Democratic Party in the U.S., no longer a social democratic party looked to by working people as theirs — whatever misgivings they may have had about its program and leadership.
“Voter volatility” is the expression of the deep-seated anger among workers and sections of the middle class. It is beginning to scare the rulers. Theresa May called it a “quiet revolution.”
The anger contributed to the successful campaign for the Communist League. “Workers are open to discussing a communist perspective — whether they ended up voting Conservative, Labour or not voting,” said Peter Clifford, the League’s candidate in Manchester Gorton.
Beneath the political crisis is the U.K.’s weakness in the face of world capitalism’s growing disorder, and London’s disproportionate decline in relation to its imperialist rivals. British capital is stagnant, trailing its rivals in productive business investment and labor productivity. The British rulers’ army has been reduced to 78,000, and plans are afoot to cut it to 65,000, making impossible the sort of commitment of 46,000 soldiers London sent to back Washington at the peak of the Iraq war.
The political crisis isn’t going away.
Marchers at London rally protest Grenfell catastrophe
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home