In the aftermath of a string of centre-right election victories in the US, India, Israel, and now the UK, many commentators are justifiably asking if we are witnessing a more general trend. Economic crisis, rising inequality, and economic stagnation are usually the raw materials for a progressive, leftish swing in sentiment. So what's happening?
It might be tempting to conclude that that old bugbear of the left, nationalism, has reared its head to cut down an argument for economic justice. Yet this narrative is only appealing because class and nation are seen as mutually-exclusive arguments by those on the left, perhaps especially the British left.
It should be clear by now that the argument for economic justice cannot win as such; it has to be folded into a positive story about identity if it is to succeed. This was Ed Miliband's signal failure, but not his alone.
So yes, nationalism is part of the answer, but only because the left doesn't seem to have a place for it. What we are missing across the world is a progressive patriotism. Without it, people in several constituencies are merely defaulting to the right.
Amplifying this dynamic is economic stagnation. In a period of low growth, you can't promise people more by simply growing the pie; for some people to get more of a stagnant pie, others have to get less. So the Clinton/Blair politics of "Hope" is replaced by the Miliband politics of "redistribution" in the name of justice.
This rise of a politics of negativity, of loser liberalism, can never win, however just its cause. But a lurch back to ameliorative, Blairite "aspirational" politics ignores the fact that reality has fundamentally changed. The Thatcherite economic model is broken, yet global capital still demands fiscal austerity. Who then is going to pay for Hope?
The progressive nation-state, autonomous from the dictates of global capital, this was the talisman of the last progressive form of nationalism we had in the world, namely anti-colonial nationalism. The left hasn't invented a 21st century version of this, so the world pitches right.
Observe how this played out in the UK election.
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, claimed after the election that the Scottish National Party did not lose the election for Labour, rather, it was Labour that failed to uphold its end of the implicit bargain to "lock the Tories out of Westminster" by failing to defeat the Conservative Party in England. She was not entirely wrong.
Sturgeon was clearly attempting to draw the sting from the Labour truism that if you vote SNP, you get the Tories. Yet, sadly, this is exactly what appears to have transpired for the Scots. The tyranny of the first-past-the-post system as a force for the status-quo, two-party duopoly is on full display again. Vote for a third party, and all you end up doing is splitting votes on one side, handing victory to the other side.
Look at the results
In England, Labour lost a mere 6 seats and gained 21, a net gain of 15, and hardly enough to explain the major gains on the right. The Tories gained 31 seats and lost 11, a net gain of 20. So in England, there's a net of 5 seats between Labour and Conservative.
The Tories' gains came almost entirely at the expense of their erstwhile coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. These self-proclaimed centrists and moderates lost a crippling 36 of their 42 seats in England. Wales was basically static, with minor gains for the Tories.
Labour did indeed fail to take any English territory off the Tories, mainly in the midlands it won under Blair. The interesting story there is again a splitting of the anti-Tory vote, this time between Labour and the insurgent English nationalist party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
UKIP came third in many seats in the midlands and second in some Labour strongholds in the North; it is now the third-largest party in terms of national vote share with almost 13 percent of the vote. Yet the severe voting system rewarded it with a single seat, with even its anti-immigrant acerbic leader Nigel Farage losing to a Tory.
The English story, then, is mainly one of churning within the center-right coalition, with the Tories cannibalising their partners and consolidating the right-wing vote in the face of an opposition that was divided between Labour and UKIP. Contrary to pre-election suspicions that UKIP would hurt the Tories, it appears as if some of the remnants of the Northern working class have opted for the English nationalists and punished Labour.
Yet, given the numbers - a net English lead of 5 for the Tories - this story is a somewhat minor plot point to the major drama of the evening, Scotland. In Scotland, Labour lost all its 40 seats to the SNP, with the Lib Dems losing its 10 Scottish seats to the nationalists, who now have a virtual monopoly of Scottish representation in Westminster. This much was expected on a night when the fake-science of pre-election polling was utterly exposed in getting so much wrong (this election has been as troubling for quantitative social science as it is for some participants).
What the Labour think-machine has failed to register is that class politics is now speaking through the idiom of nationalism: both English nationalism with UKIP, and Scottish nationalism with the SNP.
It's not that Labour was too tribally left, with too much of "Red Ed" and lingering Old-Labour, redistributionist sentiment. It is that Labour is still too shy of nationalism, failing to render its fairly sound argument about economic justice and industrial policy in terms in which the working classes of the North and Scotland could imagine themselves.
A left version of nationalism that incorporates these economic arguments will have to be fabricated from scratch. Its absence in the UK and beyond accounts for the consolidation of the centre right.
If the SNP represents an emergent Old Labour ethic in tartan, and the Tories an elite, southern consensus around neo-liberalism and austerity, then this election has exposed the deep divisions in British society that have polarised the electorate. The center, represented by the Lib Dems, was ripped apart.
This polarization is why the tone from the victorious Tories will be conciliatory, faux-compassionate conservatism under the sign of St. George's Cross. They're retailing it under a new brand name, "blue collar conservatism."
Look at the pattern of votes, and it becomes clear that the legacy of the uneven geographical development of English capitalism continues to haunt its politics. The SNP are big in post-industrial Scotland, Labour are still powerful in the old northern English industrial areas of greater Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, South Wales, on Tyneside, and of course in London. The surrounding belts of countryside, home of the suburban, service-sector upper-middle classes, are Tory.
This is at once a class division, an urban/rural division, and a regional division given the North/South axis of British Industry/Finance.
Narratives adequate to speak simultaneously to these divisions are missing. Class is the deep driver, but it can't seem to speak its name. The urban/rural divide gets played out as a demand for empowering local government across the country, hence the new vogue for devolution. And the regional dimension finds its loudest voice in Scottish nationalism.
No British party has managed to speak to across all these divides, which is precisely why this election was too hard to call. In the end, the clarion call of English nationalism might imperil the very union that "one-nation" Tories seek to secure.
What then of emerging Scottish model of progressive nationalism? With oil prices tanking, the SNP now need a proper industrial policy if it is going to make use of any future fiscal federalism. Having made a breach in the nation's electoral calculus yet finding themselves on the opposition benches, the SNP now have a duty to take their alloy of nationalism and economic justice to a broader audience. Much depends on their success.
(Anush Kapadia is a lecturer on political economy at City University in London
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