Compared with its counterparts in Continental Europe, the organised left in Britain has been unusually stable. Founded in the late nineteenth century, twenty or thirty years before the British Labour Party, most European socialist parties underwent at least three great convulsions in the twentieth century: they were split by the Bolshevik Revolution, driven underground by fascist dictators and reinvented after the collapse of Communism. In this sense these parties have a history written into them, which acknowledges that the world can change and that political formations are not immutable. Even now, the map of the European left is shifting, with realignments under way in both Germany and Italy. Britain, however, remains an exception to the European norm. Here the left has revolved around a single political formation, the Labour Party, which has been largely untouched by any of the convulsions, partly because of its late formation and partly out of simple contingency.
The mirror image to Labour's stable position on the left is that of the Conservatives on the right. For almost a century, Great Britain has been a two-party state in which power alternates between left and right. Indeed, if one substitutes Liberal for Labour, this system has dominated British politics since the mists of time. The first-past-the-post voting system has reduced other parties to electoral impotence, whilst the 'broad church' posture of the two main parties has neutralised, if not absorbed, the extremes on either side.
The current national political scene might, superficially, suggest that this two-party system remains in full flower. However, this is not the case. The high point of two-party dominance was in 1951 when Labour and Conservatives between them polled 98 per cent of a popular vote of over 80 per cent of the electorate. Since then there has been a slow but steady erosion of their position. In 1966, the Labour/Conservative vote totalled 90 per cent of the total, taking 97.8 per cent of the seats on a 72.9 per cent turnout, whilst comparable figures in 2005 were 67.5 per cent, 85 per cent and 61.4 per cent. Two stark conclusions follow. First, it is now possible for a party to obtain a clear parliamentary majority with the votes of little more than one-fifth of the adult population. Second, the gap between the aggregate share of the vote of the two main parties and their share of seats won has grown significantly. The stability of the two-party system has become precarious.
In a parallel development, the broad-church nature of both parties has also diminished. The Labour Party shows this more obviously, with its socialist left component reduced in both numbers and influence to humiliating obscurity, but the Conservative Party has also become much narrower in its political spectrum, both to the left (where Labour has hoovered up any spare 'wets') and to the right, where both the BNP and UKIP have taken over. Again the effect is to destabilise the two-party system.
The great political achievement of the Blair/Brown regime has been to impose the policies of neo-liberal Thatcherism on the Labour Party whilst retaining electoral power. (1) I want to take this as read and to focus on the current political problem faced by the new leader, Gordon Brown: how to manage the shift in political position required to cement Labour as the dominant electoral force in Britain. In particular, I want to consider three ways in which the political base of Labour has moved, and the implications of this for the left. These concern, respectively, the diminished strength of British trade unions, the decline of the socialist tradition and the hollowing out of the British state.
The shifting context for Brown
Historically, trade unions have played a more prominent role in the British labour movement than in Continental Europe, where their support has been welcome, but not decisive, for the parties of the left. …