Right-Wing and Populist Parties and the Decline of Labour

We have said that changes in the social structure and the politics of the UK have opened up a space, especially in England, for the emergence of right-wing populist parties with nationalist and racist themes. A long-term decline has been seen in the share of the vote going to two main parties (Conservative and Labour), and turnout in general elections has fallen considerably when compared with post-war levels. As Ford and Goodwin (2014a: 279) observe, 'Britain’s economy and social structure has changed dramatically over the past fifty years’, and most of these changes have disfavoured the Labour Party. When the Labour Party ‘revived’ as New Labour from 1997, it was at very considerable cost to its previous identity as a party which could claim to represent the broad mass of working people. Its failure to adapt to changing political values in Scotland and the poor organisation of the Labour Party in Scotland meant that Labour there went into a steep decline (Hassan and Shaw 2012). This came to an inglorious head with the

Labour Party opposing the Yes campaign in the 2014 Scotland referendum for independence. For not only did they oppose independence, but they shared platforms with the Conservatives (Settle 2015, Herald Scotland). The result was an almost complete collapse of Labour Scotland seats in the 2015 general election (the party declined from 41 seats in 2010 to 1 in 2015 and from 42 % of popular vote to 24 %). The defeat of Labour at the UK level in 2015 showed that the Labour Party was in trouble. Commentators attributed some of its fall to its failure to respond to ‘identity politics’; being pro-Europe left it exposed in England, coupled with its failure to understand the public mood in Scotland. With the demise of ‘welfare citizenship’ (Tilly 1995) and the weakening of Britishness, plus the emergence of political Englishness, Labour was left with few options in ‘identity politics’. Some of its MPs attempted to address the question of national identity for the Labour Party, notably Jon Cruddas and Tristram Hunt. As early as 2011 Jon Cruddas was urging his party to find ‘a new patriotism’, acknowledging that European parties of the centre-left had ceded ground to populist parties on questions of ‘identity’ (Cruddas and Rutherford 2011, The Guardian). In the aftermath of the 2015 defeat of Labour in the general election, Cruddas wrote that Labour was in need of a ‘politics of recognition’ and should revive its English radical traditions (Cruddas 2015). Tristram Hunt (2015) argued that Labour needed to address ‘identity politics’ whilst maintaining a Blairite position on public finances. Thus he wrote that ‘issues of culture, identity and defending the national interest are now as important—if not more important—than material questions of public policy’.

As discussed earlier, distrust in politicians has heightened in recent decades, and the view that the political elite are detached from the public it is supposed to represent has become widespread (Kellner 2012a). Thus political disaffection, distrust and the grave weakening of the left or centre-left party, plus the salience of the twin issues of immigration and sentiment towards the European Union, have created a space for rightwing populist politics, which has been largely absent in the UK except for the brand of populism embraced from time to time by the Conservative Party, notably under Thatcher and, more recently, Cameron.

 
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