We are probably on the way to a Tory government. In the local elections on 1 May, not only did Labour do badly; the Tories did well. An opinion poll on the weekend of 7-8 May showed the Tories ahead of Labour by 49% to 23%.
Where working-class voters have turned away from Labour in disillusion, generally left or leftish parties have failed to gain. No-one should exaggerate the electorate’s shift to the right, or suppose that it is fixed in stone. Just one sizeable working-class victory in struggle might reverse it. But it is the culmination of a steady drift for the last ten years.
Many people talk of “Thatcher’s children”, suggesting that Margaret Thatcher, Tory prime minister between 1979 and 1990, shifted public opinion solidly to the right.
Thatcher did shift the political Establishment, Labour and Lib-Dem as well as Tory. But in the population at large, the story is more one of “Blair’s children”.
The British Social Attitudes [BSA] surveys have the limitations of all such opinion-poll sociology. What they show, though, chimes in with political experience.
After Thatcher defeated the miners’ strike, in 1985, the working class was intimidated. But you can be intimidated and still want to fight back against what you fear once you see hope.
In 1997, there was hope around Blair’s victory. Then Blair closed off the political channels in the labour movement. That smothered hope. That generated acceptance that grinding free-marketism is the way things have to be, whether the government is “left” or “right”.
The percentage saying that “working people do not get a fair share of national wealth” was pretty steady around 66% between 1986 and 1998. By 2006 it had sagged to 55%.
Should the government redistribute income to the less well-off? 43% said yes in 1983; still 43% in 1996. By 2006, it was down to 34%.
The BSA’s composite index of “left-right” attitudes was fairly steady up to 1996, and has drifted to the right since then. The percentage “strongly left wing” was 7.6% in 1986, still 7.6% in 1996, and 4.1% in 2006. Opinion has also become somewhat more authoritarian, somewhat more hostile to immigrants.
All Blair’s work, not Thatcher’s. Almost no-one under 32 today has any live political memory of Thatcher (they would have been 14 or younger when she left office). No-one under 34 has known a general election in which they could vote which Blair did not win.
It is not just Blair’s work. The shift to the right is partly also the work of the “awkward squad”, the new contingent of union leaders who took office in the five or six years after Blair took office.
Through all or most of the working life of people under 30, “the unions” have been defined for the broad public not by the old right-wingers but supposed left-wingers - Derek Simpson, Tony Woodley, Billy Hayes, Mark Serwotka, Paul Kenny and the rest.
Those union leaders have had economic conditions as advantageous for trade unionism as capitalism is likely to offer — until the current crisis, relatively low unemployment, and (much of the time) quite rapid job growth in their main area of strength, the public services.
And what image of unions have Simpson and Woodley, Hayes and Kenny, shown to workers? As “well-meaning”, but not as a powerful force. Gordon Brown raises taxes for low-paid workers previously on the 10% rate; he limits public sector pay rises to two-and-a-bit per cent when inflation for low-paid workers is about 10% — and none of the “left-wing” union leaders can be moved even to a rueful reflection that it was a bad idea to give up the unions’ right to challenge the Labour leaders on issues like that at Labour Party conference.
Despite everything, the unions are not just the wretched “left” leaders. Young workers can learn from examples in other countries, and in history, as well as from what they see directly before them. And the developing economic crisis will jolt many into new thought.
By 2005, according to the BSA, as few as 13% of people saw “a great deal of difference” between the Tories and Labour. For “Blair’s children”, there is a tremendous gap to be filled by explanation of how politics “a great deal different” from Thatcher-Blairism is possible.
And the answer is, through a drive to renovate the labour movement from below, and instill it with the will to fight for a workers’ government, a government based on, serving, and accountable to the working class.