In the British General Election of June 1987 the Conservative Party, having already held office for two consecutive terms, received 13,763,134 votes, Labour 10,033,633 and the Alliance 7,339,912. Other candidates between them 1,199,573. The turnout was 75.4 percent. This was after repeated experience of labour governments in Britain and after the conservatives had shown themselves to be as far to the right as any British government of this century.
When the Social Democratic Party made its entrance, some six years ago, we were repeatedly asked how this could be explained. Here was a completely new party, never known in Britain before, for which the analysis of the political structure presented by s.i. allowed no place. Did this not prove s.i. to be in need of serious revision, perhaps altogether wrong?
Before that time the standard criticism had been a different one. If, as s.i. indicated, the number of potential supporters for a party tended to become smaller the farther to the left it stood, the Liberal Party should have been larger than the Labour Party and regularly winning more votes than Labour. In fact it was smaller and received less electoral support. Did this not prove s.i. to be in need of serious revision, perhaps altogether wrong?
The obvious solution, to both of these problems, was to put them together, to regard the SDP as the reappearance of the support for liberalism that had drifted away following the split between Asquith and Lloyd George in the early 1920s. Examination of SDP attitudes and policies (so far as these had been worked out) confirmed this hypothesis, the formation of the Alliance between the SDP and the Liberal Party supported the confirmation, and now the support received by proposals for a merger has settled the question about as conclusively as anything ever can be settled in. politics.
Turning to the number of votes received, by the Labour Party, this does not agree either with that party’s view of itself or with the view of socialism presented by s.i.; it is too small for the first and too large for the second.
The Labour Party claims to represent the interests of those who do not own enough wealth to live on, and these are far more numerous than the rich; if as a body they supported Labour it would enjoy a permanent and overwhelming majority. They do not support it; of an electorate of some forty million only ten million – about one in four – voted labour. The party’s claim to represent the interests of the great body of ordinary people can be maintained only by accepting that a great many of these fail to understand where their interests lie, and if that be the reason they did not vote for labour then it was not their conditions of life that decided how they would vote. It was their understanding of their conditions of life, and once this is recognised the issue is seen to be an ideological one. Once we have said that voting behaviour depends upon understanding we have ceased to think of labour voters as belonging to this or that class, status-group, occupational grouping or income-level and begun to see them as the people who hold a certain set of ideas, beliefs, assumptions and so on; in short, a certain ideology.
In order to reconcile the number of votes received by the Labour Party with what s.i. has to say of it we must first be clear just what s.i. does say. It has, in fact, little to say about the Labour Party. It analyses the organisation into two parts, which can almost be called the trade union body and the socialist brain, and then goes on to speak of these separately.
Most of the funds and the numerical support enjoyed by the Labour Party come from the trade unions, and the function of a trade union is not to establish socialism for the benefit of the community as a whole but to promote the interests of its members within present society. The frequency of demarcation disputes (the latest big one was between electricians and printers over the manning of the Wapping newspaper-printing works) shows the unions very willing to work against other trade unionists if they think their own members will benefit from this. Many trade union leaders are socialists and some are reported to be communists, but the general body of the members belong to trade unions for the same reasons as richer people buy shares and join boards of directors; they do it in pursuit of their own interests. To think that the connection between the Labour Party and the trade unions shows these to be socialist organisations is to turn reality back to front; the connection ensures that the party shall not be a socialist organisation. It is, very largely, in order to maintain good relations with the trade unions that it calls itself the Labour and not the Socialist Party, and for the same reason Clause Four of the Constitution, which on paper commits the party to common ownership and democratic control, remains a dead letter. The motives and objectives of trade unionism are closer to those of the right than to those of the left; it is best understood as a form of working-class conservatism.
One section of the Labour Party does seek a humane, egalitarian society in which both the wealth produced by the community and the political freedoms shall be enjoyed by all. Those who belong to it are commonly known, even among their fellow-members of the party, as “extremists”, “hardliners” or “the looney left.” Active, vocal and aggressive, it sometimes almost monopolises the attention paid to the party by the media, but it is a small part of the whole. It sometimes manages to win control of a branch or a selection committee, even to get a resolution expressing its views passed at Conference, but only so long as the non- socialist bulk of the membership remains passive. Whenever the great body of Labour Party members gets provoked into movement the militants are overcome without serious difficulty.
This small section is the socialist or (since “socialist” is a word with varied meanings) the labour-socialist component of the party and it is this, not that party as a whole, that s.i. presents as expressing in party politics the protodynamic ideology, located between the parastatic of liberalism and the epidynamic of communism.
There remain the 25% of non-voters. Doubtless some of these are anarchists and the like who have considered the options on offer and decided none of them deserve support, but there is no reason to think there are many of these. Most of the non-voters are just not interested. S.i. posits a group, more numerous than the convinced supporters of any one party, whose members, absorbed in their own affairs, exhibit no commitment to the theories, principles or policies of any party. Again there seems to be a serious discrepancy between theory and observation, for a non-voting figure of 25% of the electorate is smaller than this theory seems to suggest; it is smaller than the number voting for conservatism, when it “ought” to be larger.
Here, again, we need to be clear what s.i. says. It does not say that the members of this group will not vote for any party, only that they will not show themselves committed to the theories, principles or policies of any party; this leaves open the question whether they will vote or not. Changes in the voting figures from one election to the next indicate the presence of a substantial group of voters without commitment to the theories, principles or policies of any party, a group that votes as seems expedient at the time. These are known as floating voters, and they are numerous enough to produce the “swings” and “landslides” that sometimes swamp the faithful adherents of the different parties. The behaviour of these people links them to the non-voters (both sections being defined in the same way, by the absence of commitment to the theories etc. of any party) and floating voters and non- voters added together form a group amply large enough to satisfy the theory of s.i..
The paragraphs above amount to saying that the voting figures need to be critically examined before being accepted as an indication of the ideological relationships underlying political behaviour. There is nothing unusual about this; careful inspection of the evidence is normal practice in any serious study, and not uncommonly the observation that seemed to disprove a theory is found, on examination, to confirm it. The observation, for example, that a hydrogen balloon soars upwards instead of being drawn towards the centre of the earth, does not disprove the law of gravitation; on the contrary. The balloon ascends because gravity affects it less strongly than it does an equivalent volume of the surrounding air; the observation, when properly interpreted, illustrates and confirms the law. Serious study of political and social behaviour also requires careful consideration of the evidence, and the criterion to be applied is not whether the theories put forward agree directly with first-hand observation but whether they provide a coherent, integrated and useful explanation of the behaviour studied.
from Ideological Commentary 29, September 1987.