What then are the political perspectives which flow from this enormous process of the rise and now the decline of the Conservative Party? They may be best outlined by summarising very briefly the overall character of the development we have considered in this book.
One simple fact holds the key to understanding the specific character of British society and British politics. Britain is not just any old capitalist society. It was the first great capitalist state and the first great imperialist power in the world. This reality shaped the entire foundations of its society and moulded every social layer which existed within it. It created for the British capitalist class enormous reserves with which to integrate the working class and prevented British capitalism ever having to face an equivalent of the European revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1870, the German Revolution of 1918-19, the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, or the Spanish Civil War - let alone the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The nearest British equivalent to these events - the General Strike of 1926 - was anything but an open struggle for power. Even upheavals on the scale of May 1968 in France, or 1975 in Portugal, have been avoided.
The British bourgeoisie was the first to be able to create what Leon Trotsky once referred to as the ‘perfected’ form of capitalist rule. By this he meant a system of domination consisting of two interlocking elements: bourgeois democracy, a state presenting itself as the representative of the people as a whole but in reality serving the interests of the capitalist class, based on a reformist labour bureaucracy controlling the working class and preventing any challenge to the capitalist system from that quarter. This was the final political order which emerged out of Peel's great decisions of the 1840s. The extension of the right to vote paralleled exactly the growth of explicitly reformist working class organisations in the last half of the nineteenth century. It was a form of rule subsequently emulated, when they had the resources, by every major imperialist power.
The place of the Conservative Party within that political system was also clear. The Tory Party was not, historically, the chief party of the British industrial bourgeoisie; that role was played by a section of the Whigs and later, and more centrally by the Liberal Party. The Tory Party originally represented the most backward, archaic and reactionary forces in the most economically and socially advanced country in the world.
But it was precisely because it was a political dinosaur that the Conservative Party emerged as the dominant political party of British capitalism. By the 1840s British capitalism had created two forces escaping its control - a working class that with Chartism was beginning to take on a political life of its own and an Ireland that was to seethe with revolt against Britain for a century and continues to struggle against British rule until the present day. To confront these social and political threats to its power, British capitalism had to build a coalition of every possible force in society no matter how archaic, decrepit, or medieval. This need became even more urgent in the 1880s, when British political parties had clearly lost control of the situation in Ireland and were beginning to see a crisis spread into the British ‘mainland’ itself.
The most resolute resistance to the rising threat of disorder was provided by the most backward and obscurantist sections of the ruling class - the original landlord core of the Tory Party. The modern Conservative Party built by a process of adding layer upon layer to this nucleus: reactionary Protestant forces in the North of Ireland, the petit-bourgeoisie, the military hierarchy, industrial capitalists escaping the crisis of Liberalism. Above all, with the political genius of Benjamin Disraeli followed by the organising skills of Joseph Chamberlain, a huge working class base was gained for Conservatism in the more prosperous areas of the country. The enormous economic strength of British foreign investments and British banking capital allowed a stabilisation of this entire bloc. Domestic manufacturing capital was integrated into it as a subordinate element. From 1886 onwards Conservatism showed itself the stable and totally dominant capitalist party of British society. While the economic base remained firm, Conservative supremacy was unchallengeable.
The problem for the ruling class in this system was that while the Conservative Party was able to buttress the political grip of British imperialism over society, it was at great cost to the British domestic economy itself. The specific ruling class orientation which came to be embodied in the Tory Party - that of international banking operations, foreign investment, high exchange rates and social concessions to the working class internally to maintain its firm political base - constitutes one of the chief historical roots of the present crisis of British imperialism. Internal political stability and a firm base for foreign operations were purchased at the expense of a continuous decline of the British domestic economy.
By the 1960s and 1970s all the international economic contradictions of this system were, so to speak, imploding into British society. Quite new political and economic formulas were beginning to be required. The results were the ‘retreat from Empire’, the decision on the EEC, and, accompanying these, the crisis in the Tory Party from 1964 to 1979 - a period when the Conservatives lost four general elections out of five. This was the period when the social alliances of the Tory Party began to break down; and Tory fortunes reached their nadir in October 1974, when the Conservative share of the vote fell to its lowest level for 115 years and Heath campaigned for a ‘national’, and not even a specifically Tory government. It was also a period of political disturbance and conflict in British society as a whole, with the movement against the American War in Vietnam, student upheavals, and in the 70s the largest trade union struggles since the General Strike, and the emergence of a major new left wing in the Labour Party symbolised by Tony Benn. All these were political problems of a type British capitalism had not confronted for half a century, and showed the weakening of the old mechanisms of political integration. The most urgent political task confronting the British capitalist class was to put a stop to these processes.
The Labour Movement
The historical success of British capitalism in politically transforming the character of the working class movement pointed the way to a solution to these problems. The British labour movement, at the time of its formation, was as advanced as any in the world. For quite a long time, indeed, it was the only working class movement existing on a mass scale. In its degree of politicisation, internationalism, development of revolutionary currents and its breadth of support as a class movement, Chartism - the basic organised expression of the workers' movement from the mid-1830s onwards was, in its time second to none.
But the huge reorganisation, and international expansion, of British capitalism from the mid-1840s totally transformed the character of the British labour movement. It created the space for the working class to extract economic concessions; to take advantage of this a huge new, and explicitly reformist, workers' movement emerged. Its political weakness was complemented by its tremendous organisational strength, which found its most developed expression in the power of the trade unions - which in their size, centralisation, and weight of local shop steward organisation had no parallel in the world. At their peak in the 1970s these unions organised more than thirteen million people. Their leaders were, in the dream of Ernest Bevin and the reality of Len Murray, continually invited into the "corridors of power". The tremendous drive of the working class to build up its own organisations was locked into a system of ‘social contracts’, ‘income policies’, public spending cuts, and unemployment which held down wages, eliminated social gains, and alienated the working class from Labour. The great decline of the Labour Party, it must be remembered, started not in the 1970s and 1980s, when the left began to grow, but in the 1950s and 1960s when the Labour right totally ruled the party's apparatus and policies. Discussion with Labour created the first base for Margret Thatcher.
However, Thatcherism itself was far from the only political force released by the crisis of the Conservative Party from the early 1960s onwards. The decline in the grip of the Tory Party allowed the Labour leadership, under Wilson and Callaghan, to dream of becoming ‘the natural party of government’. For the Labour right the crisis of Toryism of the 1960s and 1970s meant that British capitalism should turn to Labour. For sections of the capitalist class, however, it lead to the project of building another party free from the problems of Conservatism, closely linked to the EEC, and able to deal with Labour more successfully than the Conservatives had managed to do. A Liberal Party which had been openly in decline for half a century acquired a new influx of support, interest and money - the first harbinger of this being the Orpington by-election victory in 1962. In Scotland a similar, if more marginal, role was played by the SNP in the 1970s.
When the Labour Party itself entered into sharp crisis from the late 1960s, new forces drawn from the party could be attracted to the project of constructing a new capitalist party. It was a long line of Labour defections which finally culminated in the formation of the SDP. The disintegrative processes which commenced in the 1960s gave rise not only to Thatcherism but also, logically to the SDP-Liberal Alliance and to the crisis of the Labour Party. This general reorganisation of political forces graphically confirms that what we are dealing with today are no longer conjunctural shifts but the reorganisation of an entire political system. That is the fundamental reality of British politics, of which the June 1983 election is a logical extension.
The limits of Thatcherism
If the assault of Thatcherism on the working class is open and obvious, the way in which the SDP and the Liberals fit within the political system is also clear. It is dictated by the previous course of British development and by the character of the labour movement which had been created. Although British capitalism had made immense economic and organisation concessions to the working class after the 1840s, it had used these to maintain a quite unparalleled political domination over the labour movement. British capitalism never faced a revolutionary challenge to its rule, it blocked any possibility after 1917 of a mass Communist Party, it had a reformist Labour leadership which it trusted to be in office alone from 1923 onwards, and it had successfully blocked Marxism or any other revolutionary force as a mass current in the workers movement.
British capitalism had, however, created a working class movement that in its majority did have profoundly anti-Tory traditions. The forces that created the labour movement had fought the Tories when they were seeking to create the first trade unions in the 1790s and 1800s. They had fought the Tories over parliamentary reform in the 1820s and early 1830s. When the new trade unions were formed after 1850 they attached themselves to the Liberal Party, against the Conservatives. When Labour emerged as a mass party it found its chief electoral opponent in the Conservative Party. The majority of the British working class movement has been fighting the Tories for 200 years, and to divert it from that course would require reversing that entire history.
The Conservative Party's vote in the working class was large, but essentially passive. Toryism in the twentieth century never succeeded in making serious inroads into Labour, or even preventing the rise of the Labour Party vote. Even when Labour's support continued to decline from the 1950s and 1960s onwards, the Conservatives proved incapable of gaining support from it - on the contrary, Tory Party support was itself in decline after 1955. Large sections of the British working class have not shown themselves deeply attached to the Labour Party in the way that many believed that they were. But the working class has shown itself historically to be resolutely opposed to the Conservative Party. Anti-Toryism, not support for Labour, is the most profound and widest of all traditions in the British working class movement.
This, at one level, explains why Thatcher has been unable to reverse the underlying historical decline in support for the Conservative Party. It is also why the Tory Party has no mechanisms for institutionalising its links with the working class layers breaking from Labour. The antics of the mid-1970s, with Jim Prior attending trade union branch meetings, were quite rightly regarded as laughable. While Thatcher could, and did, inflict tremendous defeats on the Labour Party between 1979 and 1983 she could not succeed in winning votes for the Conservative Party; on the contrary, 700,000 fewer people voted Tory in 1983 than in 1979. More importantly still both election results were part of the continuing decline in support for the Conservative Party.
Had Thatcher re-created mass support for the Conservative Party, had she succeeded in reversing 50 years of Tory decline, had the Conservative Party now found some mechanism to integrate in its support the skilled workers and others breaking from Labour, there would be no need for British capitalism to reorganise its political system. British capitalism could rest content today with what it had between the First and Second World Wars - a mass authentically-popular Conservative Party. But Thatcher has not succeeded in rebuilding Tory mass support. Simply defeating Labour is not sufficient to create political stability. The 130-year old party system continues to decline. That is why the levels of support of each party in 1983 formed part of such a coherent long term pattern of development. It is also why the pressures for a fundamental reorganisation of the political system have not been overcome.
The SDP-Liberal Alliance
Confronted with a working class movement with profoundly anti-Tory traditions but no equivalent history of struggle against capitalism, in a situation of long term decline of the Conservative Party, an evident political space is opened. A capitalist party which presents itself as "anti-Tory", but which in reality is profoundly anti-Labour, has the potential to cut into the Labour Party vote, and later perhaps the Labour movement, in a way that the Conservative Party never could. It has the potential to fracture Labour's support into its two historical components - that part which was authentically pro-Labour and that part that which was primarily anti-Tory. When all the rhetoric is over, this is what the SDP-Liberal Alliance project represents.
Nothing could be more naive than the view that the Alliance is a political expression of the ‘middle class’. At its foundation the SDP was supported by John Harvey Jones (chairperson of ICI), Clive Lindley (ICL group), Claude Wilson (Rothschilds) and Edmund Dell (ex-Labour Cabinet minister now merchant banker).The chief executive of the SDP was Bernard Doyle, former head of Booker McConnell. Roy Jenkins is an ex-director of the merchant bank Morgan Grenfell.
As for the election year of 1983 itself, The Guardian, on 24 January, noted that the Liberal Party and SDP had recently received £500,000 and that ‘the SDP is planning a £250 000 advertising campaign with money donated, it is believed by Mr David Sainsbury of the supermarket family’. Earlier Lord Sainsbury, another backer of the SDP launch, had noted that ‘we are quite simply offering a more stable environment for business’. Of the major firms with annual reports appearing prior to the 1983 election, Thorn EMI and Marks and Spencer had donated funds to the SDP-Liberal Alliance.
It is worth noting that by turnover in 1981 ICI, Thorn-EMI, Sainbury's, Marks and Spencer, Booker McConnell and ICL were among the largest companies in Britain. Both Alliance funding and personnel are clearly drawn from the upper echelons of the business world.
The political orientation of the Alliance forces is explained quite truthfully by David Owen and David Steel themselves. The do have both tactical differences with Thatcher and points of substantive disagreement on certain questions, e.g. the Trident missile system. They are far more closely linked to the EEC than sections of the Tory Party. But strategically they aim to destroy, or at least qualitatively weaken, the Labour Party and not the Conservatives. Owen, Steel, Jenkins, Williams and the others explain this role both in the form of supposedly objective statements (‘Labour is finished so the only alternative to Thatcher is to build us’) and in the form of goals they openly pursue (‘we intend to replace Labour as the alternative to Thatcher’). In both cases the content is the same. Owen and Steel, needless to say, never explain that they want to replace the Tories as the alternative to Labour!
Within this overall framework the serious voices of the capitalist class can accept, or even consider necessary, a tactically ‘left’ course by the Alliance; indeed without that the SDP and Liberals cannot aim to replace or qualitatively weaken Labour. The Economist explained this clearly in its long-running campaign for David Owen to replace Roy Jenkins as leader of the SDP - a wish granted after the 1983 election. As the Economist's editorial of February 6 1982 said in relation to the original SDP leadership contest:
"This year, next year or after the next election, the SDP would have to choose whether its eventual path lay with the reformist wing of a divided Conservative Party or with the moderate wing of a divided Labour Party...In short the Economist wanted no challenge to Thatcher inside the Tory Party, but it was concerned about the danger of a 'resurrected Labour Party'. It considered David Owen, and a tactically 'centre-left' line by the SDP, as the best means to head off Labour. A Thatcherite Tory Party and the Alliance blocking any threat from Labour was the Economist’s solution for dealing with the political needs of British capitalism. Consistent with this view the magazine wrote 18 months later, in the chief editorial of its last issue before the June 1983 election:
"Dr Owen ... could well head a non-Marxist/social democrat grouping ready (with much kicking and screaming on both sides) to realise Mr Tony Benn's worst fears: an SDP-moderate Labour coalition, radical but not union dominated, from which the Bennites are forced to split away. Such a coalition remains the best hope of the left of British politic - a realignment which is itself British politics’ most urgent priority...
"If the SDP and Liberals do not win an overall majority in the next  Parliament, the SDP should ready itself for a centre-left strategy rather than a centre-right one. With or without electoral reform the SDP will, if it opts for the conservative end of Britain's political centre, be eaten for breakfast by the Conservative Party, as were so many past Liberal revivals. A resurrected Labour Party would then chew over its bones."
“We believe Mrs Thatcher and her colleagues should be given a second chance to deliver... with the fewest possible Labour (as distinct from Alliance) MPs elected against her - and with an overall majority large enough to do a number of unpopular and necessary things from which a 'tamed' Tory Party would run away.”
Having thus endorsed Thatcher, the Economist then turned its attention to more long-term considerations:
“It is important that there should still be a believable and democratic left-of-Tory force in Parliament towards which by-elections and a future general election can then swing. It is desirable that it should be of a sort that can form an effective parliamentary force with right-of-Foot Labour. The Alliance needs to feel secure enough at by- and general elections to help moderate Labour candidates to capture Tory seats in the cities, north England and Scotland; Labour should feel weak enough to give its help to the Alliance in the suburbs, south England, East Anglia and the west. Such a geographical coalition of southern Alliance and northern Labour seems fanciful at present. The worse Labour does in this election, and the better the Alliance does, the more possible such a desirable coalition of the left (and the dismantling of the Labour Party under its present constitution) will become.”Another authoritative journal of British capitalism, the Financial Times, however, concluded:
“The policies on which the Alliance has fought the election are not exciting but they are appealing. Its main lines of economic policy we can, with one exception [statutory incomes policy – JR], largely endorse – a market economy, its attack on the poverty trap, maintaining European links, and seeking to address the grave problem of unemployment (the major and potentially malignant blemish on Mrs Thatcher's record) through a measured expansion of public investment and employment incentives... Its approach to defence and major foreign policy issues is attractive.More important, however, than simply stated positions, or immediate sources of money, is the way in which such political projects correspond to the historical dynamic of British capitalism and the character of its labour movement.
“In a more representative voting system, the Alliance could emerge tomorrow as the main alternative to Mrs Thatcher, which we would count as a strong gain. This is highly unlikely under the present system; but it would do nothing but good if the underlying support which the centre party has always claimed were realised in the ballot box tomorrow, if only as a marker for the future and a powerful argument for electoral reform.”
No trade union or Labour Party leader could ever advise their members to vote against Labour for the Tories. Such a view would simply have no impact - indeed it would weaken the position of the bureaucracy itself, because of the opposition it would evoke. But a political tradition of 'anti-Toryism but not anti-capitalism' means that voting for the Liberals or SDP against Labour, above all left-wing Labour, can be put forward with hope of support.
At its crudest and most openly right-wing level such a position was explained by EETPU leader Frank Chapple in his article 'Socialism or Survival', which reviewed the election in the Times on 17 June. Chapple, who had earlier endorsed an SDP candidate against Labour in Islington, wrote:
“If we had not been so completely tied to the (Labour) party's coat-tails we could have urged our members to vote SDP, or Liberal if they had a chance of winning. Over and over again our loyalty to Labour let the Tories in on 9 June.”Chapple also called for the necessity to reconsider the relations between the trade unions and the Labour Party and stated: “Both wings of the movement will have to be more independent of each other.” Evidently the Economist judges the situation very well in believing it can gain support for its line of the 'desirable coalition' of 'southern Alliance and northern Labour' and 'the dismantling of the Labour Party under its present constitution'. It is to such types of trade union forces that Owen and the SDP orientate.
In the trade unions exactly the same pattern will be, and is being, followed as with the Labour vote. A Tory arguing for the trade unions to weaken or break their links with the Labour Party is not very credible. But the SDP and the Liberals, forming a bloc with the Tories to argue for 'non-political trade unions' is an altogether more serious proposition. Chapple again put it in his usual inimitable style in the Times:
“I am convinced that it will not be long before some rank and file members start suggesting that instead of giving our money to a no-hope Labour Party, we should donate it to the cause of proportional representation.”Will it never end
The reason for the emphasis by capitalism on these questions is evident. The trade unions, and indeed all the other organisations of the working class movement and the oppressed, cannot be defended without the agency of a mass political party. This is indeed why, after many struggles, the Labour Party was created in the first place. There is today no mass socialist alternative to the Labour Party, nor is there going to be one in the short term. If capital in Britain could destroy or qualitatively weaken the Labour Party then it could proceed to demolish the strength of the trade unions, the welfare state, and the democratic rights won in Britain in a way that cannot even be imagined today.
Furthermore, the most important step in this attack is not the legal or administrative but the political one. Purely legal attacks can always be reversed; they may even incite mass opposition - as Heath found to his cost with the 1972 Industrial Relations Act. Capital must seek to break up the links between the trade unions and the mass political party that is still tied to them. To gain a political credibility and legitimacy for capitalist forces such as the Liberals and SDP is as necessary a part in that process as are the laws of Norman Tebbit.
Even sections of the left wing of the labour movement, using a very different rhetoric, can be neutralised or pulled into such projects of political reorganisation. EP Thompson, reviewing the election in the New Statesman on 24 June 1983, argued that 'the situation, generally, in the final days of the election could have favoured the strategy of a "popular front" of peace and anti-Thatcher forces'. The practical advice - to vote Liberal and not Labour in some constituencies - was quite explicit.
The New Statesman itself carried a special editorial on the election on 27 May, under the title 'Time for tactical voting', arguing for votes for Liberal and SNP candidates:
“The priority... must be to deny Mrs Thatcher her goal of a working majority large enough for her to railroad through another five years of her new rightism...The Economist, or the Financial Times, would doubtless not use the term 'popular front' or `stop Thatcher' for their analysis. On the contrary both are explicitly pro-Thatcher journals. But, being serious voices of the capitalist class, they are interested in the substance and not the name. If the Economist calls it the 'desirable coalition' of 'southern Alliance and northern Labour', and the Financial Times in its election editorial even advised the Alliance to drop statutory incomes policy and remember that 'Labour's proposed economic assessment might be more relevant in foreseeable circumstances', then they are not going to quibble if someone else wants to call that a 'popular front' or even 'an anti-Thatcher alliance'.
“Given our electoral system this can only mean tactical voting to maximise the anti-Thatcher vote... given the present political reality, the hope of an election result leading to an anti-Thatcher coalition (or at least one where a second general election would be forced within a short period) is the only hope available.”
The British capitalist class has no fear whatever of the 'community politicians’ of local Liberal Parties, of 'pro-peace' sentiment among Liberals (which will always be ignored in practical politics), of the editorials of the Guardian nor even of the writings of Peter Jenkins in its columns. These are rightly all treated with the indifference which they deserve. But British capitalism does fear the power of the Transport and General Workers Union and the National Union of Mineworkers, and the huge extension of trade unions among public sector and white collar workers that has taken place in the last 15 years. If it can savagely defeat the Labour Party it can proceed to attack these at will.
There is nothing inconsistent in pro-Thatcherite sections of the ruling class also wanting to build an 'acceptable' opposition, i.e. one which can replace any Labour Party attempting to strike out on its own or, failing that, force it into coalition with the Liberal-SDP Alliance as the only way it can again come to power. The ruling class of a great capitalist state is not a group of small-time operators placing bets on one party to the exclusion of all others. The hegemony of the capitalist class in society is exercised not merely through its governments but also through the organisation of its oppositions - or more precisely by trying to ensure that as much of the 'opposition' as possible in fact accepts the fundamental framework of capitalist interests, no matter how much it disagrees on particular points. The old Labour Party was acceptable as an opposition, and even as a government, because MacDonald, Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan could be relied upon to crush any serious left, head off mass movements outside the party, and faithfully maintain the framework, and all essential policies, of capitalism. The role of the Labour Party, from the point of view of capital, was to come to office periodically in periods of social tension, to head off and then demoralise the working class, and thereby prepare the situation for a return to the normalcy of Conservative government. That, in essence, was the system of party political domination in Britain after the collapse of the Liberal Party during the First World War. With both government and opposition correctly aligned, all fundamental capitalist interests were maintained. Within this overall framework the genuine fights which parties had over particular questions even lent legitimacy to the system.
The problem is that both sides of the equation have been tending to break down under the impact of the economic and social processes we have outlined. The Conservative Party has become too weak to be able authentically to dominate the country as before. The Labour leadership has become too weak to be able authentically to dominate the country as before. The Labour leadership has been unable to crush struggles outside its ranks and its own left wing. Socialism, however weak it may be, has in a real sense grown in strength in the working class movement since the 1960s. The Labour Party was forced, at least on paper, towards particular policies - unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC, questioning of voluntary as well as statutory incomes policy - which are absolutely unacceptable to British capitalism. The very fact that such policies find expression in the field of serious politics, and that they have support in trade unions and political party which is still a significant force, is regarded as a threat.
Such a situation does not imply, even remotely, that the achievement of socialism is on the order of the day in the short term in Britain. The British ruling class does not believe it is in danger of being overthrown today, and it is perfectly justified in that view. But British capitalism, whatever its immediate divisions, can and must operate for the long term. It does necessarily seek to eliminate not merely immediate threats to its power but also any actual struggles which might interfere with its major policies, or pose even distant threats to its interests. If there are forces today supporting policies which are unacceptable to capitalism, then they must be pushed out of the mainstream of British politics. Since the 1960s such currents have appeared in British society.
In the short term Thatcherism does not merely provide immediate gains for the capitalist class, it also weakens the entire labour movement and thereby creates a more favourable terrain for whatever is to follow. This is why every major section of the capitalist class could support Thatcher's Tories in the 1983 election.
But British capitalism has a far more serious and objective view of the relation of forces in British society, and the trends within it, than is printed in the Sun or found in most analyses from the left. The Economist concluded its editorial assessment of the election results as follows:
“Britain may still be fortunate. An unfair (electoral) system has produced a government with the strength to carry out the necessary changes in an ailing economy, if it can and if it wishes to. But the 1983 election has also demonstrated the weakness of the present voting system. So the system has ensured that there can be up to five clear years of necessary economic changes before the electoral issue will be confronted again. Then it could be the Conservative Party, mauled in what has become the electoral lottery, that joins the cry for reform which it at present, with more than a touch of arrogance, spurns.”Sir Geoffrey Howe was careful to warn, immediately after the election, that the Tories could not be expected to stay in power for ever. Even Norman Tebbit said that he hoped those on the left of the political spectrum would 'get their act together'. Such people understand that the capitalist class must organise not simply its government and tactics of today but also its opposition of today and its government of tomorrow. Capitalism, in short, must construct an entire system of political domination of which Thatcherism is a crucial, but not the only, part. No possibility for a socialist revolution must be permitted in either the short or the long term.
That is why, after endorsing Thatcher, the Economist talks of the 'desirable coalition' of Labour and Alliance, and what gives significance to Frank Chapple's 'we could have urged our members to vote SDP or Liberal'. It is why EP Thompson's 'popular front', as well as the New Statesman's 'tactical voting', completely misunderstand the nature of British politics today. With the Conservatives weakened, but still by far the strongest capitalist party, and with the only alternative being a Labour Party in coalition with the SDP and the Liberals, all essential capitalist interests would once more be safeguarded. If that system of parties were put in place then the old 'alternation' of government can be set up in a new form. Were it necessary to assault the labour movement frontally, the SDP-Liberal Alliance would form a coalition with the Tories. Were it necessary to head off and demoralise the working class movement then a Labour-SDP-Liberal coalition would be set up to prepare the way for the return to a Tory (or Tory-dominated coalition) government. In effect, a new party system would have been created - one quite typical in West Germany or other European states - and it is this type of reorganisation of politics to which strong forces propel British capitalism today. It is this which lies behind all the continuing discussion of proportional representation, constitutional reform and similar measures.
The labour movement within such a system would be in a very different social and political relation of forces from the one which exists today. With the links between the trade unions and the Labour Party weakened, with the Labour Party reduced in weight and allowed to come to office only in coalition with the SDP-Liberals, with the trade unions themselves enormously reduced in numbers, with a whole series of social gains eliminated, the decline of the Tory Party would be the occasion not for a great victory for Labour but for one of the greatest defeats ever suffered by the British working class.
In reality the point is simple. The enormous historic reserves of British capitalism allowed it to make concession after concession to the organisations of the labour movement. It can no longer afford such luxuries; British capitalism must take back what it allowed to be gained in struggle in the first place. The Tory assaults of mass unemployment and legal restrictions on the unions are not to be counterposed to the political assaults of the SDP-Liberals. They are in reality two aspects of the same capitalist need. If Conservatism fails to batter down the defensive walls built during 200 years of working class struggle against the Tory Party, then new methods will be utilised as well.
The processes we have outlined in this book reflect one of the great laws of politics. Those same elements of any situation which can be used by socialists are also those which confront the capitalist class itself. If the trends and forces at work are not used by the working class for its ends they will be used by the capitalist class for its own. Even the tradition of working class struggle against Toryism can become, in certain contexts, a weapon in the hands of capital.
The great forces unleashed by the decline of the Conservative Party merely ensure that there will be a tremendous crisis in British politics and society. They determine nothing about its outcome. Those same forces that allowed socialists to make gains in the 1960s and 1970s created the violent reaction of which Thatcherism and the assault on the Labour Party are the expression.
What is at stake today is no longer a conjunctural swing from one election to another but the break-up of an entire political system. In a sense the British political crisis has become a race. The British capitalist class is using not merely an economic assault but also its great political strength to wear down and break up the organisational strength of the working class. The labour movement still itself remains trapped within a political framework which makes it increasingly difficult to defend itself and where its own leadership, and parts of its left wing, push it in directions that are not against, but in reality in line with, the orientations of the capitalist class. To break out of that situation the working class movement must face up to issues of a type which are very different to those it has confronted for the past hundred years or more; coalition government, a pulverising economic crisis, proportional representation, the national question, the struggle against the oppression of women, racism, fundamental issues of democratic rights, the fight against nuclear war have been added to the familiar struggle against the Tory party and through the unions. These and many other issues will decide the fate of the classes in British society and internationally. If the socialist movement does not utilise all the forces unleashed by the decline of the Conservative Party, the capitalist class will.
The British political crisis was not resolved by Margaret Thatcher in June 1983. It has scarcely even begun.