A Rightward Shift

A justice minister who wants to bring back hanging, an equalities minister who believes gay marriage should not be allowed, a disabilities minister who voted to deny welfare benefits to the families of children with disabilities, an array of ministers with links to the private healthcare companies which will benefit from the ongoing privatisation of the National Health Service... these are just some of the appointments to David Cameron’s new Conservative government after it returned to power in May’s elections, this time with an overall majority. They confirm the intensification of pro-corporate austerity policies which have already meant nearly a million people in Britain have to rely on food banks run by charities in order to survive; an extension of racist scapegoating of migrants (with new punitive measures announced even in the wake of the drowning of up to 900 people in one of many horrific incidents in the Mediterranean sea); the escalation of Islamophobia and oppressive ‘anti-terrorist’ laws; and of course a continuation of the cosy relationship between Cameron and Modi as well as between the Tory Party and the British representatives of the Sangh Parivar.

The latter has been increasingly pronounced since the Indian elections: Priti Patel, the new Minister of State for Employment welcomed RSS leader Dattatreya Hosabale to London in September; she also complained that a BBC programme on India’s elections was biased against Modi because it described him as ‘controversial’! While Muslims are demonised in multiple ways, ‘Indians’ and ‘Hindus’ have for some time been projected by the state and media as the ‘good’ South Asians in Britain. Exactly who is meant by this was made explicit in the Conservative Party election campaign in Harrow East, a constituency with a large Indian community. Here the candidate campaigned specifically on a promise to ‘work with the Dharmic community’ (sic) to overturn legislation outlawing caste discrimination which was recently passed in Britain after a campaign by Dalit organisations. Flyers issued by a Sangh Parivar group urged their supporters to vote Conservative to this end.

More generally, May’s election results were mapped onto deep divisions in the UK, with the Conservative majority (based on a 37% vote share) mainly stemming from the relatively affluent South, where their gains resulted from the wiping out of their Liberal Democrat erstwhile allies, while much of the ex-industrial heartlands in the North of England was retained by the Labour Party. The most striking aspect of the elections however was the unprecedented landslide victory of the left-wing Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) which won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland after a strong campaign which rejected neoliberalism and austerity and put forward a range of progressive policies, from stopping the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system (based on Scotland’s west coast) to support for Palestine. While the longstanding demand for Scottish independence was a key factor, many who had voted against independence in last year’s referendum also voted for the SNP’s policies, eclipsing the Labour Party in a region which was traditionally a Labour stronghold - memorably 20-year-old student Mhairi Black won her seat for the SNP defeating the sitting MP, Labour’s UK Campaign Co-ordinator. The SNP wave also reflects the deep working class disillusionment with the Labour Party, which once again failed to move away from a model of corporate-led austerity and which collaborated in the shift of focus to the ‘problem’ of immigration which characterised the election campaign, with Labour making targetting migrants one of its five election pledges and even selling a commemorative campaign mug emblazoned with ‘controls on immigration’, attracting outrage and ridicule. Yet since the elections the party appears to be renouncing even the unconvincing lip-service paid during their campaign to key issues like saving the NHS, social housing and state education – insisting, despite evidence to the contrary, that these issues were not ‘aspirational’ enough to appeal to voters!

Of course one of the factors which drove the wholesale rightward shift in the election discourse and in particular its explicit racism was the rise of the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) on an anti- immigration and anti-EU platform. In the event, UKIP won only one seat and have since begun imploding – but the fact that they gained nearly 13% of the votes overall is clearly disturbing, reflecting the rise of fascist forces across austerity-hit Europe, as well as the urgent need for left forces which can challenge them on the ground. Yet the decisive demise of the two party electoral system which this election represents also saw hopeful signs for the left – in Scotland and on a smaller scale elsewhere, where the vote share of the Green Party with a left agenda increased considerably. Most importantly, resistance to austerity and neoliberal capitalism and an increasingly repressive state continues to grow - whether in movements to fight evictions and occupy social housing sold off for luxury developments, struggles for justice in the many cases of black and Asian deaths in state custody, solidarity action with imprisoned refugee and migrant women protesting appalling conditions, or new trade unions fighting for a living wage for workers on zero hours contracts bearing the brunt of neoliberal precarity - and is set to intensify in the months ahead.

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