BY DANIEL GOLDSTRAW
Technically, South Africa is a democracy these days. Ever since the end of Apartheid in the beginning of the 1990s, every single adult citizen has been able to vote, in whichever way they choose, regardless of their race or social standing. And yet, for all that, many commentators and political scientists increasingly compare South Africa to a one-party state. South Africa has just as many parties contending for government as any modern democracy, yet since they first claimed victory under Nelson Mandela in 1991, the anti-apartheid ANC has retained power, and still, after 26 years, it remains dominant in the South African Parliament. South Africa may have all the components of a liberal democracy, yet it’s main Party has now had well over two decades of uninterrupted power, and the odds are so stacked in its favour, in terms of South Africa’s demographics, that it does not look like many of the other Parties have any real chance of defying it. This is a grim situation, and not a healthy one if a democratic spirit is to continue to thrive in the country. And, as far away as it may seem, it is something that I would argue may be becoming increasingly possible in other countries, including Britain.
Britain has now had a Conservative government for seven years. This in itself is of course no real cause for concern over our democracy. The last time they were in government, they remained in office for eighteen years. The successive New Labour government that succeeded them lasted eleven years. It seems safe to assume that often, barring any huge calamities in its political fortunes, any party that is able to win one election will often be able to ride that wave still a bit longer; and conversely, any party that has found itself victim to a radical turning of the tables will often take a little while to recover momentum and recapture the public imagination. Neither is it perhaps overly significant that the key opposition in Labour is currently so highly divided in its direction, membership, and support base. Jeremy Corbyn may well be performing quite poorly as leader, with record lows in the opinion polls, and many seeing him as incredibly unsuited to the job; however, it is not the first time the Labour Party has faced such crises. Already, Corbyn’s Labour has been much compared to that of Michael Foot’s, which of course suffered a catastrophic defeat to the Conservatives in 1983. This was a defeat Labour did not fully recover from until 1997, but as demonstrated above, it was hardly accurate to say they were done with as a political force.
These factors alone then do perhaps make the comparison between Britain and Dominant Party State’s like South Africa seem a little hysterical. There are important differences however between the state of Labour now, and its position in the 1980s, and I would argue it is currently in a poorer state than perhaps any other Opposition Party has been in decades. Many have despaired of Corbyn’s current leadership, and it does seem quite likely that his more socialist approach will alienate those more liberal and conservative minded voters; as will the divisions increasingly growing between him and the ‘Blairites’ of the Party. However, while he may not be helping Labour’s cause (though this of course is contentious, due to his many supporters) there is also a strong argument to be made that Labour has little real chance whoever is in charge. Ed Miliband faced almost as much criticism as Corbyn has, and furthermore, I would argue that Labour has just as small a chance of electoral success even if it had a leader more akin to Blair.
The image of the Blairites has been tarnished by both the Iraq war and the 2008 economic crash, and Labour itself would remain just as divided as the vast majority of its new members having been attracted to the Party by Corbyn’s leftist message. Most of all though, the reason Labour is in such a dire state whatever direction it moves in is largely due to the country’s changing demographics. Back in the 1980s, no matter how much it alienated centrist voters, Labour could still rely on key loyalist sections of the country. Areas like Scotland and Northern England with their strong industrial base and large trade unions would always swing for the most part towards Labour. These were the areas Labour relied on – it’s life blood. Regardless of how well it did in the rest of Britain, the backing of Scotland and the North, as well as Wales, guaranteed Labour remained a huge player in Parliament, and the only feasible opposition to the Conservatives. This has all changed in the twenty-first century however. Despite Tony Blair’s belief that his creation of a Scottish Parliament would halt Scottish Nationalism, the years since its inception has only seen the SNP garner more and more support. Now, they effectively own Scotland. Whereas Labour could be assured of the majority of Scottish seats in every previous election since the 1950s, the 2015 seat saw them hold on to just one seat in all Scotland; as poor a result as the Conservatives suffered in 1997. This is largely blamed on the failure of New Labour to redress the devastating impact of Thatcherite deindustrialisation on Scotland; however, there is little evidence that Scotland would go back to Labour even following the departure with New Labour under Corbyn. Labour has in fact fallen even further behind in opinion polls, it seeming that the appeal of the SNP goes beyond simply their anti-austerity position. The fact is Scots have much less reason to vote for Labour in this post-industrial, post-union age where few of the old loyalties remain than they do the SNP, a Party explicitly focused on the Scottish area and community.
A similar story can be told with the North of England. The industrial heartlands that were the home of trade unionism and the Labour movement in general, have slowly been drifting away. Political writers increasingly talk about a generation in the North that has been ‘left behind.’ Older workers, who have been raised to be far more socially conservative than the kinds of people Corbyn represents, and who have seen much of their old certainties erased by deindustrialisation have increasingly moved towards more anti-immigrant populist Parties like UKIP. Despite UKIP seemingly having most to appeal to the right of the Conservative Party, it is more and more Labour who have been losing most to UKIP. Under almost every single one of its leaders, Labour has consistently had a narrative of multiculturalism and diversity; something that, with the old class allegiances having eroded, seems woefully incapable of appealing to these older working class voters.
Labour then has not simply lost two elections in recent years, it has also lost its key areas of support, areas it could once confidently rely on regardless of how well they performed anywhere else. One could argue it was the bankability of these areas, as well as the loyalty of the working classes in general, that assured Labour remained the main opposition Party throughout most of the twentieth century. Since the loss of industry and trade unionism however, both of which assured widespread class loyalty to the Labour Party, this guaranteed support has been utterly lost. It is not just that the Conservatives are currently performing better with the electorate than Corbyn’s Opposition; rather, there would need to be a monumental change in conditions for Labour to once more regain an equal footing in elections.
Neither does it seem likely that any other Party has a real chance of replacing Labour as a real opposition. The Liberal Democrats would face as much of a struggle in terms of getting this widespread support needed to challenge the Conservatives, and ‘First Past the Post’ voting continues to restrict any smaller party from gaining any significant momentum. For much of the past century, ‘First Past the Post’ has created a two-party system in this country. Now it may in fact be more of a one-party system. The Conservatives ‘bankable’ areas remain intact, most of Southern England remaining as consistently Tory as they always have. In the post-industrial North and Scotland however, where the unions that assured loyalty to Labour are gone, things are very different. Effectively, the Tories have all the cards in their deck before we even consider how well a particular leader or direction might perform in an election.
As long as the country does remain democratic, it will remain slightly hyperbolic to say the Conservative Party is now assured of governing permanently. However, it may well be on the road to occupying a similar electoral safe space as South Africa’s ANC. Just like in that country, the Conservatives have a strong groundswell of support that it can rely on however well a particular government does, whereas all the other parties have to go on is their message, and the faces representing them. How can things change to create a more open playing field? I would argue that Labour themselves have to seriously consider not only a change in direction, but also in how politics itself should be fought. For example, Labour have always supported ‘First Past the Post’ voting as it has historically put them at an advantage. Now that this may not be the case, it might be wise to consider taking up causes such as proportional representation. Proportional representation does usually imply coalition building with other Parties as well of course. But, as should be highlighted by this loss of their old support base, this too is something that might be considered. It seems doubtful whether Labour can any longer work on its own, and already many writers have talked about a Progressive alliance between Labour and other Parties such as the Liberals or the SNP. Certainly, Labour needs again the backing of areas like Scotland, and it seems unable to do so on its own. If Scotland remains so unswervingly loyal to the SNP, then to work with them might well become the only option.
Similarly, the Conservatives must also do their bit to respect democratic conventions and fair play. The stories that have come out about police investigations of various Conservative constituencies for electoral fraud in 2015, are unacceptable. Not only does it show no respect for democratic conventions, but also, whilst a Dominant Party system may seemingly suit Conservative’s interests tactically; in the long run, a country where there is no viable opposition does not serve anyone. One only needs return to the comparison with South Africa to see why. The Party of Nelson Mandela, the ANC has consistently advocated redistribution and an end to the racial and class divisions in South African society. However, 26 years since it first took government, the ANC seems to be becoming increasingly uncaring about delivering on its messages. The economy is poor, and HIV/AIDS remain rampant in large sections of the country. Perhaps most devastatingly of all, the ANC has failed to entirely redress the inequality and brutality between the rich white minority, and the black majority. After Apartheid ended, many must have thought it was the end of racial inequality, and of mass violence. And yet still we have an overwhelming proportion of blacks in poverty, still we have terrible acts of violence such as the 2012 Marikana massacre, which was compared to the massacres of the 1960s in its level of bloodshed. The current President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma is also a very different man to Nelson Mandela. He has continually been accused of corruption and sexual assault, and has used government expenses to create his own private luxury homes and gardens. It seems clear that once a Party gets too comfortable in government, the checks and balances that are inherent to the democratic spirit are lost. Politicians feel like they can increasingly get away with more and more, and before long, even the supporters of the dominant Party may no longer feel like their best interests are being represented.