The death at the weekend of writer Alan Sillitoe and the looming possibility of a hung Parliament have no direct connection. And yet looking back at Sillitoe’s writings, and reflecting on the latest twists in the election campaign, you can detect a profound shift taking place in British history.
Sillitoe’s brilliant story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner appeared as a film in 1960. The story of a borstal boy symbolised the rebelliousness of an entire generation of young people – and the gritty realities of working class life in post-war Britain.
That world has passed. Communities of factory workers like those depicted in Sillitoe’s writings disappeared under globalisation and the policies of Thatcher and New Labour. New class relations have emerged. Workers are more dispersed and less unionised. Large sections of the community no longer work and live in impoverished conditions in, for example, former mining areas.
The old party loyalties have gone as a result. That, at the political level, can help to explain the sudden rise of the Liberal Democrats and an historic break-up of the two-party system. The choice between first the Tories and the Whigs and later Tories and Labour has dominated British politics for 200 years. Formal coalitions have been reserved for war time only.
That is why the threat of a Parliament without an overall majority for any party signals a moment of instability in which the “known knowns” are – at least temporarily – shattered, and has forced a realignment between those who represent capitalism.
The connection between this political transformation is inseparable from the economic processes of the last 40 years, in which the British welfare state has changed into a “market state” – entirely subservient to the rule of global capital. This process, explained in A World to Win’s book Unmasking the State, has led to a “hollowing out” of the state itself.
As the state’s role has altered, more and more people have lost interest in politics, realising that exercising your right to vote does not lead to any influence over those elected. Clegg’s sudden stardom following the first TV debate was not so much due to his personal charisma as the desire to pin on him the widespread disaffection with New Labour and the Tories.
After all, Clegg is even more ruling class than Cameron, and the Lib Dems are even more pro-banker than Brown and Cameron put together, if that’s possible. Don’t forget that Clegg’s deputy leader, ex-banker Vince Cable was the oil corporation Shell’s chief economist.
As Clegg knows only too well, Both Brown and Cameron’s “love bombing” is just hot air and he is walking a political tightrope. Many Lib Dem voters would see entering into an agreement with Cameron, as a "pact with the devil” and those who want to get shot of New Labour will feel betrayed if Clegg joins with Brown.
Achieving a stable form of government under these conditions could be well-nigh impossible. Some will see the political crisis as simply shadow-dancing while the real power-brokers remain hidden from view in the corridors of Whitehall and the global corporations. In some respects they are right.
But at the same time, to view politics separately form the deep currents underneath is also to miss the real moment of opportunity. The political crisis means that the ruling class is unable to rule in the old way at a time of a serious financial emergency. The strength of those in power is precisely that they are aware of this weakness and will do all in their power to address it.
Our strength must be to see it as an opportunity for those excluded from power to exercise their power in a meaningful way. That is why our strategy of forming People’s Assemblies is a thousand times more realistic than believing we can influence any parliament that will result from the election.
A World to Win secretary