Social justice could be real victim of Labour's by-election defeat

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Weakness on Left and Right has created threat of a destabilising power vacuum in UK politics

REPORTS of the death of British political parties are usually much exaggerated; apart from anything else, there's something about the Westminster system that so craves the presence of two large, dominating parties that it keeps hauling them back, Terminator-style, from the brink of self-destruction.

For all that, though, it would be wrong to underestimate the shocking depth of the crisis that now faces the Labour Party, as it confronts the smoking electoral ruins of all it has tried to achieve since 1997. In Glasgow East, Margaret Curran fought like a terrier to save the day for Labour, and was batted aside, in a seat so safe that there are only 24 sitting Labour MPs in the UK who would have a better chance of surviving electoral meltdown.

The prospects for Labour are now unremittingly grim. Too infatuated with wealth and power to retain the loyalty of its traditional supporters, yet too trapped by its history ever to be fully trusted by its new friends, New Labour has slowly written its own political and organisational death-warrant as a party. Now, both in Scotland and south of the Border, its reconstruction will doubtless take the best part of a decade, even if the UK general election comes sooner rather than later, and feisty Margaret Curran is elected as the new Scottish Labour leader within weeks.

All of which would be dramatic enough, if it were simply a matter – as in 1979 – of a left-of-centre political era coming to an end, and another and more right-wing consensus beginning to take shape. The problem is, though, that there is very little evidence that this is the case.

People may be exasperated by high taxation, and particularly by the recent cack-handed abolition of the 10p tax-rate for low-earners; but in every other area, the charge-sheet against Gordon Brown's government, brought by disillusioned voters from Crewe to Easterhouse, seems to lean to the Left of the government's present position, rather than the Right.

The government should, people say, be doing more to protect those on limited incomes from everything from rising fuel bills to high food prices and the danger of homelessness. It should be lowering taxes on the poor and raising taxes on the rich. It should not be wasting money on expensive foreign wars, and it should be putting a stop to its farcical love affair with private-sector intervention in what are clearly public-sector matters – witness the current shaming fiasco over the Sats testing system in England and Wales.

The difficulty is, though, that following 15 years of determined New Labour compromise with the Right, the UK party-political system seems barely able to respond to any leftward shift in the mood of the nation. In Scotland, the response has not been too bad, in terms of the emergence of an alternative willing to pick up the cudgels for social democracy.

Like any nationalist party, the SNP has a slippery tendency to try to be all things to all people in Scotland. Its relationship with wealthy right-wing backers is worrying, and its willingness to play footsie with the nation's small band of religious reactionaries – witness Bishop Joseph Devine's intervention in Glasgow East – is enough to make the blood run cold, for anyone who cares about Scottish women's rights.

But the fact remains that in practical areas, from housing to health policy, the Salmond government has not hesitated to move to the Left of New Labour and – just as importantly – to argue the principled case for doing so; hence the standing ovation won by Nicola Sturgeon at the annual conference of the British Medical Association in Edinburgh, when she drew a clear line in the sand over the involvement of the private sector in the NHS.

In England, though, where almost 90 per cent of UK voters live, the situation is very different. It's increasingly clear that a critical mass of middle English opinion has now succeeded in convincing itself that, Tory or not, a David Cameron government could be no worse than the current lot; and Cameron's clever projection of a modern, multicultural, green-tinged Conservatism-lite has clearly been designed to encourage this view.

Yet you don't have to be much of an analyst to see just how grave the mismatch is soon likely to become, between Cameron's charming-but-vacuous Tory front-bench and the real needs of Britain's ordinary voters at a time of mounting global crisis. There is not a shred of evidence, for example, that a Cameron government would be either willing or able to get Britain out of its foreign wars, to rebalance the taxation system in favour of the poor, or even – despite David Cameron's carefully cultivated green image – to do anything substantial about the nation's carbon footprint.

In the medium and long term, there will be no disguising the yawning gap on the Left of British politics left by the demise of the old Labour Party and by the failure of the New Labour project to create genuinely new ideological ground on which to fight for social justice in the 21st century. And once Labour is down and out for a political generation, it is genuinely frightening to think what other political forces may emerge, in the badlands between far Left and far Right, to give voice to the increasing fear and anger of ordinary English working people in difficult times.

The Union between England and Scotland could be one of the early casualties of such a shift. But so could Britain's long social tradition of relative cultural pluralism and tolerance. And when it comes to the big picture of 21st-century history, it's not difficult to see which of those losses would be more significant; or more damaging to the long-term reputation of those New Labour politicians whose failures, in the end, made such losses almost inevitable.

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