Volume 3 Issue 2 Summer 2019

Britain: From the Golden Age to an Age of Austerity

In his 2015 Labour leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn stood on an anti-austerity radical program that enthused the party membership and won him a landslide victory. This prompted eighteen months of opposition and noncooperation from most of the Parliamentary Labour Party, culminating in two-thirds of the Shadow Cabinet resigning and Corbyn losing a vote of confidence among his MPs (by 172 votes to 40). In the following leadership challenge in September 2016, in which just over half a million party members and supporters voted (a turnout of 77.6 percent), Corbyn won nearly three percentage points more votes than the 59 percent he had won in the previous year. Most of his opponents could only sullenly acquiesce, though a significant number continued their war of attrition.

The following year, Prime Minister Theresa May decided to take advantage of Labour Party divisions and called a general election. Facing predictions of a landslide Conservative victory, but with a manifesto “For the Many, Not the Few,” Labour dramatically increased its vote share by nearly 10 percentage points, to 40 percent, the largest increase in any general election since 1945, and its net gain of thirty MPs deprived the Conservatives of their parliamentary majority. The latter could only remain in power by depending upon the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. Since then, the issue of Brexit has dominated, tempered by an unedifying sideshow of the mismanagement of disciplinary proceedings concerning the emergence of antisemitism within the Labour Party and its weaponization by Corbyn’s opponents.1

Meanwhile, health, social care, education, housing, policing, and transport are all in various stages of crisis, varying from the chronic to the acute. This is not just about the politics and economics of austerity, which have indeed been a disaster for the many. It is less well recognized that the contemporary era of neoliberalism is one of long-term economic decline. Table 1 adopts a common periodization of the economy: a golden age of social democracy from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, followed by a short transition through the remainder of the 1970s, to its replacement following the Conservative victory in the 1979 general election. This marked the start of the neoliberal era of globalization, which can be divided into three phases: the Tory years to 1997, the Labour years to the 2007 financial crisis, and the years since the outbreak of that crisis.

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