New Labour was thrown into disarray last week after polling its worst election results in 40 years in local council elections in England and Wales and losing the high profile election for London mayor to Tory candidate Boris Johnson.
Labour lost 331 seats in the council elections – polling just 24 percent of the vote and trailing in third place behind the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.
It suffered particularly badly in its traditional heartlands as core Labour voters most wanted to punish the party.
Labour’s leadership has put forward various explanations for the election rout including the usual rhetoric about failing to sell their message and blaming “difficult economic circumstances”.
Others blamed Gordon Brown’s style of leadership and his apparent “dourness”.
These explanations miss the fact that Labour is suffering a prolonged crisis.
It has haemorrhaged votes in every election since the 2003 invasion of Iraq – losing traditional supporters who are angry over the war, privatisation, attacks on public sector pay, lack of affordable housing and a raft of other neoliberal policies.
Some Labour politicians have pointed to the anger over the recent axing of the 10p tax rate – which Brown was forced to acknowledge was a
mistake – as one of the causes of the election debacle.
They argue that measures are now underway to amend this.
But the dramatic reaction to this issue is a sign of a much deeper bitterness with years of betrayals from New Labour.
This profound anger cannot be neatly contained.
Bringing in Brown as leader was supposed to have dealt with the unpopularity of Tony Blair and restored Labour’s fortunes, but Brown has simply continued the rightward direction of the New Labour project.
The idea of a “Brown bounce” seems a distant memory to most people, if it ever existed.
Ken Livingstone’s defeat as London mayor was a direct result of him throwing his lot in with New Labour – both by association and by promoting policies that centred on building the capital as a centre for world finance.
Livingstone also followed the New Labour strategy of “triangulation” – trying to head off Tory opposition by tacking rightwards.
It is this strategy on a national level that has helped to create the terrain on which the Tories, after more than ten years of crisis, have finally been able to turn themselves into a credible force.
The election results have provoked a debate in the Labour Party about how far and in what direction it must change.
Many supporters will hope last week’s results will be a wake up call, and Labour will now address the concerns of working class people, and stop the drive to neoliberalism and war.
But the signs are not good. Labour’s first attempt at a public policy comeback this week was a plan for a wider crackdown on illegal migrant workers.
Millions in Britain already face the insecurity of an economic crisis coupled with the callous policies of New Labour – and now the added fear of a Tory resurgence.
If we are to win fundamental change for working people, it will come from building mass resistance to the war, inequality and the neoliberal policies that led Labour into this electoral disaster.