The rout suffered by New Labour on Thursday of last week and the defeat of Ken Livingstone as mayor of London have left millions of people fearful of the prospect of a return to Tory government.
Millions will also be alarmed that the fascist British National Party (BNP) has gained ten extra council seats and secured a foothold on the London assembly.
People are right to be worried by the prospect of a Tory revival and by the threat of the BNP. But we must be clear about why these things are happening – and not be bounced into false arguments that play into the hands of the right.
New Labour ideologues believe the party’s victories in three successive general elections was achieved by moving onto the centre right’s territory to take middle class votes. They will now argue that Labour should move even further to the right to appeal to what they see as a new reactionary mood.
In reality, Labour was first elected in 1997 on a tidal wave of revulsion against the Tories. And it is New Labour’s “triangulation” strategy of attempting to win Tory votes that lies at the heart of the party’s current crisis.
The Tories were still in disarray during the 2005 general election, which allowed Labour to win again despite huge opposition to the Iraq war. But David Cameron has now succeeded in rallying the right wing vote behind his leadership.
In London, Boris Johnson reined in his reactionary impulses to present himself as a cuddly character. Livingstone remained anti-war and anti-racist, but his final electoral appeal attacked Johnson for being soft on youth crime. Meanwhile the Tories were attacking Brown for raising taxes on the poor!
All this meant that across much of working class Britain, traditional Labour voters could not bring themselves to vote for a party that increases taxes on the poorest in our society while slashing corporation tax.
In the wake of the elections many people on the left will be asking where we should go from here.
A key lesson is that the left must break from stubbornly supporting New Labour as it moves remorselessly rightwards. This pressure can only increase over the next few years as the Tories prepare to mount their general election challenge.
That why it was such a mistake for sections of the left to back Livingstone uncritically. Across Europe the experience is that whenever the radical left cosies up to the neoliberal centre left, the radicals are fatally contaminated.
The right wing electoral revival is an expression of a deeper political polarisation in society. But this polarisation operates both ways – and the election results can mask a marked shift to the left around many issues.
Resistance takes place on three fronts – the economic, the ideological and the political. In the week before the 1 May elections we saw around 450,000 trade unionists strike against Brown’s pay limits and some 100,000 gather at the Love Music Hate Racism carnival to express their revulsion at the Nazis.
We are currently celebrating 40 years since the events of 1968 – a year that saw a return of mass struggle and the birth of a new left.
But we should not forget that the French general strike of May 1968 was followed a month later by the right winning a resounding election victory. Then as now, radicalisation on the ground went hand in hand with a right wing electoral victory.
In Britain 1968 saw the imposition of a wage freeze by Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Mass working class abstention led to a disaster for the party at the local elections that year, with Labour losing control of Glasgow, Sheffield and 18 London boroughs.
We cannot ignore electoral politics and abandon working class voters alienated by New Labour. The argument that we should put loyalty to Labour first is the chief impediment in the trade unions to building a fight back over pay limits and much else. It must be broken.
But we must recognise that divisions on the left and stubborn loyalty to Labour have meant that, despite much effort, the radical left has not forged a presence in swathes of working class Britain. We need to identify issues we can fight on to win such a presence.
Housing, the pay freeze and rising inequality are burning questions to which the free market has no answer. We need to offer one. Our aim must be to build broad mass coalitions that unite as much of the left as possible with people from the movements and the unions.
The first priorities are to continue galvanising the growing resistance to Gordon Brown on the pay front and to urgently build a mass movement to drive back the Nazis. Opposition to the war also remains vital.
But as we do all this we need to engage in a debate over the political way forward. That is a discussion that hundreds of thousands of people are holding in the wake of the elections.
There are immediate battles that lie ahead and many more issues that will arise. But it is by fighting on all these fronts that we can reconstitute the left and take on the Tory threat.