Socialist Worker

Iraq is still in poll position

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 1916

THE POLITICAL war over Iraq goes on, alongside the shooting war. Two polls published last week illustrated this struggle.

The first appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday under the headline “Iraq Given A Low Priority By Voters”.

According to the Guardian’s monthly poll, “Voters rank Iraq last out of ten issues that they consider to be most important when deciding how they will cast their vote in the next general election.”

The top three issues were the NHS, education, and law and order. The Guardian’s gloss on these results was that “the average voter does not share the keen interest in Iraq of the political and media classes”.

There must have been cheers all round in Downing Street when this story appeared. Here was the Guardian parroting their line that Iraq is a “chattering class” issue that “real people” don’t care about.

But then two days later the Financial Times carried the headline “Iraq War Shifts Voters’ Priorities”.

The main result of a poll commissioned by the paper was that “the Iraq war and war on terror have catapulted foreign policy to the forefront of public consciousness”.

Defence and foreign affairs came top of the policy issues cited by those surveyed. Some 38 percent thought they were one of the most important issues facing Britain, compared with just 2 percent in June 1997.

How do we explain the striking difference between these two polls? As so often, it’s important to look at the questions put to those surveyed.

The Financial Times poll asked, “What would you say are the most important issues facing Britain today?” Participants in the Guardian survey were asked to list two or three issues that would influence how they vote in the next election.

It’s easy to see why the answers to these questions would produce apparently divergent answers.

According to the Financial Times poll, people—rightly—don’t see any difference between New Labour and the Tories in foreign policy. This has been Michael Howard’s problem in trying to turn the Iraq crisis to his advantage.

Even so, 12 percent of those surveyed in the Guardian poll gave Iraq as the most important issue in deciding how they will vote in the next general election. That’s a lot of people on a national scale.

More than one in ten of the electorate are open to the appeal of anti-war parties—whether they be phoney opponents of war in the Liberal Democrats or its real opponents in Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens.

So the Blair court shouldn’t be too quick to think that voters are “moving on” from Iraq. All the signs are that the war remains a deeply polarising issue.

You only had to listen to the sheer fury of Rose Gentle and her daughter Maxine on the BBC’s Today programme last Friday to understand this.

And don’t be fooled by the patronising attempts of New Labour toadies like Eric Joyce MP to dismiss this anger as the effects of grief.

Many more British soldiers died in the Falklands than have so far been killed in Iraq. Their families grieved for them too, but how many blamed Mrs Thatcher for their deaths?

The difference is that this war is seen by a huge segment of the population as illegitimate.

But there was a sting in the tail of the poll reported by the FT: “30 percent of people cited immigration and race relations as one of the most important issues facing the country, compared to just 3 percent in June 1997.”

This indicates the route that Blair and Howard will take come the election, competing to see who can play more effectively on people’s fears and insecurities by pursuing scapegoats.

It will be up to Respect to offer an alternative based on solidarity and the struggle for peace and social justice.


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Sat 28 Aug 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1916
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