Socialist Worker

The vacuum in British politics

Issue No. 1870

A CLEAR majority of people in Britain now think the war on Iraq was wrong. An opinion poll in the Guardian on Monday showed 53 percent think the war was unjustified and only 38 percent believe it was right to attack Iraq. This is the reality looming over Tony Blair at his party's conference starting on Sunday.

It isn't just Iraq that has turned people against Blair. There is also strong opposition to a whole range of other key policies, especially foundation hospitals and top-up fees for students. But there is not as yet a strong enough focus for the disillusionment against Blair.

This was shown most dramatically in last week's Brent East by-election. Thousands in Brent expressed their disgust with Blair by voting for the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats won, overturning a 13,000 Labour majority. Blair's strongest claim to his party was that, although they might not like him much, he was good at winning elections. Now that golden touch has turned to lead.

After the election, Labour had to admit that the war was a major issue-and their candidate had put on his website that he backed the stand Blair had taken. The momentum behind the Lib Dems' campaign came from a left wing desire to punish Blair. But they have never been, and are not now, a left wing party.

At their conference this week they have queued to insist they are not a party of 'left or right'. Their leader Charles Kennedy regards the whole question of left or right as 'outdated'. When Kennedy goes on like this, he sounds just like Tony Blair when he was worming his way to the top of the Labour Party. And when they get into office Liberal Democrats act just like New Labour in office. Around half of the 16 candidates in Brent were to the left of New Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Taken together, even without the Green Party, they attracted over 1,000 votes. The highest number went to Brian Butterworth, standing for the Socialist Alliance Against the War, who won 361 votes. If the other left candidates had thrown their weight behind Brian Butterworth the left would have got much closer to the critical mass which is needed for a real breakthrough. But the vote was divided.

The biggest responsibility for allowing the Lib Dems to capitalise on the anti-war feeling in Brent lies with those left wingers who cling to Blair's Labour Party. Almost all the trade union leaders who got their positions by slating Blair and his policies encouraged people in Brent to vote for New Labour.

Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London because he stood to the left of Blair. But in Brent he was out campaigning for the party which had expelled him. The Guardian's Martin Kettle wrote this week that, because the left candidates had taken more votes than the Liberals' majority, it was 'a victory for the also-rans'.

He added that the local and European elections in June 2004 give parties beyond Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories an 'immense opportunity to consolidate their positions'. He is right. That task would be much easier if left wing union leaders stopped arguing that all we can do is stick with Labour and hope Brown replaces Blair. There is a vacuum in British politics to the left of New Labour. The magnificent anti-war movement has transformed, and continues to transform the political landscape.

It will be a tragedy if the Liberals continue to be the main beneficiaries of this. There is the even more worrying danger that, as in the past, the right can gain from the deep disillusionment with Labour. The anti-war protests have shown the forces exist to fill the vacuum on the left. People have to stop clinging on to the Labour Party and take the steps to turn the potential into reality.

Hutton remember the real issues

Protests organised by the Stop the War Coalition outside the Hutton inquiry have focused attention on the real issues around Blair's lies. The details of what went on should not obscure the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found and the war was based on a lie.

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What We Think
Sat 27 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1870
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