THERE WAS no comfort for New Labour from last Thursday's elections, and little for any of the other mainstream parties either. There were, however, dramatic breakthroughs for the left. The Scottish Socialist Party won six seats in the proportional voting element of the Scottish Parliament elections.
The Socialist Alliance won a first past the post election in Preston, Lancashire, and achieved landmark votes in Walsall, Middlesbrough, Barnsley and other areas. Meanwhile, the Nazi BNP failed to make the sweeping advances it expected across the board.
But it did sink its poison deeper into Burnley. It won some council seats elsewhere and got a vote which now must lead to an immediate, united and fighting response from the whole of the labour movement.
The slump in Labour's support also means socialists face an urgent challenge and an unprecedented opportunity to draw together the forces for a mass alternative to New Labour.
Socialist Alliance in poll breakthrough
THE SOCIALIST Alliance won its first council seat in England. Michael Lavalette took the Town Centre ward in Preston, Lancashire, with 546 votes. He beat the Labour candidate by 106 votes. Michael told Socialist Worker, ''Labour Rocked By Poll Explosion' was the headline of the Lancashire Evening Post the day after the elections. The Liberal and Tory votes stayed about the same. It's such a safe Labour seat Labour hardly bothered canvassing, but we beat them. I only decided to stand at the last minute because people in the Stop the War Coalition felt we should build a political voice. But our campaign was not just over the war. I stood on a clear Socialist Alliance platform and used all the national leaflets covering a wide range of issues. When I was canvassing on election day, I talked to lots of white working class people who said they voted for me - some were Labour Party members.'
'The Labour candidate in the ward was Muslim, so there was a big debate in the Muslim community about whether people should support me, a non-Muslim, or him. The imam I worked with in the anti-war campaign endorsed me. The Muslim community here are breaking their link with Labour. The anti-war campaign allowed us to drive a wedge through Labour's hold. I have had loads of e-mails from people at work congratulating me. Lots of people are taking heart from my victory.'
Rob Hoveman, national secretary of the Socialist Alliance, said, 'Michael's victory is outstanding. It is unprecedented for someone to win a seat on the first past the post system from scratch standing on a principled platform. 'But we won significant votes in lots of other areas. It shows the Socialist Alliance can appeal to people angry with Labour from many different backgrounds and communities. For example, Gordon Rowntree in Middlesbrough got 21 percent of the vote and came just 100 votes behind the winning Labour candidate, and Sue Wild in Barnsley got 17.7 percent.'
Sue told Socialist Worker, 'I was chuffed to death to beat the Tories. They were gutted - you should have seen their faces. My vote trebled from when I stood last time. People are so against the war. I have been on every anti-war demo, done lots in the pensioners' campaigns and raised £500 for the firefighters when they struck.'
The Socialist Alliance had a very good result in Walsall in the West Midlands. It stood candidates in ten wards and got an average of 10 percent of the vote. Martin Lynch was one of the candidates. He told Socialist Worker, 'In Blakehall ward Peter Smith, an ex Labour councillor standing for the Socialist Alliance, got 23 percent and beat the Tory. In Darleston, Alan Johnson got 18.6 percent and I got around 13 percent.'
Will McMahon, Socialist Alliance membership secretary, told Socialist Worker, 'The Socialist Alliance results compare very favourably to what the socialist left get in Europe. If we build on them we will be in a good position to stand in the Greater London Assembly elections and European Parliament elections next year. There is real enthusiasm for the Socialist Alliance project now we have shown what's possible.'
Nick Wrack is the publications officer for the Socialist Alliance. He says, 'These excellent results are a breakthrough for the Socialist Alliance. The brilliant result in Preston and in other places shows how we can build on the disenchantment with New Labour and focus it in a left wing direction. The Socialist Alliance conference this Saturday will be very exciting and important in discussing how we build on this success.'
Rob Hoveman agrees: 'Saturday's conference is vital. The election results have opened up lots of possibilities for the Socialist Alliance. It's a real chance for us to discuss how to build on this breakthrough. We want to seize the chance to forge a dynamic left wing alternative to New Labour right across the country.'
Did the Liberals fill the gap?
IT IS little wonder many people are looking for an alternative to New Labour, with Blair driving through Thatcherite policies after prosecuting a war that two million people took to the streets to oppose. None of the mainstream parties filled the void - the turnout stayed at historic lows in the English council elections, and fell in the Scottish and Welsh elections.
Labour's share of the vote dropped to 30 percent, the same as the Liberal Democrats. The Tories polled 35 percent. But, as elections expert John Curtice says, 'It was not so much a night of Conservative gains as Labour losses. 'By doing little more than standing still, the Tories profited from Labour's misfortune.'
The Liberals managed to pick up votes in many Labour areas. They often claimed to be anti-war and for 'Old Labour policies', even though their leader Charles Kennedy dropped any criticism of the invasion of Iraq once it started.
But the Liberals also lost votes in working class areas of cities they have run for the past few years. They lost control of Sheffield and lost seats in Liverpool, where they have pursued New Labour policies with even greater vigour.
Left vote shakes Scotland
'PEOPLE'S POWER Marches On Parliament' was just one of the many newspaper headlines proclaiming the success of socialist and campaigning candidates in the Scottish elections. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was the biggest victor, winning six members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).
The party did so well because of its opposition to the war, support for struggles like the firefighters', and plans for a war against poverty. Rosie Kane, a new MSP for the SSP in Glasgow, said 'We're going to bring colour, imagination and all sorts of diversity and attitude to the parliament.' The election was bad for all the major parties - especially Labour. It won less than a third of the vote and lost six MSPs.
The low turnout (49 percent) was also a judgement on Labour's performance as many of its traditional supporters stayed at home. The Greens went from one MSP to seven (although the SSP won more votes than the Greens).
Many of those who voted Green did so because the party was against the war in Iraq and has been prepared to challenge New Labour. The Scottish National Party (SNP) meanwhile faces its most serious crisis for decades.
The party had a disastrous night, falling from 35 seats to 27. During the last four years the SNP has tried to 'modernise' as part of an attempt to win over more media and business support. Many people who had previously voted for the SNP in protest at Blair this time voted for more serious left alternatives.
SCOTTISH ELECTORS get two votes for the parliament. The first is like the general election with MSPs elected by 'first past the post'. In this part of the election the SSP, although it won no seats, took around 15 percent in Glasgow and an average of around 6 percent in the rest of the country.
In Glasgow Pollok Tommy Sheridan achieved 6,016 votes, 28 percent of the total. Among notable constituency votes were those won by two members of the Socialist Worker Platform in the SSP. Tricia McCafferty got 9.8 percent in Greenock & Inverclyde and Malcolm Wilson 12.6 percent in Glasgow Cathcart.
Scotland also has a second ballot paper where people vote for parties. This is counted using a form of proportional representation. In Scotland as a whole the SSP took 7.5 percent of the vote, up from 2 percent in 1999. Across Glasgow the SSP won 16 percent, ahead of the Tories and Liberal Democrats combined.
This was enough for the SSP to win two MSPs in the city. Others were elected in Lothians, Scotland Central, Scotland South and Scotland West.
BNP: act now to stop this cancer
THE BRITISH National Party (BNP) now has eight councillors in Burnley, making it the second largest party in the council. That terrifying reality should signal a united and determined fight to turn the tide against the Nazis.
Fortunately, the chance to successfully carry that out is strengthened by the failure of the BNP to get the breakthrough that they wanted across Britain. They stood their largest concentration of candidates in the north east of England. None of the 54 won a seat. In Oldham the BNP's high profile leader Nick Griffin failed to win. But the BNP consolidated its hold in Burnley.
They also now have two councillors in Calderdale, one in Dudley, two in Sandwell, and one in Stoke on Trent. A splinter group, the Freedom Party, have a councillor in South Staffordshire. And the BNP also have a councillor in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. This number of Nazi BNP councillors is alarming.
Le Pen's National Front organisation in France started out by winning a few seats in a local council in 1983. It went on to get two million votes in European elections and secure control of four councils, and Le Pen became a national figure.
The lesson is the Nazis have to be smashed while they are small. That means ripping away the cover of 'respectability' from them. Yet in Burnley the BNP's three councillors have been treated as a normal part of political life over the past year by the press and mainstream parties. They have let the BNP get away with targeting disaffected white voters who feel abandoned by mainstream political parties.
Burnley resident Andrew Ramsbottom told Socialist Worker on Saturday, 'Our family's income is less than £8,000 a year. The top-up fees are going to be terrible for me when I go to university. These are the sort of things the BNP are playing on.
'The only party who put an election flyer through our door was the BNP. Yet these are supposed to be Labour strongholds. I think the biggest danger at the moment is that we downplay the Nazis.'
In two wards the BNP got councillors by a majority of just three votes and 15 votes. Their scapegoating of refugees has succeeded in stoking up wider racism against Asians living locally.
Shakira, a Burnley resident, said, 'We get horrible abuse when we walk down the street. I've really noticed it since the BNP were elected last year, and then the riots. Now there are more BNP councillors.'
In Calderdale the BNP succeeded in getting a councillor in the ward next to Mixenden, where they won a by-election in January. This means they are now regarded as a group on the council and are allocated a secretary and an office.
The BNP's councillor in Dudley, Simon Darby, was quoted in the Guardian before the election saying, 'We've had a bit of luck in that the newspapers have become obsessed with the asylum issue. Issue after issue, day after day, asylum this, asylum that. We have the luxury of banging on people's doors with the mainstream issue of the day.'
That sharply points up the responsibility of the press and mainstream politicians for creating the climate the BNP hope to prosper from. Anti-Nazis have done important work campaigning against the Nazis in areas like Burnley.
What is needed now is a serious campaign uniting all those opposed to the Nazis in an effort to smash them. There are millions of trade unionists, Labour voters and supporters, people from all walks of life, who hate what the BNP stand for.
That potential needs to be mobilised, and all those organisations and individuals with influence bear a responsibility for ensuring that is done. It means people coming together, despite whatever other differences they may have, to build united, mass activity around the single theme of driving the Nazis back into the gutters they have crawled from.
ON THE eve of the elections home secretary David Blunkett predicted that Labour's vote would hold up in traditional working class areas and would only suffer among Muslims and the 'liberal middle classes'. In fact, anger over the slaughter in Iraq and the assault on public services at home hit Labour's vote precisely in working class areas.
Labour lost control of councils such as Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Derby, Dudley, Exeter, Ashfield, Rochdale, Northampton, Bolton, Redcar & Cleveland, Luton, Dartford, Chesterfield and Durham. Labour suffered heavy losses in the Birmingham wards of Billesley and Bournville, overwhelmingly white areas with large numbers of skilled workers.
Redcar & Cleveland has a tiny Muslim population, but a long tradition of loyalty to Labour. The biggest swings against Labour in Bristol, where it has all four MPs, were in working class areas. Chesterfield, in 'solid Labour' South Yorkshire, also fell.
Welsh 'red water'?
LABOUR ACTUALLY increased its number of seats in the Welsh Assembly, largely because it stood on slightly more radical polices than New Labour and because there was no real challenge from the left.
Leader Rhodri Morgan made play of the 'clear red water' between his Welsh Labour and 'London Labour'. This has meant no SATs or school league tables in Wales, no foundation hospitals and restoring some grants for college students. At this election Welsh Labour promised free breakfasts for primary school pupils, resistance to top-up fees and to abolish prescription charges.
Although this was only a slightly improved version of the Blair model, it was enough to batter Plaid Cymru. Plaid Cymru fell from 17 seats to 12. It lost the three key working class seats (Rhondda, Islwyn, Llanelli) it won in 1999.
Plaid's tactic of being a little bit to the left of Blair was undermined by the Labour candidates doing the same. However there was very little enthusiasm for Labour. Turnout was just 38 percent, down from the miserable 47 percent last time. The challenge from the left of Labour was weak.
But John Marek, standing as an independent, defeated Labour in Wrexham. Marek was previously a Labour member of the assembly. Marek stood this time on a platform of defending public services and justice for the firefighters.