Tony Blair has crept back into Downing Street — but already the talk is not of whether he will go but when.
The election results were still coming in when angry Labour MPs with reduced majorities, the press and pundits delivered their damning verdict on Tony Blair. The Times noted, “Labour HQ is already discussing the future of Blair.”
The bitterest pill for Labour is George Galloway’s stunning victory for Respect in Bethnal Green & Bow. The Financial Times described it as the “most painful blow of the night” for Blair. The BBC’s Andrew Marr called it “a punch in the solar plexus for everyone around Tony Blair”.
The reason is the Iraq war. The pro-Labour commentators who insisted the war was not a doorstep issue or was the preserve of the “chattering classes” are now confronted by the truth.
Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, a longstanding Labour cheerleader, said, “This was a khaki election.” Damningly, she concluded that Labour cannot campaign in next May’s local elections with Blair at the helm. This is no third-term triumph for Blair.
He is back with just 36 percent of the vote — the lowest share won by any prime minister in history. Even Ramsay MacDonald, whose 1929 minority government had to rely on the Liberals’ support, took 37 percent of the poll. Blair has won with fewer votes than Labour scored in the defeats of 1979, 1987 and 1992.
There is no great victory in this for the Tories or Liberal Democrats. The share of the vote won by Labour and the Tories taken together was also at its lowest ever.
The Lib Dems made gains — but on nothing like the scale they hoped, simply because they do not offer a home for most traditional Labour voters. The real story was the fall in Labour’s vote share.
Blair’s weakened government also faces trouble ahead over policy. The election has given Blair no mandate for his free market policies. Instead Labour dragged supporters to the ballot box with the threat that the Tories would be worse.
The government is committed to returning to pensions “reform”. Blair aims to spend billions on replacing Britain’s nuclear missiles—real weapons of mass destruction — and council tax is set to soar.
In the background is the great unaddressed question of class — and one of the widest gulfs between rich and poor in the developed world.
The desire for a real alternative did shine through in the election. A larger proportion of people voted for alternative candidates than ever before. Above all a space has opened for a radical new party.
The venom with which New Labour greeted Galloway’s victory is a tribute to just how serious a setback it represents. News of his election flashed across the globe, signalling a rejection of Blair and of the continuing war in Iraq.
And Galloway’s presence in parliament provides a rallying point for all those opposed to the war, privatisation and other New Labour policies — the majority opinion shunned by Blair.
Respect made history not just with Galloway’s election, but also by coming second in Birmingham Sparkbrook, East Ham and West Ham at the first attempt, winning votes from across Labour’s core support.
Respect has stormed into pole position as the one force capable of challenging the established parties. Not only can Respect go on to win council seats next year, it can also become a mass membership party. Over the coming weeks that is the challenge facing us.
We also need to build the biggest possible protests against the war and world poverty when George Bush attends the G8 summit in Scotland in July.
But there is a gap between the huge mobilisations against the war or around Make Poverty History and smaller scale resistance over pensions, pay, housing and other issues. The vast, seemingly diverse movement needs to come together in a realisation of a common class identity.
New Labour dismissed the concerns and needs of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who feel nobody speaks for them. Respect offers them a home. Together we can forge a mighty force for the radical change people are crying out for.