Of themselves, elections don’t change anything. They act as a barometer of the deeper social forces at work. But that doesn’t mean that elections are irrelevant. Only a fool would say that the victory of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher in 1979 had no effect on British society.
Now the British general election on 5 May didn’t represent a shift on that scale — after all, the party in office won. But it did mark a significant stage in the history of the politics in Britain.
To begin with, the election demonstrated beyond any doubt that we have moved into a multi-party system. No longer is British electoral politics dominated, as it was from the 1930s to the 1970s, by the struggle between two vast monoliths that between them attract almost all the votes.
On 5 May Labour won 35.2 percent of the vote, 5.5 percent down on its share in June 2001. Meanwhile the Tory share flatlined at 32.3 percent, a mere 0.6 higher than in 2001.
Under previous Labour governments when supporters became disillusioned they stayed at home or switched to the Tories. But this time the Labour vote fragmented leftwards.
Despite Michael Howard’s frenzied efforts to stir up “dog-whistle” issues such as immigration and crime, for the first time in electoral history a declining Labour government has not presided over a swing to the right.
Writing in Sunday’s Observer, London mayor Ken Livingstone acknowledges this: “In the capital, for every vote Labour lost to the Tory right, it lost almost five to its left—Liberal Democrats, Respect and the Greens.”
This underlines the significance of the war in Iraq. During the election New Labour spin-doctors and the media chorused that voters had “moved on” and forgotten about Iraq. The election result was a big shock for them — and for Tony Blair.
The impact of the war explains the performance of the Liberal Democrats, who did badly against the Tories but were able to win seats from Labour thanks to the support of voters who wanted to punish Blair.
From a longer term perspective, the election marked a decisive step in the decline of the Labour Party as the dominant force on the left of British politics. It confirmed what has long been evident — that Blair is not the saviour but the gravedigger of Labourism.
The results also portend a growing crisis of legitimacy for the British political system. What we have is a multi-party system emerging within the framework of the present voting system.
The first past the post system always unfairly rewards the largest parties, but the results become particularly arbitrary when their share of the vote is relatively small.
On 5 May Labour won 55 percent of the seats in the house of commons with the support of just 22 percent of the British electorate.
This may have important political consequences. It means that Blair’s claims to have a democratic mandate to force his policies through parliament ring very hollow.
Already left wing Labour MPs like Clare Short are saying that they didn’t campaign on the official Labour Party manifesto and don’t regard themselves as bound by the policies it contains. My own local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, states clearly on the front page of his election address that he “voted against the Iraq war and will always defend civil liberties”.
This doesn’t augur well for the third Blair government. It is clear that Blair himself doesn’t begin to understand why voters rebuffed him.
It must indeed have been a humiliating transition for him and Cherie — going from boasting to the Sun about their sex life to having to stand and listen to independent anti-war candidate Reg Keys’s magnificent, dignified speech when the results for Sedgefield were announced.
Blair’s response is clearly to put the memory of his bruising encounter with the electorate behind him as quickly as possible and to press ahead with “unremittingly” New Labour policies.
It is typical that the lesson he publicly took from the election had nothing to do with Iraq, but was to launch a US-style law and order campaign aimed at the lack of “respect” by young people in working class communities.
Surveying Blair’s planned legislative programme for the new parliament, the Financial Times reported: “Blair Set On Collision Course With Critics.” ID cards, along with yet more privatisation, city academies, and anti-terrorist legislation are high on Blair’s plans.
Blair may have promised Gordon Brown he would step down soon in order to persuade Brown to save his bacon during the election campaign. In particular, Brown stepped in to back Blair up over the decision to go to war.
But my guess is that Blair’s policy towards Brown can be summed up by the words of the Austrian prime minister prince Schwarzenberg, who said after the Russians had saved the Austrian monarchy from the revolutions of 1848, “We will astonish the world with our ingratitude.”
Blair’s arrogance and folly are epitomised by his decision to appoint that discredited, authoritarian bully David Blunkett to the key department for work and pensions. Blunkett’s mission to launch offensives on pensions and disability benefits are bound to bring him into conflict with both Brown and Labour backbenchers.
In the new parliament it will take just 34 Labour MPs to vote against the government for Blair to lose his majority. The Financial Times calculates that there are 39 Labour backbenchers in the new parliament with a history as “hard-line rebels”.
The argument that Labour having a relatively small majority will discipline the backbenchers doesn’t hold water. The last Tory prime minister, John Major, who had an even smaller majority during the 1992 parliament, had his life made an absolute misery by rebellious Eurosceptics.
Labour rebels who have illusions that Brown as prime minister would return to Old Labour have an incentive to act up under Blair. They will be encouraged by the signs that the worms who sit around the cabinet table are finally beginning to turn.
The post-election cabinet reshuffle was chaotic even by Blair’s standards. Even as weak a minister as education secretary Ruth Kelly fought successfully to hang onto her job. Alan Johnson contemptuously reversed Blair’s decision to give the department for trade and industry a silly new name.
This will be a fractious and unstable government, riven by internal factional struggles and backbench rebellions. It will find it hard to get its business through parliament—why else has Blair made enough of his cronies peers to make Labour the largest party in the house of lords?
The bottom line is that this government is vulnerable. A big crisis—a US attack on Iran, the referendum on the European constitution or a trade union rebellion over pensions—could blow it away.
The critical question, then, is which political force will benefit from this vulnerability. The Tories failed this time, but that doesn’t mean they can be discounted forever.
The Guardian pointed out that there are now 43 “super-marginal” seats, where a swing of 2.5 percent would be enough for Labour to lose them, producing a hung parliament. The Tories are the challengers in 35 of these seats.
If the signs that the economy is moving into recession prove to be correct, then another nasty Tory campaign scapegoating asylum-seekers might work next time.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. In May 2005, the pendulum failed to swing back to the Tories. It swung left instead. This can happen again.
The Liberal Democrats are unlikely to be the main beneficiary of any such swing left. Ever since the invasion of Iraq they have blown hot and cold over the war. They were lucky that the leaking of the Attorney General’s advice concentrated voters’ minds back onto Iraq.
Charles Kennedy has already ordered a review of the Lib Dems’ plans to introduce a 50 percent top tax rate and replace the council tax with a local income tax. This suggests that their next move will be rightwards in order to win over Tory voters.
This leaves Respect very well placed as the main challenger to the left of Labour. The leading election expert John Curtice comments, “Apart from George Galloway’s success, candidates of the anti-war Respect party won 6.9 percent of the vote, easily the best performance by a far-left party in British electoral history.”
It can’t be emphasised enough that this is an astonishing performance for a new party, largely ignored by the media, under the first past the post system. Contemptible though it is, the barrage of attacks on Galloway since the election is a tribute to this success.
Roy Greenslade pointed out in the Guardian last week that “Galloway has achieved the dubious honour of being the media’s new left wing whipping boy, following in a line that includes Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone”.
But it’s important to remember that all these were attacked when they were a threat. Tony Benn these days is portrayed as a charming old eccentric.
Not so when he was the leading representative of the left wing militancy that swept the British working class movement in the 1970s, breaking a Tory government and paralysing its Labour successor. The ruling class feared and hated Benn then.
Scargill and Livingstone also become media bogeymen because they were seen as expressions of the power of the 1970s left. Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green & Bow symbolises the power of the new left that came out of the anti-war movement.
That’s why they hate him so much. A left that always loses can be patronised and dismissed. A left that wins is a lot scarier. So the stakes are very high for Respect. As John Rees brought out very well in last week’s Socialist Worker, we have to broaden out.
Respect has to broaden out geographically, beyond the bridgeheads it has won in places like London and Birmingham, Preston and Leicester. But it has also to broaden out beyond the war to take up all the issues that affect working class people in Britain.
We must become fighters for social justice right across the board, offering people hope in the fight for a better world. That way, Tony Blair may find more Respect in working class communities than he bargained for.
Alex Callinicos’s books include The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and The New Mandarins of American Power. They are available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848