‘IRAQ WAS only the first hurdle.’ That was what one government source said to the press last Saturday. New Labour is facing deep discontent at home as Blair tries to push ahead with hugely unpopular policies like foundation hospitals and student top-up fees.
One test of Blair’s popularity will be the local elections taking place in many areas outside London on 1 May. Some 10,000 local council seats are up for grabs in the largest election that takes place in Britain.
Many people are so disillusioned with the government they will not bother to vote. Some may register their protest by voting Liberal Democrat. The party tapped anti-war sentiment in a recent by-election in north London despite the fact that the Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy got behind the war as soon as it started.
There are signs of the crisis in New Labour’s support even before the election. It can only find candidates for two thirds of the seats. The Tories are reduced to advertising for candidates in local papers. Many Labour members have simply refused to stand as candidates, to campaign or to fund-raise. There is talk of a ‘strike’ by Labour activists in many parts of the country.
Many of those who would once have been the backbone of the Labour campaign have been central to organising protests against the war. Party insiders admit the party will struggle to hold on to its heartlands in areas like Birmingham and Tyneside.
Labour ministers are desperately dampening down expectations. When Ian McCartney, Labour’s newly-appointed party chair, launched the campaign in Birmingham, he admitted that ‘it’s going to be a tough election out there for us’.
In some areas people will have the chance to vote for a socialist candidate. The Socialist Alliance is standing around 160 candidates, who are focusing on opposition to war as well as local issues. The three Socialist Alliance candidates in Watford are all ex Labour members. Their campaign is already having an impact.
Paul Woodward is standing in the Meriden ward, where he was a Labour councillor from 1992 to 1999. He says, ‘In Watford we have seen local Labour councillors leaving the party because of Tony Blair’s policies. The Labour Party has let down many traditional Labour voters. Only the Socialist Alliance is the real alternative to New Labour.’
Andy O’Brien is standing in the Holywell ward. He is a postal worker who left the Labour Party after the 2001 election because he felt New Labour had betrayed the party’s values. In Central ward the alliance’s candidate is Peter Martindale. He was kicked out of the Labour Party for criticising the local council.
Their election agent Dave Barnes told Socialist Worker, ‘The response has been great so far. Already over 25 people have been out leafleting estates for the alliance.’
John Coombes in Colchester is another Socialist Alliance candidate who has recently left Labour in disgust. He said, ‘Since I was at school and until very recently I was an active member of the Labour Party. I was chair of my ward Labour Party for more than 20 years. Even after the rise of New Labour and the cult of worshipping Blair I stayed on because I believed the party was still democratic and could be brought back to principled and progressive politics. That proved an illusion. All democratic institutions are ignored by the government clique.’
ONE OF John Coombes’s supporters is Rod Green, who stood for Labour in the 1997 general election. He said, ‘When I stood at the general election for Labour in 1997 it was because I thought we were to put an end to the long hard Tory years. How wrong I was. There’s no democracy left in the Labour Party, just as there’s no more socialism.’
John Hobbs is standing for the alliance in Harlow. He told Socialist Worker, ‘I left the Labour Party when it became embarrassing to canvass for them. Before that I was a councillor in the same seat I am standing in now. I always considered myself a socialist, and Labour were moving further and further away from that. The local MP bragged about introducing the minimum wage. I said, ‘You wouldn’t work for it, would you?’ I think people might just not vote. I know a couple locally who would do everything for Labour at election time. This time they are refusing to do anything.’
Ray Holmes is the Socialist Alliance candidate in the Scarcliffe ward in Bolsover, near Chesterfield. He told Socialist Worker, ‘Once you would have seen a sea of Labour red flags round here at election time. Now the only window posters up are mine. Local Labour members just seem to want to keep things quiet and not rock the boat. The cauldron is alight, but Labour members are afraid of the leadership and just want to dampen the flames. I know loads of people here. I went to school with them and worked down the pit with them. The response to my campaign has been great-bags of support and goodwill.’
In Cambridge Diana Minns is standing for the Socialist Alliance in the Romsey ward. She told Socialist Worker, ‘I joined the Labour Party back in 1979. I was a constituency secretary, a chair, a councillor and an election agent. I was the agent for Barbara Roche before she won her seat in north London. But I stopped renewing my membership around 1992. In trying to become elected Labour had abandoned what made them worth fighting for.’
Around 16 candidates are standing in the town of Wigan in Lancashire. Sam Blakeman from Wigan told Socialist Worker, ‘I think it is great that we have so many Socialist Alliance candidates running in Wigan. We have several candidates, including myself, who are in their twenties. None of the other parties have such a range of candidates from different generations and backgrounds.’
Mary Ainslie is standing in a ward in Rusholme, Manchester. She explained to Socialist Worker, ‘When we went to hand the election papers in, I was the only one who was female and under 40. I am campaigning against the war and against student debt, and for asylum seekers. There are a few local campaigns around asylum seekers I have been involved in already.’
Eleven Socialist Alliance candidates are standing in Walsall in the West Midlands. One of the campaigners, Dave Church, told Socialist Worker, ‘Among our candidates are two ex Labour council leaders, two ex Labour mayors and six or seven ex Labour councillors.’
IN SOME areas there are individuals who are standing against the war. Berkshire Stop the War is fielding nine candidates in Reading, and Dorset Stop the War is standing in Bournemouth, Poole and East Dorset.
Damien Stone was once a fan of Tony Blair and is still a councillor in Dorset. After ten years as a Labour activist he tore up his party card last December. He said, ‘I am dead set against this war-it’s illegal and will lead to greater problems. We need to take a stand in our own communities.’
Charlotte Green is the Stop the War candidate in Westbourne. ‘We are still to be shown any evidence of the weapons of mass destruction which were cited as a reason to attack Iraq,’ she said. ‘Locally my focus would be on improved social services-elderly care and education-and environmental sustainability.’
Facing a ‘strike’
THE CRISIS in Labour is stretching into Scotland, where the members of the Scottish Parliament will be elected on 1 May. Labour’s support has risen by a few points in some polls recently. But most have shown the party about equal with the Scottish National Party (SNP). Some have even shown the SNP ahead.
Ann Warwick, a Labour Party member from a Lothians constituency, told Socialist Worker, ‘I went round a fortnight ago to three activists who always help out at election time. The first said he wasn’t going to do anything this time because his brother is a firefighter and he thought the FBU had been treated disgracefully. The second said he couldn’t ask people to vote for a party that was carrying out an illegal war and was in the pocket of a very right wing US president. The third said he was disgusted how illiberal Labour always sounded about crime and race and civil rights. Together with the war it had soured his feeling for the party. These people are not unusual. Fortunately there are still many voters who regard Labour as ‘their party’ and don’t see any real alternative to support. That’s what keeps our vote going.’
Mark Bailey, a Labour member from the Glasgow Shettleston constituency, told Socialist Worker, ‘If there is a low turnout it will reflect anger at New Labour over the war and other issues. There are lots of people who would normally vote Labour who are thinking very seriously about voting for other parties this time-the SNP, the Scottish Socialist Party or the Greens. Even among the people who are going to vote Labour this time there is a feeling that it’s done grudgingly. They will be Labour voters against the war, against privatisation, against Blair.’
Tommy Sheridan MSP Scottish Socialist Party
‘Our campaign is centred on the war against the poverty and inequality which scars all of Scotland. We intend to introduce a fairer tax system to replace the council tax. It will take money from the wealthy, and benefit pensioners and the low paid.
One group which will pay significantly more is the politicians whose salaries are grossly inflated while essential ancillary workers and nurses struggle to make ends meet. We are also committed to a higher minimum wage for public sector workers. The Scottish Parliament has no control over private sector wages, but it does control the public sector.
There we will implement a minimum wage of £7.32 an hour to end low pay. We would link that to a maximum 35-hour week to improve the working environment for current workers and to create 24,000 new jobs.
Such measures are part of our core policies, together with free school meals for every child and an end to the plunder of public services through PFI and PPP privatisations. This is a radical socialist manifesto that will begin the transformation of Scotland.
The SSP has been the most consistent and principled anti-war party in Scotland. We opposed the bombing of Kabul and Baghdad because it was obscene destruction in the interests of US oil companies and US global domination.
We’ve been criticised widely for refusing to lower our anti-war banners during the 21 days of carnage in Iraq. But we will not be intimidated from continuing to pursue peace, global disarmament and socialism-regardless of whether it is electorally popular or not.
The Labour Party is an empty vessel. It has lost thousands of members and the activist base is now thinner than ever. Most Labour Party members have resigned or are refusing to campaign for Blair’s war machine.
I believe the progress of the SSP is crucial for trade unionists and socialists in England and Wales. If the SSP can grow and advance electorally then it will give confidence to millions that there is life outside the Thatcherite Labour Party.
The possibility of building on the existing socialist forces and encompassing wider layers of socialists and trade unionists will be given extra encouragement.
Bob Crow of the RMT union and Mark Serwotka of the PCS union spoke on the same platform as me at a Scottish TUC fringe meeting. They urged their members not just to vote for the SSP but also to join it. Our election campaign has been picking up, although there is a lot of disillusion about politicians in general.
I am confident that that the SSP is going to increase its number of MSPs on 1 May-hopefully to as many as four, and if we do really well then we could even surpass that.’
Every working class person will feel the pressure
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward