Their international standing has been battered by mass movements against the neo-liberal project they champion. In May the French people voted no to the EU constitution, the European bosses’ pet project. The vote was a result of a mass popular campaign uniting the left, the unions and the global justice movement. It was soon followed by a similar result in the Netherlands.
Blair was expecting consolation from the German election, which looked like being a shoo-in for the right wing privatiser Angela Merkel. But popular hatred of welfare reform and a split in the SPD, Germany’s equivalent of the Labour Party, forced the debate to the left. The result was a hung parliament and a spectacular debut for the new Left Party. The ‘grand coalition’ government that has emerged from the wreckage is more an expression of ruling class paralysis than unity.
The spectacular series of uprisings in Bolivia in June highlighted the extent to which the neo-liberals are losing control in Latin America. The Bolivian movement dislodged not one but two presidents. It was so threatening at one point that the main political parties couldn’t even risk meeting in the country’s capital La Paz. And it is deeply humiliating for the US elite to sit and watch as popular movements sweep out government after government in what it likes to think of as its backyard.
But it is events in Iraq that have provided the ultimate humiliation. It is bad enough that the lies that led to war are unravelling so publicly. Much more serious is the impending worst-case scenario in Iraq itself. In the last few months the truth has penetrated into the inner recesses of the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence that the war is unwinnable. However much we are told the Iraqis want us to stay, daily reports of mayhem across their country tell another story. As Alex Callinicos and Alexander Cockburn explain in this issue, the disasters of war in Iraq are deeply destabilising in both Britain and the US.
Throughout 2005 the movement in Britain has been central to Blair’s crisis. Big anti-war demonstrations on 20 March and 24 September helped to keep up the pressure on Blair and ensure Iraq remained in the news. And despite Blair’s best efforts, the London bombings on 7 July failed to distract people’s attention from the main issue.
This month’s International Peace Conference will be another tremendous gathering of the anti-war movement from Britain and beyond. The military families campaign has grown and received tremendous public support. And there is growing dissatisfaction in the armed services themselves.
In the summer Blair and Brown hoped to use the G8 summit to move on from Iraq and establish some progressive credentials in international affairs. They tried to link their initiatives on Africa and climate change with the popular movement for action on world poverty. Though Oxfam, Bono and Bob Geldof tried to give them a helping hand, their plans have come to nothing. Demonstrators at the G8 protests ignored attempts to keep the issue of Iraq separated from that of global poverty.
And at the massive counter-summit in Edinburgh, it was clear that very few people were impressed by government promises on aid, debt or climate change. Now it is known that carbon dioxide emissions are rising in Britain and even Save the Children has attacked the government for its lack of follow through on Africa post G8. New Labour’s supposed progressive global agenda lies in pieces.
Despite this mounting opposition, Blair is clinging on to his pet projects. A ‘final term’ round of market reforms on pensions, education and the NHS are in the pipeline. And Brown is putting no clear red water between himself and Blair. His stand on pensions flags up a proud commitment to the CBI and fiscal prudence.
So far the movement’s weak spot has been the industrial front. Despite massive rank and file resentment and a series of promising campaigns, union leaders’ hesitation and downright cowardice has scotched any real resistance. From public sector pensions to Gate Gourmet, fighting spirit has been frittered away. The root cause can only be residual loyalty to Labour. This is one more reason why Respect is so important. In the run up to the general election this year, meeting after meeting of the anti-war movement ended in discussion about the need for anti-war candidates. That demand is not going to go away. As the May 2006 council elections approach and campaigns against housing privatisation, city academies and the market in the NHS gain momentum, a credible political voice to New Labour’s left is going to be essential.
The election of George Galloway in May in Bethnal Green and Bow was this year’s big event. Respect’s annual conference in November brought together 400 delegates from a wide variety of backgrounds, it had the air of a real, maturing political enterprise. If Respect can win councillors up and down the country in May and pull off more spectacular results in east London, it will send the message to Westminster and the world that it is here to stay. Imagine the impact that would have on everyone fighting for public housing, a decent retirement and to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
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