The centre cannot hold; things fall apart. That’s the only conclusion to be drawn from Britain’s ‘Super Thursday’ on 10 June, when right wing minority parties achieved high votes, but the left also put itself on the map and in some areas achieved astonishing gains.
Across Europe ruling parties were punished for their policies by millions of electors. Hope when the left and social democrat parties were swept to office only a few short years ago has turned to despair. Gerhard Schröder, the head of Germany’s Social Democrat and Green government, was hammered for his cuts in Germany’s welfare system which are making everyone from pensioners to school students squeal.
In Britain there is no enthusiasm for a return to Tory government – they show little sign of being able to win the next election. But there is bitterness and resentment against Tony Blair’s New Labour government from many quarters. Meanwhile minority parties of both right and left scored record votes as a result of this disenchantment.
The election proved a disaster for the main parties. Labour’s vote was at its lowest since 1918, with voters in the core Labour areas deserting them in droves. Labour lost council seats in its heartlands, with the Lib Dems taking control of councils such as Newcastle in the north east – home to many New Labour MPs. The Iraq war was the main issue that broke Labour voters. However, the failure of the government to deliver on everything from free education to pensions also helped to ensure that Tony Blair will go down in the history books as the Labour prime minister who threw away so much goodwill so carelessly and so irrevocably.
The big story of the night in the Euro elections was the rise of Ukip, the right wing populist Little England party, which harnessed discontent over the remoteness and bureaucracy of the EU but also expressed its feelings in raw populist terms about immigrants and asylum seekers. It did, however, certainly in London, express ordinary Londoners’ concerns about issues like public transport, and clearly attracted the votes of substantial numbers of people who don’t consider themselves racists.
Michael Howard was the big loser from Ukip’s rise, as the Tories’ voter base was split. But it is estimated that 20 percent of Ukip’s votes come from former Labour voters.
The fascist BNP failed to make its widely trumpeted breakthrough and didn’t win a single European seat. It also failed to hang on to many of its previous local election gains, although it did win a handful of seats in Bradford and in Epping, just outside London. Its failure combined three things – the rise of Ukip took votes from it, the tactic of inviting Jean-Marie Le Pen to address it backfired, partly because of the protests it engendered, and there was a successful anti-fascist campaign in the form of Unite Against Fascism.
Nonetheless the BNP votes are still much too high in some areas, and there is a major job to do to undercut it in the next few years.
That’s where the left comes in. Because it is no good simply campaigning against the BNP – important though that is. We also have to present a credible alternative, something positive for people to vote for. And on 10 June we made a start.
Never before in Britain has the left achieved such a high vote as it did on 10 June. Over a quarter of a million votes for Respect, and another 60,000-plus for the Scottish Socialist Party, beats all previous comparisons. The Communist Party vote in 1945 stood at 102,780, which allowed the party to win two MPs. The combined left vote of 180,000-plus at the 2001 general election was against the background of a much higher turnout than in the European elections.
In London, where we made our strongest showing, I came fifth as mayor, beating the BNP and the Greens, despite being excluded from many hustings, and gaining virtually no publicity in the London press and news media. Our list gained 87,000 votes, and at 4.6 percent was just short of gaining us an assembly seat. And George Galloway polled just less than 5 percent in the European elections, following a campaign of media blackout.
The only exception to this blackout was when two national newspapers devoted editorials to urging their readers not to vote Respect, and when the bombing brigade of pro-war columnists turned their attention to attacking Respect.
While nearly one in 20 voters supported Respect in London, that hid some much greater percentages. In Tower Hamlets George Galloway topped the poll for the Euro elections, and across the board in east London Respect did spectacularly well. North East London was also a major success, and we chalked up good votes in areas like Haringey and Redbridge.
Indeed, if the votes are aggregated for the four London boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest and Hackney, then Respect comes third of all parties. While Labour has 27.51 percent of this vote, the Tories have 16.41, Respect 15.67, the Lib Dems 13.55, and Greens 9.54.
And while the results in the Euro elections outside London were lower overall – reflecting the political unevenness of the huge Euro constituencies – there were some remarkable results there. A vote of 2.4 percent across the West Midlands constituency translated into 7.4 percent across the whole of Birmingham, 3.4 percent in nearby Sandwell and 4 percent in Walsall. In the East Midlands Respect gained 9 percent across the whole of Leicester and over 3 percent each in Nottingham and Derby. In Luton Respect picked up 6 percent of the vote, in Peterborough 4.6 percent, in Bradford 5.6 percent and Kirklees 4.2 percent.
Where did this vote come from? Some on the sectarian left dismiss it as a ‘Muslim vote’ (as if Muslim votes were somehow less than anyone else’s). Certainly in some areas we did win significant numbers of Muslims, but even in these areas more Muslims will have voted for the main parties – or not voted at all – than voted for Respect. Muslims in Britain have been increasingly politicised, and that has accelerated in recent years following 11 September 2001. The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing question of Palestine, the terrorism laws and the rise of Islamophobia have alienated many from Labour and led them to look for an alternative.
But many Muslims are also working class and poor, with some of the worst housing, schools and job conditions. They care about their children’s future, about their parents’ old age, about what is happening to society. They therefore supported us on these issues as well.
We also galvanised an increasing share of the trade union left, the anti-war movement and socialists. A small minority took a highly sectarian attitude to Respect – some even voting for the war party, Labour, rather than us, others spoiling their ballot papers in a totally futile and unnoticed gesture in the welter of spoilt ballot papers that this election produced. But many other socialists, some former members of left groups or the Communist Party, joined in enthusiastically. There was wide support from firefighters and tube and rail workers in London, and from students, pensioners and ethnic minorities.
Many of these people might not have voted at all. Some of them still couldn’t because they weren’t registered but will do so next time. All of them did so with an enthusiasm missing from most mainstream politics.
If we add together the left vote with that of the Greens, then that to the left of Labour was remarkable. While the Greens scored much higher than Respect in this election, their overall performance fell well below their expectations. In London they lost votes across the city, and failed to get one of their three Assembly members re-elected. Darren Johnson, their mayoral candidate, who was projected in hustings and the media as the fourth candidate (getting often as much space in London’s Evening Standard as the three main parties) came seventh after Ukip, Respect and the BNP. While they hung on to their two MEPs, they failed to gain a single extra one despite confident predictions of five or six.
Respect tried to get united platforms with the Greens before the elections but failed to convince the party’s leadership that this could be done. It is a terrible shame, because now we would be looking at several more elected representatives (especially because united campaigns tend to attract more than the sum of their parts) and a left of Labour vote which would be as great as or greater than the right in some areas. We should not allow this to happen again, especially in the face of a rise of the right.
The Greens are long established and obviously have disagreements over aspects of Respect’s policies. But Respect has a reach, especially in some inner cities, which the Greens do not have – to ethnic minorities, trade unions and sections of the anti-war movement. And we agree on 80 percent of policies. There should be the maximum effort to discuss how we can cooperate, how we can if possible avoid standing against one another in future elections, whether we can come closer together. Many voters for both organisations will expect no less in the coming months.
These are discussions which have to take place. Meanwhile, the mood of Respect members is high. We have made an impact against all the odds. Our task now is to branch out, to sink roots in different ethnic groups (as we have begun to do with the Turks and Kurds in north London), and to gain more substantial union support. That is on the cards with the RMT and the FBU, whose union conference voted to disaffiliate from Labour, but it is also being discussed in unions such as the CWU.
Most urgent is building and extending Respect as a grassroots organisation in every locality, with political, social and cultural events which can help us extend our support in the run-up to the general election, probably to be held next year. We cannot adopt the old left method of waiting for Respect’s supporters to come to our meetings – we need to go to them.
Our first test will be the council and parliamentary by-elections in Leicester, Birmingham and east London over the summer. Pro-war columnist David Aaronovitch gave us a year before we fell apart. Given his record on weapons of mass destruction and bringing liberation for the Iraqi people, we can predict a long and healthy life.
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