Tens of thousands take to the streets against the occupation of Iraq and demand British troops come home; anger grows against New Labour’s attacks on public sector pensions; latest opinion polls show a surge in support for the Tories and a cut in Labour’s lead to just a few points. These were the headlines as Socialist Review went to press this month – and with the general election probably just a few weeks away is it any wonder there is growing unease among Labour MPs? Nothing concentrates the mind of backbenchers more sharply than the prospect of losing their seat with all the comforts, pay and perks that go with it.
Sometimes the erosion of support for a government takes place gradually – a ‘drip, drip’ effect as continuous and prolonged anger over its policies builds within the electorate. Occasionally, however, this drip threatens to spill over into a flood, when the accumulated grievances become a generalised fight back. This is the situation that worries many Labour MPs and the Labour leadership today. Although Labour is sitting on a huge majority in parliament, it is facing a number of major problems which will make this coming election very difficult.
More extreme than Thatcher
The most obvious is the war in Iraq which, above all else, is the defining issue of this government. In the same way that Thatcher is remembered for the poll tax and the mass protests and riots that it produced, Blair will go down in history as the prime minister responsible for going to war on a lie, causing the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people, and provoking the biggest protest movement this country has ever seen.
But there are a whole host of other issues that have turned the people against New Labour: foundation hospitals and the decline of the NHS, privatisation of the tube, worsening child poverty, tuition fees and an attack on civil liberties more extreme than even Thatcher contemplated. As Paul Whiteley says below, many won’t turn out to vote for Labour, and this election could see the highest abstention rate since 1918.
However there is another side to the current period which generates renewed confidence about the possibility of change. Most notable is the fact that the last few years will be remembered for producing the huge, vibrant, colourful and powerful anti-war movement which has irreversibly transformed the political landscape in this country. Millions have marched, held meetings, gone to rallies, attended teach-ins and been engaged in debates with friends, family and neighbours. Principally, of course, this has been about the war in Iraq, but as we have marched and protested so too have we questioned the world we live in and the way we are governed.
Out of this movement has emerged a coalition of different forces which aims to challenge Labour at the polls at the forthcoming election – Respect, the Unity Coalition. The organisation, as the name implies, has brought together a whole host of groups and individuals determined to bring the government to account over the invasion of Iraq. It will be the central issue that all Respect candidates will concentrate on as they campaign in the weeks ahead.
Respect intends to stand in around 30 seats and although the first past the post system of voting makes the challenge a difficult one, there are a number of areas where it has a real chance of success. Nowhere is this more so than in east London where in last year’s European election Respect scored impressive votes. Indeed in Bethnal Green and Bow Respect polled highest of all the parties. This is the seat where it has the greatest chance of success as the prominent anti-war campaigner George Galloway challenges the pro-war Blairite, Oona King.
In the adjoining seat of Poplar and Canning Town Oliur Rahman scored an impressive victory in July last year when he was elected as a Respect councillor to the St Dunstan’s and Stepney Green ward of Tower Hamlets. Labour was pushed into third place behind the Tories. Oliur is now well known in the area for his anti-war activities, but his campaigning is not confined to this issue alone. ‘There are many issues that affect the community, including the Iraq war,’ he explains, ‘but at my local surgery over 90 percent of the problems are to do with housing. I’ll give you one example: I had someone in my surgery recently who is trying to get relocated. He lives in a one-bedroom council flat with his two daughters who are over ten and his one son who is also over ten. The council has told him that there is no way that he can get any other form of housing. Today if you are on a waiting list they say you will have to wait between five and ten years for a permanent offer.’ At the end of 2002 there were between 10,000 and 12,000 people on the council waiting list, and between 2002 and 2003 Newham council reduced its housing stock by 10,543 homes. It is little wonder that anger against New Labour runs so deep.
Just down the road in West Ham the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German is finding a similar sentiment. ‘Traditionally this has been a safe Labour seat with a very loyal Labour support,’ she says. ‘But what I am finding is that many Labour supporters feel utterly betrayed by the government’s record in office. And it’s not just the war in Iraq, but local issues as well.’ West Ham has some of the most deprived areas in Britain. It was this combination of campaigning over national as well as local issues that saw Respect poll 48 percent in Green Street West and 33 percent in Green Street East in last year’s European election.
Currently regeneration is one of the key issues in the forthcoming election. Much fuss was made about the Olympic bid, ‘But many people want to know,’ Lindsey explains, ‘why it is we have to have a prestige project before there is local investment. What is urgently needed here is more money for health, education and local services.’
In Preston the Respect Coalition has already made its mark on the town with Michael Lavalette on the council. The result has been that Respect has been able to raise issues that directly affect local people such as the attack on pensions and the rise in council tax. Furthermore when the tsunami devastated Asia Michael was able to raise the issue of international solidarity in the local council. The result was a citywide tsunami fundraising day on which the council gave its facilities free to local groups and charities to raise money. ‘Respect is in a different position here than in the rest of the country,’ explains Michael, ‘because we already have representation on the local council. Hence we have been able to set the agenda and get plenty of coverage. This places us in a good position for the coming election campaign.’
One of the greatest strengths of the anti-war movement has been its diversity and its ability to engage many different sections of the population. This is also reflected in Respect’s selection of candidates. Janet Alder, the sister of Christopher Alder who died in brutal circumstances while in police custody, will be standing against the Blairite David Lammy in the seat of Tottenham, where racism and justice will be the key issues of her campaign. Salma Yaqoob will be representing Respect in the seat of Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath. She is widely recognised having spoken publicly and very eloquently against the Iraq war. She is also concerned to take up the issues of poverty and inequality: ‘Close to one half of the households in this constituency have an income of less than £15,000 and unemployment is high,’ she says. ‘Godsiff [the local Labour MP] has a huge majority and will be difficult to beat but the message Respect is putting across is receiving a great response.’
One of the most appealing things about the challenge Respect has set itself is that it gives many people the chance to campaign and vote for a positive message – for peace, an end to racism, in defence of civil liberties, and for more spending on health, education and local services. But most importantly it allows the huge anti-war movement to find its electoral voice and to let Blair know the full fury and anger that we feel over the invasion of Iraq.
Anger and apathy
Paul Whiteley is the author of many books including The Labour Party in Crisis, Labour’s Grassroots – the Politics of Party Membership and New Labour’s Grassroots. He has also co-authored with Patrick Seyd many books on Labour’s membership.
How would you characterise the state of the Labour Party going into the general election?
It depends what you mean by the Labour Party because it operates at several different levels. It operates both at the parliamentary level and at the grassroots, which we have researched quite a lot. But it also operates in the minds of voters and [those levels] are very different.
I think the parliamentary party probably thinks, as seems likely, that it will get re-elected with a reduced majority. At the grassroots though it looks pretty demoralised and inactive, although some of the evidence from surveys we have been doing suggests that a degree of pre-election campaigning is ongoing at the national level, with some at the local level as well.
So the campaigning has not died out, but it is much less active than in 2001. The Labour Party shares the same problem that all the others do, which is that the attachment to parties is dying out in the minds of the electors.
We are conducting a pre-election survey at the moment, which is in the field right now. This is part of the British Election Study – a big academic survey of the electorate. It is trying to determine why it is that people vote, why some turn out and some don’t, and if they do vote which party they support. This is a long series of surveys that has been running for several years – we did this at the last election in 2001 and wrote it up in a book, and we are doing the same this time around.
What the current survey shows is that only about half the electorate think of themselves as supporters of a political party. This has changed over a generation or more – if you go back 25 years the majority of people thought they were supporters of a party. And what’s more, many of them thought they were strong supporters. Now only about half consider themselves as such and the ones that do are pretty weak supporters. This all makes the elections and public opinion rather volatile.
So it depends on what level you are at when describing the Labour Party because its health varies between levels.
Why is the level of activity at a much lower level than in the past?
We actually had a statistical model in 2001 that gave us insights, particularly into the low turnout, which went down to 59 percent – much lower than previously. It looks like in this election it is going to be even lower. But two factors stood out in 2001. One was the fact that lots of people thought that Labour was going to win – it was a kind of done deal. It meant the election was seen as uncompetitive and it put people off voting. The other factor was that the three major parties were closer together ideologically than ever before since the Second World War. Labour was closer to the Conservatives and the Conservatives were closer to the Liberal Democrats.
You can measure this by looking at the party manifestos and the promises that they made. A colleague at the University of Essex did some research showing that there were very little differences between the parties – and if there are very little differences between the parties then people won’t participate. So that was another factor which explained the decline in turnout. It’s pretty clear that Labour’s shift to the right under Blair has demoralised a lot of supporters.
What role has the war on Iraq played in all this?
This is a considerable factor. We have a question in the surveys today which just asks the respondent ‘what issue do you think is the most important at the moment?’ and Iraq is still there. It is not always the most important but it is still up there.
What is significant is what it says about the government: it looks like incompetence and it looks like the government doesn’t quite know what it got itself into. There is also the point of people not liking the open-ended support for George Bush. This is going to play in the election and it is going to play among Labour voters, many of whom were on the anti-war protests and feel that the government lost its way.
You talk about the low turnout in the last general election and possibly in the forthcoming one, but how much more noticeable is this among young people?
This decline in turnout affects young people much more than older. To be fair there has always been this difference in the voting turnout and electoral participation. But we found in 2001 that the gap between the middle-aged, old and the young was bigger than ever before. In 2001 roughly six out of every ten people who could vote did vote, but if you look at people in their early twenties and in their teens only four out of ten actually voted. So the gap was really big.
Do you think this is something that the leadership of the Labour Party is concerned about going into this election, and have younger people found other methods of engaging in politics?
This is something that all the parties are concerned about. The average age of the Conservative Party is now about 64, so they are worried about it. But the other parties are also worried about young people’s participation.
Young people are not participating in orthodox politics – although we found that many of them are participating in the protest marches. We have found that there is a lot of individualistic participation using market power – especially among young people. So they will boycott goods in the supermarket that they don’t think are ethically sound, or they will seek out particular products and buy them if they think they are ethically sound. This is using the market to participate in the political process and it is growing tremendously. So new forms of participation are coming along. One of the undesirable things is that young people don’t see the importance of voting in quite the same way that their older counterparts did.
How do you see the decline in the vote affecting the parties?
In the polls at the moment the government has a lead of between 3 and 5 percent in the standard surveys that ask, ‘If there was a general election today how would you vote?’ But if you ask people how likely they are to vote you get quite a few people who say they are not very likely to do so. If you put these aside and just concentrate on those who say they are really going to vote, the Tories do a lot better than Labour. The Labour vote and Labour support is soft and it’s much softer than the Tories. There may be a sense in which the Tories have reached a sort of bedrock and the people who now support them are going to turn out. So there is an apathy problem that may affect the number of re-elected Labour MPs.
I’ve been studying the grassroots for many years and I think the real problem for the Labour Party is that there is a kind of continuous election campaign going on – and it is all about getting advantage, getting stories in the paper and so on. Party managers get very uptight about managing and controlling debate within the party and they shut it down in a kind of Stalinist way. This de-motivates people – as a result they leave the party, they lose enthusiasm, they cease to be active.
So I think there is a deep conflict between the modern election campaign and political participation. People will not participate if they feel they cannot make a difference or make their voice heard. There is a real antagonism between the campaigning side of politics, which has been growing in importance, and the democratic side.
Are we facing an historic election if the trends on participation are as the polls suggest?
Certainly. If we have a lower turnout than in 2001 – and our survey shows that it is likely that there will be a lower turnout with just over half voting – that really will be historic. In fact it will never have happened in the whole of modern electoral democratic politics. The full franchise was finally achieved in the late 1920s when all adult women got the vote alongside men. If the turnout falls to just below 50 percent then that would be lower than anything we have seen since. So, yes, it will be historic.
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