Tony Blair and New Labour are in trouble. The most dramatic political event in years – the war on Iraq and the mass movement against it – created deep splits in the party. Some 140 Labour MPs voted against the government even though Blair effectively made it a vote of confidence in him. The movement against the war very nearly forced Blair from office. Two cabinet ministers – Robin Cook and belatedly Clare Short – have now resigned because of the war. The remaining cabinet ministers, from Jack Straw to Blair’s fixer John Reid, look increasingly uncomfortable and implausible when pressed on the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that were the pretext for the conflict. Iraq and its long-suffering people continue to face the ordeal of occupation and far from curbing ‘terrorism’, the aftermath of the war has seen renewed terrorist attacks in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
But Blair’s problems are not limited to the war on Iraq. He is also in trouble with the war at home. The issue of foundation hospitals, the effective break-up and privatisation of core NHS services, has seen the second biggest backbench Labour rebellion over a domestic issue (the largest was over restricting disability benefits) since 1997 as mutinous habits begin to develop among Labour MPs. In education, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has voted to boycott Sats in what could be a significant confrontation with the government. Education minister Charles Clarke has singled out the NUT for opprobrium and Blair has signalled he will fight the trade unions if they stand in the way of his ‘modernisation’ policies of progressive privatisation. Yet such a strategy is fraught with risk as Sats are also very unpopular with parents and another potential source of lasting antagonism towards New Labour.
On top of this comes the issue of the euro, which threatens to split the cabinet and Labour leadership wide open. Despite the very unusual step of issuing a joint press release to demonstrate how at peace with each other they were, the Blair and Brown camps are clearly at loggerheads on the subject. There are no signs whatsoever that popular opinion is swinging in favour of the euro, in fact quite the opposite, but this has not stopped the Blairites floating the idea of a referendum, now scuppered for the foreseeable future by Gordon Brown. And so just a few weeks after the war, after which commentators and New Labour politicians claimed Blair had rescued lost ground, we find increasing divisions within the government and a mood of popular hostility against it.
Even the sad old Tories have at last found an issue they think they can damage Labour with – student tuition fees. The Tories have promised to abolish them, the only catch being they will also dramatically reduce the numbers going to university and they propose no alternative funding for higher education. But even a clod like Iain Duncan Smith senses Blair’s vulnerability.
These are some of the factors that lie behind Labour’s disastrous showing in the local elections last month, that should in theory have celebrated Blair’s war ‘victory’. Instead Labour lost over 800 seats, the original benchmark for a disastrous result, as well as losing control of traditional Labour councils such as Birmingham, Brighton and a number of others. Labour’s share of the vote was just 30 percent, matched for the first time by the Liberal Democrats. To add insult to Blair’s injury was the fact that Rhodri Morgan’s brand of ‘old Labourism’, consciously putting a little red water between the Welsh Labour Party and London ‘modernisers’, saw the Labour vote rise (albeit modestly) and Plaid Cymru’s fall by some 10 percent. I don’t suppose I was the only one surprised to see winning Labour candidates in Wales giving victory speeches in the middle of the night using the formerly forbidden word ‘socialism’ and in one instance opening a speech by quoting the words of the ‘Red Flag’. Wales bucked the downward trend for Labour in both England and Scotland.
Not that the Tories benefited greatly. Although they gained the majority of the seats that Labour lost, their share of the vote was just 35 percent, a long way below where they needed to be if, by historical precedent, they were to have any chance of beating Labour at the next general election. So we now face a situation where both major political parties face a crisis of legitimacy, where their share of the vote has slipped to historically low proportions. What went wrong for Blair and the New Labour project? After all, the national opinion polls appeared to show that Blair had restored his popularity and Labour its lead over the Tories.
Firstly, the opinion polls gave a misleading impression during the war (perhaps deliberately so) as a recent study by Paul Whiteley in the ‘Guardian’ shows. He cited polls by the Economic and Social Research Council showing that opposition to the war fell from some 58 percent to 43 percent once the fighting started, not the 25 to 30 percent figure that was commonly quoted by many commentators.
Secondly, once the war began some voters were persuaded that it was morally justified as the government changed tack to excuse it on the grounds of liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam’s brutal dictatorship. But many of those voters retained their doubts that the war would, on balance, benefit Britain. Nothing that has happened since the war ended has refuted that perception and much has happened to reinforce it.
Thirdly, it’s clear that the number of Labour activists prepared to go out and leaflet for Labour, much less knock on doors to get the vote out, fell precipitously as a result of anti-war feeling in their ranks. Despite all the hype about winning elections through the TV, local activists still play a key role in ensuring there is some enthusiasm on the part of potential voters to turn out and vote for their candidates. Richard Rosser, Labourite head of the moderate TSSA union, reflected this fear over a shrinking activist base in a letter to the ‘Guardian’, stressing the importance of affiliated unions valuing their link to the party. This was after a majority of the TSSA conference voted to democratise the political fund (but failed to get the necessary two thirds majority).
Fourthly, huge numbers of voters remain frustrated, disappointed and angry about Blair’s failure to deliver better hospitals and schools. They are hacked off with rises in council tax and run-down council services. They are furious about continuing privatisation and the rotten transport system it has given us. And pensioners, a section of the electorate with the greatest propensity to vote, are fed up with being treated with contempt by a government that has failed to restore the link between pensions and earnings. In other words, Blair is failing to win hearts and minds domestically just as he’s failed with the ‘liberated’ Iraqi people.
One of the beneficiaries in England of the opposition to Blair’s war was the Liberal Democrats. Charles Kennedy cleverly placed himself in the ‘no war without another UN resolution’ camp prior to the conflict in a cynical manoeuvre so typical of Lib Dem opportunism. Once the war started the Lib Dem leadership collapsed like a house of cards. However, they had left the impression with a number of voters that they were both the peace party and a credible option if you wanted to punish Labour. But the election showed another important element – where candidates to the left of Labour stood on a clear anti-war and socialist platform they were able to make significant inroads into Labour’s support. This confirmed that the general mood for many working class people continues to be well to the left of New Labour.
The Socialist Alliance stood over 160 candidates for councils in England. This represented an increase of some 50 percent over comparable elections last year. The Welsh Socialist Alliance stood another five candidates for the Welsh Assembly. Quite remarkably we saw our first councillor, Michael Lavalette, elected in Preston. Michael’s victory is certainly without recent precedent for a candidate standing on a clear socialist platform outside the Labour Party without previously being a councillor (either as an independent or for the Labour Party) or being assisted by socialist councillors who are already elected. Many other candidates also received impressive results.
The Socialist Alliance’s success clearly owed a lot both to the anti-war, anti-Blair mood and to the Socialist Alliance candidates being seen at the very heart of the Stop the War Coalition locally. This gave us the activists and the profile we needed to begin to look credible. We did particularly well in some wards where there was no Lib Dem candidate, confirming that elsewhere the Lib Dems took some of the anti-war ex-Labour vote we were targeting. But Michael Lavalette’s election in Preston showed that it wasn’t inevitable that we would lose out to the Lib Dems or other focuses for the disaffected ex-Labour vote. And if the elections had been conducted under some form of proportional representation we would now have not one, but dozens of councillors across the country.
The election results and the general disarray showed that Blair continues to be very vulnerable. The anti-war movement has not gone away. The Stop the War Coalition continues to hold very big meetings across the country demanding an end to the occupation of Iraq. The next major elections fall in June 2004. There will be elections for the European Parliament, for the Greater London Assembly (GLA) and local elections in different parts of England. Most significantly the European and GLA elections are both conducted under a form of proportional representation. The extremely good results for the Scottish Socialist Party and the historic breakthrough for the Socialist Alliance in England in the 2003 elections means we now have the very real possibility of getting more electoral breakthroughs next year for socialist candidates.
We need to actively seek to broaden the alliance by building links with trade unionists, anti-war activists and with the Muslim community radicalised and deeply resentful of Labour because of the war on Iraq. In the process we can relate to and strengthen the widening forces with the power and the will to stop New Labour’s project.
In the meantime the crisis in the government and the problems facing Blair continue to mount at an alarming pace. The movement against the war exposed the fragility of the Blair leadership and gave a glimpse that there is another alternative on offer. All the signs are there that it will not be long before this explodes onto the streets again.
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