“We must move forward, not back. The prime minister has spent his premiership distancing himself from his party. Now the time has come for him to leave it for good.”
Glenda Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead & Highgate and former transport minister
Introduction – The Result
The 2005 General Election was the least inspiring and most predictable for a century. Labour has won an unprecedented third successive term in office, yet there were no street parties, and there is no enthusiasm. The one celebration that did take place, the official election night party, was not awash with actors and rock stars as had been the case in 1997 – the Cool Brittannia effect had already died by the time of the last election, and the war in Iraq means it is no longer fashionable to be Labour. Instead the party, held at the National Portrait Gallery, and organised by PR guru Matthew Freud, at a cost of £50,000 (paid for by Charles Dunstone, the Carphone Warehouse multi-millionaire) was attended by Lord Levy, the Labour fundraiser; Sir Victor Blank, chairman of Trinity Mirror; and David Campbell, chief executive of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, scheduled to bring gambling to the Millennium Dome thanks to Labour’s liberalised gaming laws.
For the first time no minor celebrity announced his imminent emigration if Labour were to win. As one comedian noted, no-one promised to leave the country on waking up to a Labour government on May 6th; if the Tories had won, of course, no-one would be getting into the country; and if the Liberals had won the only people leaving would have been the pigs flying south for the summer!
Barely 60 percent of eligible voters turned out on May 5th and less than 36 percent of them voted Labour. Put another way, even faced with the alarming prospect of Howard’s Tories winning, just 22 percent of all potential voters went to the polling stations to keep Labour in office. As a result the government’s majority was slashed by 94. ‘At least we kept the Tories out’ was the view held by most people the day after Labour won its first ever third consecutive term.
“Things can only get better”, Labour’s 1997 election theme has been long forgotten, replaced by the fear that things could get even worse if the Tories got in. Such a lack of enthusiasm is hardly a surprise, one could expect nothing more, after all, the prospect of four more years of the same is hardly an edifying one.
The combination of widespread opposition to the war in Iraq, distrust of Blair, and disillusionment with the failures of the last two terms of Labour government means that Labour won the election with the lowest share of the vote, just 35.3 percent, of any victorious party in history.
Labour’s majority in the House of Commons has been reduced to 67. This may seem a solid enough foundation for Blair to implement his programme, but remember with a majority of 161 Blair only squeezed through foundation hospitals (a form of backdoor privatisation) by fourteen votes, and student tuition fees by only five in the first vote, and only by 28 after all the concessions and pressure of the parliamentary whips convinced the less solid opposition on the backbenches to cave in.
With this reduced majority, in the absence of those Blairite MPs defeated on May 5th, these policies would never have been passed. Therefore it would seem likely that this smaller majority will prepare new parliamentary rebellions over any further attempts to privatise health and education, or to introduce identity cards, particularly on the basis of pressure from below, of developing events in society, and, above all, in the trade unions. Under pressure from the movement of the working class outside parliament, backbench Labour MPs will be able to defeat Blair, who will have to look to the Tories and Liberals to vote for his anti-working class measures. Labour has a majority of 67, Blair does not.
David Taylor, Labour MP for Leicestershire West, explains “Blair’s going to have difficulty getting anything through parliament to do with using the private [sector] to deliver public services, identity cards, civil liberties, incapacity benefit and many other things.”
Eric Illsley, Labour MP for Barnsley Central, added “Nothing as controversial as tuition fees is going to get through. You cannot have the cavalier, arrogant attitude, that paternal instinct of ‘I know best, trust me’. If 34 MPs vote against, you can’t get a majority. We have had rebellions of 34 at the drop of a hat.” (The Sunday Times, 08/05/05)
In other words, for all the Blairites’ post-election talk of ‘a mandate to continue with a reform of public services’, the reality is that, despite winning the election, Blairism is already dead, ‘New’ Labour is done for, and Blair himself cannot be far behind.
Blair should go, but merely to replace him with Brown, the ‘anointed heir’ according to the media, would be no more than a cosmetic change. Yet the desire for a change of policy inside Labour is precisely what is reflected in the desire for a change at the top of the party, even in the shape of swapping Blair for his next door neighbour.
The real meaning of this election result is clear. Huge numbers are disillusioned with Blair and co; are opposed to the war, to the foreign policy and the home policy being pursued by the Blairites; but the alternative, a Tory government, would be even worse.
With turnout refusing to budge much above 60 percent, despite the highly controversial ‘liberalising’ of postal voting, Blair won the support of little more than one in five of those eleigible to vote. Never has an elected British government’s mandate been so thin. Not only was Labour’s share of the vote, scraping just over 35 percent, the lowest of any winning party, but the Tories 32.4 percent marked the third consecutive election at which they have plumbed depths not seen since the 1850s. They scraped a narrow majority of the popular vote in England – 35.7 percent to Labour’s 35.4 percent, but remain a distant second in Wales and fourth behind both the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists north of the border.
The Tory vote actually fell in the north of England compared with the 2001 election, and they now hold just 19 of the 162 seats in the north-east, north-west, Yorkshire and Humber regions. In reality they remain a rump in the south-east of England. They made gains in London, the south-east and East Anglia, but even these were limited to around two percent. In the south-west the Tories won 38 percent and Labour just 22. In the south east the Tories took 45 percent and Labour only 24, and in the eastern region the Tories won 43 percent and Labour 29.
The Liberals improved their vote securing more MPs than at any time since Lloyd George was their leader. However their share of the vote actually declined in seats where they were trying to challenge the Tories, illustrating their classic problem of being trapped between the two main parties, moving to the left to win Labour votes loses them Tory votes, while swinging back to the right to win those Tory votes will lose them Labour votes. This is their ultimately insoluble dilemma.
The press point out that the swing from Labour to Liberal in those 50 seats with the biggest Muslim populations was 8.5 percent. The increase in their vote as a protest over the war is obvious, and is reflected too in the seven percent plus swing in those seats with the highest numbers of students.
Election statistics are an important indicator of political trends, like a snapshot they give an indication at least of the most general picture, but only if they are seen in context. However, sometimes an actual picture paints a thousand words and the image of Blair’s face at the Sedgefield count, forced to listen to the moving words of Reg Keys – like Coriolanus before the masses, subjected to a much deserved humiliation – looked to all the world like the face of a man who had lost. Mr. Keys, the father of a British soldier who died in Iraq in 2003, polled 4252 votes, ten percent of the total, putting him in fourth place.
As his own result was declared Blair stood on the stage staring straight ahead with another candidate only feet away wearing a hat bearing the slogan ‘Bliar’. Meanwhile, in front of him, Mr. Keys made a moving speech. “I would like to dedicate this campaign to all the brave 88 – yes, 88 – British servicemen who gave their young lives in this conflict” implicitly recalling how Blair had been unable to put a figure on the number of British soldiers that had died in Iraq. He held out the hope that one day the prime minister would apologise to the families of those who had died.
A few miles away, north of the border, Adam Ingram, who held onto his seat in East Kilbride, faced the sharper words of Rose Gentle, another parent of a soldier who died in Iraq, “He had the guts to send our kids to an illegal war in Iraq but he didn’t have the guts to knock on the doors of their parents and ask them to vote for him.”
Labour’s Historic Third Term – Blair is Finished
Labour has won an historic third term in office, but Blair knows that he is mortally wounded. Blairism is finished. Entirely predictably Tory leader Michael Howard claimed to have been delighted by the result and promptly announced his resignation. We can only hope that Blair was similarly delighted! He has previously stated that he intends to stay on for the whole third term. That is not likely. Now he talks about organising an ‘orderly transition’ before the next election. By that he evidently means just before the next election, after serving another four years. Labour MPs and activists are lining up to demand he goes before the local council elections next year otherwise a protest vote will lose Labour control of local authorities all over the country. It is clear that Blair’s aim is to beat Thatcher’s record of eleven years as prime minister. That means staying on until May 2008. That is not likely either. Despite his well documented tendency to be a control freak, and this rather pathetic personal ambition, ultimately the decision will not be in his hands but will be determined by events. The more he tries to implement his programme, the greater the pressure will grow for him to go. If he backs down on that programme he can last longer, but only as a lame duck. In trying to mimic his idol Thatcher (in longevity as well as in policy) he may well end up like her, despised and forced out. Exactly when he will go is not yet clear, but go he will. As Oscar Wilde put it “some spread happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”
How is it to be explained that having won a third successive term in office for the first time in Labour’s history, with a majority of 67 in parliament, we can declare Blair to be finished?
There is a widely believed myth that Blair was the reason Labour won its landslide victory in 1997, that Blair made Labour ‘electable’ again. In reality the European Exchange Rate Mechanism disaster which pushed interest rates up to 15 percent, combined with the pit closure programme, following the Tories re-election in 1992 saw Labour’s lead rise to over 30 percent in the polls before the death of then leader John Smith. From the time Blair took over the leadership until the 1997 election that lead fell, and it has continued to fall, more or less, ever since. Labour won a landslide in 1997 regardless of Blair and co.
Four years later, in 2001, Labour secured a second term with the lowest turnout on record, in spite of Blair and the experience of four years of New Labour rule. Some refused to vote in protest at Blair and co’s failures, but some wanted to give them another chance. Labour needed longer than four years to roll back 18 years of Tory rule, we were told.
In 2005 nine and a half million people voted Labour, many holding their noses, to make sure that the Tories did not win. That is two million less than voted Labour when Kinnock was leader in 1992, and the Tories won. Five million voted Liberal, many of them Labour voters, ordinary working people, particularly students and young people, to protest against the war in Iraq and tuition fees. The Tories’ vote recovered a little – they gained 35 extra MPs but increased their share of the national vote by less than a percentage point. This election was about keeping the Tories out and protesting against Blair and co, by voting Liberal, or by voting for one or two well positioned protest candidates, or, more than any of these, by staying at home, and not voting at all.
Labour has shed 4 million votes since 1997. In other words, one in three voters who put Labour in office in 1997 did not turn out to support them in May 2005. The number of voters who chose Labour this time was fewer than in any of the elections fought by Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan or Neil Kinnock.
To reiterate, in 1997 Labour won a landslide regardless of Blair, in 2001 they won a big majority in spite of Blair, who cost them more than a million votes; in 2005 Labour won, but this time as well as another million votes or more Blair cost Labour almost 100 MPs. Blair lost millions of votes, reduced Labour’s majority to 67, and his own to far less.
It was not just the voters who did not turn up. After being trodden on and ignored time and again the party membership all over the country refused to campaign, at least in anything like the numbers that would have been seen in the past. Streets that once would have been thick with Labour activists were instead thick with the chickens of Iraq, foundation hospitals and tuition fees coming home to roost. Meanwhile Labour posters in gardens and front room windows were about as rare as hen’s teeth.
It is unprecedented that following an election victory any party leader should come in for such open criticism from his own MPs who have roundly condemned him, and in large numbers are demanding his resignation. Glenda Jackson, quoted at the beginning of this article, went further than most, calling on Blair to go in six months, “he’s clearly an electoral liability.” (The Sunday Times, 08/05/05)
One week after the election she wrote the following in The Guardian:
“Some people are still trying to redefine the election result as a triumph. Get real. It’s bad enough that we saw our majority slashed by almost 100 seats, lost scores of dedicated MPs and saw our share of the popular vote plummet to a pitiful 35%. But what’s unforgivable is the way we let that shambolic, extremist, reactionary political entity called the Conservative party come back from the brink.” (The Guardian, 12/05/05)
She was unequivocal about where the blame for this lay:
“In Tony Blair we have the nation’s first semi-detached prime minister... At times the attitude towards his party has been one of barely concealed embarrassment. At others it has come in the form of direct confrontation. But throughout, his message to the electorate has been clear: ‘I may be leader of the Labour party, but I’m not a part of it.’” (The Guardian, 12/05/05)
Had the election simply been a referendum on Blair, without the Labour party featuring on ballot papers, he would have lost it. If this was the Presidential election he appeared to be trying to fight, he would not have won. This victory, which would have been far greater without Iraq, was Labour’s victory and definitively not Blair’s. Without tuition fees Labour’s vote would have been higher. Had they renationalised the railways it would have been higher. People wanted a Labour government that would not go to war in Iraq, a Labour government that would not mortgage the future of our students’ education and would take control of our transport system from the hands of profiteering tin-pot fat controllers. Ordinary working people are probably further to the left than the Labour leaders than ever before (bearing in mind how far to the right those leaders are).
Glenda Jackson’s conclusion, echoing our own editorial before the election, is that Blair should not only resign but furthermore should get out of the Labour Party:
“We must move forward, not back. The prime minister has spent his premiership distancing himself from his party. Now the time has come for him to leave it for good.” (The Guardian, 12/05/05)
We would only add that he should take the rest of the Blairites, that coalition of former Tories, SDP traitors, and careerists, with him when he goes.
Although Glenda Jackson’s comments can be said to be the most forthright she is not on her own in blaming Blair for the result. Newly elected or re-elected Labour MPs have been queuing up to condemn the prime minister for the fall in Labour’s vote, and to call on him to resign. The Sunday Times claims that thirty of the 100 MPs they contacted want Blair to go sooner rather than later. They quote several examples. Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from the cabinet over the Iraq war, called on Blair to resign before next year’s local council elections. Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary said that Blair had become an electoral liability and had to go. “Lots of people said on the doorstep during the campaign they couldn’t vote Labour because of Iraq but an even larger proportion said they wouldn’t vote Labour again until Tony Blair had gone, and that’s a major problem.” (The Sunday Times, 08/05/05)
Erith and Thamesmead Labour MP, John Austin, argues that Blair should go before the party’s annual conference, “He was a liability and not an asset in this election. You can’t beat about the bush. Blair was a negative factor on the doorstep time and time and time again.” (The Sunday Times, 08/05/05)
John McDonnell, chairman of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said “in terms of Tony Blair’s rating personally on the doorstep, I encountered absolute animosity right across the board. You could cut it with a knife. In terms of Gordon Brown, people just want change.”
The Parliamentary Labour Party and Blair’s Programme
The fake humility of Blair’s post election address was not repeated it seems in his first meeting with the new Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). He claimed that the war in Iraq was only an issue in London and some surrounding areas, and, attempted to blackmail MPs with the prospect of keeping their seats in a fourth Labour victory under a Brown leadership – he would step aside – as long as they remained “united until then”, i.e. vote for his programme.
A group of MPs – led by already quoted former ministers Frank Dobson and Glenda Jackson and the barrister, Bob Marshall-Andrews – told the prime minister he must step aside soon or risk further electoral setbacks caused by what Dobson called “the Blair effect”.
With the election out of the way, returning to their usual arrogance, the Blairites are claiming that their programme of privatisation and attacks on civil liberties was in the manifesto and therefore is what people voted for: “Our job is to implement the manifesto but it’s only going to be carried through if we are united as a political party... Our fourth victory will be under different leadership but we have to remain united until then.” Blair announced at the PLP meeting
Geoff Hoon, the newly installed leader of the House of Commons, made the same weak defence, “Whilst there are some who have a principled position against ID cards inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, it is in our manifesto. We were elected by a substantial majority in the country to deliver that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
This arrogance is another important factor, linked to the Iraq war, which drove many Labour voters into the arms of the Liberals. It is a question of trust, of Blair lying, and of the centralised unaccountable clique, the cabal of advisers and cronies, which has increasingly displaced the cabinet and the House of Commons. This was strongly articulated by the Butler report; and has resurfaced following the post-election reshuffle, with Blair scuttling around trying to impose his friends and advisers into ministerial positions.
Of course, we should note in passing that Brown has gone along with all of this, just as he has supported PFI, student fees and the war in Iraq. In reality Brown would represent no real change. However the reality and the perception are two different things. John McDonnell is right: it is not Brown, in particular, that people want, but change. Their votes demonstrate they want Labour, but not Blair. They want a change, not of party, but of leadership and policy.
The first real test of how serious these backbench MPs will be in their opposition to the most reactionary of Blair’s plans will come with the attempt to introduce identity cards, and any further moves to hand public services over to private profiteers.
Both nuclear power and nuclear weapons may prove to be contentious issues too. Blair has plans to replace Trident with a new nuclear deterrent. Strangely we heard nothing about this in the election campaign; when there were no weapons of mass destruction he never stopped talking about them, and now that there really are some, he does not mention them! Having allowed the coal industry to be decimated, there are proposals for developing more nuclear power stations which might also result in opposition on Labour’s backbenches.
It is never possible to judge how sincere the opposition of each of these MPs is, how principled their voting will be. As Lenin once explained there is no such thing as a sincerometer. What really matters is the pressure put on them from outside parliament by the labour movement. For example, the TUC should immediately call a national demonstration against the proposed attack on public sector pensions with the threat of strike action if these plans are not dropped. This will provide the opposition of the backbenches with a solid backbone.
Of course, if Blair had been elected with a majority of 67 against a background of social peace and a booming economy, with rising living standards and without a disastrous war in Iraq, he would not now be under pressure to resign, and there would be little prospect of successful backbench rebellions. That, however, is not the case. Revolts in parliament are only one element in a complicated equation of social, political, industrial and economic unrest which confronts a third Labour term and will ensure that it is fundamentally different to its two predecessors.
Meanwhile, Blair and Brown evidently think they can continue as before, despite how shaken the prime minister looked on election night. He seems to think that the trauma is over. In reality it has hardly begun.
The election guru, and one time favourite of the Blairites to replace Blair, Alan Milburn makes the same tired, desperate attempt to claim electoral authority for their planned attacks on the working class, “Our new Labour manifesto gives us the mandate to push forward with a big reform agenda. It is the programme every Labour MP stood on, so the public will expect to see it implemented in full.” Privately Milburn is evidently not so confident, turning down a seat in the cabinet, preferring to spend yet more time with his family instead.
For all Blair’s ‘listening and learning’ rhetoric he immediately set about promoting his supporters, a rogue’s gallery of Blairites. However, it seems one minister after another refused to accept his reshuffling proposals, and he was only able to make minor changes. The former SDP traitor Andrew Adonis, was made a lord so that he could take up a junior minister’s position in the education department. Adonis is the author of the top up fees policy which acted like a poll tax with a mortar board in university towns.
Sean Woodward, who parachuted in from a failing Tory Party, was given another junior post. The biggest news was that despite only being forced to resign in disgrace last year after lying to parliament and fiddling the process to get his girlfriend’s nanny a visa, Blunkett is back in the cabinet, now in charge of attacking our pensions and forcing people off incapacity benefits. There is something ironic in Blunkett being made responsible for the Child Support Agency. Glenda Jackson remarked with no little irony herself, “David Blunkett’s savage attack on “the self indulgent” voters who expressed disquiet over trivial issues like the death of 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians may well herald the dawn of a new progressive centre-left consensus – but I have my doubts.”
The first act of Labour’s third term was a bungled and farcical attempt to rebrand and rename the Department of Trade and Industry. Now to be called the Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry, this pointless exercise was met with derision. Trade had been removed perhaps because of the lack of it, but then that hardly explains the inclusion of industry, or energy, or productivity. Thousands was spent on this image exercise rather than on saving jobs by nationalising Rover or the railways. Then, days later, because they looked foolish, they changed the name back again.
According to Blair the first reshuffled cabinet meeting agreed a “bold programme” to implement Labour’s manifesto pledges “and address head-on the priorities of the British people in the NHS, schools, welfare reform, childcare and support for working families, crime, disorder, respect on our streets, asylum and immigration”.
Next month there will be a green paper on David Blunkett’s new agenda, incapacity benefit – and the need to cut claimant numbers – and health and education white papers in the autumn to promote a more ‘personalised public service’, i.e. more privatisation. This apparently refers to their plans to turn NHS hospitals into versions of Debenhams; they will be transformed into health department stores offering different specialist boutiques. It would surely be simpler to employ more doctors and nurses, cut their hours and increase their wages. Instead the plan is to offer patients a choice of different hospitals, including private ones, where their treatment will be paid for by the NHS. This amounts to a government subsidy of private health sector profits while allowing the NHS to go to the dogs. Those hospitals not winning the league tables of choice are to be closed. This must be fought by the unions, and that fight must gain the support of the Labour opposition in parliament.
Labour was not elected to introduce identity cards, nor to turn NHS hospitals into department stores. In short they were not elected because of what was in the manifesto. They were elected to keep Tories out because they would have been even worse.
The Tory Party Remains in Crisis
The Tories crisis continues. We obviously weren’t thinking what they were thinking, unless they were thinking they were not going to win. Howard’s job was to prop them up and win back the ‘little Englander’ vote from the UK Independence Party (UKIP). He succeeded in this task to a large extent, though even their much reduced vote robbed the Tories of several seats they might otherwise have won. By taking around two percent in some areas they clearly stopped the Tories winning, for example, in Battersea where they won 333 votes and Labour held onto the seat with a majority of 163. Now Howard has announced his resignation as we said he would. Despite winning the biggest share of the vote in England, their support remains rooted in the south east. There is little evidence that they won many votes from Labour. Nationally their vote increased from 31.7 percent to 32.4 percent. As former Tory Defence Secretary Michael Portillo remarked, “the Tories used to see themselves as ‘the natural party of government’, now they are thrilled to gain 30 seats even though this is more a result of less people voting Labour than of more voting Tory.”
They have been reduced, for the time being, to a sideshow and are now desperate to prevent a further damaging leadership election in the hands of a rank and file who would elect another catastrophe – the last leader they elected was Iain Duncan Smith. Howard will therefore want to stay on for a few months to change the rules and rig the election.
They may talk a lot about regaining the centre ground in the coming months, but in reality the lurch further to the right will continue. Howard concluded from the election result that they would have done even better if they had not backed off their attack on immigration in the last few days of their campaign.
The UK independence Party could not repeat their startling successes of the last European elections. That was never a realistic prospect. They remain essentially a foretaste of how far to the right the Tories will move in the next few years.
The BNP, that pernicious, nasty, little fascist grouplet, secured a few thousand votes in Keighley and in Barking. They are not an electoral threat but they do pose a physical threat to local communities and the labour movement must be vigilant, not to their imminent political rise as some falsely claimed, but must mobilise to drive them back under the stones from beneath which they crawled. They will be hoping to use the votes they secured in the general election to build support and gain further council seats next year, the labour movement must ensure they do not.
The main impact of the nationalist right and the far right has been to push the Tories further in that direction and that promises to continue to be the case. David Davis is currently favourite to win the poisoned chalice of the Tory leadership, and probably would if it was left in the hands of the blue rinse membership. However, it seems the new ‘Notting Hill set’ are preparing to challenge. The so-called Blair and Brown of the Tory Party, George Osborn and David Cameron, have been promoted to important shadow cabinet posts and may well challenge for the leadership.
The Tories will continue to recover, they remain the main party of the capitalist class for all their current woes. The Liberals are not going to overtake them. Electoral statistics do not decide which party is the bosses’ main representative, this is a class question. We have explained previously that the Liberals base in the south west, mid Wales and in the countryside, together with their radical membership, is too weak and too unreliable for the capitalist class to lean on.
The Liberals – Ground Between Two Millstones
Were the Liberals not the biggest winners of the 2005 election? In reality the only party to come near 40 percent was the ‘none of the above’ party representing all those who did not vote for anyone. Inevitably since the Liberals fought the election on the basis of being to the left of Labour, (supposedly) opposing the war and tuition fees, for example, they stepped into the vacuum and picked up a good deal of the protest vote. However, they also lost some seats to the Tories by the same token.
Their gains were in the main due to a protest vote against the war in Iraq. On paper (specifically in their manifesto) standing to the left of Blair, they secured that section of the protest vote that did not simply stay at home. They scored particularly well in seats with large student populations such as Leeds North West, Cambridge and Cardiff Central. Their opposition to student fees as well as the imperialist adventure in Iraq won them seats from Labour in these areas, and they managed to come second in many safe Labour seats for the same reason. Yet, ironically, they lost some seats to the Tories. This illustrates their catch 22. By standing to the left of Blair they pick up disillusioned Labour votes, but by the same token lose those Tory voters who had supported them as a kind of Tory-lite, a capitalist party with a nicer face. In reality they are not a third force in British politics but a fifth wheel. Any shift to the left in the future in Labour will see these protest votes haemorrhage back to the Labour Party.
For the last fifty years or so the principal function of the Liberals has been to soak up disaffected Tory votes and prevent them going to Labour. In this election that was simply turned on its head, they were a safety net for disaffected Labour voters. They will now return to their aim of replacing the Tories as the main opposition to Labour. To do this many of their leading lights argue they will have to move to the right. Kennedy has launched a policy review and wants power taken out of the hands of the more radical membership and conference.
Some Interesting Results
In what was fundamentally a boring election, which succeeded in giving Blair a bit of a bloody nose whilst simultaneously keeping the Tories out, there were still some interesting results. The most famous moment in the Tories’ defeat in 1997 was the look on Michael Portillo’s face when he lost Enfield Southgate to Blairite Labour candidate Stephen Twigg. It is even celebrated in a book ‘Were you up for Portillo?’ – referring to the late hour of the declaration of the result. The 2005 election had a mirror image irony in the late hour look of petulant horror on Twiggy’s face as he lost the seat to the Tories by a thousand votes.
Dr.Richard Taylor elected as an independent in 2001 in Wyre Forest on the basis of a local campaign to save Kidderminster hospital was re-elected on May 5th.
By far the most interesting results were those where there was some kind of alternative to Labour on offer. In seats all around the country all kinds of fringe elements stood and received derisory votes. This is as normal. Despite the fact that working people are to the left of Blair and co, they have no interest in the insignificant sectarian organisations.
In Scotland and Wales the nationalists could make no real progress as result of opposition to Blair, the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly reforms, and in turn the minor reforms they have implemented, probably playing a role in undercutting them. In Scotland the SSP having dumped their front man Sheridan have also lost the layer of support they had begun to build up. Their vote actually fell from 72,000 to 44,000. Only one of their candidates managed to save his deposit by gaining the necessary five percent of the vote.
There were two contests, however, which provided us with an interesting insight. Undoubtedly the most high profile exception to the rule that workers are not attracted to the small parties to the left of Blair being the victory of George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow. The prominent expelled Labour MP, nationally known for his opposition to the war in Iraq, defeated the Blairite Labour candidate Oona King by 800 votes. Although his Respect party picked up a few votes in other seats, it was really only here, thanks to the almost celebrity status enjoyed by Galloway; the fact that he is an expelled Labour MP; and, according to many press reports, a certain opportunism toward the large Muslim community in this area of east London, that they were able to gain from the enormous antipathy towards Blair and the war in Iraq.
The other highly interesting exception came in the rock solid Labour seat of Blaenau Gwent in south Wales. Here the Labour leaders attempted to impose a Blairite candidate, Maggie Jones, by insisting on an all women shortlist to select a candidate to replace the left wing MP Llew Smith. This seat was famously held by Aneurin Bevan, the left wing Labour MP who introduced the National Health Service during the post second world war Labour government; and the former Labour leader Michael Foot. Local party members would not accept this imposition from on high and backed the independent candidature of Labour Welsh assembly member Peter Law. Even though there is no particular evidence to demonstrate that Law is left wing (having said that he did stand as an Independent Socialist), there can be no doubt that for ordinary working people in this safest of Labour seats this was a straight contest between Old Labour and New Labour (in almost laboratory conditions since there was no chance of splitting the vote: the other candidates, Tory, Liberal, Plaid Cymru, receiving around 3000 votes in total between them) The Blairites were roundly defeated. A Labour majority of 19,000 was transformed into a 10,000 majority for Peter Law. This adds weight to the argument we advanced in the last Socialist Appeal that in reality only Labour can defeat Blair. The real struggle in the next period will be to defeat the Blairites inside the labour movement – a process already underway in the unions – and a renewed struggle for socialist policies. This is where Blair and co will be defeated, not at the ballot box.
Like the Bourbons the Labour leaders forget nothing and learn nothing. This is not the first time their heavy handed manoeuvring has backfired on them resulting in opposition in Wales. The attempt to impose Blairite Alun Michael as First Minister in the Welsh Assembly saw them embarrassed by the rank and file and the unions rejecting him in favour of Rhodri Morgan, a process that was more or less repeated with the experience of Livingstone and the contest for London Mayor. Yet they blunder on. Apparently having lost this safest of seats, they have suggested that Law might be allowed back into Labour at some point, ‘provided he behaves himself’. The implication is clear. Vote for Blair’s agenda consistently and you can be a Labour MP next time. Such high-handed arrogance is precisely what pushed Law to stand in the first place. Had they simply welcomed him into the party he may well have been a loyal MP, but not when blackmailed in this manner.
The Tories continue to be mired in crisis, the Liberals are suffering from delusions of grandeur, the various sectarian fronts are on the road to nowhere, and on the electoral front Labour is the only show in town. The two cited exceptions only serve to prove the rule (in the original meaning of that saying, that is, to test whether it is valid or not) that workers are not interested in small, irrelevant little groups outside Labour. In one case an expelled Labour MP was elected, in a clear protest against the war in Iraq. In the other an old Labour candidate defeated a Blairite. In both cases, essentially, Labour defeated Blair.
Blair Sets Collision Course with Working Class
With a much smaller majority Blair and co have vowed to continue with their ‘reforms’. They intend to blunder on regardless. However, what they intend and the reality may turn out to be somewhat different. Now the backbenches could find their opposition more potent. It will in turn bolster, and be bolstered by, mounting opposition in the unions.
The decision to be unremittingly ‘New Labour’ sets this third term Labour administration on a collision course, not only with the backbenches, but above all, with the trade unions and the working class.
The government has already suffered one blow to its efforts to represent big business by defending so-called flexible labour markets at home and throughout the European Union when MEPs voted by a large majority to scrap Britain’s opt-out from the maximum 48-hour working week. By flexibility, of course what they really mean is workers being twisted out of shape in the interests of securing profits for the bosses.
MEPs, including Labour MEPs, voted 378 to 262, with 15 abstentions, in favour of ending Britian’s opt-out from the working time directive, won by Tory Prime Minister, John Major, 13 years ago, within three years. Business leaders reacted strongly to the scrapping of the opt-out. Blair immediately pledged to overturn the decision at Europe’s Council of Ministers so that the scandal of four million Britons, or one in seven of the workforce, working more than 48 hours a week can be continued in the interests of the capitalists’ bank balances.
“Today’s vote shows the European parliament has learned nothing about the challenge of globalisation. Presumably these are the same MEPs who will be complaining about employers relocating to China and India in the years to come,” said CBI chief Sir Digby Jones. Obviously these bosses believe the only way to compete with India and China is to pay the same wages and impose the same conditions here, that workers there are fighting against. The only thing standing in their way is the trade unions and the struggle of the working class. The Labour leaders are doing what they can to support the bosses.
These are the real plans of big business if they could get away with them, and they are reflected in the policies of their agents in the Labour leadership, the Blairites.
This is the best the capitalist system can offer us after 14 years of so-called economic boom, to work harder, and longer, for less. This isn’t simply a matter of greed or of the bosses being nasty – though certainly many of them are. If you remain within the constricting confines of capitalism then you have to follow its rules and obey its laws. Blair and co remain firmly, ideologically wedded to the market, therefore they must follow its dictates.
The working class has paid a heavy price for this boom in terms of stress and strain, in terms of health and family life. Now that boom is drawing to a close and there are no prizes for guessing who will be asked to foot the bill for a new period of economic recession.
Electoral statistics can tell us quite a lot but only if they are seen in the context of all other events in society. It is crystal clear that the economy was not the central question in this vote. The deterioration of public services, and many other factors played a part, but it is not just ‘bread and butter’ questions that affect the outlook of the working class. The war in Iraq had a major impact on the election, and that is far from over. Its impact and each new development will continue to affect British politics for some time yet.
With the election over, Blair and co may imagine it’s business as usual. However, if Blair, Brown and co think they can just settle down to another four or five years in office resting on a growing economy, continuing to attack our democratic rights whilst allowing the freeloaders and moneygrabbers to scavenge for profits from the rotting carcass of our public services they will have another thing coming. Labour’s third term will prove to be fundamentally different to the previous two episodes of Labour government. The economic boom of the last 14 years – based on stress, strain, low pay, credit, debt and the decimation of British manufacturing – is faltering. The house price bubble, that has served to falsely inflate consumer spending and prop up the economy, is reaching its limits.
Simmering discontent in the workplaces is preparing new industrial explosions. We have already seen renewed militancy in the last two years or so. As we have always explained this process does not proceed in a simple straight line but through all kinds of ebbs and flows. With 100,000 civil servants’ jobs under the axe and the CBI predicting that 22,000 more manufacturing jobs will go by June, the conditions are being created for big defensive battles by workers under attack. Rather than face massive strike action, Blair and co postponed their assault on public sector pensions – a policy which amounted to telling a million workers that the government would delay scrapping their pensions until after the workers had voted for them. If they plough ahead with that attack then massive strike action is what they will face. Any renewed move in this direction, any further privatisation in health or education will be met with a response by the working class.
The British Economy – Production, Spending and House Sales All Downhill
We have established that the economy is not the only question that has an effect on the consciousness of workers and indeed all classes in society. Nevertheless it remains an important factor and in this direction things now look decidedly grim. Latest retail sales figures show a marked decline in spending in the shops. There are widespread predictions of further job losses. ABN Amro, the city investment bank forecasts that unemployment will rise by 500,000 over the next three years as a result of large scale job losses in retailing, manufacturing and construction. “The worst is yet to come,” says James Carrickan, an ABN Amro economist.
The Bank of England has left interest rates unchanged at 4.75% for the ninth month in succession amid growing concerns in the financial press over the decline of both consumer spending and manufacturing. Just hours before the Bank’s monetary policy committee (MPC) met, more evidence of the parlous state of the UK’s manufacturing sector emerged. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said manufacturing production had plummeted by 1.6% on the month in March, while overall industrial production fell by 1.2%.
“The industrial production data for March are horrendous, and point to a downward revision to UK growth in the first quarter from 0.6% quarter-on-quarter to at least 0.5% quarter-on-quarter,” Howard Archer, of the consultancy Global Insight, said.
The decline in manufacturing is a long term disaster which we have charted for some time. Nevertheless these are the worst figures for a decade. Now, however, we must add to that a sharp slowdown in consumer spending, the prop holding up the economic growth of recent years. Days after the election, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reported another drop in retail sales. According to the CBI’s monthly distributive trades survey, the volume of retail sales again fell in the year to April, by 4.7 percent, the most significant year-on-year fall for 13 years.
The budget clothes store Matalan said sales plunged in March and April, while the fashion chain French Connection described the first five weeks of 2005 as “awful”. The flurry of weak data has forced City analysts to reassess their expectations of an imminent rise in borrowing costs. Many now expect the next move in interest rates to be down, with fears of a slowdown outweighing concerns about rising inflation. The situation they find themselves in can be summarized as heads they can’t win and tails they lose. Cutting rates will not cause spending to rise, nor will it prop up the teetering property market. Raising them still further will only add to the misery.
As we have explained many times the increase in interest rates, putting up mortgage repayments, and all other forms of credit, in an economy heavily weighed down with debt would inevitably hit consumer spending. The ratio of house prices to incomes weighs even more heavily than interest rate rises on the property market so there is no reason to assume that a new cut in rates would shore up prices, or spending. There is even less reason to assume it would result in any increase in industrial investment, production or employment.
The capitalists will not invest unless they see a market to expand into. Even the recent growth in the US and the fall in the value of the dollar only saw a small increase in exports resulting in a trade deficit of ‘only’ £4.4bn in March according to the ONS.
Above all it has been the property market, rising house prices backing up staggering levels of credit that has propped up consumer spending and in turn the economy as a whole. Historically low interest rates in recent years have encouraged Britons to rack up record debt of more than £1 trillion. Much of the money has been spent on property, resulting in house prices doubling in the five years between 1999 and 2004. This is clearly reaching its limits. The property market is now like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoon who runs over the edge of a cliff but does not immediately realise that there is nothing beneath his feet. When he does look down he plummets to earth at great speed.
The number of homes sold in England and Wales has fallen by more than a third in the past year, highlighting the slowdown in the property market. Prices have reached a level that, despite all the outrageous incentives offered by banks, mean that ordinary workers, indeed ordinary families with two incomes, cannot get onto the housing ladder. The inability of first time buyers to buy causes a gridlock with many unable to move up the ladder because they cannot sell. This creates a buyers’ market, with more trying to sell than to buy, forcing prices downwards.
Land Registry figures show 159,116 properties changed hands during the first quarter of 2005, 35% fewer than in the same period last year. The figures confirm the slowdown in the property market reported by many lenders and come after the Halifax said in May that annual property price inflation was currently running at 7.8%, the lowest since June 2001. At present prices are still rising, but at a much slower rate than in the past decade. Nevertheless their fall is guaranteed and the higher they climb in the meantime the further they will eventually plummet.
Housing costs, combined with mounting uncertainty and job insecurity has hit spending in the shops, and is already reflected, even before a collapse in house prices, in a rising tide of repossessions.
Lenders applied to the courts for 25,860 repossessions in the first quarter of the year, up more than 25% on the period before. According to data from the Department of Constitutional Affairs, the figure, up from 17,444 a year ago, is at its highest in at least 10 years – the end of the last UK house price crash.
The leap in the number of homebuyers struggling with repayments follows inevitably from the steep increases in the cost of borrowing. The UK base rate has increased from a low of 3.5% in October 2003 to the current 4.75%. ‘We saw four quarter-point rises last year and that would have put a number of householders under particular pressure,’ a spokesman for the Council of Mortgage Lenders said.
Falling living standards combined with the governments’ assault on civil liberties, civil service jobs and public sector pensions are creating all the conditions for industrial struggles which will in turn have an impact inside the unions and inside the Labour Party. Indeed that process, which we have described over the last couple of years, has clearly already begun.
Unions representing university and college staff from lecturers to cleaners have emphatically rejected a 5% pay offer over two years from the employers as “insulting”. The BBC’s plan to axe thousands of jobs has resulted in a massive vote for strike action. In the Broadcasting union Bectu’s ballot 80 percent voted for action, and in the National Union of Journalists ballot 84 percent voted to strike to save jobs.
The magnificent struggle of the firefighters marked an important turning point in the events of recent years. Never satisfied with the outcome of their strike, firefighters have drawn many lessons from the experience of their struggle over pay, and as a result have elected a new left general secretary, Matt Wrack – which continues the trend of a swing to the left at the top of the unions – who has pledged to defend pensions threatened by Blair and co. Further strike action looms, which in turn will have a big effect on the outlook of other sections of workers facing similar attacks.
The conclusion one draws from the 2005 election results when seen in this context is that workers clearly don’t want a Tory government, but they don’t want Blair and co either. There was no voter apathy or contentment here but widespread protest by not voting, by voting Liberal, or for other parties, as well as workers voting Labour whilst holding their nose to keep the Tories out.
In 2001 a section of workers wanted to give Blair and co anther chance, give them longer. The working class has immense patience it seems, but now it has worn out. They will not put up with another four or five years of Blairite capitalist attacks on jobs and on public services.
Action on the part of the unions to defend jobs, pensions etc will find a reflection inside the Labour Party, even in rebellions inside parliament. With a reduced majority Blair will not have it all his own way even at the top of the party any more. Sooner or later he will have to go. He has a nice new house on millionaires’ row waiting for him.
Blair may well have won the election, but Blairism is dead. The pipedream of converting Labour into a British version of the US Democratic Party, which seduced many of the sectarian groups, as well as the Labour leaders, has evaporated. The triumph of Blairism was a consequence of defeat and demoralisation in the labour movement, leading to a period of inactivity. The right of the movement always rest on such periods. However, that period is over. Blairism reflects yesterday, not today and tomorrow.
Blairism is finished and so too is Blair. However replacing him with Brown will solve nothing. That will not be the end of the matter, however, but only the beginning of a period of change. The task of Marxists is not to be seduced by the surface of events, not to see things in black and white, isolated and unconnected, but instead to piece together all the available evidence to grasp the process under the surface, the direction in which events are moving.
Things are beginning to change. In the context of a new international situation and the impact events like the war in Iraq have already had on all classes in society, we now have important changes taking place in the economy, and a new militancy in the trade unions. What we are witnessing as a result of all these changes is a growing class polarisation of British society. The Tory Party will reflect this by continuing to move to the right. The labour movement will move to the left. Workers will enter struggle and their organisations will begin to change as a result, beginning with the trade unions, but the same applies to the Labour party as well.
Behind the headlines of the 2005 election result we can see the shift which is taking place in British politics, and in British society. Conditions determine consciousness and the changing conditions of the working class are at the core of the class polarisation of society which will be a fundamental feature of the next period.
That means developments to the right and the left. There will be a growth of reaction, of various right wing groups which cannot be ignored. The Tory Party will move further to the right. However the fundamental feature will not be this but the movement of the working class, and the shift to the left in the workers’ organisations, in the trade unions and, at a certain stage, the Labour Party too.
There is only one force that can defeat Blair – the trade unions and the party rank and file. It is not in the polling booth but inside the labour movement that Blair and co must be defeated. What is needed now is a militant trade union defence of jobs and pensions combined with a struggle against the Blairites, and for socialist policies inside Labour.
However this is only a first step. In the next period the working class will turn their organisations inside out and upside down, transforming them time and again until they are more suited to fighting for their needs, for the needs of society. The Marxist tendency and the ideas we represent have a vital role to play in that struggle inside the labour movement which represents the cleaning and sharpening of tools in readiness for the job in front of us, namely the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a new socialist society. The ideas of Marxism must become a potent weapon in the armoury of the working class in all its day to day battles and in the struggle to transform the planet. Only in that transformation can the problems we face be permanently solved and all the remarkable advances in science and technology be put to use rationally, scientifically and democratically in the interests of all humanity.