Only a month ago Tony Blair pledged to resign if he became an electoral liability to Labour. The results of the triple elections held on Thursday June 10 confirm him, and more importantly his policies, as just that. In not one, not two, but three elections on the same day Blair was given his marching orders. Labour suffered their worst electoral defeats ever.
As usual, however, Blair's earlier promise was quickly forgotten as all the old, tired and lame excuses about "mid-term blues" were trotted out, to try to explain away Labour's record breaking defeats.
With perhaps only a year to go to a general election, Super Thursday's poll for local councils nationwide, London's Mayor and Assembly, and the European Parliament provide an important indicator of what the future holds for Blair and co.
A lot can still happen in the twelve months or so before parliamentary elections. Blair could yet resign or be forced out, although that looks less likely with each passing day and each glibly ignored defeat. The results of Thursday's polls cannot tell us exactly what will happen in a year's time, but they do tell us quite clearly the results of the last seven years of Blair.
Like all elections, this latest only provides a snapshot of opinion at a given moment. Nevertheless some snapshots can tell you more than others, and this one provides us with a great deal of information about the developing mood in Britain and particularly the growing polarisation of British society.
In the first place these elections are a decisive rejection of Blair and Blairism - that combination of a slavish support for US imperialism overseas and willingness to do the bidding of the city of London at home. For many this was an opportunity to express opposition to the war in Iraq by voting against Blair or by not voting at all. It was more than just a referendum on this question, however. Patience has long since run out with Blair not only in relation to the lies over the disastrous occupation of Iraq, but with his government's failure to solve any of the problems facing the working class in their daily lives.
Local Councils and London
In the local council elections Labour was beaten into third place with just 26 percent of the vote, with the Liberals in second place on 29 percent and the Tories winning with 38 percent.
Labour's vote was the worst of any governing party in history. They lost more than 460 councillors and relinquished control of seven councils, including Newcastle upon Tyne, Trafford, Doncaster and, for the first time in 25 years, Leeds.
Labour has never previously lost Doncaster, and Newcastle was a stronghold for 30 years. Even in Barnsley, Labour only clung on by one seat. In Wales despite their best European election results, in the local elections they lost control of Swansea and Cardiff councils.
The Liberals and the Tories both won councils from Labour control. Only London bucked the trend, re-electing Ken Livingstone as a Labour mayor. The lesson for nervous Labour MPs, fearful of losing their seats, is clear - disagreeing constantly with Blair is the only way to keep their jobs.
In London, Blair had allowed Livingstone back into the party, in a desperate bid to prop up Labour's vote in the assembly election. That strategy failed too, Livingstone's re-election was combined with a hammering for Labour in the assembly ballot, demonstrating that the combination of being both Labour and anti-Blair is an election winner.
There was a 37% turnout among the 5.2 million people eligible to vote in London, up from 33.5% in 2000.
Eighteen hours after polling stations closed Livingstone had to wait for confirmation of a second term, having seen his ratings slump largely as a result of the government's unpopularity and a backlash from the Iraq war.
Livingstone failed to win a simple majority of votes cast across the capital, but retained his job after second-preference votes were redistributed from unsuccessful candidates. He beat Tory Steve Norris's 542,423 first-preference votes and 667,178 votes on the final count by 685,541 and 828,380 votes respectively.
Voters had not turned to the Liberal Democrats in the capital, Livingstone explained, but to "a Labour candidate standing for good public services, protection of the environment and opposition to the war. I believe the same would happen nationally."
Despite Livingstone's victory - which turned out to be quite close - Labour took another bashing in the London Regional poll.
The biggest casualty was Toby Harris, leader of the Labour group in the London assembly and chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority. His 4,380 majority in Brent and Harrow was overturned as his vote was squeezed by the other parties to give the Tories a 4,686 majority.
The UK Independence Party - which we shall return to later - made big gains in London, where their policy is to abolish the assembly, as they did in council elections around the country.
Ukip polled 26,703 votes in Bexley and Bromley, a seat held by the Tories with 64,000 votes. In Croydon and Sutton, held by Conservative Andrew Pelling with 52,330 votes, Ukip took 15,203 votes. The Liberal Democrats polled 28,636 and Labour took third place with 25,861.
Ukip also polled strongly in Enfield and Haringey with 10,652 votes in a seat held by Labour. Ukip scuppered Tory hopes of taking the seat by securing 8.58% of the vote. This was a taste of what UKIP was going to do to the Tory vote in the European elections when the results came out a few days later.
UKIP also performed well in east London, taking 12 % in the City and East seat, which was held by Labour with a majority reduced by 16%.
If the council elections were the worst electoral result for Labour since the second world war, then the euro election results are the worst ever by a sitting government in a national vote since the first world war. They are Labour's worst results since the party began standing in nationwide elections.
So bad are these results, that even some of the Blairite leaders have been forced to concede that this is not just mid term blues - but also that they have been badly damaged by the war in Iraq. Any hopes they may harbour of that position changing in the next twelve months are but pipedreams. The so-called handover of power on June 30 will see little alter dramatically on the ground. The impact of the war in Iraq, and the lies surrounding it will continue up to the next general election and beyond.
In any case this was about more than the disastrous imperialist occupation of Iraq. This was a protest too over schools, health, tuition fees, and the state of life in Britain today.
In the local elections Labour were beaten into third place behind both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Labour's share of the vote was the worst on record at 26 percent. In 1983, when Blair's predecessors the SDP split away from Labour, the party narrowly avoided such a humiliation. At that time the right of the party began their ascendancy, claiming the need for a new direction. How much more so is that the case today? In 1983 with a manifesto described by the right-wing as the longest suicide note in history, Labour did better than they did in these elections under Blair.
These results can only be interpreted as a rejection of the entire Blair project. In fact, they are record breaking on several levels. The 2004 European election is the first in which the two major parties struggled to win a majority of the votes cast; the first in which parties not represented in the House of Commons took more than 25 percent of the total; and the first election in British history in which the "winning" party got less than a third of the votes. No election since the unique post-war "khaki election" of 1918 has seen the share of the vote enjoyed by the top parties fall so low.
In the European elections Labour came second with a paltry 22 percent, taking 19 seats. The Tories meanwhile secured a humiliating victory securing just under 27 percent of the vote and 27 seats. The Tories may have won, but they did so with their worst vote since 1832.
Labour's result, meanwhile, is the worst result of a governing party in British electoral history.
Across the continent there was a bruising for the parties in power. The press are keen to assure us that this is typical ‘anti-incumbency'. However, if the ‘incumbents' were acting in the interests of the majority, and carrying out measures that benefited ordinary working people, the majority would not vote against them simply because they are the incumbents. The vote against each of them was in reality a reflection of the opposition of huge numbers across Europe to the capitalist policies being carried out by governments against the interests of the working class.
The turnout was low everywhere, also reflecting the disappointment of millions with their conditions and the failure of their governments to provide any solutions.
The turnout in the UK was 39% - up on the last time these elections were fought in 1999, but this was largely credited to the all-postal ballots controversially forced through by the government in four regions.
The turnout in the local elections, for example, was estimated to be up by an average of 9% on last year's polls to 40% overall. In the four regions taking part in trials of all-postal ballots turnout was up by 13%, the BBC reported.
However, the UK's turnout was still lower than the EU average of 44.6%, itself a record low, with a turnout of just 28.7% among the 10 new members.
Britain's drama over the extraordinary rise of the UK Independence party was mirrored in gains for anti-EU parties in Poland and other new eastern member states.
In Germany there was a humiliating defeat for Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats topped the poll with 44.5%
France saw a heavy blow to the centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister, amid record abstention levels. This was the price they paid for their attacks on pensions and welfare. They will face opposition to their attacks not only at the polls but on the streets and in the shape of militant industrial action in the next period.
Spain was one of the few countries where the government escaped a kicking - as yet their policies at home have not been tested, but they did withdraw troops from Iraq, the policy which swept them to office on the back of a mass movement against Aznar's support for Bush and the invasion of Iraq. In Portugal the conservative government was defeated by the opposition socialists.
So-called maverick candidates did well: in the Netherlands Paul Van Buitenen's new Transparent Europe, the Brussels whistleblower who helped bring down the European commission in 1999, won two seats. In Austria there was success for Hans Peter Martin, the Socialist who has highlighted the controversial abuse of travel allowances by fellow MEPs. On the far right meanwhile, Austria's Freedom Party lost four of its five seats.
Interestingly turnout was particularly low in the former eastern bloc states. Turnout in Poland was under 30 percent, and in Slovakia was 20 percent. In the Czech Republic, the Eurosceptic Civic Democrats won 30%, compared with 10% for the prime minister Vladimir Spidla's Social Democrats.
The lack of participation in Eastern Europe's new member states, was a protest against the policies of their own governments and a confirmation that voting to join the EU was a vote for grants and promised prosperity, not any ideological belief in the greater glory of a capitalist European Union.
In Britain the turnout was up, a little. This is in no small part due to the introduction of all postal voting in some areas which has led to something of a new potential scandal, with claims of underhand tactics being used to collect in postal voting forms reported in some newspapers. Some who stayed away in protest at the last election, may have decided to vote for one of the many alternatives on offer on this occasion to register their disapproval. Most however, remained at home.
When the results of the European elections were announced on Sunday Labour had done even worse than the disaster of the local elections. Although coming second, they secured just 22 percent of the vote.
Yet this was not the triumph the Tories had hoped for paving the way for a return to office in the next general election. They won the local elections, and the European elections, but saw their vote splinter to the right with the rise of the UK Independence Party.
Polarisation and splinters
Across each of the three elections in Britain we see the same process, a polarisation of society reflected in a splintering of the vote to right and left. The Tories hoping for the 40 percent that would have put them on course to win a general election, following their 38 percent in the local elections, lost 45 percent of their votes to the UKIP in the European poll.
Meanwhile, as many as 50 percent of those who voted Labour in 2001 did not vote for them this time. However, they could not find an alternative either. With all due respect to RESPECT, the ‘new party' of George Galloway, apart from the expelled Labour MP himself they failed to make the breakthrough they had hoped for. If ever there was an opportune moment to stand against Labour from the left, in opposition to the war etc. this was surely it. They failed. The only conclusion one can draw is that there is no room outside Labour to the left. These forces were they united against Blair and co. fighting for socialist policies inside the movement could make a decisive difference. Outside they are whistling in the wind. They can provide a home for disenchanted activists who can take no more, and those on the left who have never been in Labour. The Guardian newspaper published a series of interviews on the eve of the election to find out who people felt they could vote for if they could no longer bring themselves to vote Labour. They got some interesting results. Some, of course, declared that they would vote for Respect, but the case of Anne Swingler is interesting:
"Anne Swingler, widow of Stephen Swingler MP, Harold Wilson's transport minister
I joined the Labour League of Youth when I was 19 in 1935 and I am now 89. I have voted Labour all my life but last month I left the party. It was a very painful decision.
I do feel that the Labour party has done a lot of very good things for which I would want to support it but there is this big problem about Iraq. The war was quite monstrous.
If I don't vote Labour, I probably won't vote at all which will be very difficult for me. It will be very emotional. I have joined Respect because I feel at ease with them, but I don't think I will be voting for them." The Guardian 09/06/04
No-one can doubt the honest intention of those who have joined Respect or those who voted for them, the problem is that this road leads only into the wilderness, as all history demonstrates. Now - with the unions beginning a campaign to reclaim Labour for the working class - is not the time for frustration.
Respect managed just 1.5 percent of the vote overall - although Galloway himself managed to take 90,000 votes in London. In the rest of the country they managed a total of 160,000 votes (excluding Galloway).
Some Labour voters will have turned to the Liberals, the Greens (whose vote increased a little in many areas), or even UKIP (for whom some will have voted simply in protest at all the major parties, rather than for their policies). In reality, most were voting against Blair, but not for anything. The majority of the protest vote against Blair stayed at home and voted for no-one. Meanwhile the Tory protest vote went to UKIP.
In Yorkshire and Humberside the Tory share of the vote fell by 12 points to 25 percent; and Labour were down five points to 26 percent. Ukip were the main beneficiaries up from 7 percent to 14 percent but the Lib Dems were also up and maintained their position in third place.
In the Labour bastion of the North East their vote dropped by eight points to 34 percent but the Tories were down by nine points to only 19 percent share of the vote. In the region where they gained Newcastle-upon-Tyne council the Lib Dems nearly pushed the Tories into third place with a four point mini-surge to an 18 percent share of the vote. Again Ukip took 12 percent of the vote.
In the first results to be declared, in London, Labour were the biggest losers down 10 points compared with the Tories' six-point drop. The gainers were Ukip up five points to 12% share of the vote, the Lib Dems up four points to 15% and the Respect coalition that took 5% of the vote. The Greens maintained 8%.
Overall Ukip scored the biggest successes, with the media now talking about the rise of a new force in British politics. This is an exaggeration. In reality, in addition to some protest votes against politicians in general, gained by their demagogic appeals against corruption and waste, this is largely a right wing Tory splinter. They secured 16 percent of the vote taking 12 seats, with 2.6 million votes, but many of these will be returning to the Tories at the next general election.
These results demonstrate clearly that Labour could indeed lose that election as we have explained for some time. They may yet do so. However, the Tories suffered something of a humiliation too, despite winning. They won with just 26.7 percent of the vote. In the shape of some of UKIP's support, we got a glimpse too of the reactionaries lurking behind the Tories coat-tails
No doubt many Tories unwilling to turnout in recent years to back the likes of failed leaders Hague and Duncan Smith, feel their party has recovered somewhat under Michael Howard's leadership. Their vote will no doubt pick up at the next election, following their disaster in 2001. On this occasion, however, a large number of them turned up, but did not vote for Michael Howard and co. Instead they voted in protest over European integration, and in protest at their own leaders not being right wing enough, not being Thatcherite enough, by voting to the right of the Tories for the UK Independence Party.
UK Independence Party
Though it undoubtedly owes its success to its simplistic anti-European message in a European parliamentary election, Ukip's significance is wider. Europe may be Ukip's preoccupation, but the party is recognisably also a characteristic populist party of the right, anti-immigrant, and anti-politician. Ironically parties of this kind are more familiar on the continent. They share many similarities with those small right wing parties who have gained significant votes in Europe in recent years. This is the first time such a party has made such an impact in a UK election. Rather than the new force in British politics that the papers describe them as, they show us the future of the Tory party as it moves further right, and, in the future more serious splits to the right of the Tories.
UKIP won 12 seats in the European parliament, but even with their share of the vote repeated they will not win any seats in the next general election. They may however split the Tory vote in some areas.
UKIP may also have taken some votes from the fascist BNP. The BNP had high hopes of winning a seat in the European elections in the North West of England. They did not. Nationally they won 4.9 percent of the poll, with over 800,000 votes. They actually lost a couple of their council seats in the local elections in the north of England, but gained a couple in the south. Whilst the threat these pernicious creatures pose should not be exaggerrated, they clearly cannot be ignored. The policy pursued by the leaders of the main parties, shamefully including Labour - vote for anyone to stop the BNP - will not defeat them. Where they represent a physical threat to individuals the labour movement must be mobilised to drive them out. In the long run this kind of filth can only be defeated by a labour movement struggling for a socialist society. The failure of a Labour government wedded to the market is what breeds the conditions in which these viruses can grow.
Is this then the new watershed in British politics declared by former right wing Labour MP and disgraced TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk (who resigned from his job after writing a racist anti-Arab article in a national daily paper)? Kilroy-Silk has now shown his true colours. He is, and always was, a Tory. It is unlikely, however, that his party's success in these elections will be repeated in the general election to come. More likely the impact of their vote will be to push the Tories still further to the right and not just on Europe. Howard and co. will now attack asylum seekers, and adopt a more harshly right wing line to woo back those who defected to the little Englanders of UKIP.
"Clearly the Conservative party is highly Eurosceptic, and is probably coming increasingly more towards the Ukip line on this particular issue, as we expect them to in the next two weeks or more," Kilroy-Silk told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
The Liberals meanwhile still dream about winning office. They continue to talk about a three horse race at the next elections despite being pushed into fourth position with 15 percent of the vote in the European elections. However, the next British election will be a two horse race between Labour and the Tories. If it is a three horse race, the third contender will be neither the Liberals nor the UKIP, but the stay at home and refuse to vote party.
The pro-European Liberals saw their vote increase despite being leapfrogged by UKIP. However, their support has less to do with their enthusiasm for the pipedream of a capitalist united Europe and more to do with their mildly anti-war stance.
The party followed up its capture of Newcastle council last week by winning a European seat from Labour in Tony Blair's backyard of north-east England as the Lib Dem vote rose by 4% to 18%. In London the Lib Dem vote was up 4% to 15%, with it pushing Ukip into fourth place. In Wales it finished fifth, 561 votes behind Ukip, also trailing Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives. A 2% jump in the share of the vote in Wales to nearly 10.5% was topped by a 7.39% increase for Ukip to just over 10.5%.
The Liberals vote and perhaps their number of seats in Britain's parliament might increase at the next general election. The share of the vote for the smaller fringe parties may increase a little too. In the main, however, that election will be a battle between the Tories and Labour.
The nationalists in Scotland and particularly in Wales have not been able to gain from Blair's woes. In Scotland the SNP's vote fell, while the Scottish Socialist Party of Tommy Sheridan made only small gains, falling a long way short of winning a seat.
In Wales, whilst Labour historically lost control of councils in Cardiff and Swansea, in the valleys Labour managed to win back councils lost a few years ago to the Nationalist Plaid Cymru. Experience of these Tories wrapped in their national flags - despite their occasional left-wing rhetoric - in office locally has exposed them.
In the European elections Labour's vote actually increased in Wales while Plaid Cymru's vote plummeted. In both Scotland and Wales none of the other fringe parties scored any noticeable success. UKIP, which is largely seen as an English Party, if not a little Englander party, saw their vote increase, but not enough to win a seat.
What conclusion will the Labour leaders now draw from these earth shattering historic defeats? All evidence of Blair and his clique of advisers in the past suggests they will ignore the abstentions and the sizeable votes to their left, and attempt once more to out Tory the Tories, drawing the erroneous conclusion that the electorate is right wing, pushing still more Labour voters to withhold their vote.
The votes of those who voted Labour, those who voted to Labour's left, and those who refused to vote for Blair, because Labour is not left enough, would be enough to win a landslide victory.
However, for the Blairites it is not they or their policies which are wrong but the electorate: "These people who think they get a free hit will find themselves with a rude shock and a Tory MP," said Peter Hain, the Labour leader of the House of Commons. "They could deprive us of our majority." In other words, it's not Labour that has to change, but the electorate. This staggering arrogance brings to mind Bertolt Brecht's advice to the East German Stalinist leaders, in response to their reported disappointment in the people, Brecht ironically advised them to dissolve the people and elect a new one. Blair would like nothing better.
Mandelson and the other gurus of Blairism will now argue for a shift still further right, and to once again ape whatever policies the Tories put forward. Down this road lies defeat. The only reason Labour remain favourites to win the next election is the mess in which the Tories still find themselves.
UKIP might be able to do enough to split a few Tory votes and help keep Labour in office. That will not save Blair, however. If not before the next election then soon after - whether Labour win or lose - Blair will go.
The Tories can win the next election. The only way to guarantee they do not is for Labour to dump Blair and Blairism. Clare Short, the Labour MP who resigned from the cabinet following the war in Iraq, called on Blair to resign following the election disaster. "I think that the electorate is sending a message to Tony Blair because the Labour party is incapable of correcting him. What he did in Iraq has brought disgrace and dishonour on Britain around the world," she said.
She added: "As Tony Blair won't change the policy, the only way to make a correction is for him to step aside from the leadership."
Former right wing deputy Labour leader Roy Hattersley argued following the election results: "The prime minister will not extract himself from the debris of that policy by following the Mandelson prescription and proving that he is still in charge by dragging the party further and further to the right.
"Redemption for the government lies in respecting the hopes and fears of its traditional supporters. Drawing a line under Iraq would help. But the disastrous decision to follow George Bush to war - and to justify the folly with fake evidence about WMD - is now regarded as no more than an example of Blair's shortcomings. He has to prove that he stands for something - something with which families earning less than £50,000 a year can identify."
Despite Blair and co continuing their Tory privatising agenda, they may yet limp back into office. However, on the economic, industrial and political front the whole situation in Britain is changing. A third Labour government, if that is what emerges from the next election, will be faced with conflicts with the unions, a struggling economy, and backbench MPs more willing than ever to rebel. Even before that election however, there can be big battles with the unions industrially, and inside the party. Super Thursday's results put the penultimate nail in the coffin of Blairism. The final nail is in the hands of the trade unions and the ranks of the party who must now move to drive it home.
These elections did mark a turning point in British politics. Not because of the rise of the much trumpeted new political force, but because of the polarisation of society they reflect. The period of consensus in Britain is decisively over. The next period promises to be a stormy one in Britain. In those storms the working class will move again and again to reconquer and transform its own organisations. In those struggles the ideas of Marxism provide the key to understanding the relationship between the working class, the unions, Labour and the struggle for socialist change.
The Guardian's interviews with voters at the 2004 elections (quoted earlier) provided some interesting results, none more so than the reply of May King Tsang, a trainee manager in a telecommunications billing company:
"I've been voting Labour ever since I was old enough to vote. I withdrew my Labour membership earlier this year as a protest but recently I have reinstated it.
I disagree with the way Blair has handled the whole Iraq affair but I have had to rejoin Labour because I just couldn't find an alternative. And if you look at all the other alternatives there isn't a party that's big enough to make the changes.
I think the only viable solution for Labour voters is to stick with the Labour party and change it from within. Go to the grassroots and root out the problem, which is Blair and New Labour, and try to reclaim the party." (my emphasis - PM)
The myth that Blair wins elections has been utterly destroyed. He must go and take the whole Tory, market dominated philosophy with him. The convening of a conference by the trade unions to fight to reclaim Labour for the working class and for socialist policies could not come at a better time.
A new period has opened in Britain. It began with the mass movement against the war, and the first big strikes for a decade and more. In these elections we see the confusion which marks the opening of a new stormy period. The growth in support for the right wing of various shades cannot be ignored, it must be combated by the labour movement. That requires a socialist programme. But this development on the right will not be the dominant feature of the next period. It will be the rise in militancy of the trade unions, the struggles of the working class industrially and politically, inside Labour, which will characterise the next few years. In conducting those struggles, the perspectives of Marxism, the analysis, and programme of Marxist.com will be a vital weapon.
The final defeat of Blair and Blairism is not the end for us. It is only the beginning. The beginning of the struggle to reconquer the labour movement for socialism, and the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.
June 16, 2004