Labour has won an historic third term victory in the 2005 General Election, yet there will be no dancing in the streets, no street parties, in fact little enthusiasm at all. 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 36 percent, of any victorious party in history.
Labour has won an historic third term victory in the 2005 General Election, yet there will be no dancing in the streets, no street parties, in fact little enthusiasm at all. ‘At least we kept the Tories out’ is the most widespread view held the day after Labour won its first ever third consecutive term. 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 36 percent, of any victorious party in history.
As a result Labour’s majority in the House of Commons has been slashed to 66. This may seem sizeable enough, 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 first time around. With this reduced majority, and with many Blairite MPs defeated last night, these policies would never have been passed. This smaller majority prepares the ground for new parliamentary rebellions over any further attempts to privatise health and education, particularly on the basis of pressure from below, of developing events in society and above all in the trade unions.
In other words for all his 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 the urge to replace him with Brown, the anointed heir according to the media, would mean the merest cosmetic change. Yet the desire for change inside Labour is precisely what is reflected in the desire for a change at the top of the party.
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. In other words, not that Labour is the lesser of two evils, but that the Tories are the worst.
Despite all the predictable Blairite nonsense about ‘voter contentment’ and a mandate to continue their ‘reforms’, the collapse not only of illusions but even of trust in Blair and co as a result of Iraq, alongside the prospect of yet more privatisation in health, education etc, and the continuing attack on public sector jobs and pensions is the real explanation for low turnouts at the polls. Once again participation in the election was historically low, perhaps up a fraction on last time, but this was still one of the lowest turnouts on record, as many Labour voters protested by staying away from the polling booths.
Of course the Tories enjoyed a certain recovery, as we explained they would. This was inevitable given the historic lows of 1997 and 2001 (the worst result since 1832). Through their heavy emphasis on attacking asylum seekers and immigration (reminiscent of Nye Bevan’s observation that “the Tories, in every election, must have a bogeyman. If you haven’t got a programme, a bogeyman will do”) they managed to claw back those Tory voters who switched to the UK Independence Party in last year’s euro elections. The UKIP was completely unable to repeat those spectacular gains. The far right saw many of their votes mopped up by the Tories – and that is precisely why Howard and co swung to the right – yet that pernicious fascist grouplet the BNP managed to pick up a few votes in Keighley in the north of England and in Barking in the south. They represent no real electoral threat, but the labour movement should nevertheless mobilise to drive them out, and prevent them becoming a threat to local communities.
The only real electoral impact of these groups has been to push the Tories further right. As a result Howard managed to secure the ‘Tory vote’ but not win the election. As the editorial of this month’s Socialist Appeal explains they will now be looking for a new leader with Howard quickly resigning. However, they will desperately try to prevent the blue-rinse rank and file of their party from having too much of a say in the matter. Behind the scenes deals will be struck to ensure that either a new leader is appointed, or at least that the membership is only given a couple of ‘safe’ candidates to choose between.
The Liberals meanwhile secured their biggest vote in decades, yet they would never be in a position to win the election. 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.
In Scotland and Wales neither of the nationalist parties were able to capitalise on the widespread opposition to the failures of Blair and co. In Scotland, in particular, the SSP failed to make any progress. In fact without the key role of their original front man Sheridan they seem to be losing that small but significant layer of support they had built up.
As for the other groups, there were a thousand and one candidates on offer but none of them made any impact – with a couple of exceptions. Dr. Taylor who scored a spectacular victory standing as an independent in Wyre Forest in 2001 in defence of the Kidderminster hospital held the seat again.
Undoubtedly the most high profile exception was 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. 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 voted 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.
The election result prevented the Tories getting in, whilst delivering Blair a sharp slap in the face. Watching the coverage of the election results, even at the count in Blair’s own constituency in Sedgefield, the prime minister looked shattered. Perhaps like an old Roman emperor he is surrounded by too many yes men who have told him what he wanted to believe. He looked more like a man who had lost than the recipient of a third term election victory. In addition to the shock of the result, Blair had to stand and listen to the moving and dignified speech of Reg Keys, the father of a soldier who died in Iraq. Mr.Keys stood against Blair in Sedgefield and secured ten percent of the vote.
With the election over, Blair and co may imagine it is 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, which 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.
In this election workers have shown that they 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. 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 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.
The Labour leader says he will stay on for a full third term. That is not likely. As Oscar Wilde put it, “some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” Yet to replace Blair with Brown would be only the most minor cosmetic change. The labour movement must set its sights much higher than this.
Behind the headlines of the 2005 election result we can see the shift which is taking place in British politics. 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.