Britain: 2003 elections - A referendum on Blair's government

With most of the results in from the local council, Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament elections the message to Blair is clear - his imperialist adventure in Iraq was deeply unpopular, and at least as unpopular are the government's proposed attacks on public services, the introduction of foundation hospitals, the further privatisation of the NHS, and the introduction of top-up fees for students.

With most of the results in from the local council, Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament elections the message to Blair is clear - his imperialist adventure in Iraq was deeply unpopular, and at least as unpopular are the government's proposed attacks on public services, the introduction of foundation hospitals, the further privatisation of the NHS, and the introduction of top-up fees for students.

On the sixth anniversary of Blair's election victory in 1997, workers across Britain delivered their verdict on the Blair government. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, as we predicted last month, elections to the devolved assembly postponed from May1 to May 29 have been postponed once more. It is now open to question whether they will ever go ahead.

The turnout across Britain on May 1 fell once again, with just 30 percent participating in the English local elections, around 37 percent voting in Wales and around half the electorate turning out in Scotland. This is well below the record lows set in the last elections to these bodies in 1999. Blair's spin doctors will once again claim that this is due to "voter contentment", yet the reality is just the opposite. With many local council responsibilities hived off to quangos or private contractors, many people now see these elections as irrelevant. The one remaining impact these councils have on ordinary workers is setting council tax bills. As they continue to skyrocket under Labour councils as elsewhere, there is little local incentive for workers to vote in council elections on local issues. Instead the election becomes a referendum on Blair's government. The low turnout reflects the disillusionment of millions with Blair's right wing policies. However, unlike in Scotland and Wales, the only alternative on offer in England is not to vote at all.

The protest vote in England is won mainly by the stay at home tendency. To a certain extent, some of the protest is picked up by the Liberals, especially given what is perceived as their anti-war stance. In this sense the Liberals are seen as a left alternative to Labour by some people. However, they also pick up votes from Tories who despair at the parlous sate of their own party. This is an insoluble dilemma for the Liberals. They can only gain more seats by posing as left of Labour, but in so doing they would be split apart, losing their disaffected Tory support. Their 30 percent share of the vote in the local elections represents a high point for them. It will prove impossible for them to repeat this performance in a General Election. To advance any further would provoke splits and divisions in their ranks.

These elections clearly demonstrate that those wishing to protest against Blair and co see little choice but to stay at home. Across Britain as a whole there is no alternative outside the Labour Party. Those groups like the Socialist Alliance who have tried to pose as such an alternative are clearly seen as a joke, to the extent that they are seen at all by the majority of workers. Despite all their efforts they managed to win just one new councillor.

As a result of this protest against Blair, Labour lost over 700 council seats and control of around 29 councils. They lost control of Bristol and Birmingham where the large Muslim community voted against the invasion of Iraq. Of course it is not just Muslims who voted in protest against the war. The same is true of young people, who in any case, rarely vote in local elections, and for that matter many workers protested against the war by withholding their vote. Many media commentators berate the turnout as a crisis of democracy. More accurately it is a crisis of the political parties. Voting by e-mail and text messaging and the rest of their gimmicks will not inspire people to vote. That requires policies and programmes in the interests of ordinary workers and young people, who would then be inspired not only to vote, but also to become active in the labour movement. Of course that is the last thing Blair and co want despite all their talk of reengaging people with politics. It was not only the decline in Labour's support which reflected the opposition to the policies being pursued by the leadership, but also the unwillingness of party activists to go out and campaign. This unprecedented level of disillusionment amongst party members must be transformed into organised opposition and a struggle for socialist policies in the next period.

The only reason Labour did not fair even worse was that in this contest to find the most unpopular party they were beaten by the Tories, who have once again failed to make any recovery. Worse from their point of view, frontbench Tory MP Crispin Blunt thrust another knife in the beleaguered Tory leaders' back by resigning from the shadow cabinet and calling on Duncan Smith to do likewise. As a result Iain Duncan Smith's days are numbered. The twenty five Tory MPs signatures required to boot him out are no doubt ready and waiting. Duncan Smith is indeed a hapless, incompetent leader, and yet this alone does not explain the continued crisis of the Tory Party. There are more profound reasons than this. In the first place Blair and co have stolen the Tories clothes, pursuing privatisation, attacks on public services, even Tory policies on asylum seekers and immigration. As a result at this stage many Tories are quite satisfied with Blair's performance. That will not last, any more than Blair himself will. Blair is now on increasingly shaky ground. In the next period the same process which has already begun in the unions, with a shift to the left, will also take place inside the Labour Party.

Secondly, last night's results, particularly in the Scottish and Welsh polls, demonstrate that the electorate stands to the left of Blair and co, in their opposition to the war, in their support for the firefighters, their opposition to privatisation etc. The abject failure of the BNP, a virulent racist grouplet, for all their fanfare before the elections makes the same point. In all the BNP won 11 council seats, the majority of them in Burnley. They are a deeply unpleasant outfit which needs to be confronted by the labour movement, but those groups who are forever predicting the rise of fascism, and the rise of the BNP exaggerate. Such exaggeration can only serve to sow confusion. All the evidence from industrial action to opinion polls, from the anti-war movement to these election results demonstrates a shift to the left in society not to the right.

For this reason too, the Tory decline will not be halted simply by the election of a new leader. Their leadership crisis is a reflection their impasse rather than its cause. They can recover in time as Blair and co continue to attack the working class and provoke further disenchantment, and still lower turnouts. Were a general election to be held now, Labour would win easily, in spite of Blair not because of him.

Unlike in England where the only real alternative to voting Labour for most workers was staying home in Scotland and Wales the situation is somewhat different. The Scottish parliament election inspired half of all voters to turnout. Whilst still poor, this is a far higher percentage than in England. This is partly because the Holyrood elections are seen as more important then the English local council elections. The Scottish parliament does have some powers, as demonstrated by their reform of student financing. Whilst many Scottish voters stayed at home to protest at the actions of the Labour government at Westminster as well as in Edinburgh, at the same time there was to some extent an alternative to the left of Labour. The Scottish Socialist Party of Tommy Sheridan polled well over 100,000 votes overall, and stand to gain half a dozen seats or so from the list system of proportional representation. This is a highly significant vote. Whilst the Labour Party remains the mass party of workers in Scotland, organically linked to the trade unions, the SSP with its admixture of left reformist and nationalist ideas - they combine the demand for a shorter working week etc with a call for an Independent Socialist Scotland - has won the votes of many of those disillusioned with Blair and co. In the long run, as the trade unions carry the struggle into the Labour Party this growth in support will prove to be temporary, with these and many more besides turning to a leftward moving Labour Party. For now their support is an extremely important illustration of the fact that the electorate is now far to the left of the Labour leadership, both in Westminster and in Edinburgh. Not just the SSP but also the Greens, and an independent, a retired doctor, Jean Turner, campaigning against the closure of a hospital (reminiscent of the defeat of Labour by a doctor standing on a similar platform at Wyre Forest in the general election) won seats in Holyrood. This fact will not be lost on the Scottish Labour movement. The crisis inside the Scottish Labour Party will continue. Many will ask why the SSP managed to secure so many votes at their expense and will look to move the party to the left and to distance themselves from Blair. This will be even more the case if they examine the highly illustrative results from the Welsh Assembly elections.

On the surface Labour's triumph in Wales, winning 30 out of 60 seats, effectively a majority, unlike the last election which saw Labour as the largest party form a coalition administration with the Liberals, would seem to be good news for Blair. In reality it represents a massive slap in the face for the leadership of the Labour Party in London.

The low turnout in Wales undoubtedly reflects both protest at Labour and the fact that the Assembly is still seen by many as a toothless wonder. Nevertheless the results are extremely important for the following reason. In Wales the alternative to Blair was … the Labour Party! Having dropped any mention of "New" from their title rebranding themselves Welsh Labour, Rhodri Morgan and co clearly posed as Old Labour, distancing themselves from the most unpopular Westminster policies. There will be no foundation hospitals in Wales, There will be no top-up fees in Welsh universities. At least these are their pledges to which they must be held. Furthermore they offered some genuine reforms, most notably the abolition of all prescription charges. Whilst such reforms may not have been sufficient to inspire a majority to vote, they clearly were enough to win back the votes of those who last time around voted Plaid Cymru as some kind of left alternative. 

In reality the nationalists always try to put on a left face in the working class areas, whilst showing their real Tory face in the rural areas. The same is generally true of the SNP (Scottish National Party) in Scotland. But whereas the SNP had a mixed election winning some seats and losing others, Plaid Cymru took a pasting, with the protest vote that had won them Llanelli, Islwyn and the Rhondda valley in the last election, returning to Welsh Labour this time. The scandal and outrage of losing these heartland Labour seats to the Welsh Nationalists no doubt played a major part in encouraging the Welsh leadership to turn their backs on Blair and pursue an Old Labour agenda. Make no mistake, the policies on offer in Wales are not socialism. But the impact of vote winning reforms will be felt in Labour Parties across Britain. Trade unions and Labour Party members should be raising resolutions demanding an end to privatisation, the rejection of top-up fees and foundation hospitals, and the abolition of prescription charges and quoting the success of these policies in Wales.

To make Labour electable not for its own sake and not for the sake of career politicians, but In order to change society in the interests of working people, the trade unions and the rank and file of the Party must organise to dump Blair and his Tory policies and reclaim Labour.

The conclusions then are clear. The Tories remain mired in a crisis from which they will not soon recover. The Liberals have gained from their left of centre image but can't go much further. The nationalists have singularly failed to make serious gains at the expense of a government pursuing anti-working class policies, despite their attempt to pose as a left alternative to Labour. The main protest vote against the war and Blair's anti-working class policies consisted of staying at home. There were two exceptions. To an extent the SSP have, for now at least, made gains at the expense of Labour's unpopularity and the unpopularity of the war. More importantly though in Wales we have a taste of the future. The alternative to Blair is a struggle inside the labour movement. Reforms in the interests of working people win more votes than Tory privatisation policies. The Labour Party in Scotland and England needs to dump Blairism too. In Wales they need to go further. There is no alternative in the long run to the struggle for socialist policies inside the Labour Party. The trade unions need to play a key role in that struggle. Trade unionists are about to become very busy in the struggle against Blair's attack's on public services. That struggle must be taken into the Party as well.