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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 June 2004

Elections 2004: 

A Shadow Over Blair

A "GOOD kicking", a "bloody nose", a "slap in the face" - all the media descriptions of New Labour's disastrous election results had some reference to being beaten up. 

Christine Thomas

They managed to break several records for dreadful results. In the local elections they were the first government party in history to be pushed into third place, receiving just 26% of the vote. Their European election results represented their worst share of a national election since 1918.

The Guardian wrote of a "massacre in the party's heartlands". Newcastle, under Labour control for 30 years, fell to the Liberal Democrats, with Labour losing 24 councillors in one fell swoop. New Labour lost Leeds council after 25 years of holding power and also lost control in their former Welsh strongholds of Swansea, Cardiff and Bridgend.

In the London Assembly elections, New Labour lost two seats, including their group leader. And even where they held seats, they did so with heavily reduced majorities.

It was only Ken Livingstone who saved Blair's bacon. He was reelected as Mayor of London, standing as a Labour candidate after being readmitted into the party earlier this year. Polls carried out just before the election showed that if he had stood as an independent he would have won by a much higher margin, pushing Labour into an humiliating fourth place!

Now, of course, Livingstone will be expecting pay-back time, demanding that the government cough up more money to help bail out his spending deficit in London.

Punishment

IN THE local elections there was a conscious anti-New Labour vote. New Labour's support fell most where it was defending seats (11% compared to 3% elsewhere). All the evidence points to people actively setting out to punish Blair and New Labour.

Although a majority of voters abstained - or went on "voting strike" as John Pilger described it - the turnout at 40% was a significant increase on previous local elections. And this cannot be explained by postal voting alone. Yes, turnout increased by 13% in the four regions where postal voting was compulsory, but it also increased by 9% where normal ballot-box voting took place.

There was a conscious decision to get revenge for the war in Iraq, not just amongst Muslim voters, but amongst a layer of working class and middle-class voters generally. Blair described Iraq as a "shadow" over the elections. In reality, it was a thunderstorm bursting over England and Wales. A Populus Poll for The Times, taken just before the elections, showed that 53% thought that the war was wrong (compared to 37% who thought it was right).

Although not the only factor, Iraq and the lies Blair told to go to war tainted him and his party, fusing with anger and discontent over cuts, privatisation and attacks on working people. In an ICM Poll for the BBC which came out on election day, only 39% said they trusted Blair, down from 51%.

New Labour recognised that Blair and his close association with Iraq was an electoral liability. It's no accident that he did not appear personally in any of the election broadcasts. Former Minister Nick Brown spoke of "problems with senior figures in government".

Tories

BUT THE Tories cannot take much comfort from Labour's debacle. The anti-Labour or "anyone but you" vote, as the Observer described it, was split between the Tories, Liberal Democrats and the anti-establishment parties of left and right. In the European elections the two main capitalist parties got less than half the vote between them. In the London Assembly 'fringe' parties got 25% of the vote.

The elections were a rejection of New Labour but far from an endorsement of the Tories. In the local elections the Tories got 38% of the vote, below the 40% they needed to be on course to win a general election. This was the same share of the vote as William Hague got in 2000, and of course he went on to get hammered in the 2001 general election.

In the northern cities it was the Liberal Democrats who were the main beneficiaries of the anti-Labour vote. The Tories still have no councillors in cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.

In the Euro elections the Tories share of the vote, 27%, was their lowest since 1832! Although the UK Independence Party (UKIP) took votes from both Labour and the Tories, it was the Tories who were hardest hit. 45% of UKIP's voters voted Tory in 2001 according to a Guardian/ICM poll.

The European elections reopened splits and divisions within the Tory party over Europe which the election of Michael Howard as leader had temporarily papered over. Four Tory peers openly called for a vote for UKIP.

Howard is now under pressure to ditch his tactic of trying to steer a middle path between UKIP's call for withdrawal from the EU and Labour's pro-EU position. 47% of Tory supporters back withdrawal, while 40% do not. But a more Eurosceptic stance would create a rupture with the pro-Europeans around Kenneth Clarke, possibly leading to an outright split in the Tory party.

On the other hand, to continue with the current position, which appears to be what Howard has decided to do at the moment, could also create internal divisions and cause defections to UKIP in the future.

Protest vote

THE LIBERAL Democrats won 29% of the vote in the local elections posing as the anti-war party. (In fact they supported the war once the troops were sent to Iraq and do not call for their withdrawal now). This result was similar to their share of the vote in 2003 (30%). They made significant gains in the North of England and former Labour heartlands, most spectacularly in Newcastle where they doubled their seats from 24 to 48.

But like the Tories, their vote was patchy. In the South they lost votes to the Tories in areas such as Cheltenham, Winchester and Norwich and the Tories retook control of Eastbourne. Although they increased their vote in the European elections they were pushed into fourth place by UKIP.

UKIP went into the European elections on an anti-Europe (and anti-immigrant) platform winning 16% of the vote. They claimed to be the party for "men and women who want their country back".

Part of their support was on the basis of these policies but much of it (as with the BNP) was a protest vote from people who had had enough of all the establishment parties, particularly in rural and suburban areas.

In the absence of a mass workers' party that can offer a genuine alternative, anger can express itself in abstentions or a vote for either right-wing or left-wing 'anti-establishment' parties.

24% of UKIP supporters say they would vote for the party in a general election. Although this would only give them 4% of the vote it could be enough to damage the Tories and even New Labour in marginal seats.

It is not clear how this party of dodgy B-list celebrities will develop in the future; whether or not for example it can evolve from a single-issue to a right-wing populist party like the Freedom Party in Austria (with Kilroy Silk as the new Haider!). This is the ground that the BNP is also fighting for and much will depend on how the Tories evolve in the short and medium term. But in the future there could well be splits and realignments on the right.

The BNP failed to win a seat in the London Assembly election or in the European Parliament. In both elections they were squeezed by UKIP. Their fortunes were mixed, winning seats in Epping Forest, Bradford and Broxbourne but losing seats in Thurrock, Sandwell and Dudley and failing to increase their councillors in Burnley. Overall they increased their total number of councillors by just one to 17.

But, although they did not do as well as they had expected, they can still remain a threat at a local level, attracting votes from people disillusioned with the two main capitalist parties. They won a total of 800,000 votes in European elections (5.2%), came second in seven wards in Burnley and received 28% of the vote in eight wards in Stoke-on-Trent.

Building a new workers' party with roots in the trade unions and local communities still remains the key to cutting across support for the BNP.

On the 'anti-establishment left', the Green Party more or less maintained its support in all of the elections, receiving 10% on average in the local elections and 6.2% in the Euro elections. Respect - the unity coalition, standing on an anti-war platform, received some good votes in the London Assembly elections (see below) but failed to make the breakthroughs it was expecting, with no candidates elected in the European, London or local elections.

The Socialist Party, however, retained two of its councillors in Coventry with increased votes and narrowly missed securing a third (see elsewhere for details of the Socialist Party election results).

Blair damage

BLAIR SAID that if he became an electoral liability he would resign. After such disastrous election results is he now on his way out of Number 10? There is no doubt that Labour MPs with narrow majorities are terrified of losing their seats at the next election. Many will prefer to see the back of Blair. But for the moment, as one backbencher put it: "A lot of people want him to go but we are not going to knife him".

Blair has been severely damaged, his credibility further undermined but it looks as if he will survive - for now - because the Tories failed to capitalise sufficiently from the rejection of new Labour to pose a real threat at the general election.

But, even if the election is only a year away (and some MPs are calling for a delay to allow time for New Labour to 'heal its wounds'), that is a year littered with potential landmines that could blow up in Blair's face at any time.

He might hope that the elections have allowed people to get Iraq "out of their system" but it will not be so easily to put it back in the box and shut the lid. Bush and Blair managed to secure UN backing for the sham transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on 30 June but it will still leave tens of thousands of occupying troops. And, as the recent car bombs show this will mean a continuation and even an escalation of violence.

The Butler inquiry into the intelligence provided to justify war with Iraq is due to report in July. Although another Hutton-style whitewash is likely it will refocus attention on Blair's lies and deception. This could detract from Blair's plan to concentrate on domestic issues which includes confirming the slashing of 80,000 public-sector jobs in the July spending review! Workers will not take these kind of attacks lying down. Civil servants will be striking again in July over pay and further industrial battles are looming particularly in the public sector.

With three by-elections likely to be taking place this summer, New Labour could be on course for even more humiliating defeats. And if Bush is beaten by Kerry in November in the US presidential elections that could represent a severe body blow to Blair.

So, although Blair may hold on for now, if the disasters continue to pile up he could still end up going before the next election, particularly if a change of leader seems New Labour's only hope of winning.

We have to very careful about drawing direct conclusions from the elections about what is likely to happen in a general election. But even so a Tory victory does not seem the most likely prospect. However, the recent threat of renewed fuel protests were a reminder of how quickly events can change. Brown and Blair, fearing a repeat of the protests in 2001 - when the Tories went ahead of Labour in the polls for first time - quickly retreated promising to review the proposed fuel tax rises.

The economy barely featured as a factor in these elections. But growth is built on the unstable basis of debt which has now reached 1 trillion. Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England has warned of interest rate rises and falling house prices which would hit consumer spending hard. And the economy is extremely vulnerable to shocks in the world economy. A massive hike in interest rates, for example, due to oil price rises following instability in Saudi Arabia would have a devastating effect.

So while a Labour victory with a reduced majority looks the most likely result in a general election, a hung parliament or a Tory victory could not be ruled out.

New workers' party

THESE ELECTIONS have once again underlined the necessity building a new mass workers' party that could provide a political alternative to working-class people and channel the burning discontent that clearly exists towards the mainstream capitalist parties.

The trade unions will be a key factor in the process of building such a party. The mood of rank and file trade union members is to break with New Labour but they are held back by union leaders who still cling on to the vain hope of reclaiming the party.

But the rail workers' union RMT is now outside the Labour Party and firefighters could vote at their conference to follow suit. Socialist Party members are campaigning in the unions for a decisive break with New Labour, while at the same time calling for the unions to take the initiative in building their own party.

Hundreds of thousands of people are turning their backs on the established political parties. A genuine workers' party, sinking roots in workplaces and communities could rapidly fill the political vacuum to the left of New Labour and develop into a mass force for socialist change.


Respect

THE JUNE polls were the first electoral test for the Respect - Unity Coalition, set up in February by the anti-war MP George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and backed by the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB).

With the proportional rep-resentation system used to elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and the Greater London Authority (GLA), Respect expected to win seats.

The SWP leaders also expected that, by not standing under an explicitly socialist banner and campaigning exclusively on the war, they would win broader support. In the event, while there were creditable results in some areas, an electoral breakthrough was not achieved.

In the GLA elections a good result was achieved in the City and East London constituency, an area with the highest concentration of Muslims in Britain, where the Respect candidate, Oliur Rahman, polled 15.03%. Respect also polled well in London North East, with 8.69%.

Elsewhere, however, the results were not significantly better than those achieved in the 2000 GLA elections by the London Socialist Alliance (a coalition of socialist organisations which, at that time, included both the SWP and the Socialist Party). Then, in the Lambeth and Southwark constituency for example, the Socialist Alliance polled 6,231 votes (6.17%), while this time Respect scored 4,930 (4.31%).

In 2000 there were five 'left of Labour' candidate lists (aside from the Greens) contesting the proportionately elected London-wide members assembly seats, where voters have to select a 'party list'. Together, the Socialist Alliance, Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party (SLP), the London RMT-backed Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, the independent candidate Peter Tatchell, and the Communist Party of Britain, won 88,515 votes, 5.33% of the London-wide members vote. This time Respect had a clear field but, with 87,533 votes (4.57%), fell short of the 5% threshold to win a GLA seat.

Respect's best result in the European elections was also recorded in London with the Respect list, headed by George Galloway, polling 91,175 votes (4.84%).

This was a good score but still short of the 155,000 votes (8.25%) needed to win an MEP. In six of the nine regions outside of London, however, Respect's share of the vote was less than the combined votes achieved by non-Green Party left of Labour candidates in the 1999 European elections.


Scotland

IN SCOTLAND the establishment parties all took a battering at the Euro poll. Although Labour polled the highest share of the vote on 26%, it was their worst electoral performance since the First World War.

Philip Stott, CWI Scotland

An even worse fate awaited the SNP whose vote slumped by almost one third compared to the last European elections in 1999, to just over 19%. Their vote was also down on the disappointing performance in the Scottish parliament elections last May when they lost one - fifth of their MSP's.

It's the SNP's poorest election result in two decades and the consequence of a sharp turn to the right by the nationalists; a trend that has continued throughout the 1990s, particularly under the leadership of John Swinney. His position as leader is under increasing threat after the utter failure of the SNP to pick up on the anger at New Labour's record in Scotland and the war in Iraq.

The SNP's fall in support is also a reflection of the dip in intensity on the national question as support for their flagship policy of independence has fallen in Scotland in the last couple of years.

The Tories' vote also fell to 17%, but not by as much as in England as the right-wing populism of UKIP could only poll just over 6%. UKIP is mainly regarded as an English nationalist force which has limited its appeal in Scotland. Similarly, the BNP vote did relatively badly with a small increase from 0.4% in 1999 to 1.5% this time

The Scottish Socialist Party, who hoped to win a seat, came seventh behind the Greens and UKIP. The SSP polled 61,000 votes, 5.2% of the vote, which was down from the 6.9% won at last year's Scottish elections when the SSP won six MSPs. In all the smaller parties of the left and the right took 20% of the vote.


Wales

IN WALES Plaid Cymru were the big losers. Its Euro vote slumped from 30% in 1999 to 17% and it lost control of Rhondda Cynon Taff and Caerphilly councils.

Dave Reid

In 1999 Plaid Cymru benefited from a big swing away from Labour in the Welsh Assembly and by posing as a radical left alternative to New Labour made big gains. But it failed to capitalise on these gains, instead positioning itself as a responsible centre-left party. In practice it did very little different from New Labour when in power in Rhondda Cynon Taff and Caerphilly and working-class people in these two large valley areas saw no point in voting for them again.

But this was not a pro-Labour vote. Labour was hammered in the council elections in Cardiff and Swansea as the Liberal Democrats gained a protest vote.

Rhodri Morgan, the Labour Welsh Assembly minister said there was no discernible pattern in the Welsh council results. But there clearly was - people's dissatisfaction with politics was shown by the vote against whoever was in power.

The potential for a new workers' party was shown by the vote for John Marek's Forward Wales in Wrexham, where Forward Wales gained a seat and narrowly missed two more. However, the party's limited base in South Wales prevented it from broadening its support.

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In The Socialist 19 June 2004:

European and local elections 2004: Blair Takes A Battering

Socialist Party Election Successes

A Shadow Over Blair

European elections: 'Kicked In The Ballot Box'

Ireland: Victory For Socialist Party In Local Elections

How to Combat the Threat of the Far Right


Socialist Party features

Hands Off Our Pensions!

PCS Executive Passes First-Year Test

Political Fund Up For Debate at UNISON conference


International socialist news and analysis

Iraq: A Transition To Discontent?

Kurdish people's struggle: No Trust In Imperialist Powers

General Strike Stops Nigeria But Union Leaders Have No Answers

Venezuela: A Decisive Turn In The Crisis


 

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