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Posted on 19 March 2009 at 0:00 GMT

Lessons of the 2004 election

THE 2004 European elections were a disaster for New Labour. Labour's 3.72 million votes were its lowest share of the poll in a national contest (22.6%) since the December 1918 'khaki election' at the end of world war one. Then, the newly-emerging Labour Party - not contesting every seat - polled 2.38 million votes for a 22.2% share.

But 2004 was also a poor election for the Conservative Party. The Tories came top in the previous European elections in 1999, with a 35.7% share of the poll to Labour's 28%. In 2004 the Tories' share fell to 26.7%, largely due to the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Set-up in 1993 by a London School of Economics academic, Dr Alan Sked, UKIP first contested seats at the 1997 general election, polling 106,000 votes (0.3%). But in the 1999 European elections UKIP finished fourth behind the three main parties with 696,000 votes (6.96%), winning three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Then, in 2004, having recruited the ex-BBC day-time TV 'personality' and former Labour MP, Robert Kilroy-Silk (sacked from the BBC for racist anti-Arab comments), and bankrolled by the ex-Tory millionaire Paul Sykes, UKIP leapt to 2.65 million votes (16.1%), pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth place and winning 12 MEPs.

The UKIP vote was above all a protest vote: 15% (400,000) were people who had not voted at all in the 2001 general election (ICM poll, 15 June). This, particularly in the context of a 6.44 million increase in turnout to 38.2% (from 23.3% in 1999), showed the beginnings of a shift in consciousness, from 'protest abstentionism' to more widespread protest voting.

In the 2004 elections 5.49 million votes (33.4%) went to parties without representation in the House of Commons, up from 1.87 million (18.7%) in 1999.

This trend, likely to continue in this year's elections, of the fragmenting support for the establishment parties, is a concern to ruling class strategists because it has an impact on the perceived 'legitimacy' of government policies - particularly important in an economic slump. It is a direct consequence of the 'Americanisation' of British politics, with two dominant capitalist parties, following the transformation of the Labour Party into New Labour.

In the past, of course, Labour governments would carry out mainly pro-capitalist policies. But the Labour Party then was a 'capitalist workers' party', with a working class base and a pro-capitalist leadership, which provided the working class with an element of political representation that could be used to push the leadership further than they would wish to go against capitalist interests.

Political vaccuum

By the same token, however, the ruling class, through the agency of the Labour Party leadership, had a means through which they could attempt to secure acquiescence to their policies. The situation now is completely different, the Labour Party is a completely capitalist party, and a vacuum has resulted.

With brazen hypocrisy, Hazel Blears, an unapologetically hardline New Labour cabinet member, recently spoke of 'disaffected voters' needing to be convinced that "mainstream politics has the answers they seek".

Sam Younger, ex-chair of the Electoral Commission, has warned of the dangers of 'extremism' being provoked by unpopular government polices in the absence of such legitimacy: "because in the end there are going to be people outside the democratic system who start saying, 'we can claim to represent people just as well as these politicians who've been elected by very few of the electorate'. That way lies a very dangerous future which in the end - and without trying to be too dramatic about it - can threaten the rule of law".

The capitalist strategists in Britain are certainly looking with alarm at events across Europe, as the economic crisis deepens. They no doubt discussed the implications not only of the December rebellion of the Greek youth, for example, but also the rise of a new workers' party, SYRIZA.

But the same disenchantment with the capitalist politicians - the feeling that 'they're all the same' - are also the conditions in which right-wing populism can grow. A Joseph Rowntree Trust study at the time of the last Euro-elections found many BNP voters claiming that they had only voted BNP to register a protest against the Labour government or a Labour-run council.

This is not to underestimate the ideological weight of racism and nationalism underpinning the appeal of the BNP, and the hold these ideas can establish in the absence of a convincing, authoritative working class alternative.

Along with other ideological weapons, (sexism, religion, the role of the monarchy etc) racism and nationalism are sustained by the forces of 'official society', not always openly but at all times in the background. This includes not only the media but the education system, and also the political representatives of the ruling class, the capitalist parties - including the Labour government - attempting to hold together a social base of support. Witness Gordon Brown coining the 'British jobs for British workers' slogan at the 2007 Labour Party conference.

If there is no alternative offering a way forward, the ready-made formulas of racism and nationalism, already there in the background, provide a seemingly cogent answer. But at bottom, certainly at the electoral level, support for the BNP at this stage is overwhelmingly a vote against the lack of any alternative.

In 2004, while polling 808,200 votes (4.9%), the BNP failed to make a breakthrough. The main beneficiaries of the protest vote then were UKIP - the party for "men and women who want their country back" as their leaflets said - with its nationalist anti-Europe (and anti-immigrant) platform and perma-tanned 'charismatic' figurehead. But Kilroy-Silk has long gone from public prominence and the UKIP bubble has deflated. So where will the anger be vented now?

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