12. General election finally called



In Britain, the looming general election, which had to be held by May 1997, had dominated attention in the previous two years. When the election was announced for 1 May, we commented: “The Tories are going, after 18 years of vicious attacks on working class people. A stronger opposition would have shown Major’s team of thugs the red card years ago… Millions of people will vote Labour to get rid of Major’s millionaires but Blair and Co. are reaching for the yellow card. They refuse to challenge the interests of big business and the rich so little will change under a Blair government.” A very accurate picture of how events panned out! We made it very clear, however, that our first priority was to begin the “fight to get rid of the Tories but if you want to send off Major and his system of greed and poverty, get involved in Socialist Party election campaigns in your area.”1 The endorsement of Blair by the Sun showed how far rightwards New Labour had travelled. Unconvinced voters remarked: “I think the two parties are much of a muchness… New Labour are just left-wing Tories.”2 Other polls indicated that 42% believed that the election result would make ‘little’ or ‘no difference’. We urged a vote for socialists, recognising at the same time that, “had there been a joint socialist platform – which SLP leader Arthur Scargill refuses to consider – then many more people may have had a genuine socialist alternative”.3

Incredibly, it was the stink of corruption from MPs themselves – ‘cash for questions’, with brown envelopes doled out by millionaires to greedy MPs – which dominated the first week of the election campaign. Sleazeball MPs like Tim Smith, already living in a palatial six-bedroom Georgian house, representing an affluent area, were revealed as receiving money from Harrods boss Mohammed Al Fayed. We posed the question to the readers of our paper: “Who’s bought your MP? 277 MPs are millionaires. They will push the dubious interests of big business to make themselves even better off. The Socialist Party is standing in 18 seats in the general election. Candidates stand on the policy of a socialist MP on a worker’s wage. They would live on the same incomes as the workers they represent. Their interests would be our interests. Capitalism is a corrupt system which bullies and bribes to get its way. That’s just one more reason why our party is fighting for a socialist future.”4 We compared the Tory government to a “school pupil who hides their bad end of term report, [taking] pre-emptive action by closing Parliament early”.5 This was not the first time that the corruption of MPs and big business had surfaced, nor was it the last. Neither was it restricted to the Tories. New Labour would become enmeshed with corrupt practices, which was an inevitable product of its swing to the right, its acceptance of capitalism and the ingrained inequality and corruption which goes with this.

The Socialist Party approached the election in a confident mood. Ken Loach, the famous director of films like Land and Freedom, had agreed to speak for Dave Nellist at Coventry South Socialist Party’s eve of poll rally. We, of course, could not match the resources of the pro-capitalist parties, now including New Labour. Some on the left believed that Blair was correct to court the support of the Sun because the media has such power over public opinion. Ken Smith, a full-timer at our national office, answered: “Whilst the power of the press cannot be underestimated, it cannot change the economic reality that people face. All the Tory-supporting papers have not been able to undo the bitterness and disillusion directed against the Tories since the recession in 1991 and the [Exchange Rate Mechanism] fiasco in 1992.”6  For the trade unions, particularly for rank and file trade unionists, the election was seen as an opportunity to force the bosses back. A crippling roadblock was, of course, the Tories’ anti-union laws. The Socialist showed how these laws made it easier for bosses to refuse to recognise a trade union, even when all their employees had joined. Many workplaces had organised and recognised trade unions, while 10.2 million workers maintained some form of union protection at work. However the number of workers covered by trade union representation and negotiation had fallen since 1979 from about two thirds to 47%. The decline was primarily due to deindustrialisation and was reinforced by the existence of the antiunion laws. It was obvious that it was also a product of the inability or unwillingness of the trade union leadership to effectively organise the fightback against the employers’ offensive.

We threw ourselves into the election with gusto. I recounted in the Socialist my own experiences of campaigning for the Socialist Party candidate in Camberwell and Peckham. On the way to canvass, “I glanced at the Sunday Times Rich List, detailing the wealth and lives of Britain’s 1,000 richest people. The distance separating these creatures of comfort from the working people I meet on this estate is greater than that between Earth and the recent comet Hale-Bopp.” The area we canvassed was one of the most deprived in South London. At one door in Peckham a very young working class couple confronted me with their everyday reality. The man, with kids scampering around his feet, railed about the “shit and piss on the landings, nobody cares about us, no politician cares a toss, I’m not going to vote”. The Sunday Times 500 Rich List was enough to make the blood boil when the fate of the poor, numbering one third of the population – about 17 to 20 million people – is contrasted to their lifestyles.

The Sunday Times also informed us: “For Joseph Lewis, the Bahamas-based billionaire… 1996 was a vintage year for wealth creation. With profits from his outstanding skill at playing the foreign exchange markets, we estimate that Lewis trebled his fortune to £3 billion and it is still rising.” We asked: “Does Lewis create anything? The simple answer is, no. He is a ‘financier’, which in simple language means that from his vast computerised dealing room, in his Bahamas villa, he makes bets. Despite the claims of ‘wealth creation’, he has created nothing, but gambled and won at least £1 billion from ‘trading activities’ on the ‘money markets’.” Our opposition to the Sunday Times list did not come from the ‘politics of envy’. We were fully in favour of a wealth tax but we also pointed out: “Our opposition to the rich is also because they rest on a system, the market, capitalism, which limits and holds back the full possibilities of using the productive potential of industry and of the working class… Capitalism is a system which rests on production for profit and not for social need; not to build houses, schools, and hospitals.”7

Dave Nellist was standing for the first time in the general election as a Socialist Party candidate for Coventry South. We commented: “Twenty-five years ago Coventry was probably the richest working class city in the country. We had an engineering rate of pay called the ‘Toolroom Agreement’ which was the yardstick used by factory workers throughout the country to measure their own pay claims.” But Coventry also summed up the catastrophic collapse of British capitalism which, in turn, had a devastating effect on cities: “Thousands of Coventry homes, even today, 1,000 days before the millennium, are without an indoor toilet, central heating, hot and cold running water. Neither of the two main parties have any intention of changing this.” For over four years Coventry Socialist Party campaigned with others against the closure of Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital and its replacement with an expensive PFI hospital. The Tories did not have the time before the election to implement their plans. The Socialist Party read in the local papers that the hospital was safe. But “that night Labour dropped a bombshell – they would continue the project.” Moreover, Coventry had had a Labour council since 1937 but in 1996 it “cut the sick pay of all its workers and ended holiday pay for the poorest-paid workers”.

The bookies predicted a Labour victory nationally. The Socialist Party therefore said: “Sending one more Labour MP from Coventry  won’t affect the balance of government but will mean another MP toeing the party line. But if the Socialist Party is successful, people will have a genuinely independent voice that will take up issues like saving the hospital.”8 If a debate organised by Coventry’s local churches was anything to go by, Dave Nellist was on the eve of victory, judging by the applause and laughter as the audience listened to him outline the socialist agenda. The Labour candidate, Jim Cunningham – who had narrowly beaten Dave in the 1992 general election – was anxious to say as little as possible, other than: “I agree with Dave – we need a minimum wage,” though not specifying at what level.9 Unfortunately, national elections are not decided on local issues. There was a strong feeling amongst those who wanted to get rid of the Tories that they were prepared to vote Labour. Nevertheless, the Socialist Party conducted a spirited campaign.

Blair was confronted when he made a ‘surprise’ visit to business people at Warwick University on the city’s outskirts. Socialist Party supporters hastily improvised a few placards and jumped in a car. The first two New Labour battle buses to arrive were for the media circus. Seeing the Socialist Party banners, the Guardian reporter ran over and said: “Thank god somebody’s showing some dissent. All I’ve heard on the coach is how wonderful Tony Blair is.” The first person Blair reached told him: “I don’t want to shake your hand, you’re letting the students down.” He was president of the Mature Students’ Society.10

Similar campaigns took place throughout the country with big increases in the sales of our paper and many people joining the party. At the same time, there were demonstrations against the Tories and fighting for social justice. Sacked Liverpool dockers, Hillingdon Hospital cleaners, Magnet Kitchen workers from Darlington together with the strikers’ families, friends and thousands of supporters, marched through Central London on 12 April. Eight hundred thousand election addresses from our candidates were distributed and hundreds of copies of the Socialist Party manifesto – ‘A Real Voice for Working Class People’ – were sold to bolster the case for our candidates in England and Wales. There were also 16 Scottish Socialist Alliance candidates, nine of whom were members of Scottish Militant Labour.

It was not all critical acclaim for New Labour. One pollster predicted the lowest turnout since the Second World War. We remarked: “Never has there been more discontent with what is on offer from traditional politicians. This will result in a wipe-out for Major’s party in Scotland and Wales followed, probably nationally, by meltdown after the election… On Newsnight, one Labour MP was at one with the Tories and Liberals in stubbornly refusing to offer any concessions to pensioners. Contrast this to the Socialist Party’s demand for a state pension for all linked to a minimum wage, as well as an immediate 50% increase to both men and women at the age of 60. Britain’s pensioners should have the same rights as French lorry drivers, the right to retire at 55.”11

These facts showed the erosion in the position of pensioners and the working class generally. Even the capitalist press commented on this decline: “We are talking about an underclass… Just under 19 million people live on the margins of poverty (on an income less than £105 per week).”12 Things have hardly changed; if anything, they have got worse! A massive gulf was opening up in Britain which terrified the strategists of capital, including some of their more farsighted representatives like Will Hutton. They were terrified then, and even more so now, that the so-called ‘underclass’ would rise and shake society to its foundations. At a dockers’ demonstration thousands of disenfranchised youth, kept in degrading poverty and homelessness, vented their rage against the system. We described New Labour as merely another group of managers of Great Britain Ltd, ready to take over from ‘Major’s team’.

The outcome of the general election was summed up by the front page headline of the Socialist: ‘Tories Wiped Out’.13 We wrote: “A huge sigh of relief has gone up all over Britain. After 18 years, the Tories have been practically wiped out in Parliament with the lowest share of the vote since 1832. Wales and Scotland are Tory-free areas, Britain’s big cities very nearly match them.” The election result was a landslide unprecedented in post-war political history.  The anti-Tory tide was devastating as 180 seats changed hands. Over three million voters changed allegiance, producing a 62% vote against the Tories. The Tory share was reduced from 43% in 1992 to 31% in 1997, although this massive swing against the Tories did not translate into huge votes for Labour. Labour did have a record swing of 10.5%, winning a record number of seats (419 out of 659), but its 44.5% vote share was lower than its 1945 landslide victory. It was lower even than the victory of 1966 – and lower than 1951 and 1955 when Labour lost. The overall turnout of 71% was 7% down on 1992 – and the lowest since 1945. This meant that the numbers who abstained had increased by a third on the previous election. Moreover, the lowest turnouts were in traditional Labour held seats. In addition, the swing to Labour in working class areas was lower, at 9%, than it was in middle class areas where it was 12%.

As we had warned, Labour’s shift to the right had alienated many of its traditional voters. Only the burning desire to get the Tories out led people to vote for Blair’s party. More than anything, on 1 May, Labour was the fortunate beneficiary of a massive and decisive rejection of the Thatcherite brutalities and inequalities of the 1980s and 1990s. The irony was that New Labour believed it had to adopt pro-Thatcherite policies to get elected when the majority of the population were overwhelmingly prepared to reject those ‘values’. Samuel Brittan, the Financial Times commentator, told Britain’s bosses to be grateful for the government they now had. He concluded that a Labour Party with a much more radical anti-capitalist programme of change could have been elected in the same ‘landslide’ proportions, such was the hatred of the Tories.

We pointed out that New Labour’s biggest advantage for now was that they were not the Tory government. However, the size of the Labour victory promoted expectations and illusions that Labour was incapable of fulfilling. Ominously, on the steps of Ten Downing Street, Blair warned: “We were elected as New Labour and will govern as New Labour.”14 This meant that, despite one or two minor changes, Thatcher’s counter-revolution would not be overturned. ‘Economic prudence’ and the firm smack of crackdowns on crime and social security ‘fraud’ would continue to be the order of the day. Nonetheless, a new period had opened up in British politics. If the Tories were now to elect a more right-wing leader, we said it was possible they could split over Europe. Blair was flirting with proportional representation but it was put on the backburner because of the secure Labour majority. Labour’s landslide majority of 1945 was overturned by the Tories six years later. This was despite popular support for Labour and its policies at the time. That was at the beginning of an unprecedented structural world economic upswing that would not be repeated during a Blair government. Blair undoubtedly benefited from the lopsided boom of the 1990s but this was nothing compared to the 1950-75 upswing in capitalism.

A new period of political volatility would open up. There were significant votes to be had outside of the three main parties. The 800,000 votes for the Referendum Party showed the tremendous disquiet that existed on Europe. Labour promised a referendum if it was to propose joining the euro. These votes, combined with a rise in the vote of the BNP and other far-right candidates, also indicated how their support could grow under the Labour government if a socialist class alternative was not offered. The 70,000 votes for socialist candidates, Socialist Party and SLP, were significant. Support at local level was also reflected by much higher percentage votes for our council candidates.

Matching the public mood, we commented: “Major’s government has gone and many of the Tory Cabinet ministers have lost their seats. Good riddance.”15 There were real expressions of class vengeance in the outpourings in the immediate aftermath of the elections, even though people who voted Labour hoping for revenge against a profit-driven system would be severely disappointed. We concluded: “Never before in the history of elections has so little been promised to so many… In truth the Tories lost the election nearly five years ago on Black Wednesday… Labour modernisers’ claim that it was changing the name to New Labour and the dumping of any vestiges of socialist programme or politics that won the election is bogus… Both before and after Labour’s changes their  vote, according to opinion polls, has stayed roughly the same.”16 French right-wing daily newspaper Le Figaro remarked: “To judge by the reverence shown by the Labour Party for the Conservative ‘revolution’, the great victor of 1 May poll will be neither Tony Blair nor John Major: it will be Margaret Thatcher.”17

The Socialist Party along with others pledged that we would keep fighting for real socialist change. The three best results amongst more than 100 socialist candidates who stood in the election were for Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow Pollock with more than 10%, Dave Nellist in Coventry South with 6% and Arthur Scargill in Newport East on 5%. Our opponents predictably jeered at these results. We answered: “When Keir Hardie first stood he polled 617 votes.”18 More important than votes at that stage, our campaign resulted in new recruits to our party all over the country.