38. 2001 general election


Unsurprisingly, reports appeared in the media which indicated that Tory candidates were in a state of panic: “At the party HQ officials [were] reaching for the Prozac in a situation of ‘descending depression’.”1 Only 17% expected that William Hague, the Tory leader, would remain in situ after the election. Yet the paradox of 2001 was that New Labour, above all Blair, was not at all popular. Even in 1997 people had voted negatively – more against the Tories than for New Labour. Now a Gallup Poll in the Daily Telegraph indicated that two thirds of people said that Blair was out of touch with ordinary people; 50% thought that he showed poor judgement and spent too much time with the rich and powerful. This was before the horrors to come, particularly the Iraq war.

The problem was – and remains unfortunately – that there was no political channel through which mass discontent could be expressed. This, we concluded, would lead to many working class people not bothering to vote for either of the two ‘evils’, or for any other established party. The number of people who indicated that they were ‘certain’ or ‘very likely’ to vote was 10% lower than in 1997. The Socialist Party indicated that we would stand 13 candidates – eleven in England (ten as part of the Socialist Alliance), and two in Wales under the banner of the WSA. We advised workers to vote for this socialist alternative.

Another key question for the left was what to propose where socialist candidates were not standing. The SWP’s answer came through John Rees – then one of its leaders who later departed its ranks – in its magazine Socialist Review: “The choice for those who do not have a socialist candidate to vote for will be this–either they vote for the open, unashamed representatives of big business… Or they vote for a party which is certainly pro-capitalist, but is funded and supported by working class people, including the majority of class conscious workers.”2 We pointed out, however, that New Labour was not just another right-wing reformist government following in the footsteps of the previous Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan but had some policies decidedly further to the right.

Although Blair had been fairly successful in persuading millionaires to part with some of their cash, New Labour still relied on the trade unions for a third of its income. Despite the fact that Blair had rubbed union leaders’ noses in the dirt, they still coughed up when the tin came round. Trade unions no longer had any say in the selection of parliamentary candidates. Decision making had been removed from the delegate-based annual conference in favour of toothless policy forums.

The comparison with the Democratic Party and the way it treated the unions was obvious. The US trade unions are not affiliated to the Democratic Party yet they still contribute millions of dollars to its war chest. We pointed out that in 2000, “Six of the ten biggest donors were unions… The AFL-CIO trade union federation pledged $48 million in union resources to support Al Gore while every major union, except the Teamsters, backed his presidential election campaign.”3 Occasionally, under pressure, the Democrats would make radical sounding pro-worker speeches at election time, as Gore was forced to do in response to Ralph Nader’s challenge from the left in 2000.

We recognised that there would be some sections of workers who maintained an electoral allegiance to the Labour Party. There was still, in a sense, a very small element of social democracy within Labour, particularly amongst older layers of trade union activists who hoped against hope that ‘this time’, if New Labour was elected, it could be pushed towards the left. Yet even the editorial board of Labour Left Briefing pointed out that “the left in the Labour Party remains small and isolated”.4 Contrary to everything our critics from the left had argued against the idea of campaigning for a new workers’ party, the experience of a Labour government had not resulted in workers moving into the party to reclaim it. Nationally, firefighters, rail workers and communication workers would all discuss the question of disaffiliation from New Labour.

On the eve of the June 2001 general election we hoped that the deepening crisis of capitalism would intensify this opposition and lead to a new party. Essentially, the Socialist Party’s role was to speed up a process that was objectively lodged in the situation. However, the crisis did not break out with full intensity in the next couple of years. A certain breathing space was found for capitalism, at the cost of storing up even greater problems which finally exploded in the financial and economic collapse of 2007-08.

New Labour was re-elected and on the surface the election seemed to signify no change of the political landscape. In reality, it indicated a huge shift in the attitudes of millions of people. The Tories did not advance from the electoral disaster of 1997, indeed they fell back slightly. The Liberal Democrats benefited from their opportunist stance, situating themselves to the left of New Labour. Yet the most decisive development was the massive drop in turnout, by 12.5%. Four out of ten electors – 17 million people – refused to vote. This was the lowest turnout since the general election of 1918, when electoral administration had been disrupted by the First World War. Just over 26 million people voted, compared to almost 29 million in 1950 when the population was much smaller and 18-21 year-olds did not have a vote. Even as recently as 1992, 34 million voted. We concluded: “Tony Blair is the first prime minister since 1923 to discover the day after his election victory that those who voted for him were outnumbered by those who did not vote. Moreover, turnout was far lower amongst the young – only 38% voted – while 79% of the older voters turned out.”5

The lowest turnout was registered in Liverpool Riverside at a mere 34%! Not far behind was the neighbouring Walton on 43%. This seat was won by Labour candidate Peter Kilfoyle who wailed: “Britain was in danger of emulating the United States where less than half the voters participated in the presidential elections.”6 We remarked: “What an annihilating condemnation of the policies of Labour’s right wing, nationally and in the city! Kilfoyle is one of the architects of the low turnout.” We reminded the movement of the electoral achievements for Labour when Militants played a key role in the city. At that time the right wing claimed that we were “an electoral albatross”, yet never before or since has there been a greater involvement of the people of Liverpool as when socialist, Marxist and Militant ideas held sway.

In the May 1983 council elections, for instance, Labour’s vote increased by an astonishing 40%. In the general election a month later there was a swing to the Tories nationally, although in Liverpool there was a 2% swing to Labour. The only notional or actual ‘Tory seat’ (after big boundary changes) won by Labour was in Broad Green, where Militant supporter Terry Fields was elected on a 72% turnout. We have recorded elsewhere – in The Rise of Militant and Liverpool: A City that Dared to Fight – that it was those like Kilfoyle and the right wing of the Labour Party who destroyed this by witch-hunting Marxists and socialists. The pitiful turnouts in the city in 2001 represented a rejection of the alternatives of the three major capitalist parties. Liverpool Council was now in the firm grip of right-wing reactionary Liberal Democrats. We wrote: “This is the epitaph of right wing New Labour in Liverpool.”7

The general election in Scotland was a non-event for many people with the turnout falling just as dramatically. Despite the differences we had with the leadership of the SSP, CWI comrades in Scotland continued to work within it. Our organisation, the International Socialists (CWI Scotland) made up eight of the SSP candidates. Excellent results were achieved by Ronnie Stevenson in Glasgow Cathcart (1,730 votes) and Jim McFarlane in Dundee West (over 4%), while Jim Halfpenny in Paisley North scored almost 1,000 votes (3.6%) and Harvey Duke in Dundee East polled 2.7%.  The SSP made a very creditable electoral intervention winning over 3% across Scotland, nearly 73,000 votes in total. In nine out of the ten Glasgow seats the SSP held its deposits, the best being Glasgow Pollok with 2,522. The other encouraging sign for the SSP was the vote in rural and island areas, such as the tremendous 4.6% in Orkney and Shetland. Throughout Scotland there was only one change of seat. The SNP lost Galloway, which was the sum total of the Tory revival in Scotland where they had been wiped out at the previous general election. The Lib Dems held onto their ten seats but made no other inroads.

Labour was the big winner in Scotland and on the surface emerged strengthened. It won 56 out of 72 seats with nearly 44% of the vote. Nonetheless, this disguised the steady erosion of its base with mass disillusionment on working class housing schemes over the issue of benefits, poverty and crumbling public services. In an article in Socialism Today Jim McFarlane and Harvey Duke concluded: “The CWI in Scotland has proven its ability to campaign and build the SSP while at the same time building a Marxist organisation within it.”8

The Tories had tried to play the asylum card, a variant of the race card, in a desperate attempt to split the working class. Hague promised to lock up all asylum seekers pending acceptance of their request or instant deportation, labelling them all as ‘bogus’. Retiring MP John Townend denounced the creation of a “mongrel society”. He referred to Britain becoming a “foreign land”. Prominent amongst the Tories’ election strategists was Andrew Lansley, later the butcher of the nHS, who openly boasted to the Observer that the Tories’ anti-immigrant propaganda in the 1992 election had “played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt” Labour.

This campaign took place despite the fact that official figures showed that the big majority of asylum seekers to Britain came from countries ruled by dictators, torn by civil war or subject to ethnic or religious persecution. Yet New Labour had not combated the Tory offensive. Indeed, at times, it appeared to be competing to scapegoat asylum seekers. The Sun, quoting ‘inside sources’ in Number Ten, announced that David Blunkett would be Home Secretary after the election. It concluded: “He’ll blitz asylum cheats.”9 Many of the themes the Tories are putting forward today were played out during this election – although then with little success.

The election campaign was, as the Socialist Party described it, a battle between “the lesser of two evils”, which was no choice at all.10 The bookmakers put Labour’s odds at 40 to 1 to win. What we called for was a vote for those who stood under the banner of a socialist alternative. The campaign was effective and the results established a good platform upon which to go forward. Overall, the Socialist Alliance pulled over 50,000 votes in England and Wales, with 31 candidates winning over 1,000 votes each. The Green Party doubled its votes compared to 1997, scoring 166,000 in 144 seats. The SLP stood with some important results as did independents.

Labour spokespersons like Jack Straw sought to explain the fact that millions turned away from the electoral process as an expression of the “politics of contentment”. Yet this election took place against the backdrop of strikes amongst postal workers, the threat of strike action by rail workers, riots in Oldham and Leeds, and big clashes in Aylesbury. It represented a significant deepening of the Americanisation of British politics. Poll expert John Curtice wrote that Labour “is no longer clearly the party of the working class or of those on the left in Britain. Its support fell by four percentage points in the most predominantly working class seats, while the party held its own in middle class seats. Some of those votes appear to be lost on an unprecedented scale to parties of the far left.”11

The 10.5 million votes for New Labour were actually lower than the number that Labour got when it was defeated under Neil Kinnock in 1992. Strikingly, there was a 6,000 drop in those who voted for Blair in his own constituency in comparison with 1997 – a 10% fall in turnout. We commented that voters took revenge on the aristocrats of New Labour in areas where the Millbank machine imposed its favourite sons or daughters on local Labour parties. For instance, Tory defector Shaun Woodward, who ran the anti-Labour propaganda for the Tories in the 1992 election, managed to reduce New Labour’s majority in the St Helen’s constituency by 50%.

In contrast, and highly significantly, was a radical fighting campaign conducted in the constituency of WYRE Forest where the candidate was a retired doctor. He defeated a Labour minister on the issue of the closure of Kidderminster Hospital and the removal of its services 80 miles away from where most people lived! Here, the turnout was significantly higher than the national average. This and the votes for socialists were indications of the new possibilities opening up. In fact, it was a symptom of a massive revolt against the privatisations carried out assiduously by New Labour. Faced with this mounting criticism they switched their approach slightly. In place of the mammoth manifesto promise to privatise everything not nailed down, they launched the slogan: ‘Education and Hospitals First.’ We commented: “If they were honest, they would have added at the end of the phrase, ‘to be privatised’.”

This is precisely what happened under subsequent Labour governments, with education seeing the widespread introduction of academies, the further privatisation of the NHS   and the dismantling of local government. At this stage polls showed 72% were opposed to privatisation and demanded the immediate renationalisation of Railtrack. Even sections of the capitalists, such as writers in the Financial Times and the Independent had made the case for rail renationalisation. The Daily Mail joined in, advocating that the railways should be taken back into public ownership. In an opinion poll 42% of those questioned suggested that even British Telecom should be renationalised. Yet it was clear that Blair, Brown and the New Labour cabal would take no notice, wedded as they were to a further programme of neo-liberal measures which had been at the core of the government’s previous four years in office.

Meanwhile, the Tory party was traumatised having been at the receiving end of its worst results since the 1830s. Its so-called ‘left’, led by Ken Clarke and former ‘wets’ like Michael Heseltine, pursued a policy of what we called ‘counter-revolutionary defeatism’ of their own party. They clearly recognised that they were going to be defeated under Hague but wanted the biggest possible defeat in order to “bring the Tory party to its senses”. They dreamt of the recreation of ‘One Nation’ Toryism but the soil for this to take root had disappeared through the ongoing and organic crisis of capitalism.

It was this that forced subsequent Tory leaders to lurch from ‘one nationism’ to right-wing flirtations with Thatcherism. This is illuminated by the political evolution of David Cameron, who later became prime minster. Originally, he flirted with so-called ‘compassionate conservatism’ only to move towards the right with his Chancellor George Osborne under the whip of the economic crisis. We commented just after the 2001 general election: “It is possible that the Tory party will be effectively marginalised and defeated in a third general election, so out of tune are they with modern Britain. In this election, the vote for the far-right, neo-fascist British National Party in Oldham was significant, where they came third in two constituencies with a combined total of 11,000 votes. This was a warning to the Labour movement and socialists.”12

This time there would not even be a semblance of the euphoria which greeted Blair’s first victory. His second term, we predicted, would be “more turbulent than the first”. So it proved to be. Belatedly, union leaders warned Blair of this. Even Dave Prentis of Unison and Ken Livingstone came out and said that private companies would not run public services more effectively. Unlike in 1997, public sector workers in particular had not greeted Labour’s re-election with any enthusiasm. There was a recognition that it was going to be four or five years of more of the same. Incredibly, one of Blair’s chief cheerleaders, Sir Ken Jackson of the AEEU, echoed the idea raised by Cabinet ministers that strikes should be outlawed in essential services! Time magazine wrote that, despite a seemingly unassailable position, “Britain’s real problems could crush [Blair] after election day”. They cited trains, schools, hospitals, race, crime and the euro as just some of the big immediate headaches he would face. Others would include the underlying economic situation, growing unemployment and sleaze, as well as strikes. The German magazine Stern warned that Blair’s much vaunted claim for economic progress was for a country that had a “Third World infrastructure”.13

Many of the policies he intended to pursue had been flagged up before the election. Blair reaffirmed his commitment to big business, telling Forbes magazine he wanted to make Britain “the number one place to do business in the world”. He boasted of Britain’s “flexible labour market”, and said: “I want to see far more emphasis on entrepreneurship in schools, far closer links between universities and business.” The Sun, still supporting Labour because it still supported Murdoch, called Brown “a socialist chancellor”. Nothing was further from the truth as Brown spent less in his first two years than the Tories would have spent had they remained in office after 1997. Public spending was cut by 0.6% in Labour’s first two years. The Tories spent more on the NHS.14