61. Outcome of the 2005 general election


A general election took place in May 2005. In its run-up we warned those workers we could reach not to expect significant benefits from New Labour. There was not much hope for the likely third term for Blair and Brown. In the election, only a relatively small number of seats would have socialists contesting them. In Scotland the SSP contested every seat. In England the Socialist Party stood 15 candidates as part of an electoral alliance, the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, which provided workers in 30 seats with the chance to vote for candidates with socialist ideas. Respect, led by George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party, stood in 28 seats. However Galloway, it should be recalled, had missed the opportunity in 2003 to launch an open, democratic formation – standing on an explicitly socialist programme – which would have had the possibility of drawing in other forces. Without any serious challenge from the left, it was not surprising that the central social and economic issues did not dominate the election campaign. Although the Socialist Party sought to draw attention to the underlying explosive situation, which would form the background to the next government, the trade union movement, particularly at leadership level, adopted a wait-and-see policy until after the election.

The outcome of the election was almost preordained, with Blair and New Labour returned for a ‘record’ third Labour term. Margaret Thatcher had also won three elections but was now so discredited that even Tory leader Michael Howard distanced himself from her regime early on in the campaign. The outcome of this contest was hardly a ringing endorsement of the New Labour ‘project’. The government’s majority collapsed from 166 to 66, with its percentage of the popular vote (36%) the lowest of any governing party in history – the most unpopular party to form a government since the 1832 Reform Act. Labour’s vote was lower than Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1974, which scored 39%. The Tories on the other hand flat-lined, gaining seats but with 32.4% of the vote this was just a 0.7% increase on their disastrous showing in 2001. The Tory leader quickly said he would resign; he already had “something of the good night about him”.1 The only age group in which the Tories led was the over-65s with 42% voting for the Tories.

The British National Party recorded its best vote at a general election. In Barking in East London, it achieved its highest share of the vote in any Parliamentary constituency (17%) beating the Liberal Democrats into third place, and only losing out to the second placed Tories by just 27 votes. In neighbouring Dagenham it notched up 9%.

On the left, the Respect party of George Galloway was successful in Tower Hamlets in beating the Blairite apologist Oona King. Galloway’s election campaign undoubtedly tapped into the mood of radicalisation and anger at New Labour – particularly amongst the poorest sections of Muslims. Around 40% of the electorate in the constituency were Muslim, with many of them having broken with New Labour as a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as their increased repression in Britain. We called for a vote for Respect and welcomed Galloway’s victory but he did not draw the obvious conclusion from his victory that a new party was needed. In fact, he mistakenly raised the idea that Respect could play a part in the process of “reclaiming” the Labour Party that had only recently expelled him!

John Curtice in the Independent, in a one-sided way, described it as “the best performance by a far-left party in British electoral history”. We commented that if this had been the case, it would be a cause for celebration for all of those on the left looking for an alternative. Unfortunately, despite the electoral success of Respect, as we pointed out many times, it was too narrowly based, gaining support from Muslims but not from the non-Muslim sections of the working class, even in Tower Hamlets itself. Respect continued to be narrowly based and focused on one section of the working class, which led to its eventual demise as a serious force on the left. Galloway wasn’t the only ‘independent’ who received significant votes at this election. Anti-war campaigners Reg Keys and Rose Gentle, both of who had lost sons serving in the armed forces in Iraq, stood as independent candidates in the election. Reg Keys received 10.3% of the vote and Rose Gentle 3.1% where they stood. Moreover, Wales Assembly Member Peter Law was dumped by the Labour Party nationally who then imposed a Blairite candidate on his Blaenau Gwent constituency party. He then won the seat as an independent with a massive majority of 9,121!

Most importantly, the estimated 1.1 million votes lost by Labour between 2001 and 2005 arose from disillusionment at the Iraq war. Nevertheless, the relentless pounding away on the theme of ‘don’t allow [Tory leader] Howard in by the back door’ had an effect on certain sections of the working class and others who otherwise would have been prepared to desert Labour and look for a more radical left option. The election had shown that there was no longer a stable core for Labour, as New Labour imagined. For the three main established parties (New Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Tories) it was a ‘non-ideological’ contest between different management teams for control of ‘Great Britain plc’.

All pretence of collective leadership during the campaign was brushed aside by the leaders of the parties as the election became a contest between virtual ‘presidential’ candidates. This was personified by Blair, who adopted a more ‘humble’ posture. But even after that electoral setback, the day after the election in Downing Street he still uttered the phrase: “I, we, the government…”

The majority of the capitalists – reflected in the stance of the media – were prepared to extend their support to Blair in this election. Not just The Sun, but The Times, the Economist reluctantly – “No alternative, alas” – and, most importantly, the Financial Times lined up behind Blair. The Financial Times declared that Britain no longer had a “business party” and an “anti-business party”. They pointed out that the gap between Michael Howard’s Conservatives and Tony Blair’s Labour Party was smaller than that in the previous US presidential election between Republicans and Democrats. This brutal assessment, we said, demonstrated beyond doubt that New Labour was unremittingly a pro-business party, in sharp contrast to the forlorn hankering of sections of the Labour left for Labour to return to its roots as a working class party at its base.

It was not just the performance of the right within Labour but also the so-called ‘left’ which repelled working people. For instance, Neil Gerrard, erstwhile left MP for Walthamstow, astonished teachers in a hustings debate in his constituency, also involving the local Socialist Party candidate, when he approved PFI specifically for the local hospital, Whipps Cross, and the setting up of educational academies. An academy had been previously defeated in a successful campaign involving the Socialist Party. Even left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn, in his constituency manifesto, praised the government for investment in his seat and particularly singled out Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt! We commented: “Tell that to the Rover workers who were made redundant while she stood aside like Pontius Pilate and did nothing!” The demoralisation of the left was indicated by the defection to the Lib Dems of Brian Sedgemore, previously a member of the left Campaign Group of MPs and Parliamentary Private Secretary to Tony Benn from 1978 to 1979 in the Labour government.

It was no accident that capitalist commentators drew the comparison with this election and the 1992 election, which was “an election to lose”; ‘Black Wednesday’ followed with devastating consequences for the Major government. Blair was now clearly a lameduck Prime Minister who threatened to become a ‘dead duck’. The same fate also awaited Gordon Brown because of the earth-shaking economic events that were to unfold.2