Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/391/4431
General Election 2005:
Stormclouds gather over Labour's 3rd term
IT WOULDN'T have come as much of a surprise to most people when they woke up on Friday 6 May and found that New Labour had been elected for a third time. For several weeks the opinion polls had been predicting a Labour victory. But a drastically reduced majority will have taken the shine off Blair's 'historic' third term.
Blair himself could well be forced to go before he has seen that term out. He has been enormously weakened and had to be propped up by Brown at every stage of the election campaign.
This will be a crisis government coming into major conflicts with the working class. New Labour's manifesto was a declaration of war on the public sector.
If they get their way privatisation of public services will be stepped up another gear. Huge swathes of the NHS and education will be opened up further to the 'market' through a massive extension of City Academies, Foundation Hospitals, private treatment centres, PFI etc offering a massive bonanza worth billions of pounds to big business.
During the election campaign even doctors and surgeons appeared in the national press with dire warnings about the threat Labour's policies pose to the NHS.
The threat of strike action by over one million public sector workers before the election to defend their pensions was an indication that workers will not be prepared to accept these attacks without a fight back.
In particular, economic storm clouds are gathering which threaten to shake this government, whether led by Blair or Brown.
"I think Tony Blair's choice of 5 May was apposite" wrote economic adviser Roger Bootle in the Observer (1 May). "If he had delayed it until the autumn, he could have been in serious trouble".
Events can change very rapidly as John Major and the Tories found when they were elected in June 1992. Within just three months Black Wednesday struck, when Britain was forced out of the European exchange-rate mechanism, and the Tories have still not recovered from the damage that disaster inflicted on them.
The anti-Labour vote
IT LOOKS as if the turnout in this election was slightly up on 2001, mainly because of the 400% increase in postal vote applications.
Nevertheless, this was still one of the lowest turnouts since the First World War and in no way could these results be interpreted as a ringing endorsement for Blair and New Labour's policies.
It was clear from campaigning in the election, talking to working-class people on the doorsteps, that for many Blair had become a hate figure, much as Thatcher was in the 1980s. 62% of people thought he had lied about the war in Iraq. 'If he could lie to us over something as important as going to war how can we believe anything he says?' was how many people felt.
He was seen as such a liability by some Labour MPs, especially those in marginals or where there was particular opposition to the war in Iraq, that they kept his photo off their election material and kept their fingers crossed that he wouldn't visit their constituency!
But it was not just anger at Blair as an individual. Opinion polls showed that on health, on education and on Iraq more people thought Labour had failed than succeeded. According to Mori, 52% disagreed that "in the long-term the government's policies would improve the state of public services".
But the dilemma that people faced was who do you vote for when the three main parties are competing over who can privatise the most services, who can cut the most public-sector jobs and who can manage capitalism best for big business?
The anti-Labour vote was fragmented with no one party benefiting. The Tories made some gains, especially in London, but they they could not take sufficient advantage of the discontent with New Labour. For much of the election they ran a dirty campaign, concentrating on asylum and immigration and whipping up racism which encouraged Bob Spink, the Tory candidate for Castle Point in Essex, for example, to produce a leaflet saying "send them back".
Howard and his advisers believe that the Tories had no choice but to employ new strategy. New Labour long ago took over their territory and stole most of their policies. Asylum and immigration was seen as the one issue where they had an 'advantage' and which they could use to galvanise their core vote and win over a layer of working-class voters.
But in the end they found that not enough people were 'thinking what they were thinking'. Asylum and immigration was an issue in the election but on its own was not enough to win it for the Tories.
Ask most people why they are concerned about asylum and immigration and they say it's because they are worried that the NHS, schools and housing are overstretched. But every time Howard opened his mouth on these issues it conjured up memories of Thatcher, like Banquo's ghost haunting the election campaign. And Blair was able to use that as a spectre to scare a section of voters who had been turned off Labour into reluctantly voting for them as the 'lesser evil'. In fact, Blair's election strategy could be summed up as 'vote for us we're not the Tories'
Having suffered a third Tory defeat, Howard may not survive long as party leader. But serious divisions are now likely to open up about where the party should go from here
Posing (falsely) as the anti-war party it was the Liberal Democrats who benefited most from the discontent with Blair and New Labour over war in Iraq in particular, with some very big swings from Labour to the Liberals in traditional Labour seats. But they did less well in seats they were expecting to take from the Tories, revealing the impossibility of facing in two directions at the same time. The Liberals made some gains but they have failed in their aim of replacing the Tories as the second party of big business.
Respect also made gains in constituencies with large Muslim populations, in particular in Bethnal Green and Bow where former Labour MP George Galloway beat Labour's Oona King. In Brighton Pavilion the Green Party secured 22% of the vote and the Socialist Party and other anti-establishment parties gained creditable votes in many areas.
The results for left anti-establishment parties gave a glimpse of how a new workers' party could begin to channel the anti-Labour mood and give a real voice to working-class people. At the same time, the results for the BNP show how, in the absence of such an alternative, discontent can also be reflected to the far-right.
BLAIR WAS determined that the economy should be centre stage in the election campaign.
He and Brown boasted of eight years of uninterrupted economic growth - the longest since records began. And there's no doubt that this was one factor in Labour's victory. It was one of the few issues which people gave New Labour a positive rating on.
But the collapse of MG Rover, with the loss of over 20,000 jobs, put the economy under the spotlight in a way neither Blair nor Brown wanted.
The closure of the last British volume car producer revealed the feeble state of British manufacturing - 600 manufacturing jobs are being decimated every day. And, in the words of the Financial Times, what happened at Rover unmasked the 'ugly face of capitalism'.
Of course, they would have us believe that there is a 'nicer' face; that the Phoenix Four were particularly unscrupulous and greedy bosses in the way that they milked MG Rover to enrich themselves.
The Economist, however, was more honest when it wrote:
"The idea that these wicked individuals are responsible for what has gone wrong may be comforting but it is also dangerous. It allows people to avoid pinning the blame where it really belongs - on the law of economics...".
Capitalism is by its very nature an exploitative system in which the capitalists compete to maximise their profits at the expense of the working class. Rover's collapse is symptomatic of the underlying crisis of capitalism in Britain and internationally. And it is a pointer to future economic convulsions which will shake Brown and Blair's optimism and the system they represent.
The British economy, as with the rest of the world, is heavily reliant on the health of the US 'economic engine', but this is being fuelled by massive levels of debt which are unsustainable.
"Circumstances seem to me as dangerous as any I can remember" said Paul Volker, who was chairman of the American Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, "and I can remember quite a lot".
An unravelling US economy will have a disastrous effect on the emaciated British economy. The warning signs are already there. Last year take-home incomes fell on average in real terms.
Growth in the housing market is slowing down and house repossessions went up by 35% in one year. This is already impacting on people's ability and willingness to spend, particularly given the high levels of personal borrowing and debt which is increasing at the rate of £1 million every four minutes! Retail sales are at their weakest for 13 years.
"The central charge is that the UK appears worst placed, if there were a global slowdown in the next few years"wrote Hamish McRae in The Independent (20 April) "... you could say that - on economic grounds - this is one [election] you want to lose."
The task of building a new party
BUT NEW Labour have won, and through them the capitalist class are preparing now, even before an economic downturn, for the battles ahead.
They want to maintain their profits through attacks on workers' jobs, pay and working conditions, and through the destruction of the post-war welfare state.
During the election campaign Digby Jones, head of the bosses 'union' the CBI, summed it up when he challenged New Labour "to look voters in the eye and say 'you pay'" (FT 6 April).
Economists are almost unanimous in disagreeing with Brown's optimistic economic forecasts. Taxes will have to go up or public spending cut or both because of the projected budget shortfall - £11 billion according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. And that is without a world recession - Brown's 'black hole' could turn into a black chasm.
The proposed attacks on public-sector pensions and jobs announced before the election were just a taster of what is to come, with the prospect of major clashes with public-sector workers in particular. Blair says he he wants his reforms to be as "irreversible" as Thatcher's. Well, Thatcher famously said she was 'not for turning' but both she and the poll tax were ditched when a mass movement of 18 million people refused to pay.
Blair temporarily found his reverse gear just before the election when the threat of strike action by over one million public-sector workers forced him to retreat over his pension plans.
Just one issue like that could become a lightning rod for the discontent which is accumulating against low pay and inequality, job losses, privatisation, council tax increases, attacks on incapacity benefit and all the other grievances that working-class people have.
The campaign to defend public-sector pensions also showed the role that socialists can play within the trade unions in articulating workers' anger, developing a strategy and pressurising union leaders into preparing for strike action.
That work will become even more important now in preparing and organising for the battles to come, including the building of a new working-class party.
The majority of trade union leaders campaigned in this election for a Labour vote. They refuse to make the break politically or organisationally with the party, desperately clinging to the false hope that when Brown replaces Blair at Number 10 the pro-market, anti-working-class policies will be reversed.
This is wishful thinking on their part. At the press conference to launch Labour's manifesto, Brown was at Blair's side enthusiastically supporting the extension of privatisation in health and education.
He was there to back Blair when the Attorney General's advice on Iraq war was published, saying that he would have done the same if he were Prime Minister, in effect 'aiding and abetting' Blair's lies.
Tony Benn was completely wrong to suggest as he did during the campaign that New Labour is "returning to what it was". Blair can be confident that his 'legacy' is safe with Brown who is 100% signed up to the same big-business agenda. The language and style might change slightly under a Brown government but the substance will be fundamentally the same.
It was the experience of privatisation and strike action over pay, combined with socialists and trade unionists raising the issue, that led to the RMT and FBU severing their link with New Labour.
Under the impact of future struggles, which could develop quite soon into this government, workers will conclude not only that they need to make that break but that they need political representation and begin the task of building a new party.
The Socialist Party stood in this election to use the opportunity to speak to thousands of people about the need for such a party as well as to promote socialist ideas.
After MG Rover went into administration the Financial Times wrote in its editorial (9 April)
"The only comfort is that so few people are calling for the government to step in to save Rover".
In fact, as the BBC acknowledged, the Socialist Party was the only party in this election calling for the nationalisation of Rover to save workers' jobs.
In a third-term Labour government, as the so-called economic miracle is seen to be the mirage that it really is, our demands, including public ownership of the major companies under democratic workers' control and management and the need for a planned economy will increasingly be taken up by working-class people as they correspond with their own experiences of the anarchy and brutality of the capitalist system.
In The Socialist 6 May 2005: