Local elections: A death blow for Blair?

Local elections: A death blow for Blair?

THE 2006 council elections in England have increased the pressure on
Tony Blair and New Labour. The results show a continuing and increasing
disaffection with the establishment parties. Socialist Party candidates
scored some important victories, as detailed elsewhere. In this
feature Hannah Sell gives an analysis of the national implications of the

THE RESULTS in last Thursday’s local authority elections were a
devastating blow for New Labour and could be a death blow for Blair. In
the aftermath of the election the mainstream press have concentrated on
the civil war in the government – a civil war based primarily on
personalities and power – and in doing so have covered up the real
political issues.

Having lost 479 seats in the 2004 local elections, New Labour now lost
another 319 last Thursday. They won a mere 26% of the vote, compared to
40% for the Tories.

The government has been trying to comfort itself by pointing out that
it went on to win the general election in 2005, despite appalling local
election results the year before. However, the last general election
showed not the popularity but the unpopularity of New Labour and all the
mainstream political parties.

It was the first general election where more people abstained than
voted for the victorious party. The government was elected with the
lowest percentage of the popular vote, 36%, of any governing party in
Britain’s history: the most unpopular party to form a government since
the 1832 Reform Act.

These local elections told exactly the same story. The Tories made
considerable gains, winning 317 seats and are jubilant that they have
finally reached the golden 40% figure – the first time they have done so
since 1992. Finally, they hope, they have stopped flat-lining and set out
on the road to power. Given the crisis in New Labour, this cannot by any
means be ruled out. But in fact this time they only achieved a 2%
increase on their 2004 result.


One advantage New Labour has over the Tories is that they are seen as
more trusted to run the economy. Traditionally this has been the preserve
of the Tories but in an astonishing historical turnaround it is now an
advantage to New Labour.

Like the Tories before them, they manage the economy in the interests
of big business, not working-class people. However, they have been able
to get away with this because of a continuation of the relatively
‘benign’ economic situation.

True, low wages force millions to get by now through working longer
hours. But, as yet, the bottom has not completely fallen out of the
British economy. However, even official unemployment figures are now
beginning to creep up and this can change completely, long before New
Labour is forced to go back for a ‘mandate’.

The Tories’ biggest problem, however, is that they still bear the mark
of Cain for the crimes they committed during their eighteen years in
power. In the major cities of the North they failed to make any
breakthroughs. In Manchester they do not have a single councillor!

It will take more than a new young ‘Blair-style’ party leader to dim
the memory of Thatcher’s vicious anti-working class policies.

This is also true for the vast majority of working-class people in the
South and Midlands. However in these regions, a section of middle-class
voters, who exist in greater numbers particularly in London and the South
East and perhaps even a thin layer of workers, seem to have voted Tory.

This reflects a number of different things. Many will have been
traditional Tory voters who temporarily abandoned their party because of
the stench of Thatcherism but are now turning out again. The Liberal
Democrats suffered as a result.

However, the Tory victories in London also seem to be because of a
greater drop in the Labour vote than in other areas. This reflects the
depth of anger that exists in London, where the underlying crisis of
British capitalism is in many ways more sharply expressed – with the
housing crisis, the most expensive transport system in the world and the
scale of under-resourcing of public services.


Nationally the turnout, while still higher than many local elections
in recent years, fell to 36% from the 40% turnout in 2004.

The majority of working-class people abstained from the election
because they could see no significant difference between the cuts,
privatisation, lies and corruption of the ‘big three’ capitalist parties.

No wonder. The ‘cash for peerages’ revelations, which affect all the
mainstream parties, is not accidental. Any party that prostrates itself
before big-business will inevitably end up mired in financial sleaze. For
most of those who benefited from New Labour’s largesse – peerages were
the icing on the cake – the real spoils were the ‘right to buy’ public

Several of those nominated were involved in running city academies.
The scandal may have meant that Dr Chai Patel, chief executive of Priory
Healthcare, has had to miss out on a peerage. But his company is still
making super-profits from buying up chunks of the NHS.

It is inevitable that the capitalists’ only interest in public
services is to make profits from them. Even the right-wing Sunday
Telegraph declared that: "Until civil servants appreciate that private
companies are out to make money and will do all within their power to
extract the best possible returns, the taxpayer is always going to come
off worst."

New Labour, however, have taken their worship of the market to
unprecedented levels, believing that the market is best at everything. In
this year’s budget Gordon Brown announced an almost doubling in PFI
contracts to a massive £53 billion-worth. This has been combined with a
huge escalation of other forms of privatisation, including city academies
and NHS Direct Treatment Centres.

At the same time they are demanding that health Trusts balance their
books, leading to swingeing cuts. Pennine Acute Trust for example, in the
latest of a long list of job cuts, has announced it will cut 10% of its
workforce, taking the total toll of proposed NHS job cuts to over 10,000.

The cuts in the NHS, the destruction of the remnants of social housing
and the threatened closure of Peugeot Ryton, one of the only car plants
left in the West Midlands – the traditional centre of the car industry,
have all added to the deep seated disillusionment with New Labour. The
continuing sore of Iraq also remains an important factor.


The far-right racist British National Party (BNP) more than doubled
its number of councillors to 46 in this election. New Labour spokespeople
have tried to blame everyone but themselves.

Even the hapless Labour Minister Margaret Hodge has been blamed,
because she blurted out that eight out 10 voters in her constituency were
considering voting BNP. While she exaggerated, her warning was confirmed
when 11 BNP councillors were elected in the area.

This really is a case of shooting the messenger! Her explanation that
the BNP would increase its vote because "white working-class voters feel
Labour is not listening to their concerns" and were angry "at the lack of
housing" was accurate, although she had no solution to offer.

New Labour listens not to the working class, white or otherwise, but
to big business.

The BNP play a pernicious role in whipping up racism. New Labour and
the other mainstream politicians express their outrage at this, yet they
have all been prepared at different times to use ‘anti-asylum seeker’
propaganda to shore up their popularity. It is against this background
that the BNP have been able to get an echo.

It is not a coincidence that BNP leader Nick Griffin called David
Blunkett his "best recruiting sergeant". Moreover, the primary blame for
the growth of the BNP lies at the door of the Blairites for destroying
any element of working-class representation in the Labour Party.

The BNP are winning votes by falsely posing as a party of the white
working class. When elected they show that they are nothing of the sort.
In Burnley, the BNP councillors didn’t even turn up to the council
meeting where council tax rises and £1 million-worth of cuts were voted

In Stoke, BNP councillors voted in favour of a dramatic rise in
council tax, equal to almost double inflation. As a result the BNP
appeared not to have done well in some areas with experience of their
record as councillors. In Oldham, for example, where they made one of
their first breakthroughs in 2002, they only stood three candidates, none
of whom were elected.

However, it would be a major mistake to rely on the BNP’s own
incompetence to undermine them. It is crucial that socialists actively
campaign against the BNP.

In the early 1990s, when the BNP got their first councillor elected,
Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), along with other organisations, led
a mass movement which successfully undercut the BNP.

YRE’s main slogan was ‘jobs and homes not racism’. This is equally
applicable today. But after nine years of Labour government,
disillusionment with all mainstream parties is far deeper than it was

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, was quite right to say in the
Guardian in response to the BNP’s increased vote: "It is clearer than
ever that New Labour is turning away working-class voters in droves
because it is trying to out-Tory the Tories. Working men and women need
policies that put their interests first not the failed Tory policies of
privatisation, PFI and giving big business everything they ask for."

Bob Crow rightly has no illusions that New Labour can be shifted
decisively to the left whether or not Blair stays as prime minister.
Blair may survive the latest bout of infighting but he is now a liability
for New Labour. MPs and councillors want to cling on to power and above
all to their salaries and increasingly believe that their best hope of
doing so is to get Blair to stand down as soon as possible.

It is this which is motivating most of those MPs who have started to
openly demand that Blair should go, or at least set a timetable for his
departure. However, they are deluded in imagining that getting rid of
Blair would wipe out the effects of New Labour’s policies of cuts,
privatisation and war over the last nine years.

Brown, who remains the most likely successor to Blair, has repeatedly
made clear his leadership would not mean "a shift to the left".

A Brown election might temporarily increase New Labour’s poll ratings,
as some workers cling to the hope that he is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’
but reality would soon tell a different story. Brown would be a
‘lame-duck’ prime minister from the start, continuing with fundamentally
the same policies and unable to clear up the mess Blair had left behind

New workers’ party

What is needed is the formation of a new workers’ party that stands in
the interests of the working class. Last week’s election results bring
the need for such a party forcefully home.

The only way to decisively cut across the BNP is to move towards
founding a new mass party of the working class which brings together
community campaigners, socialists, left and radical environmentalists,
socialist greens, disaffected trade unionists around a fighting socialist
anti-cuts and anti-privatisation programme. Bob Crow, who agrees with the
need for such a party, has, along with other left trade union leaders, a
responsibility to help bring it into being.

A glimpse of the potential for such a party was shown by the votes
received by the Socialist Party and others on the left in this election.
In addition to those socialists who stood, the Green Party, which is
generally seen as ‘left’ by those who vote for it, got very good votes in
some areas.

Although it was around a single issue, the election of Socialist Party
member Jackie Grunsell on behalf of Save Huddersfield NHS showed how a
new broad party could gain momentum. The Liberal Democrats ran a ‘red
scare’ campaign in the ward but to no avail.

The turnout in Crosland Moor and Netherton, where Jackie was elected
was 49%, the highest in Huddersfield. Workers who don’t normally vote,
having demonstrated against the NHS cuts, came out to vote for the NHS
campaign. Jackie was elected with 2,176 votes, giving her a majority of


New Labour is facing increasingly active and organised opposition from
sections of the working class. In March, local government workers took
part in the biggest strike since 1926 in defence of their pension rights.
Railway workers are also likely to have to take strike action on

The civil servants’ trade union (PCS) has again had to strike against
the decimation of the Department for Work and Pensions.

At the same time, local community campaigns are organising mass
campaigns against the cuts in the NHS, which need to be linked together
in a national demonstration. Crucially, increased trade union action
needs to be combined with the development of a political alternative to
argue in the interests of the working class.

The Socialist Party initiated the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP)
in March which has received an excellent response from rank and file
trade unionists and community campaigners. Over the coming months CNWP
will be stepping its campaigns.