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Labour's meltdown is Left opportunity
WHEN TONY Blair first made plans for a London Mayor, the last thing he envisaged was the election of Ken Livingstone. He had in mind a figurehead and direct representative of big business, or at least a loyal Blairite Labour Party member. Livingstone's victory is a massive humiliation for the government, as JUDY BEISHON explains.
NEW LABOUR sent out one million leaflets urging Labour voters to support Labour candidate Frank Dobson. The Sun, the Mirror, and the London Evening Standard urged their readers not to support Livingstone. But, despite all this, Dobson ended up in third place, with only a third of the votes of Livingstone, and half of the votes of Tory candidate, Stephen Norris.
This was Labour's worst election result in London since 1982. 46% of Labour voters deserted Labour to support Livingstone, who gained his spectacular victory with no party apparatus campaigning for him.
Towards the end of the election campaign, Labour knew their fight for the Mayor's position was hopeless, but expected to gain a good majority in the London Assembly. This hope was shattered with the election of only nine Labour Assembly members, the same number as the Tories.
Labour also suffered a major setback in the local elections held in many parts of England, losing 573 council seats. They lost towns and cities that have been Labour strongholds up to now, such as Oldham and Hartlepool. Most voters stayed at home; only 30% of the electorate voted; reflecting widespread disgust at Labour.
There were experiments in some areas to increase turnout by using new voting methods, such as increased postal voting and supermarket or mobile polling booths. Turnout increased in these areas, but these methods will not be able to reverse the massive degree of cynicism towards the main political parties which fuels voter abstention.
THE GOVERNMENT'S recent attempts to increase its popularity by announcing more money for the NHS and plans for a further small increase for pensioners (£2 per week) were not enough to inspire people to go out and vote Labour. Instead, there is a strong and growing distrust of the government, and great anger towards Labour councils, fuelled by the many anti-working class measures Labour has taken locally and nationally.
Having made concessions on the NHS and pensions, Labour continued its attacks on the welfare state by announcing that benefits for unemployed men over 60 years old will no longer be automatic. And there is no let up in their plans to privatise parts of air traffic control and London Underground.
The government is also failing at present to offer hope to the tens of thousands of Rover and Ford car workers and workers of car industry suppliers whose jobs are threatened. A warning was sent to Blair with the cutting of Labour's majority on Birmingham council from 36 seats to 15 seats. He will be forced to heed this warning and offer public money to potential business bidders who promise to continue some production at the car plants. But given worldwide over-capacity in the car industry, Phoenix's takeover deal with BMW will invariably mean asset stripping and major job losses. The only way to safeguard all workers' jobs is to nationalise the car plants, which is far from being on Blair's agenda at present.
THE ELECTION debacle for Labour, particularly in London, has led to unease amongst Labour leaders on the party 'reforms' that Blair has pushed through in recent years. The small number of activists remaining in the party have been repelled by the leadership's 'control freakery' in Wales, over the selection of Euro MPs, and in fixing Frank Dobson's selection as London Mayoral candidate.
The leadership has felt compelled to propose changes to selection methods, and a slowing of pace of other 'reforms' such as the abolition of area General Committees. It is inevitable that there will be further recrimination and increasing turmoil among Labour leaders following their electoral slump.
However, this does not mean that the stance of Labour will shift to the Left. The party bases itself entirely on pro-market policies, and although Blair has expressed some minor regrets about his heavy-handed style, he has also said that his biggest mistake was not giving Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown a cabinet seat.
INCREDIBLY, JACK Straw resorted to blaming the feebleness of Tory opposition for Labour's losses. He is suggesting that it would be better to have a more right-wing reactionary Tory Party in order to scare Labour voters to the polling booths regardless of Labour policy!
Tory leader William Hague partly obliged him by outdoing Labour's anti-asylum seeker and anti-crime rhetoric. This clearly played a role in getting out a section of the Tory vote in some areas. But the main reason the Tories gained around 600 seats in the local elections was general disgust with Labour and abstention of traditional Labour voters.
This was also the case with the Tories' performance in the London elections, where the turnout was only 33%. Tory candidate for Mayor, Norris, also increased his vote by distancing himself from the Tory leadership and by portraying himself as a champion of civil liberties.
A better indication of the Tory's standing was shown in their trouncing by the Liberals in the Romsey parliamentary by-election. Here the turnout was 60%, in a seat that has historically been a safe Tory area. Yet, here former Tory and Labour voters voted Liberal in order to kick the Tories out.
No Tory opposition leader in 100 years has presided over a worse result in one of their party's own seats. It is a major defeat, and one which would have put Hague's party leadership on the line if it were not for their election results elsewhere.
It shows that the Tories are still far from achieving victory in the next general election.
The general perception is still that fear of a Tory comeback is likely to see Labour returned but with a reduced majority at the general election. However, given the degree of anger against Labour and the potential of economic recession along with other potential problems for the government, it couldn't be excluded that a hung Parliament, with no party in majority, could result.
Left and Green vote
ONE INDICATION of the disenchantment with the three main parties was the size of the Green vote in London. They received 10% of the vote in the constituencies, and 11% of the vote for the top-up seats, gaining them three Assembly seats. They were aided in this achievement by Ken Livingstone's call on people to vote Green for the Assembly.
The four left lists that stood for the top-up seats and Peter Tatchell standing as an independent received 5.33% of the vote in total, with the London Socialist Alliance getting 1.63% (27,073 votes), and the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation 1.05% (17,401 votes).
The London Socialist Alliance also received 2.93% in the constituencies (46,530 votes), with Socialist Party member Ian Page receiving 3,981 of those votes in Greenwich and Lewisham.
These are good votes for the Left at this stage, but they strongly reinforce the argument of the Socialist Party for a united Left list. A united list and a well-organised campaign would have achieved a vote greater than that of the fascist BNP (who received 2.87%), and would have achieved the 5% needed to gain an Assembly seat.
The mass disillusionment with Labour, combined with an increasing interest in voting for Socialist candidates - the Socialist Party gained a third councillor in Coventry - and an anti-capitalist mood amongst a section of young people, reveal clearly the need for a new mass workers party.
New workers' party
KEN LIVINGSTONE is in a strong position, with the authority gained by 776,427 votes, to initiate a conference of trade unionists and all others interested in forming the beginnings of such a party.
Unfortunately, he is showing no inclination to take this opportunity. He has distanced himself from socialist ideas, preferring to portray himself as a London populist who will stick up for Londoners and work well with all the main political parties and with big business.
A BBC opinion poll showed that the main reason people voted for him was because they believe he will stand up for London, with a second reason being his ability to stand up to the main party leaders. His policies, or lack of them, were not a significant factor, not surprisingly as he tried to avoid policy statements.
If he had introduced left-wing measures into his election programme, he would have inspired many working-class people in London and the numbers turning out to vote would have been much greater.
Nevertheless, people will be expecting him to continue his fight against partial tube privatisation, to intervene against job losses at Fords in Dagenham, and to speak out against future government attacks. There are also hopes that transport will improve.
Although most Londoners don't believe the Mayor can make much difference to anything, Livingstone will only be able to retain the popularity he has now if he moves into opposition to the pro-capitalist position of Labour. At present, he is still asking for restoration of Labour Party membership.
When the economy moves into recession with a resulting escalation in job losses and other hardships, and even greater hatred of Labour, Ken Livingstone's support will fall if he maintains allegiance to Labour.
However, no matter what Livingstone does in future, his present act of standing against Labour and gaining the support he has, marks the start of a new period. Trade unionists will increasingly question and challenge the funding of the Labour Party by their unions, and inevitably, at some stage, there will be concrete moves by workers to set up a new party.
In The Socialist 12 May 2000: