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Election 2001: A Dramatic Shift In Outlook
SUPERFICIALLY THE general election changed nothing in British politics. New Labour was returned by a landslide for the second time. Yet in reality, the election signified a dramatic shift in the outlook of people in Britain.
Hannah Sell, Socialist Party Campaigns Organiser
Turnout in the election plummeted by 12.5% to 59%. Four out of ten electors refused to vote. For the first time since 1923 the number of people who voted for the government was outnumbered by those who refused to vote.
Turnout fell most dramatically in working class, traditionally Labour supporting areas. Jack Straw, the new Foreign Secretary, tried to explain the appalling turnout away as showing the 'politics of contentment'.
Much more accurate was Paddy Ashdown's comment that voters weren't suffering from apathy but from antipathy to politicians.
The election took place against the background of strikes in the Post Office, and riots in Oldham, Leeds and Aylesbury. The Fire Brigades Union conference, meeting during the campaign, foreshadowed future developments when they passed a motion to start supporting 'non-Labour' election candidates.
Turnout fell most sharply among 25- to 35-year-olds, many of whom will have first voted in 1997. Millions of people, predominantly working class, refused to vote because they felt betrayed by New Labour's continuation of Tory policies in office.
Increased socialist support
ONE OF the most commonly expressed attitudes during the election campaign was 'what's the point of voting, they're all the same anyway'. This anger led to a semi-conscious 'boycott' of the elections by millions.
However, a glimpse of what could have happened if there had been a major party fighting a radical campaign was demonstrated in Wyre Forest. Not only did a retired doctor decisively defeat a Labour minister, on the issue of local NHS cuts, but turnout was substantially higher than elsewhere - at 68%.
The increased support for socialist candidates was also significant. The Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales doubled their average votes compared to 1997. Other Socialist Alliance candidates also received some good results.
Even the Socialist Labour Party, whose share of the vote fell, had some creditable results. Dave Nellist, Coventry Socialist Party councillor, received the highest vote of any socialist candidate.
New Labour's support amongst the working class fell but the election confirmed New Labour's popularity with another section of the population - the capitalists. New Labour is now the first choice of the majority of the capitalist class in Britain.
Every national newspaper (except the Telegraph) supported New Labour in this election.
This is hardly surprising, as Michael Heseltine commented in The Observer following the election: "Tony Blair talks about a third way, but that is rubbish. What he has done is consolidate the Tory revolution with a social democratic government. So you get new titles, new phrases, new language but the policies are the policies that the Tories forced the Labour Party to accept in the 80s and 90s. He has paid the Conservatives the greatest compliment of all by being like them without sounding like them."
Many workers, particularly older ones, voted New Labour to give them a second chance. However, hopes that New Labour will deliver in their second term are going to be cruelly shattered.
UNDER PRESSURE, the government may be forced to increase health and education spending. However, this will be linked to increased privatisation. During the election, Blair was blatant about his intentions to step up privatisation in the next four years.
In their election manifesto, New Labour talk about their vision for the next few years saying that "a spirit of enterprise should apply as much to the public sector as to business". In other words they want to bring private companies in to run more and more of our few remaining public services.
The manifesto even talks about surgical units in the NHS being managed by the private sector. As The Guardian pointed out on May 16: "Policy advisers close to Downing Street are proposing as a centrepiece of a Labour second term that private contractors routinely run swathes of publicly owned services, including clinical health services, school management and most aspects of local government.
If New Labour imagines that its parliamentary majority will mean that they are guaranteed an easy ride; they are making a big mistake. Virtually everyone who works in the public sector is opposed to further privatisation. NHS consultants have come out against the Private Finance Initiative. Under pressure from their members Bill Morris (general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union) and Dave Prentice (general secretary of UNISON) have, in the days after the election, been forced to publicly condemn New Labour's privatisation plans.
Unfortunately, this does not mean that they are willing to lead a serious struggle to defeat the government's plans. However, there will be mass opposition to further privatisation of services and the trade union leaders will come under huge pressure to act.
WHILST NEW Labour will face mass opposition to their policies amongst the population, inside Westminster's hallowed halls they are virtually unopposed. The Tories had a catastrophic general election.
It is clear that the Tory 'wets', such as Heseltine and Clarke, hope that the scale of the defeat will reverse the rightward march of the Tory Party.
However, they face a major obstacle - the membership of the Tory Party - who are overwhelmingly dyed in the wool Thatcherites. As a result the Tory Party is heading towards a vicious internal conflict which is likely to lead to splits. It is difficult to see how they can recover from their current crisis. Even the election of a 'moderate' Tory leader may not be enough to rescue them.
Kennedy has declared that the Liberal Democrats are "the opposition now". He correctly states that the election was not about which party would form the next government, that was already clear, but about who would form the opposition.
The Liberal Democrats aim to be the second party of capitalism in Britain, a safe second eleven. Wherever they have been in power in local authorities they have shown just how 'safe' they are, by carrying through the same programme of cuts and privatisation as the other parties.
However, there is no doubt that they gained in this election by appealing to 'Old Labour's' ground. They talked about increased spending on public services and of being the 'voice of the voiceless'. In the next period they could gain some electoral support on the basis of this kind of rhetoric.
However, opposition to Blair will come in the stormy struggles that are going to take place in the workplaces, in communities and on the streets against New Labour's policies.
The Communication Workers Union conference that took place during the election campaign gave a glimpse of the opposition New Labour's privatisation schemes will face.
Additionally, when the effects of the US recession hits Britain, it will mean huge increases in unemployment and poverty. The easy ride that New Labour has had to date will be over.
Socialist alternative needed
IT'S NOT automatic that discontent with New Labour will lead to an increase in support for the Left.
The votes that the Nazi British National Party received in Oldham (almost 12,000 across two constituencies) give a warning, how, if no alternative is on offer, the far right can capitalise.
However, the main trend in Britain is to the Left. The vast majority of the population is far to the left of all of the major parties.
Renationalisation of privatised utilities is supported by the vast majority - even the Daily Mail called for renationalisation of the railways. The experience of privatisation has forced renationalisation onto the agenda.
At present, it is only a minority who go further and consciously look for a socialist solution. But, on the basis of experiencing a second Labour term their numbers will grow dramatically.
In The Socialist 15 June 2001: