|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Blair’s election defeat
May’s local elections exposed the deep discontent in British society. The remorseless attacks by Blair’s government on living standards and public services are fuelling widespread anger. As a result, New Labour lost over 300 council seats. The main beneficiary was the Tories. Parties and independents on the left also gained. But a stark warning was also issued by the gains made by the far-right BNP. PETER TAAFFE writes on the post-election situation.
THE 2006 LOCAL elections in England were a graphic illustration of the present political mood as well as an important pointer to future political developments in Britain as a whole. These elections were held in 176 local authorities. All seats were contested on the 32 London borough councils. One third of seats were contested in 36 metropolitan boroughs, 20 unitary authorities and 82 shire district councils. Half the council was elected in a further six shire districts.
The Tories made net gains of eleven councils and 317 seats. Labour had net losses of 17 councils and 320 seats. The Liberal Democrats gained one council in net terms, and were almost unchanged in terms of seats. The far-right British National Party (BNP) won 32 seats, an increase of 27 on its pre-election position. The Greens won 30, an increase of 21. The Socialist Party won increased council positions and now has seven councillors. In Huddersfield, Jackie Grunsell, a Socialist Party member standing under the banner of Save Huddersfield National Health Service, scored a spectacular victory with a majority of 807 in a big turnout for a local government election of just under 50%. Respect, the party founded by ex-Labour MP, George Galloway, together with the Socialist Workers’ Party, won 16 seats, an increase of 13.
The Conservatives won 39% of the national equivalent of the vote, Labour scored 26%, its second-worst result in these kinds of elections since the end of the second world war. The Liberal Democrats received 25%. The turnout was approximately 37%, down by about 2% on the last time that these elections were held.
Although only partial – elections were not held in Wales or Scotland, for instance – they nevertheless are a devastating verdict on the rule of New Labour and its main figure, prime minister Tony Blair. In fact, many workers who went to the polls on 4 May viewed it as a referendum on his rule since 1997. The ebbing away of support for New Labour has been compared to the coastal erosion of Britain, with cliffs and villages falling remorselessly into the sea. This was indicated already in the general election last year, which showed that Labour had lost four million votes since 1997. This decay and decline has been confirmed in these elections, with New Labour now six to eight points behind the Tories in the polls. Blair is now the second-most unpopular prime minister, on 26% personal rating, behind Harold Wilson after he devalued the pound in 1967.
Yet those who skulk in the Blairite Number Ten Downing Street ‘bunker’ are afflicted with the same air of unreality as Margaret Thatcher and her acolytes in her last days in office. The conclusion that the Blairites have drawn is: "They basically said people were angry with Tony because they love him so much and are angry because they think he might go". (The Observer, 7 May)
As significant as the rout of New Labour is the re-emergence of the Tories, particularly in the south and London. They achieved 40% of the vote – their best result since 1992 – with David Cameron’s British version of ‘compassionate conservatism’ fully on view. His slogan of ‘Vote Blue, Get Green’ was calculated to hoover up the environmental vote, although his eco-friendly posturing was somewhat undermined when it was discovered that while he rode his bike to work, his clothes to change into were ferried in his car!
The election showed a north-south split, with the Tories failing to make any significant headway: in Liverpool, for instance, they still do not have a single councillor. Despite the attempts of Cameron to renovate his party, to dispel the ghost of Thatcherism, he still has the mark of Cain inherited from her disastrous rule. This accounts for the fact that a layer of former, older Labour workers, and others – as well as some sections of the middle class who have gained from Labour’s public sector ‘reforms’ – resorted to a ‘nose peg’ and reluctantly voted Labour to keep out the Tories.
The far-right protest vote
OTHERS COMPLAINED THAT their nose-peg had been broken from overuse and protested by voting for minority parties! Some went to the left of Labour in votes for the Socialist Party, the Greens, and Respect. Others shifted towards the far-right BNP, which has now a significant foothold in areas such as Barking and Dagenham, in parts of the West Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
This could signify that ‘Europe’ has now come to Britain in the form of the BNP. In a number of countries in Europe – France, with Jean-Marie le Pen’s Front National, Vlaams Belang (formerly Vlaams Blok) in Belgium, Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) in Germany, Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party) in Austria, etc – there are now significant far-right organisations, some with a semi-fascist wing. Whether a stable far-right organisation could now develop in Britain is an open question. One thing is clear, however: a large part of the BNP vote came from workers in revolt against the betrayals of New Labour who were determined to punish Blair at the polls.
Whether this protest vote will cohere behind the BNP and enable it to become a substantial and stable far-right will partly depend on the resistance of the organised labour movement and the left. This will not be achieved by a rehash of the methods which to some extent worked in the 1970s. Propaganda and pop concerts – which have their place in the broad anti-fascist movement – are inadequate by themselves in defeating the BNP today. The BNP leadership has attuned its propaganda to appeal precisely to workers who in previous periods would have gravitated behind the banner of the labour movement and even to the left.
This far-right, fundamentally anti-working class organisation has sought to fit itself out in some ‘Old Labour’ clothes discarded by Blair and the Blairites. For instance, it says demagogically: "The BNP will take the railways back into public ownership as a single company". And, in relation to Iraq: "It’s time to take our soldiers home from America’s Iraq war". It even claims to stand for "strong trade unions… to protect the workers from exploitation".
The far-right, fascistic or neo-fascist organisations, beginning with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, have always mouthed ‘socialistic’ phraseology, calculated to appeal to the working class and sections of the disillusioned middle class. This did not alter their character as largely a middle-class phenomenon playing the role of the watchdogs and hounds of capitalism used to smash and atomise the working class and its organisations.
The BNP is presently far from this perspective. It can and will be defeated. The immediate repercussions of its success will be a heightened anti-fascist consciousness and determination to confront it, by workers and particularly young people. We will expose the character of the BNP and explain how to fight it and, perhaps as importantly, how not to confront it in the charged situation that will open up in Britain. The Blair government, if it continues for any length of time, will play into the hands of the BNP and, more importantly, of a renovated Tory Party.
Cameron has also had a disastrous effect on the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. They flat-lined in the elections. This is a consequence of the shift back by those former Tory voters and even a layer of workers who left their ‘traditional’ moorings in protest against Thatcher and her successors. Cameron has sought to win them by his noises on the environment, as well as slapping the wrists of big business for "selling over-sized chocolate bars" (WH Smiths), and "sexy underwear" to ten-year-old girls (BHS). The adoption of a neo-liberal programme by the Liberal Democrats – enshrined in its Orange Book – has also alienated its more radical members.
An orderly transition?
IN ANTICIPATION OF an electoral disaster, Blair had flagged up, in advance, a reshuffle of his cabinet the day after the elections. This was meant to distract attention from the results but had precisely the opposite effect. Charles Clarke, the hapless home secretary, was thrown to the wolves because of his complicity in the release of ‘up to 1,000’ prisoners who ‘should have been deported’. In a frantic effort to recover lost ground, he announced before the election that all foreign prisoners would now face automatic deportation. If this was carried out in an indiscriminate fashion – with people jailed for minor crimes facing deportation, thus punishing their families – it would be a gross infringement of civil liberties.
Contrary to what the rabid right-wing press, such as the Daily Mail, argues, socialists and Marxists are not ‘soft’ on crime or criminals. Working people in many areas of Britain are plagued by petty criminals, vandalism, etc. But these are a product of the social breakdown of society which, in turn, have been shaped by the calamity of Thatcherism – "there is no such thing as society" – compounded by the policies of New Labour. Demagogically, Blair, before coming into office, promised to be "tough on the causes of crime as well as crime itself".
Despite introducing 43 pieces of legislation on crime, the problems have not been solved. Anti-social behaviour orders and curfews against young people, which have mushroomed, will not solve crime or the sense of isolation, deprivation and alienation which go a long way to contributing to it. Though not in a simple and straightforward fashion, the provision of jobs, rising living standards, a sense of social solidarity, and giving a stake to everybody in society is a more effective way of eliminating crime and criminals than the sweeping ‘law and order’ measures of New Labour and all the ‘official’ parties. Only on the basis of a social change, which poses the issue of socialism, can crime and criminality begin to be tackled. This does not preclude specific, concrete measures today to protect working-class communities from the social blight which is a consequence, ultimately, of poverty and the breakdown of society as well as the philosophy of capitalism’s dog-eat-dog society.
Clarke’s dismissal was followed by the demotion of Jack Straw from foreign secretary to leader of the House of Commons. The press speculated that this was because of his description of a possible US-led military attack on Iran as "nuts". This did not fit in with Bush and Blair’s agenda. But it subsequently emerged that his real misdemeanour was to suggest, on his visit to Baghdad with Condoleezza Rice, that Iraq’s then prime minister, Ibrahim Al-Jafaari, was not the only one who was "reluctant to leave office". This was taken and probably meant as a hint that Blair should vacate Number Ten! This is just one expression of the poisonous atmosphere of intrigue and jostling for personal position which inflicts New Labour – centred on the continuing saga of the Brown-Blair imbroglio. This took a new turn in the aftermath of the May electoral debacle.
Gordon Brown warned Blair to remember that "when Mrs Thatcher left… it was unstable, it was disorderly and it was undignified". This was interpreted by Blair and the Blairites as a thinly veiled threat of a ‘coup’ unless there was an ‘orderly transition’, that is, Blair should get out as soon as possible and make way for Brown as the new prime minister.
Significantly, the broad mass of New Labour MPs, who up to now have clung to the coattails of Blair as a ‘vote winner’, seem to be undergoing a change of mind. They could be compared to the ‘plain’ – the broad mass of ‘neutral’ assembly men during the French revolution who supported the dominant force in power at any one time so long as their interests were defended and enhanced. However, once their position was in danger they turfed out the incumbent!
Blair once brazenly boasted: "I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs. What keeps it together is power". (Hansard, 30 November 2005) But this election shows this may no longer be the case as electoral nemesis looms for big swaths of New Labour MPs. If things go on as they are at present, Blair’s continued leasehold on the prime minister’s office threatens their parliamentary positions and everything that goes with them.
Public services revolt
BROWN’S STRUGGLE FOR the throne is not primarily ideological. He is "New Labour to his fingertips", as Blair admitted. Moreover, he is more responsible for many of New Labour’s policies than others in the cabinet: the catastrophe of privatisation and, particularly, of the private finance initiative (PFI) which has added to the crisis in the health sector. This was illustrated by a recent House of Commons committee of enquiry which showed that PFI sharks in Norwich had pocketed over £80 million in ‘overpayments’ from PFI contracts. The committee characterised this as "the unacceptable face of capitalism", but absolutely no punishment was suggested for the parasites who had profited from this. Compare this to the fining of half-a-million pounds and banning from office of the Liverpool city councillors for an alleged, ‘notional’ loss in interest payments because they set a rate late.
This has added to the opposition – now of volcanic proportions – which has erupted over the crisis in the National Health Service (NHS). Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, got a whiff of this when she addressed the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) conference. She boasted that the past year had been the "best ever" for the NHS, which resulted in such a tirade of booing and hissing that she was unable to finish her speech. Health spending has been pushed up in the past couple of years – it had been relentlessly held down by Brown with public expenditure as a whole in the previous period – but most of the benefit has been cornered by higher-paid managers and doctors with only limited benefits to patients and health workers. The outcry at the RCN conference ranks alongside the treatment meted out to Blair at the Women’s Institute conference a few years ago, when he was also forced to leave the stage to catcalls. When Hewitt addressed the health conference of the public-sector union, Unison, jeers and laughter greeted her claims of "vast improvements".
This revolt is just one manifestation of the mass opposition to the growing social and economic decline which Britain faces. Ultimately, this also explains the civil war in the top echelons of the Labour Party. Its much-vaunted education ‘reforms’ are widely discredited. The rich applicants to set up academies, it has now been revealed, donate only peanuts - £2 million for a school – while receiving the backing of billions of pounds from the state. The fact that few, even in the ranks of New Labour, support its education bill is the very reason why the government will push on. They are attempting to lock Brown into Blair’s ‘reforms’ of the public sector which, in reality, are massive counter-reforms. Half-a-million children are in schools without head teachers because of the stress of working under the ‘performance-related’ and ‘testing’ regime.
Priding themselves as ‘managers’ of the system, the mania of New Labour for targets and performance-related pay bears a striking resemblance to the crude techniques practiced under the Stalinist bureaucracies of Russia, Eastern Europe, etc. Because power was vested in a remote, bureaucratic elite, production was judged by its ‘extensive’ character – crude output of tractors, for instance – and not by ‘intensive’ features of quality, design, etc. In a mirror image of Stalinism – albeit based on a different social system, capitalism – New Labour’s education policies will turn out androids, perhaps in the image of Hazel Blears, rather than rounded-out individuals! This fits in perfectly with capitalism’s current needs for unthinking industrial automatons geared to maximising profit.
Fleecing the workers
IN THE ECONOMIC sphere, the wheels are coming off Brown’s economic bandwagon. The current balance of trade is disastrous, with industrial exports now no more than 40% of the total. Exports as a whole do not cover the stream of imports flooding into Britain. Under successive Tory and New Labour governments, Britain has been converted from the former ‘workshop of the world’, or at least a factory, into a bank!
Capitalist economists take comfort from the fact that Britain’s exports of services and tributes from investment abroad currently plug the gap in the balance of trade and, therefore, the British ship of state will continue to travel smoothly on calm economic waters. However, there is a deadly combination of circumstances looming which may, even if it does not sink this ship, severely puncture it below the water line.
British capitalism has benefited from a regular supply of cheap labour. This has limited the income of the working class resulting in a colossal wealth polarisation. Labour MP, Michael Meacher, has revealed that, according to the government’s own figures, 11.4 million, a fifth of the population, still live in poverty while, last year, the average FTSE 100 chief executive earned £32,633 a week – 408 times the state pension and 185 times the minimum wage! (The Guardian, 11 May) Commenting on this massive disparity, the former deputy chairman of Lloyd’s said: "God would not have made them sheep if he did not intend them to be fleeced".
The pockets of the bosses have also bulged further as a result of a new supply of cheap labour from immigration. This race to the bottom has reached such a stage that Polish workers who have been in Britain for three or four years complain that they are being undercut by their fellow countrymen and women who have come here in the recent period and are prepared to work on less wages.
The recent rise in unemployment, together with the dire housing crisis and the supply of cheap labour from abroad, has undoubtedly assisted the BNP in some areas. This is only possible because the labour movement has not effectively countered the anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant policies of the BNP by counterposing the need to draw these workers into the unions and fight for a living wage for all, linked to a programme to build affordable homes, provide jobs on a living wage, etc.
Despite this supply of cheap labour, Britain now is not unique in having low unit-wage costs, which have meant higher profits for the employers. The neo-liberal measures which created these conditions in Britain have spread to Europe, particularly Germany, where real wages are relentlessly being driven down because of ineffective resistance from the right-wing trade union leaders. This tends to undermine British capitalism’s previous advantage. International developments are also conspiring against a continuation of Brown’s ‘economic miracle’.
The economy in Britain may still develop by 2% or more in the next year, but world economic storm clouds are gathering which could severely undercut the rosy perspectives of Brown on the economic front. The recent sudden, temporary collapse in commodity prices which, in turn, affected share prices on the London stock exchange could be a heat lightning warning of what is to come. Andrew Glyn, a left-wing economist, was correct when he warned in the Financial Times about the consequences of the measures that world capitalism has taken to extend the present economic cycle: "Stable economic conditions themselves encourage greater risk taking. Financial innovation may have thickened the financial elastic, but it is becoming more and more tightly stretched. Who can be confident that it will not snap?" (26 April)
The much-lauded contribution of ‘services’ to the coffers of British capitalism is modest when compared to the contribution of exporting goods. Only £21 billion was earned by Britain in 2005 overseas earnings from the provision of insurance, banking and other financial services, which was just one-tenth of the earnings from the export of goods.
At the same time, Brown has been fortunate to have been chancellor during a growth phase of the world economy. That will come to an end in the next period – not necessarily measured in weeks and months. But such are the piled-up contradictions of world capitalism that there could be a sudden collapse in which the weakness of British capitalism will be starkly revealed. This will impact decisively on already fragile living standards in Britain.
Official inflation figures are a fiction. Some food prices may be stagnant or may even have dropped, and clothes, because of the flood of Chinese imports, may likewise be low-priced. But so-called ‘non-essential’ items, videos, haircuts, sports facilities and holidays, have all climbed in price. Moreover, so low are the wages in Britain – the majority of the population are below £28,000 income per year – while these prices and housing costs soar, industrial action on the issues of wages, notwithstanding the tame trade union leadership, can break out in the next period. Post Office and Usdaw shop workers are both balloting for strike action. There is the ongoing struggle within the civil service, with Department of Work and Pensions workers involved in a series of strikes over job cuts.
Class conflict ahead
MORE CONFLICT LOOMS on pensions with strike threats from local government and rail workers. For the first time since 1926, the majority of rail unions are threatening to act together. The redundancies proposed in the NHS, which one report in April says could reach 100,000, will also ratchet up social and industrial collisions, posing the possibility of a clash between the government and an increasingly angry workforce joined by ‘health users’.
The conclusion to be drawn from this analysis of the post-election situation is that even if there is not a world economic crisis the ruthless pursuit of neo-liberal policies by the capitalists is preparing the ground for a huge conflict between the classes in Britain. There are some parallels today with the situation which obtained before the first world war. The crucial difference between then and now, however, is that mass political parties had been built or were in the process of being built in the pre-1914 years.
That, unfortunately, is not yet the case now. This has some deleterious consequences for the labour movement today. In the recent election, there were unmistakable signs of an ethnic polarisation in some areas reflected most markedly in support for the BNP by communities of predominantly white workers. This was evident particularly in areas which ‘interface’ with inner-city areas whose inhabitants felt threatened by ‘incomers’ and fear worsening social conditions. Such an area was Barking and Dagenham, where the BNP in the five previous by-elections had built a base with an average support of 35% of the electorate.
This support can be undermined but only on the basis of clear policies and the building of a new mass workers’ party to replace the discredited New Labour model. This is shown by the developments in Germany where the WASG has begun to cut across the attractiveness of the far-right to a layer even of workers who have been repelled by the shift towards the right by German social democracy. This is what the NPD recently said about the WASG: "The secession of the WASG Left, away from the Left Party-PDS could have repercussions for the NPD. In the forthcoming regional state elections in Berlin and Mecklenburg Vorpommern, they [the NPD] will be confronted with an opponent who will try to attract voters on the basis of fundamental political opposition". (Deutsche Stimme)
This underlines the urgency of creating a new mass formation of working-class people in Britain which can act as a pole of attraction to those workers who otherwise could be pulled into the poisonous orbit of the BNP. This party has not yet got a serious implantation in the working class but developments in other countries in Europe should serve as a warning. In Belgium for instance, in 1987, the Vlaams Blok, the far-right, semi-fascist Flemish party got no more than 1.9% in national elections. In 1991, it shot up to 6.6%. There was almost a direct correlation with the collapse of the Berlin wall and the shift towards the right of the ex-workers’ mass political organisations in Belgium and the rise of the far-right. A further degeneration in a neo-liberal direction of these parties and the shift towards the right of the trade union leaders meant that the Vlaams Blok capitalised on the vacuum which has existed and won 11% in the national elections in 2003. In the Flemish parliament, its success is even more pronounced. In 1999, it got 15.8% of the vote, which climbed to 24% in 2004. In the electoral district of the port of Antwerp in 2004, 30% voted for the Vlaams Blok.
Without question, if the labour movement and the working class had created from the outset the beginnings of a mass workers’ party in Belgium, the success of the Vlaams Blok could have been severely undermined, if not nullified. The same applies to other countries in Europe.
A Brown future?
THE THREAT OF a resurgent far-right party like the BNP cannot be dismissed and needs to be fought. However, the main political developments in Britain in the next period will partly centre on the conflicts at the top of New Labour, particularly the continuing clash between Blair and Brown. Although Blair promises to continue in office for at least a year longer, a sudden collapse and his resignation cannot be ruled out. This partly depends upon events, both in Britain and internationally.
Huge battles loom on the NHS, pensions and education. A by-election will take place in the seat of the late independent Labour MP, Peter Law, in Blaenau Gwent, South Wales. His widow, Trish Law, is standing on an independent ticket and could beat the New Labour nominee. This may further unnerve the ‘plain’ in the Parliamentary Labour Party, thus undermining Blair’s position. Therefore, a Brown premiership could be on the cards sooner rather than later.
Yet Brown is the twin pillar of the New Labour project and is viewed in this fashion by the more politically developed sections of the labour movement and the working class. This means there is already suspicion of him by active workers even before he takes over from Blair. However, it is likely that in the initial period there could be widespread illusions amongst the working class as a whole that a different route will be opened up to the labour movement should he assume the reins of power. "We treasure the deceit that uplifts us rather than the thousands of burdensome truths", as the Russian proverb puts it. The outriders for Brown, if not Brown himself, have made sufficient ‘Old Labour’ noises to foster the illusion that Brown will be different.
The Blairistas want Blair to remain at the helm for as long as he can as a means of locking in Blair’s ‘reforms’ which Brown will therefore be forced to preside over. In fundamentals, Brown will be no different to Blair, and this will be grasped by the British people and the working class at a certain stage. Yet he could initially create the impression that the ‘old order’ has been discarded by some changes he will introduce. For instance, he could withdraw the troops from Iraq, scale down some of the more blatant ‘marketisation’ policies, and water down or kick into the long grass the education bill, assuming that it has not been buried before then. This would not represent a return to ‘Old Labour’, ie reformist policies underpinned by the distant aim of ‘socialism’. But it may be sufficient to stabilise a Brown regime, even complicating temporarily the formation of a large new mass workers’ party.
However, radical and leftward-moving workers in general will not be reconciled to Brown. The parliamentary left is weak organisationally, and even more so ideologically. Its only philosophy is more of the same: further conferences in July organised by the Labour Representation Committee with another siren call for people to join the Labour Party and ‘change its course’. In the charged social and political atmosphere which will develop in Britain, even if the bottom does not drop out of the world economy, the prospects for genuine socialism and Marxism have increased by the outcome of the recent elections.
The prospects for the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party have been heightened by the results. Huddling together in the ‘muddled middle’, all three traditional parties offer no solution. A new turbulent and radical period is opening up in Britain in which the ideas of genuine socialism and Marxism will find a greater and greater echo.