Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

Issue 39 contents

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 39, June 1999

The Politics of Discontent

    The state of the opposition
    The Liberal Democrats
    A new departure

The 6 May elections in Scotland, Wales and most of England delivered a crushing verdict on the New Labour government. JUDY BEISHON contends that the results show a marked change in the political situation, with the development of widespread anger at Tony Blair's Third Way project.

AFTER TWO YEARS of New Labour in power, most people expressed their disgust by abstaining from voting. The record low turnout, just 29% in the English council elections, reflects the huge degree of scepticism felt by a majority of people towards all the main political parties, and alienation from local and national government. On the day following the election, Labour cabinet ministers John Prescott and Margaret Beckett portrayed the low turnout as 'the politics of contentment', claiming there is general satisfaction with New Labour, so people did not feel a need to vote.

But the low turnout is the latest in a worsening trend. Increasingly, people recognise that there is now no substantial difference between the main parties, and that none of them act in the interests of working-class people. The turnout also reflects despair and disillusionment with New Labour. Expectations were not very high when Labour came to power, because its political shift to the right led them to make no promises that would improve the lives of ordinary people. Nevertheless, there were still hopes that Blair would deliver something; hopes that are rapidly being shattered.

In Labour's strongest heartlands, many people were angry enough to turn their back on the party they had supported for decades, either not voting, or voting for an opposition candidate. Ex-Labour leader Neil Kinnock's old constituency, Islwyn, saw a phenomenal desertion from Labour in the Welsh assembly election, transforming what was once a 30,000 majority for Labour into a majority for Plaid Cymru. Across the Welsh valleys as a whole, Labour's vote fell by 20% compared with their 1997 general election performance. Plaid Cymru were the main beneficiaries of this anger - achieved by having positioned themselves to the left of Labour, and by not advocating independence. Their vote was therefore not a mainly nationalist vote, but primarily a vote of opposition to the cuts and corruption of Labour councils, and attacks carried out by the Blair government.

  Labour also lost votes heavily in its previously strong areas of Scotland, and in many areas in the north of England. It suffered its biggest losses in areas worst affected by the recession in manufacturing. Over the last year, 130,000 manufacturing jobs have gone, and the situation is worsening. Export orders are declining at their fastest rate since the early 1980s, and the number of companies going bust rose by 24% in the first quarter of this year compared with the previous quarter. Labour did better in the south of England, where continued growth in the service sector of the economy has had more affect. But it is only a matter of time before the recession in manufacturing spreads to the service sector, laying the basis for a big erosion in Labour's support in the south too.

Labour tried to paper over the cracks by saying that any party in government usually gets a much lower share of the vote in local elections than they got on this occasion. However, their share of the vote was not an indication of lasting confidence in them; the factors that contributed to it will change. The present small rate of growth in the economy will soon peter out, and while support for Blair's intervention in Kosova undoubtedly aided Labour in these elections, this can quickly turn to scepticism or outright opposition as the nightmare situation faced by the Kosovar Albanians continues, or if British troops become more directly embroiled in the war.

Also, a major factor is the complete disarray of the Tories. Many ex-Tory voters have been repelled from switching back by the in-fighting and ideological confusion in the party. Moreover, they see Blair doing the Tories' work more effectively than the Tories themselves can at this stage, so why bother to vote Conservative? Again, this will change. Although the Tories are unlikely to make a rapid short-term recovery, as Labour's problems and unpopularity increase, the Tories can begin to recover some of their former support.

  top     The state of the opposition

IN THE 1997 general election, the Tories suffered their biggest defeat this century, so recovery is a massive task. In the elections in Scotland and Wales, their support was reduced even further, although they had the compensation of gaining seats due to the introduction of elements of proportional representation (PR). Without PR, the Tories would have no seats in the Scottish parliament, and only one in the Welsh assembly. They regained just enough council seats in England and Wales (mainly in the south of England) to ensure William Hague's survival as party leader for now, but the next test comes with the Euro-elections on 10 June, so Hague is still battling for his position.

The introduction of PR in the Euro-elections may well save the face of the Tories, and Hague with them, by ensuring they get enough seats. But they still fear the impact on their vote of the Pro-Euro Conservative Party, and the UK Independence Party. Both parties are standing in all areas, and will also benefit from PR along with other small parties. Hague's best protection as leader is the lack of a suitable successor. In any case, a recent ICM poll showed that any other Tory leader would get no better electoral results than Hague anyway! With Labour now being an uncompromising party of big business, the Tories are reduced to thrashing around for an ideological niche and direction. With failure at the next general election clearly in sight, recriminations and turmoil inside the party will inevitably continue.

In Scotland and Wales, however, the character of the opposition to New Labour is different. Devolution is already a major problem for Blair, with his expectation of a majority in the Welsh assembly not being realised, and with his more predictable failure to achieve a majority in the Scottish parliament. Labour's leaders in Scotland and Wales will come under the pressure of the nationalist parties - the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru - who positioned themselves to appear more left and radical than Labour. The momentous election of Scottish Socialist Party candidate, Tommy Sheridan, to the Scottish parliament, and the spectacular victory of Dennis Canavan, who was expelled by Labour and stood as an independent, will also put pressure on Labour, causing difficulty for them.

There will be huge tensions between Labour in Westminster, and Labour in Scotland and Wales, with the latter two trying to consolidate their positions and avoid being seen as poodles of Westminster. Despite his large majority, Blair is facing problems closer to home in pushing through the Welfare Reform Bill against the opposition of over 80 Labour MPs. In the Scottish parliament, Labour will be compelled to rely heavily on partnership with the Liberals, not just to pass legislation, but also to defeat opposition from their own left-wing when necessary.

  top     The Liberal Democrats

THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS had a net loss of five councils and an overall net loss of council seats, but increased their share of the total vote by 3%. They were jubilant at gaining control of Sheffield council. They also gained Stockton, and doubled their share of the vote in Liverpool. These gains were predominantly votes against Labour. Labour in Sheffield, the base of David Blunkett (Education secretary), had long presided over cuts and the build-up of huge debts as a result of grandiose projects. In Liverpool, people are still recoiling from the attacks and incompetence of the Labour administration that began its period in power by witch-hunting councillors who were part of the popular council, led by Militant (now the Socialist Party) in the1980s.

The Liberals struggled to increase their vote in Scotland and Wales despite PR, but have gained some prominence in both countries now that Labour are forced to resort to power sharing. But coalition with Labour in Scotland, and any temporary pacts resorted to in Wales, will create strong opposition inside the Liberal Democrat Party. Already, many Scottish Liberals are angry that their leader, Jim Wallace, is backing down on his pledge to demand the abolition of student tuition fees in Scotland. Wallace will try to override this opposition and eventually ratify tuition fees in some form or other, to satisfy Labour, and keep his place in the Scottish parliament's cabinet. But the issue will not end there; this argument will encourage students throughout Britain to renew their campaign to defeat the fees completely.

In time, the Liberals will prove to voters in the cities they control that they are just another party of big business, attacking services and jobs in the same way as the Tories or Labour. This will add further to the despair and alienation felt by working-class people in those areas, until it is cut across by the rapid development of a socialist alternative, in the form of the Socialist Party, together with the likely development of a new workers' party at some stage.

  top     A new departure

THE INTRODUCTION OF elements of PR, and devolution itself, have opened up new opportunities for small left parties and independent candidates. This is combining with increased opportunities stemming from anger against Labour's attacks on living standards and Blair's authoritarian methods. Canavan's victory is likely to encourage some new independent candidacies in the future. Ken Livingstone could decide to break with Labour and stand as an independent in next year's elections for the Mayor of London. The Scottish Socialist Party benefited from PR, and along with other opposition beneficiaries, will certainly have caused Blair to recoil to some extent from introducing PR to local and all-Britain elections.

The Socialist Party celebrated the election of its second councillor, Karen McKay, who will join Dave Nellist on Coventry council. Socialist Party candidates achieved good votes in many other areas of England and Wales, such as the 14% share of the vote gained by Pete Glover in Orrell in Merseyside and the 12% by Mick Griffiths in Wakefield. Many locally-based campaign groups did well, such as the Residents Against Sarp Pollution (RASP) campaigners in Killamarsh, who gained over 40% in parish council elections, or the Tameside care workers in Manchester, three of whom each gained over 10%, beating both the Tories and Liberals.

Overall, these elections mark a new departure in Britain in several respects: the introduction of PR and its effects; devolution, providing new forums for the testing-out of political parties; and, as shown by the attitude of the electorate, increasing anger and disillusionment with New Labour. A high level of discontent has been revealed by abstentions, and through votes for parties and candidates standing in opposition to the main political parties. These trends will develop further in future elections. They also give notice that changes in consciousness are taking place, which will be reflected in workplace and community-based struggles in the coming period, as well as on the electoral plane.

Home | Issue 39 contents | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page