Socialism Today            Socialist Party magazine

Britain’s growing discontent

The general election in Britain returned New Labour to power with a large parliamentary majority for the second consecutive time. But far from being an endorsement of Blair’s policies, a deepening disillusionment and anger with establishment politics has been exposed. PETER TAAFFE, Socialist Party general secretary, analyses the election and outlines perspectives for Blair’s second term.

ON THE SURFACE, the results of the June general election signified no change of the political landscape of Britain. Yet the election indicated a huge shift in the attitude of millions of people. Labour has secured an overwhelming majority in parliament but not amongst the electorate. The Tories have not advanced since the disaster of 1997 (indeed, have slightly fallen back), while the Liberal Democrats have benefited with their opportunist stance of situating themselves to the left of New Labour on the political ground once occupied by ‘Old Labour’.

Yet the most decisive fact of the 2001 British general election is the massive drop in the turnout, by 12.5%, of those who were eligible to vote. Four out of ten electors – some 17 million people – refused to vote. This was the lowest turnout since the general election of 1918 (when electoral administration was disrupted by the first world war); with just over 26 million people voting compared, for instance, to almost 29 million in 1950 when the population was much smaller (by nine million or so) than it is today. Even as recently as 1992, almost 34 million voted. Tony Blair is the first prime minister since 1923 to discover the day after his election victory that those who voted for him were outnumbered by those who did not vote. Moreover, turnout was far lower amongst the young – only 38% voted – while 79% of the older voters turned out. Preliminary figures seem to indicate that it was the 25-35 year olds who were the biggest abstainers.

Most significant was the disastrous drop in those who voted in the so-called Labour heartlands. The lowest turnout was in Liverpool Riverside where a mere 34% of electors voted. In a whole series of seats, the turnout fell below 50%. In John Prescott’s seat, the New Labour deputy prime minister up to the election, only 46% voted, a drop of 12% compared to four years earlier. And yet at the last election, when the number of those who voted was also down on previous post-war elections, not one seat recorded a turnout of less than 50%.

Labour spokespersons, like the new foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have tried to explain this turning away by millions from the electoral process as an expression of the ‘politics of contentment’. Yet this election took place against the backdrop of strikes amongst postal workers, the threat of strike action by rail workers, as well as riots in Oldham, Leeds and big clashes in Aylesbury. The election represents a significant deepening of the ‘Americanisation’ of British politics. The degeneration of the Labour Party into another capitalist party similar to the Democrats in the USA has effectively disenfranchised millions of ‘traditional Labour’ voters. This resulted in a conscious, or semi-conscious, voters’ ‘strike’ in protest at the policies of all the parties, but particularly by working-class people who feel abandoned by Blair’s New Labour party.

John Curtice underlined this when he wrote in The Independent: "Labour is no longer clearly the party of the working class or of those on the left in Britain. Its support fell by four percentage points in the most predominantly working-class seats, while the party held its own in middle-class seats. Some of those votes appear to have been lost on an unprecedented scale to parties of the far left…

"Despite the party’s attempts to appeal to its heartlands during the campaign, there is still considerable disenchantment among some of its core voters.

"Meanwhile, according to a telephone poll for the BBC by ICM on Thursday, when it re-interviewed 825 people who had been contacted over the weekend before polling day, Labour’s pattern of support acquired an unprecedentedly middle-class character.

"Thus compared with the results of a similar BBC poll in 1997, Labour’s vote was up five percentage points in the AB socio-economic group, and down just three among C1s. But it fell by nine points among C2s and ten points among DEs. Labour is now more likely to be regarded as a middle-class party than a working-class one. According to the ICM/BBC poll, just under 57% think that the Labour Party looks closely after the interests of working-class people, while 68% believe it looks after the interests of middle-class people. In 1987 the equivalent figures were 89% and 58%". (9 June)

Undoubtedly, there were objective factors which explained the victory of Blair’s party in this election. On the one side, despite the gathering economic storm clouds from across the Atlantic, the economic boom in Britain has not yet fully exhausted itself. Sections of the population, particularly in the South and the Midlands, swallowed the arguments of Blair for more ‘time’ and another chance to implement policies beneficial to the majority of the population. Moreover, the memory of the disastrous policies of the Tories’ Thatcherite years is etched into the minds of the British people. William Hague, the Tory leader, conjured up the spectacle of a return to that period when he appeared alongside the ‘Mummy’, Thatcher herself, in the course of the election. Given the disastrous state of the public services in Britain, in comparison even to the more developed capitalist countries of Europe, the programme of Thatcher of further tax cuts accompanied by savage reductions in education and the National Health Service (NHS), repelled the overwhelming majority of the British people.

The favoured party of capital

YET DESPITE THE economic situation, there was little enthusiasm – indeed massive discontent – expressed in the election, especially by those who have not benefited from the lopsided boom of the 1990s, the poor, single parents, workers in the public sector and ordinary trade unionists. The disenchantment with New Labour is reflected in the election statistics both in general and towards Blair and New Labour luminaries’ performance in the election. The 10,707,000 votes for New Labour were actually less than the number that Labour got under the defeated Neil Kinnock in 1992. Moreover, there was a 6,000 vote drop in those who voted for Blair in his own constituency in comparison with 1997 – a 10% fall in turnout. Voters took revenge on the aristocrats of New Labour in areas where the Millbank machine imposed, in an authoritarian manner, their favourite sons on local Labour Parties. For instance, Tory defector, Shaun Woodward, who ran the anti-Labour propaganda for the Tories in the 1992 general election, managed to reduce New Labour’s majority in the St Helen’s constituency by 50%. The three alternative left-wing candidates standing against him dented Labour’s vote by a combined 4,100.

New Labour spokespeople, in answer to arguments such as the above, have pointed to the higher turnout in the marginal constituencies as an indication that the ‘politics of contentment’ really held sway. Undoubtedly, where a closer battle was fought in the 150 or so marginal seats (out of 650 seats contested) the battle was more intense and interest was higher. But even there the turnout was significantly down on 1997.

Highly symptomatic, however, of what would have happened if a radical, fighting campaign had been conducted, was indicated by the result in Wyre Forest. Here a retired doctor defeated a Labour minister on the issue of the closure of a local hospital and its removal to a distance of 18 miles away from where most people in the area lived. Here the turnout was significantly higher (68%) than the national average.

Elsewhere, however, except where the socialists, against great odds, presented a case, there was nothing to galvanise the millions of dissatisfied into voting in this election. The campaign was the dreariest and dullest in the history of elections in Britain. Even capitalist commentators remarked that the choice on offer between New Labour and the Tories was a ‘managerial’ one, between two groups competing for control of capitalist Great Britain plc.

Indeed, as far as the overwhelming majority of the strategists of capital were concerned, Labour was their preferred choice in this election. In the past, in periods of economic or social difficulty in particular, the capitalists were compelled to tolerate a Labour government. However, the dual character of the Labour Party, with a bourgeois leadership at the top but a working-class, socialist base, always presented a latent danger and a source of concern for the capitalists. Hence, when the ‘Moor had done his duty’, that is, Labour had stepped in to bale out capitalism in its difficulties, Labour governments were usually undermined and subsequently defeated. This was the fate of the Labour governments of Ramsay MacDonald of 1924 and 1929-31, as well as the last Labour government before Blair’s government, between 1974-79. From the standpoint of capitalism, the purpose of Labour governments was to hold the working class, and particularly the trade unions, in check. When it no longer proved capable of doing this, the colossal power wielded by the capitalists through the media was used to create the basis for bringing down or defeating such governments.

But the counter-revolution carried through by the Blair-Mandelson axis, in policy and organisation within New Labour, has removed this threat. Labour is now a completely capitalist party. This was reflected in the election by the overwhelming support of the capitalist press for Blair as opposed to Hague. Not just ‘traditional Labour’ papers, like The Mirror, came out in support, but the ‘heavies’, the broadsheets, such as The Guardian, The Independent and even the organ of finance capital, the Financial Times, weighed in on Blair’s side. Only the Telegraph supported the Tories. Most remarkably – and unprecedented – was the support in this election by ‘the Thunderer’, The Times, for New Labour. It is true that the Times has now been ‘Murdochised’ (it is controlled by the media tycoon and philistine, Rupert Murdoch) and is, therefore, no longer the unofficial voice of British capitalism. Nevertheless, its endorsement of Blair says everything about the character of New Labour in this election and in the future. Their justification for supporting New Labour is brutal and simple: ‘We feel comfortable, as never before, with the case for Labour’. They go on: ‘If New Labour turns out to be the vehicle by which Thatcherism is consolidated and extended this would fit an historical pattern. Mr Gladstone’s reforms were legitimised by Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury, not by the unsuccessful late Victorian Liberal Party. Mr Asquith’s version of the welfare state was embraced by Stanley Baldwin for the Conservatives and Ramsay MacDonald for Labour and not by the Liberal Party which imploded in the 1920s. Mr Attlee’s programme was protected by Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan while Labour spent the same thirteen years out of power and plagued by civil wars – a haunting precedent for modern Tories’.

Neo-liberal policies

IN OTHER WORDS, despite Blair’s mild disclaimers of Thatcher, ‘but not all aspects of Thatcherism’, during the election campaign, he is perceived for the moment as the most successful guardian of capitalism. Indeed, during the election campaign, Tony Blair puffed up like a bullfrog and clearly expecting victory on 7 June, arrogantly promised to extend Thatcherism even further. Flatly contradicting the manifesto of 1997, the 2001 manifesto promised further privatisation in the NHS, education and other public services.

Initially, the bluntness of Blair’s anti-working class, anti-public services, anti-union statements were covered up because the manifesto was launched on ‘whack Wednesday’, when the publicity was for John Prescott who punched a Countryside Alliance protester and when Straw was shouted down at the Police Federation conference. However, once the small print had been examined and after Sharon Storrer dramatically confronted Blair with the disastrous situation facing her ill husband in a Birmingham hospital, New Labour was forced to change its mood music.

Indeed, Sharon Storrer’s outburst encapsulated the anger of millions at the horrors of the semi-privatised NHS. This message was reinforced by a searing indictment of the state of Britain by the German magazine, Stern, which contemptuously referred to the ‘English patient’. It showed a country where ‘its poor live in third-world conditions, a fifth of the adult population is illiterate, its public services are third rate, 25,000 people unnecessarily die annually from cancer and the environment is casually disregarded’.

This was followed by Jack Straw’s son demanding ‘an end to student fees’. NHS consultants also denounced the private finance initiative (PFI): ‘The high cost of private finance initiative has resulted in money intended for patients being channelled away from patient care and into the coffers of business. Evidence from the first wave (of PFI hospital schemes) shows planned reductions in NHS beds of 30% and cuts in staff budgets of up to 20% to meet the escalating costs of using private finance’. (The Independent)

NHS doctors also warned that their families would no longer use the NHS because of its inadequacies. This was followed by the revelation in the Observer by Nick Cohen that in private hospitals, ‘the death rates are five times above the NHS average’.

In the very midst of the election campaign, the revolt against privatisation was evident and vocal. In education, for instance, twenty authorities, most of them controlled by New Labour, have begun to outsource – in practice, privatise – aspects of education. What this will mean is already evident in Glasgow where privatisation has resulted in a big increase in class sizes, six swimming pools have been closed, and teachers complain of fewer and smaller classrooms.

Faced with the avalanche of criticism at the prospect of further privatisation in vital public services, in the last two weeks of the campaign, Blair and Gordon Brown switched their approach. In place of the manifesto promise to privatise everything not nailed down, they launched the slogan: ‘Education and hospitals first’. If they were honest they would have added at the end the phrase, ‘to be privatised’. That is precisely the programme they are going to implement although the impression was undoubtedly given that, as opposed to Hague’s proposals to cut taxes and slash spending, Labour was going to dramatically boost the health service and education.

Undoubtedly, under the whip of overwhelming public pressure to act, the new government will probably be compelled, at least in the first period, to increase spending. But this will be in the context of a further extension of privatisation, through the medium of the PFI and similar schemes. This will meet with ferocious resistance from ordinary working people and by the trade unions. Privatisation is now massively unpopular. In polls, 72% consistently support the immediate renationalisation of Railtrack, and even sections of the capitalists, such as writers in the Financial Times and The Independent, have made the case for ‘capitalist renationalisation of the railways’. Even writers in the ultra-rightwing Daily Mail have suggested that the railways be taken back into public ownership. In an opinion poll 42% of those questioned suggested that even British Telecom should be renationalised. And it is not just in Britain where this mood exists. In California, the experience of ‘deregulation’ resulting in blackouts has led to a clamour for the electricity industry to be taken back into state ownership.

Nevertheless, Blair and Brown and the whole of the New Labour cabinet, are locked into a programme for further extension of neo-liberal policies which have been at the core of the government’s raison d’être over the last four years. Blair may wrongly imagine that his massive parliamentary majority will insure him against revolts. The state of the Tory Party, in particular, which in the aftermath of ‘black Thursday’ faces meltdown and civil war, could encourage him on the parliamentary level to drive through his programme.

Conservative meltdown

THE TORIES HAVE had the worst results in this election since the 1830s. The so-called ‘left’ of the Tory Party, led by Kenneth Clarke and the former ‘wets’ like Michael Heseltine, have clearly pursued a policy of ‘counter-revolutionary defeatism’ of their own party. They wanted the biggest possible defeat of Hague in the election in order to ‘bring the Tory Party to its senses’. They saw what happened to Labour in the aftermath of the 1983 election defeat, which provided the rightwing in the Labour Party with the excuse to swing the party towards the right. This eventually destroyed it as a working-class party. Similarly, Clarke and Heseltine want to repeat the opposite process within the Tory Party, of shifting it more towards the ‘centre’ or the ‘one nation’ Toryism of Edward Heath and the earlier Tory prime minister, Macmillan. However, the character of the present Tory Party militates against this, with its entrenched Thatcherite membership and a further influx of hardened Thatcherites into the Tory rump in the House of Commons.

It is therefore likely that a bloody civil war leading to a split in the Tory Party could take place. The collision over a euro referendum, when and if it takes place, will be an additional bone of contention between the different wings of the Tory Party. It is possible that the Tory Party will be effectively marginalised and defeated in a third general election, so out of tune are they with modern Britain. The election of a reinvented Michael Portillo, or even Clarke, as a replacement for Hague, or a combination of both, with the Tories situated more in the ‘centre’, may not allow them to make a comeback.

Hague’s campaign, which harkened back to discredited Thatcherism with a heavy dose of xenophobia, has further reduced the Tory Party to an English national party. Indeed, it is more now a southern ‘Home Counties’ party with London in the main hostile territory for the Tories. The recapture of one seat from the Scottish National Party (SNP) by a handful of votes in Scotland does not alter the picture of the modern Tory Party reduced to an English rump.

It is in this context that the Liberal Democrats have undoubtedly set out their stall to replace the Tories as the main second eleven of capitalism, with Blair captaining the first team.

The vote for the far-right, semi-fascist British National Party (BNP) in Oldham, however, which came third in two constituencies with a combined 11,643 votes, is a warning to the labour movement and socialists. Interviews on television afterwards showed that their support came from disillusioned workers in run-down council estates who feel let down and angry with New Labour, as well as in some middle-class areas. The Oldham riots and the speeches of Hague during the election about Britain becoming a ‘foreign land’ and his attacks on asylum seekers have fanned the flames of racism and laid the basis for this vote for the BNP, the highest for any far-right party since 1945.

This shows that the worsening of the economic and social situation of capitalism will not automatically benefit the left, as the example of the growth of the far-right in Europe indicates. Only by politically winning workers and sections of the middle class, which entails digging roots in working-class areas, will socialists and the left be able to counter the pernicious and divisive ideas of those far-right organisations like the BNP.

Working-class opposition

A FAR MORE serious threat to Blair emanates from the resistance which is already evident amongst ordinary working-class people and at the base of the trade unions. The promise to privatise even during the election provoked unprecedented upheavals in unions, such as Unison, with veiled threats emanating from the leadership of public-sector union opposition in the aftermath of the election. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) conference also showed the resistance that will come to attempts to privatise or ‘outsource’ parts of the Post Office. The decision of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) conference to free the funds of that union to allow financial support to candidates who support the union’s policies, rather than to New Labour, is also a portent of what lies ahead.

Faced with this, New Labour has sought to disguise its privatisation programme by declaring that, for instance, the NHS will be ‘free at the point of delivery’. In other words, it doesn’t make any difference what method is used to provide the service, either public or private, so long as it is ‘free at the point of delivery’. However, the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) dismisses this argument by pointing out that nearly 75% of nurses believe that the creeping privatisation proposed by the government has significantly eroded the underlying principles of the NHS: that healthcare should be free at the point of delivery. Nearly 75% of nurses believe patients will have to pay for at least some routine operations, such as treatment of cataracts and hip and knee replacements, by 2010. The nurses believe that universal, free treatment on the NHS has been totally undermined by the ‘increasing use of private hospitals and services’. As one Socialist Party member working in a hospital expressed it at a public meeting during the election, ‘the health workers are opposed to privatisation to a man and woman, the public don’t want it’. And yet the government will proceed with this programme.

By pointing to the small print in their manifesto, New Labour may imagine that they have a mandate for what they intend to do. However, elections are merely a snapshot of a mood at a particular moment. The reality of what happens in the daily lives of ordinary working people is far more significant. And when the working class is convinced that their rights and conditions are to be undermined, no matter from what quarter this comes, it will fight back. During the general election, Will Hutton in the Observer quoted from a poll, The State of the Nation, by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. It reported that 81% of British people agreed that ‘if governments do not listen’ peaceful protests and blockades are legitimate ways of expressing concerns. It further states: ‘Only just over half – some 53% - think that the governments should stand by the policies that won them general elections. A growing proportion of Britons think that government should be permanently responsive to changing events and opinions’.

This attitude is a direct reflection of the example set by the anti-poll tax battle which laid down a tradition of mass resistance to unpopular government measures. Cosseted by a huge parliamentary majority, Blair will make the same kind of blunders that Thatcher made over the poll tax. Holding their noses, millions of workers, particularly the older generation, gave the government the benefit of the doubt, ‘another chance’ in this election.

This meant that Blair is the first Labour leader to win two successive terms. However, given the underlying economic and social situation in Britain, it is problematical whether he will serve his full term. A recession or even a slump will drastically undermine the position of the government, as will opposition on a whole series of measures that they plan to impose.

Little commented on in the election was the fact that the UK registered the worst trade deficit since records began more than 300 years ago. This underlines the precarious economic situation of British capitalism and of the government. The closures in Corus (steel) and in Motorola could be an indication of what is to come for big swathes of the British workforce. The resistance of the last four years will be as nothing to what will be coming in the next period. If Blair imagines that it will be ‘business as usual’ he is in for a rude awakening.

A significant aspect of this election was the increased support for socialist candidates. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Socialist Party in England and Wales doubled the average votes in the seats they contested as compared with 1997. There was a significant vote also for other Socialist Alliance candidates and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), although its average share in the constituencies in which it stood has gone down compared to 1997. In Coventry, Dave Nellist, a prominent Socialist Party member, received the highest number of votes of any socialist candidate standing in the election.

And these results have been achieved in a general election in which the terrain has not been the most favourable to argue the case for the socialist alternative. The British system used for parliamentary elections has an in-built bias against smaller parties. Moreover, in the light of the success of the SSP in Scotland on the basis of proportional representation, Blair during the general election made it clear in an interview with The Times that he was opposed to the introduction of proportional representation in England because it gave ‘disproportionate power to small parties’. Notwithstanding this, the challenge from the socialists will increase in the next period.

This will not be restricted to the electoral plane. The movements of the working class in the period opening up will be largely in the industrial and social spheres. Events are going to favour the conscious forces of socialism and Marxism. This election has revealed that the consciousness, the understanding, of broad layers of the British population, and particularly of the working class, is still affected by the post-collapse of Stalinism period. Only a minority at the moment are searching for a socialist alternative. However, this audience will grow on the basis of the hammer blows of events and the intervention of forces such as the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

The 2001 British general election may have been one of the most boring in history. But it has ushered in a period which will be anything but boring. It will be a period in which mighty events will once more propel the working class into action and put socialism back on the agenda.


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