SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today issue 75

Britain’s ‘mid-term’ elections

Any hopes Tony Blair had of emulating Margaret Thatcher and gaining a ‘Baghdad Bounce’ to match her ‘Falklands Factor’ in 1982-83 were rudely dispelled in the early morning of 2 May. It was not as clear, however, which, if any, party emerged victorious, writes KEN SMITH.

THE BIGGEST ELECTORAL test since the 2001 general election, with 38 million voters eligible to vote, saw Labour abandoned by droves of its former supporters in this year’s Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly elections and in the local elections in England and Scotland.

It appears that Labour lost votes from a ‘Baghdad Backlash’ in two ways. In its traditional working-class areas many of the Labour voters that Home Secretary David Blunkett proclaimed would come out to endorse the Iraqi invasion did not materialise. On the other hand, it appears that considerable sections of Muslims, youth and middle-class voters who were opposed to the war either did not vote or voted against Labour – with significant numbers voting for the Liberal Democrats. In some areas of Birmingham and Leicester there were 30% swings to the Liberals from Labour because of this. Overall, Labour lost 833 council seats and saw its share of the vote decline to just over 30%.

It is not as clear, however, which, if any, party emerged victorious. The voters overwhelming verdict was ‘a plague on (nearly) all your houses’, as electors become increasingly disconnected from the mainstream capitalist parties. ‘Large numbers of voters want to put Britain’s entire political class on notice’, said the political commentator Anthony King.

Certainly, Iain Duncan Smith breathed a huge sigh of relief and claimed a marvellous advance for the Tories that could put them on course for general election victory. And New Labour breathed a huge sigh of relief that their results weren’t worse and that Iain Duncan Smith was still Tory leader. But, while the results have saved Duncan Smith’s skin for now, they do not signify anything other than a modest Tory upturn – if even that.

Indeed, given the huge unpopularity of New Labour and Blair before the war started, and the outcry that has developed subsequently about national insurance rises, council tax increases, foundation hospitals and the crumbling public services, the election results appear to confirm that the Tories are still in a state of near-permanent crisis. Media commentators dubbed the Tory results a ‘catastrophic success’, good news for Duncan Smith but bad news for the Tory Party. The Tory Party seems to be in a league of its own – even among deeply unpopular modern mainstream political parties – in that, despite coming top of the vote, making gains of ten times what they said they would and facing an unpopular mid-term government, it could still end up having a bruising leadership election contest sooner rather than later.

The Tories gained 566 councillors but when the same set of seats were contested under William Hague’s leadership in 1999 the Tories gained 1,300 councillors with 33% of the vote. Subsequently, in the local elections in 2000, they gained 594 seats with a 38% share of the vote – but a year later suffered a second disastrous general election defeat. This time, once again, the Tories gained councillors and councils mainly in rural and suburban areas, suggesting that they cannot break out of what are seen as their bedrock areas of support. One recent poll showed that the Tories are now the third-choice party with every age group under 45. ‘Tory DNA appears programmed for dying’, remarked one commentator.

The election results confirm the increasing trend of the Americanisation of British politics where there is abstention by a huge majority of voters. And when people do vote it is generally in protest against parties rather than a positive endorsement of any candidates – with a few notable exceptions. The low turnouts are a silent chorus of anger against the establishment capitalist political parties. Where a serious alternative was put, however, in the form of the socialists – including the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), the Socialist Party and some other left candidates – and the Greens, then voters turned out positively and gave Labour a bloody nose.

Indeed, in Scotland over 20% voted for non-establishment candidates in the Scottish list elections while in Wales 11% voted for the smaller parties. The SSP gained five new members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and the Greens gained six. Overall 17 out of the 129 MSPs are from anti-establishment parties or campaigns.

Unfortunately, a more dangerous ‘alternative’ in the form of the far-right British National Party (BNP) was also on offer in some areas and where it had built some electoral base achieved gains and sizeable votes.

Nationalist losses

PLAID CYMRU – the Party of Wales – and the Scottish National Party (SNP) were also badly dented at these elections. This stemmed from their inability to build on their 1999 results when they were mistakenly perceived as a ‘left’ alternative to New Labour. Now it’s clearer that they have not provided a credible opposition capable of delivering real social and economic change or independence in Wales and Scotland, voters have deserted them; though these voters have not, it seems, transferred to any other party – although in Scotland the SSP and some other non-establishment candidates picked up some former SNP votes.

Neither nationalist party appeared to gain from their anti-war position. Whilst they were formally anti-war their public stance was wracked with ambivalence and did not bring out any of the class issues in the war that could counteract the development of a ‘support our forces’ mood amongst the Welsh and Scottish working classes once the war started. At the same time, both parties have been tarnished where they have been in power at local council level, because they have either carried through cuts or failed to deliver promised reforms to benefit working-class people.

In Scotland the SNP lost 21 councillors in the local government elections and now control only one council in Scotland, a loss of one. Overall they saw a 7% drop in their vote and although they managed to gain some constituency MSPs – at the expense of prominent Labour MSPs – there is again increasing disquiet and talk of leadership contests.

In Wales the Labour Party attempted to give the impression of ‘clear red water’ between the party and Downing Street. Labour in Wales did implement some targeted reforms such as the introduction of a small student learning grant in higher education, free bus travel for pensioners, and promises of free breakfasts for primary school children and the abolition of prescription charges. However, the idea that an ‘Old Labour’ approach galvanised voters in Wales behind Labour is not borne out by the voting figures. In the regional lists Labour’s vote declined from 361,657 in 1999 to 310,658 in 2003. The main reason for Labour’s gains was the spectacular collapse in the Plaid Cymru vote which nearly halved from 312,048 in the 1999 list elections to 167,653 this time round.

Again in Wales it was only the left that increased its vote. The left-wing Labour Assembly Member (AM) John Marek, who was de-selected by Labour in Wrexham, retained his constituency seat with 6,539 votes (37.66%) and in the nearby Clwyd South constituency another pro-Marek candidate won 2,210 votes (11.84%). The Marek list won 11,008 votes (6.29%) in the North Wales region.

Plaid Cymru had benefited hugely at the 1999 elections from the disarray in the Welsh Labour Party then, after Ron Davies’ resignation and Tony Blair’s imposition of Alun Michael as Welsh Labour leader. In a sense they over-performed at that election and got much better results than expected, making inroads into former Welsh Labour heartlands.

This time, however, Plaid itself has been in some disarray, having backtracked on its previous position on independence, with only vague hints of trying to establish a Scottish-style parliament by 2007, and not appearing to have any coherent alternative to New Labour. A bruising leadership election contest now seems imminent after its leader Ieuan Wyn Jones resigned, with one wing campaigning for the party to take a more left, ‘socialist’ direction to recover the gains it lost in the former Labour heartlands of South Wales.

Filling a space on the left

THE BIGGEST QUESTION for the left arising from the elections, however, is can the success of the SSP in Scotland now be reflected in the development of a strong socialist challenge in England and Wales?

Certainly, with the election results of the left and the fact that the Blair government has not enjoyed any war dividend and increasingly faces mounting domestic problems, then the opportunities for building a serious alternative to Labour are developing. Yet, there are particular factors behind the success of the SSP which could not be simply replicated in England or even Wales – not the least being that the electoral system is far less favourable to smaller parties making a breakthrough.

The voting figures show that in the constituency votes for the Scottish parliament non-establishment candidates got 9.63% of the vote, whereas in the list ‘top-up’ vote the same group of candidates got 22.09%. Nearly 40,000 voters didn’t use their constituency seat ballot paper at all while a further 200,000 people voted for an establishment party in the constituency ballot while voting for a non-establishment party in the regional list ballot. This shows that voters will back a smaller non-establishment party or candidate if they think the party is a contender and that their vote will count. The SSP won all their seats on the second list vote.

Even the election system for the Welsh assembly is not totally analogous to that in Scotland, where each region elects seven ‘top-up’ MSPs. In Wales, with just four ‘top-up’ Assembly Members (AMs) per region, no list AM was elected with less than 10% of the vote. In Scotland, on the other hand, the Greens, with seven list MSPs, only topped 10% in the Lothians region and the SSP only polled over 10% in Glasgow, while wining list seats in Scotland South and the Lothians regions with just 5.4% of the vote.

A more direct comparison with the possibilities in England and Wales can be made by looking at the local council elections in Scotland, held on the same day but conducted under the first-past-the-post electoral system. In Glasgow, the SSP’s strongest area where most of the council seats were contested, the average vote per seat was 371 (15.86%). By comparison, in Coventry, the Socialist Party, contesting 40% of the wards, polled an average vote of 406 (14.92%), with councillor Karen McKay retaining her seat.

Overall, the SSP contested 323 council seats across Scotland but only two of the candidates were successful. Keith Baldassara, standing in Tommy Sheridan’s old Pollok ward, polled 1,111 votes (40.62%) against Labour’s 1,081, while Jim Bolan, who was a sitting Labour councillor when he joined the SSP, was re-elected to West Dunbartonshire council (in the only seat there not contested by the Labour Party). The third SSP councillor, Iain Hogg, who had joined the SSP from Labour last November, was narrowly defeated in his Renfrewshire council seat.

Nevertheless, the profile gained by having one MSP at the last election allowed the SSP to substantially increase the vote in the regional lists across Scotland and the consequent successes in the list vote could give an impetus to the party winning constituency seats and council seats, as well as list seats, in the future.

Significantly in these elections, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union leader, Bob Crow, backed the independent candidacy of John Marek in Wrexham and, with the PCS civil service union general secretary Mark Serwotka, travelled to Scotland to speak at an SSP election rally. Now the left trade union leaders such as Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka should build on the election successes and take forward the process of creating a new mass party of the working class.

The objective need for such a party has been shown in the development and aftermath of the anti-war movement. The conclusion of many of those active in the anti-war movement is that demonstrations and civil disobedience are not enough to halt Blair’s New Labour. Despite Blair’s dubious distinction of provoking Britain’s biggest ever demonstration and backbench parliamentary rebellion, he has signalled that he is prepared to go even further than his heroine Thatcher in the dismantling of the welfare state.

Blair has shown how much opposition he is prepared to over-ride in order to pursue a neo-liberal economic agenda. However, if the new ‘awkward squad’ of trade union leaders combined their threats of industrial action against the government and of disaffiliation from Labour with the prospect of establishing a new workers’ party, then the effective opposition against New Labour could take on a whole new dimension.

One feature of the anti-war opposition was that in part it drew its huge turnout from all the accumulated anger against the government for its privatisation, public service shambles, fat cat pay policies and other assorted sources of discontent. Mobilising the most radicalised sections of those who participated in the anti-war movement could provide tens of thousands of members for a new party; giving it a representative social base to mount an effective electoral and political challenge to New Labour. Such a party could sweep up the increasing numbers of disaffected former Labour voters who seem at present to either vote for the Liberal Democrats in protest or more likely not vote at all.

Things do not show any signs of improving for New Labour whose strategists are worried enough to talk about a ‘rebranding’ of Tony Blair. A majority of voters think he is out of touch and 51% think he is too close to big business. There is also declining confidence in Labour’s ability to manage the economy as the world downturn bites in Britain.

The post-war falling back of organised opposition to New Labour reflects the lack of a vehicle for opposition rather than a retreat of consciousness. In Britain now, in the aftermath of the second Gulf war and the inspiring anti-war movement, there is an increasing dissatisfaction with all elements of the establishment regime and, amongst a significant layer, a searching for a new force that can begin to turn the tide back in favour of ordinary working people.


Overall trends

THE TURNOUT OF just over 34% in the local elections, 38% in the Wales assembly elections and 49% in the Scottish parliament elections means that 25 million voters stayed away – only 13 million voted out of an eligible 38 million.

In some areas where there was postal voting and pilot schemes there was a higher poll but even here turnout was at best just under 50% – hardly a groundswell of enthusiastic voters, and Local Government minister Nick Raynsford lost all sense of proportion when he described it as ‘particularly impressive’. Even the best results are still way under the average turnout for election voting of 20 years ago when there was a clearer differentiation between the main parties.

The state of the main parties saw the Tories with 4,423 seats, still a long way off their high-water mark of 56% of the vote in 1978, which saw them control 250 councils with 12,000 councillors. The Tories gained control of 31 councils giving them a total of 110, overtaking Labour in control of councils for the first time in 12 years.

Labour was down to 3,001 seats and 30% of the vote. In 1995 when the same seats were contested Labour got 46% of the vote. Labour now controls 66 councils, a loss of 28.

The Liberal Democrats increased their number of councillors to 2,624, an increase of 193, and they now control 28 councils, up by five. Charles Kennedy’s party appears to have benefited from its tentative anti-war stance, as swathes of Labour voters stayed away in their traditional areas and Liberal Democrats took protest votes and won council seats.

In Labour Chesterfield, in the North-East Midlands, a 52% turnout on an all-postal vote saw the Liberals take 18 seats off Labour. However, in the next door council of Sheffield where the Liberals have been in power, they lost five seats and control of the council. This confirms that once in power their inability to offer a clear alternative is quickly exposed.

The Greens gained 12 council seats to take them to 53 council seats in total, and they won an extra six seats in the Scottish parliament, taking them to seven MSPs overall.


THE AMOUNT OF publicity given to the British National Party was out of all proportion to the actual size of their election campaign. But the neo-Nazi BNP winning 13 seats – giving them a total of 16 councillors – must still be taken as a warning about the toehold they are gaining in some areas.

Yet, they are still the least influential far-right party in Europe. Standing in 200 seats – a small proportion of the nearly 11,000 councillors up for election – they won in 5% of the seats they contested. Their electoral challenge was smaller than that of the socialist parties and in many of the 13 seats they won, they got in by very small majorities.

Overall, across the seats where they stood they gained 13.7% of the vote although their actual numerical vote declined from the last time they stood. But they won seats in former Labour areas because of the huge drop in Labour’s vote there.

Wherever the BNP has stood it has resulted in polarisation as they try to whip up further racist prejudice and tap into the mood of resentment and alienation that exists toward the mainstream capitalist parties. Their results have to be seen as a warning that the socialist and trade union movement has to nip any political growth of these Nazis in the bud by offering a clear class alternative to working-class people.

The left

OVER 200 SOCIALIST candidates stood in the English council elections this year – with no elections in London – drawn from the Socialist Party (29 candidates – 34 in 2002), the Socialist Alliance (161 candidates – 204 in 2002) and others including independent socialists. In the Welsh assembly elections the Socialist Party stood two constituency candidates, who polled 608 (3.24%) and 585 (2.91%) votes respectively, while the Welsh Socialist Alliance stood five candidates (who averaged 311 votes per seat, at 1.51%). Overall, the Socialist Party gained just under 8,000 votes (an average of 245 per candidate), wining one seat in Coventry, and the Socialist Alliance just over 18,000 votes (an average of 166 per candidate), wining one seat in Preston.

In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) made its strongest showing in the top-up list section where it gained 128,026 votes – 6.55%. It also received 118,764 votes in the constituency section, just over 6%. This vote for the SSP in the list is up by 81,391 on 1999. The SSP also held 43 out of 70 of its deposits in the constituency seats. One setback for the SSP was that it lost one of its three councillors in the Scottish local elections, which took place on the same day, and which are elected on a first-past-the post basis.

Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) received 21,657 in the Scottish top-up lists – down from over 55,000 in 1999. Whereas in 1999 the SLP beat the SSP in five out of the eight top-up list regions, this time it was decisively beaten by the SSP everywhere. But the combined vote of the SSP and SLP of just under 150,000 in Scotland (up from 101,867 in 1999) shows the potential for an even stronger socialist challenge.

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