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Issue 48

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Issue 48, June 2000

New Labour under siege

    The London elections
    Rebellion in Labour's heartlands
    Not a Tory resurgence
    Prospects for the general election
    A Left Alternative?

In a detailed assessment of the May elections, including an appraisal of the role of Ken Livingstone, Socialism Today editor LYNN WALSH looks at what was a turning point in British politics.

MAY 4 WAS an electoral disaster for New Labour, which lost the London mayoralty to Ken Livingstone, lost 600 seats in local council elections, and came a poor third to the Liberal Democrats in the Romsey parliamentary by-election. These results mark the end of the New Labour government's honeymoon, a puncturing of the extraordinary bubble of Blair's post-Thatcher/Major popularity.

The Tories recovered some of the 1996 council losses, but lost the formerly true-blue, South-East seat of Romsey. There was a significant left-right polarisation among those who voted (only 26.5% in council elections, 33.6% in London), but no general swing to the right. The Liberal Democrats' victory in Romsey raises the prospect of a strengthened Liberal Democratic party in opposition to the Tories and as an alternative to New Labour.

The victory of Ken Livingstone, perceived by most people (despite his current policies) as standing far to the left of New Labour, refutes the Blairite claim that left candidates are unelectable. The substantial vote for left candidates and the Greens in the poll for the Greater London Authority (GLA), and increased support for Socialist Party candidates in many areas, shows the potential for the development of a socialist alternative.


The sensational electoral changes registered on 4 May mark sharp realignments in the surface crust of politics, and at the same time reflect much deeper currents of change within society.

top     The London elections

THE MAYORAL ELECTION was a triumph for Livingstone, a humiliation for New Labour. The all-out dirty tricks campaign by the Labour Party machine to stop Livingstone, backed personally by Blair, rubbed self-inflicted salt into Labour's wounds. On a 33.6% turnout, Livingstone won 39% of first preference votes, 57.9% in the second round (776,427).

Even worse for Labour, the Tory candidate, Steven Norris, won 27% of first preference votes, 42% in the second round, with the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, seen as Blair's lame poodle, limping in third place (only 13% of first preference votes). Norris was backed by the London Evening Standard and the usually pro-Blair mass circulation daily, The Mirror. His relatively strong showing was hailed as a success for the Tories, but throughout the campaign Norris strenuously distanced himself from the Hague leadership, presenting himself as a liberal, 'one-nation' Tory. Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat, polled 11.9%, while the Green candidate polled 2.2%.

In the vote for the Greater London Authority, the mayor's advisory body, Labour won only nine seats (six constituency, three top-up), while the Tories also won nine (eight constituency, one top-up). The Liberal Democrats won four top-up seats, and the Greens, backed by Livingstone for the top-up list (he backed Labour for the constituencies), won three seats. The percentage votes were: Conservatives 30.3%, Labour 29%, LDs 15%, Greens 11%.


The left candidates received a combined vote of 88,515 (5.34%) in the all-London top-up poll. This was composed of: London Socialist Alliance 1.63%, Peter Tatchell (gay activist and socialist) 1.38%, Campaign Against Tube Privatisation 1.05%, Socialist Labour Party (Arthur Scargill) 0.83%, and Communist Party of Britain 0.45%. In the constituency vote, the LSA won 7.03% of the vote in the North-East London and 6.17% in Lambeth and Southwark, averaging 3.41% across the 14 constituencies. In Greenwich and Lewisham, Ian Page, a Socialist Party councillor in Lewisham, won 4.2% for LSA.

Compared to the days of the Greater London Council (GLC), abolished by Thatcher 14 years ago and dominated by the Labour Party, these GLA results reveal a massive erosion of support for New Labour.

top     Rebellion in Labour's heartlands

THE LOCAL COUNCIL elections were a disaster for Labour, even given that governments tend not to do well in mid-term local elections. The massive turn against Labour, moreover, is clear, despite the fact that many of the seats were last contested in 1996, a low point for the Tories under Major's government.

Around 3,000 seats were being contested (some councils elect a third of their seats every year by rotation over a four-year cycle, while others have general elections every four years). The Tories gained 600 seats (way above their campaign target of 400). New Labour lost 500. The Tories gained control of 16 councils, while Labour lost control of 15. The Liberal Democrats gained control of several more councils in the North, and strengthened their position on others. Based on these results, the projected national share of the vote for the Tories was 38%, 29% for Labour, and 28% for the Liberal Democrats (up from 26% in 1996). This was the best result for the Liberal Democrats since the end of the second world war.


There was generally a very low turnout, however: 26.5% nationally, but much lower in many heartland Labour areas. It was only around 20% in the North-East and 10% in some Liverpool wards (compare this with the 50% turnouts in the 1980s when Liverpool council was led by Militant councillors). Clearly, many voters who turned to Labour under the Major government turned away from Labour this time. The main factor, however, was a massive rejection of Labour by traditional Labour supporters. The turnout by Labour supporters was down 14% over 1996, the last time most of these seats were up. But while many Labour supporters stayed at home, many turned out to vote Liberal Democrat, especially in the North.

This is partly a rebellion against bungling, bureaucratic and often corrupt Labour council administrations in the Labour heartlands. It is in these areas that the Liberal Democrats energetically play on grievances about council house repairs, refuse collection, and other local issues. In reality, of course, Liberal Democrat administrations also carry through privatisation of council services, cuts, job losses and so on.

At the same time, the slump in Labour's support reflects a massive protest vote against the Blair government. There is deep anger about New Labour's failure to significantly improve the living standards of the poorer sections of the population. The meagre 75p a week increase in retirement pensions this year was seen as an insult. The imminent threat of the closure of Longbridge was a major factor in the West Midlands.


The Liberal Democrats gained control of Cambridge and Sheffield, and strengthened their control of Liverpool. In Hartlepool (in the North-East) there was an unofficial pact between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats: Labour lost control, losing nine seats, with the Liberal Democrats gaining five, the Tories four. In the South it was mainly the Tories who gained from the turn against Labour, but they also made some gains in the North.

The Tories took control of Rosendale, Lancashire, for the first time in 14 years. Some of the biggest swings against Labour came in the Midlands. The turnout of Labour supporters fell by 17% over 1996, the biggest fall nationally. This was clearly a rebellion against Labour, locally and nationally, not mere apathy. Significantly, Socialist Party candidates gained in Coventry (winning a third councillor), as did independents in Stoke-on-Trent and Kidderminster.

In Stoke-on-Trent, Labour contested 20 seats but won only three. The Tories and LDs each won four seats, but Independents won all of the nine seats they contested. In Wyre Forest (Kidderminster), Labour was opposed by Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern, protesting against the downgrading of the town's only hospital. Labour, previously the majority party, won only one of the 15 contested seats. The Tories won one seat, the Lib-Dems (using the slogan Save Our Hospital) won two, but the Independent campaign won eleven seats.

In Coventry, before the 1998 local elections, Labour dominated the council with 50 seats against four Tory councillors. This year, Labour won only nine out of the 18 contested seats. The balance on the council is now 35 Labour, 15 Tory, one Liberal, and three Socialist Party. The average share of the vote for the Socialist Party in the seven wards it contested was 14.3%.


top     Not a Tory resurgence

WITHOUT THE CAMOUFLAGE of the local elections, Romsey would have provoked a crisis in the Tory leadership, raising the spectre of a challenge to Hague's leadership. This was a sensational defeat for the Tories. It is the first time an opposition has lost one of its own seats since 1987 (when Labour lost Greenwich to the split away Social Democratic Party). It is only the second time in 100 years that the Tories have lost a seat to the Liberals while in opposition. But the Romsey result was no consolation for New Labour.

This by-election (caused by the death of the sitting MP), in a traditional true-blue Hampshire seat (the 51st 'safest' in the country) turned a previous 8,000 Tory majority into a 3,311 majority for the Liberal Democrats. The Tory vote fell 4% over 1997, indicating that the Tories failed to fully mobilise even their previous 'core' voters.

The Tory- Liberal Democrat swing was 12% compared with the Tories' low point in 1997. But compared to the 1992 general election, the Romsey result is more in line with a 20% swing to the Liberal Democrats.

The decisive swing to the Liberal Democrats in Romsey, on a 55% turnout, shows a broad rejection of Hague's racist agenda on asylum and crime. The Tories have tried to blame their defeat on 'local factors', referring to the LD candidate, Mrs Sandra Gidley, a local pharmacist who undoubtedly raised various local issues (and the Tory candidate, an Eton-educated farmer, did not go down well with local Conservative voters). Gidley, with the support of Liberal Democrat leaders, made an attack on Hague's saloon-bar racist demagogy the principle focus of their campaign (unlike New Labour).


The majority of traditional New Labour voters who turned out in Romsey clearly decided to switch to the Liberal Democrats as the candidate most likely to defeat the Tories. While the Liberal Democrat polled 19,571 (compared to the Tories' 16,260) Labour polled a mere 1,451 votes (15% down on 1997).

Despite Romsey, Hague nevertheless claimed 4 May as a triumph for the Tories, in effect, a vindication of his recent lurch to the right. With continuing poor opinion poll ratings, Hague was under pressure from the party's right-wing backwoods MPs to reclaim their core support. The moderate, 'inclusive', pseudo-liberal pose adopted in the aftermath of their 1997 defeat (when Hague and his partner, Ffion, appeared at the Notting Hill Carnival in London, a big event for the Afro-Caribbean community) has been completely abandoned.

Hague (now adopting a skinhead haircut), Ann Widdecombe, and other prominent spokespersons, have cynically tried to play the racist card, attacking asylum seekers as bogus scroungers, and demanding that all applicants should be detained while their applications/appeals are considered. They have also called for tougher policies on crime, advocating zero tolerance and harsh mandatory punishments on the lines of the more reactionary US states. Hague also rushed to the defence of Tony Martin, a Norfolk farmer (with extreme right-wing views and evidently somewhat unbalanced) who was recently jailed for the murder of a young would-be thief whom he shot without warning while he was fleeing from his farmhouse.


Hague's resort to right-wing, racist populism à la Jorg Haider undoubtedly had some effect in getting out hardcore Tory voters, reclaiming some of the seats lost to Labour (or to the Liberal Democrats) during the low point of Tory fortunes in the late 1990s. This had most effect, however, in South-East seaside towns where elderly voters predominate, like Eastbourne (where the Tories took control with three gains), Southend-on-Sea (taking control with six gains), and Torbay (taking control with 19 gains).

The Tories' 600 local council gains (on the basis of low turnouts) actually masks a really miserable result for the Tories. Despite the crisis in manufacturing, which threatens tens of thousands of jobs in Labour's heartlands, the Tories only control one metropolitan council, Solihull (near Birmingham) in the West Midlands.

In London, though Norris came second in the mayoral race, there was no evidence of a significant Tory revival. After all, between them, Labour, the Greens, and the left in the all-London top-up vote, together took 46.72% of the vote compared with the Tories' 28.99%. The Liberal Democrats, who are currently to the left of Labour on many issues, took 14.8% - that is, a total of 61.5% against the Tories' 28.9%.

Norris, moreover, only came second because he emphasised his independent role, playing down his links with the Tory Party. "Norris", commented Andrew Rawnsley, "spent his campaign holding his nose whenever Hague or his policies were mentioned, and putting as much distance between himself and Skinhead Toryism as he could without actually leaving the party". (Observer, 7 May)


As a Tory MP, Norris supported a return to the death penalty, replacing student grants by loans, and neo-liberal economic policies. As mayoral candidate, he championed civil liberties, supported gay rights (the abolition of Section 28), took a strong anti-racist and anti-sexist stance, opposed fox hunting, and called for stronger freedom of information legislation. In other words, on some issues he appeared to be more liberal than New Labour.

The London results hardly show a Tory revival, but the Romsey result was a disaster. Hague's aides have tried to pass it off as just 'a bit of Hampshire' as opposed to 'the whole country'. But if the Tories can't win traditional true-blue seats like Romsey, their prospects of winning the next general election are extremely remote.

Several Tory leaders warned that local election results could not be seen as an endorsement of Hague's lurch to the right. David Curry, a former Tory minister, said the results showed that "the electorate still hates us as a parliamentary party. The electorate hasn't changed its opinion of us since 1997 - it has not forgiven us. It is absolutely clear the country still thinks us as a grim lot... We must reinvent one-nation Conservatism". (Observer, 7 May) Others urged Hague to follow the example of Norris in London, who had allegedly succeeded in "maximising the non-core vote with the minimum damage to the core vote". (Guardian, 8 May) Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretary and president of the Scottish Tories, urged Hague to adopt 'attractive policies and a moderate rhetoric'. At the moment, Hague shows no signs of following such advice.


top     Prospects for the general election

BLAIR PUT ON a brave, defiant face. 'Shaken and contrite?' asked The Times' headline over a major Blair interview (8 May): 'Not a bit of it'. In an 'unrepentant mood', Blair asserted his 'passionate belief' in "Labour as a modern, progressive, political party in the radical centre of British politics. This is where I am. That is where I will stay". Echoes of Thatcher: 'The lady's not for turning'? "A Labour Party that is pro-big business is a good thing", asserted Blair: "I will not move from the path of reform".

Nevertheless, Labour's 4 May rout has provoked turmoil within New Labour, with bitter recriminations amongst the leaders and party officials, a torrent of criticism from the party's dwindling membership, and a growing number of defections from the party. Now the electoral tide has turned, some of the Blairistas are beginning to have a glimmering of what has long been blindingly obvious to millions of workers.

New Labour has failed, after three years in office and despite economic growth, to meet the expectations that propelled Blair's 1997 landslide victory. The NHS, education, transport and other services are in crisis, especially in Labour's former heartlands. Poverty and chronic unemployment persist, especially in the inner-cities and declining industrial areas. Social conditions in many regions resemble those of Hungary and Chile rather than a modern industrial economy. Not only has Labour not reversed privatisation, even of the tragically accident-prone railways, but is preparing to partly privatise air traffic control. Promising democratic devolution and open government, the Labour leaders have acted like a gang of devious control freaks in relation to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and now London. Then, the recent collapse of textiles, engineering and especially the car industry, with the threat of massive redundancies at Longbridge in the West Midlands and Ford Dagenham in East London, has proved the last straw for many working-class Labour voters.


Labour's local election results indicate a 29% share of the national vote. Even if another 10% is added for a general election, on the assumption that previous electoral trends will still apply, this only gives 40% - not enough to ensure an outright Labour majority at the next general election.

This prospect has brought a rash of warnings from former Blair loyalists. The former social security minister, right-winger Frank Field, "warned that the disengagement of long-time party supporters had grown to a 'tidal force'..." (Independent, 12 May). A former Labour Party secretary general, Lord (Tom) Sawyer - witch-hunter general against Militant and the Liverpool councillors in the 1980s - proclaimed that Blair's cabinet was 'out of touch' with the public. Writing in Renewal, a Blairite journal, a former aide to Gordon Brown, Neal Lawson, wrote: "The central problem is that there is no over-arching sense of purpose. Too often we choose economic efficiency over social justice... Many members and activists feel despised and alienated from 'their government'..." (Independent, 12 May).

Most alarming for Blair, a group of activists have recently left Blair's own Sedgefield constituency to form a Campaign for Labour Representation with a newsletter, Crux. Richard Wanless, a 32-year-old nurse involved in this, said: "Labour Party membership around here is haemorrhaging. It's because Tony Blair has become remote and out of touch... Blair... no longer speaks the same language as us. I work at the sharp end of the NHS and can tell you it's a disaster. Manufacturing is dying, the car industry is on its knees, and there is still high unemployment in Labour's heartlands. It's why I quit the party and helped set up the new campaign". (Times, 11 May)


Blair will not be turned. Yet some ministers are reportedly urging Blair to postpone the general election from the previously favoured spring 2001 to the autumn. Faced with the prospect of defeat, there will inevitably be pressure on Blair to take some action, for instance intervening to rescue firms (like Rover) threatened with collapse (as Schröder recently acted in Germany to prevent the collapse of a major construction company). It is noteworthy that a large number of ministers, including Blair and Mandelson, have seats in the North-East where there were mass Labour abstentions.

One of Blair's few regrets, according to an interview in the US journal Talk, was not offering Paddy Ashdown, then the Liberal Democrats' leader, a seat in the cabinet immediately after the 1997 election. At the time, the scale of Labour's victory led the New Labour leadership to shelve the idea of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats (discussed between them in detail before the election) as an unnecessary concession. Significantly, Blair has now expressed 'regret' and the Blairistas are beginning once more to talk about coalition politics.

In his Talk interview Blair said "People like myself in the Labour Party today and people like Charles Kennedy in the Liberal Democrats, we basically are driven by the same value systems... so I think it's important that we move closer together: I have never given up on that". (Guardian, 23 May). After Labour trailed the Liberal Democrats in Romsey, Keith Hill, minister for London, even praised Labour voters in Romsey for voting tactically with the Liberal Democrats (Guardian, 6 May) - while Labour in Hartlepool were denouncing the Lib-Dems' anti-Labour pact with the Tories!


It is too soon to predict the outcome of the next general election, and we cannot generalise with certainty from one set of election results. Many factors will have an effect, among which the course of the economy will be decisive. But the Labour leaders themselves are privately being forced to come to terms with the prospect of Labour not winning an overall majority next time. While a further Tory revival cannot be ruled out, a major political factor is likely to be a big increase in the strength of the Liberal Democrats, who now hold 47 seats in parliament.

top     A Left Alternative?

THE COMBINED VOTE for candidates standing to the left of Labour shows the potential for an anti-capitalist alternative. The combined vote for socialists in the all-London top-up list was 87,859 or 5.3% of the vote. At the same time, the Greens, who stand to the left of Labour (for instance, opposing the privatisation of the Tube and air traffic control, and calling for a five-year freeze of Tube fares and lower bus fares) won 183,910 (11.08%). Undoubtedly, the Greens' vote was significantly boosted by Livingstone's support for their list.

London, the local council elections, and Romsey show a deep disillusionment with Blair's New Labour government. Voters who turned to Labour in 1997, many for the first time, contributing to the huge dimensions of the Labour landslide, are now turning away in droves. At the same time, workers who were traditionally loyal to Labour have been bitterly disillusioned by the ruthless continuation of Tory policies, more public-sector cuts, attacks on benefits for some of the poorest sections, and the current collapse of manufacturing employment in many areas.


The most glaring feature of the council elections is the low turnout, particularly in many Labour heartland areas. This cannot be dismissed as 'apathy': it reflects an angry stay-away vote against Labour. Some sections of workers, at the same time, have turned to the Liberals, partly a reaction to the right-wing policies and bureaucratic methods of Labour councils. In Romsey, most former Labour voters switched to the Liberal Democrats.

The successes of Independents in Stoke-on-Trent and Kidderminster show that 'apathy' can rapidly become a much more conscious protest vote when an alternative is presented, even if it is at present little more than an anti-cuts signboard. This is shown even more clearly by the increased vote for Socialist Party candidates in many areas with, for example, council candidates in Sefton, Merseyside polling 30%, in Carlisle 24% and 16.6% in Newcastle's Byker ward. The increase of SP votes over the last couple of years indicates not merely electoral support but a growing basis of support for a socialist alternative to New Labour and the capitalist system.

The abandoning of traditional loyalties has been described as 'supermarket voting', and reveals a new fluidity in the political situation, a breakdown of the monolithic two-party set up which dominated the post-war period. Above all, it reflects the disintegration of the Labour Party's working-class electoral base, following the almost total disappearance of working-class, trade union activists from within the framework of the party. This follows from the process of bourgeoisification of the Labour Party, a process which was accelerated with the return of New Labour in 1997 when Blair adopted open pro-capitalist, anti-working class policies, abandoning the traditional reformist commitments of social democracy.


Among those who voted, the election results show a certain polarisation. Hague's Haider-style demagogy, however, has done little more than mobilise a section of the Tories' hardcore support. The neo-Nazi British National Party (BNP) made gains in some areas - polling 47,670 votes (2.87%) in the London assembly top-up vote - complaining bitterly that Hague had 'pinched their policies'. This is a warning for the future, though far from evidence of a big swing to the right.

Far more significant was the anti-capitalist Reclaim the Streets action on May Day, following the Carnival Against Capitalism in the City last year (see Against Capitalism). This shows a radicalisation of a section of young people outside the framework of the traditional political parties, which manifests a growing anti-capitalist consciousness and an openness to socialist ideas.

The vote for the left in London shows the potential for building a mass working-class alternative. Objectively, the vote for socialist candidates was a good result. As yet, we are in the first stages of a mass rejection of New Labour and a searching for an alternative. The London Socialist Alliance (LSA), which has no track record as far as the vast majority of voters are concerned, won 1.6% for the all-London top-up list. The Campaign Against Tube Privatisation (CAPT), which conducted a minimal campaign, won 1%. This was largely on the strength of the name itself, which attracted support from among those strongly opposed to Tube privatisation.


The main significance for the future of the CATP list was that it was backed by the London Underground regional council of the rail union, the RMT. In other words, the campaign marked a decisive break with New Labour on the part of a union which stands on the left of the trade union movement. The CATP's results, moreover, confirmed the validity of our argument prior to the election for a united list, which would have presented a more viable left alternative.

While the LSA vote was an encouraging sign for the future, the role of the LSA cannot unfortunately be taken as a precedent for future campaigning. While we recognise the positive vote for the LSA, we also consider it necessary to voice our criticisms of the way it operated. It was far from being as effective as it should have been. Although the LSA existed for several years as an embryonic alliance, shortly before these recent elections the alliance was effectively hijacked by the Socialist Workers' Party (as we analysed in Socialism Today No.46). Employing their characteristic tactics, unfortunately familiar to activists in many spheres of politics and trade union work, the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) used completely undemocratic methods to dominate the LSA.

In the past, the SWP leaders denounced any kind of electoral campaign by Marxists as 'electoralist' and inherently reformist. Having turned to the electoral field themselves, however, SWPers have now adopted crude electoralist methods. They gave virtually uncritical support to Livingstone for mayor (reserving any substantial criticisms in their newspaper until just before 4 May), and in the GLA elections conducted a purely propagandist campaign, aiming at getting Paul Foot (first on the LSA list) elected to the assembly. Getting an LSA representative would, of course, have been a great step forward in London. Our criticism is that there was no attempt to build a campaign, involving a wider layer of activists and preparing a basis of organised support for future battles. Amazingly, there was not even a contact address on LSA leaflets and posters (all produced by the SWP), no appeal to participate in the alliance. Clearly, the SWP saw the LSA purely as a front for the SWP.


In the period ahead, however, various forms of broad alliances will play a role in laying the basis for what is really required, a new, broad workers' party. Recent events demonstrate the objective need for such a formation to rally a wide, politically conscious layer of workers and young people and to provide independent socialist representation for the working class. There is already significant strata of workers who feel the need for a new party, and respond enthusiastically when the issue is raised. Yet, at the moment, the forces ready to actively engage in building a new party are extremely small.

This will change when events push wider sections of workers into action. In the meanwhile, in a transitional period, alliances such as the LSA and the national network of Socialist Alliances will undoubtedly play an important role in preparing the way. To succeed, however, they have to have a democratic structure, organised on the principle of the united front, which unites the participating forces on the basis of a common socialist platform, while allowing organisations, groups and individuals to uphold their own political positions. To succeed, alliances will have to involve not only existing left organisations but also trade union campaigns (like CATP), local community campaigns (for instance, campaigns against hospital closures or other cuts), broad left organisations in the trade unions, and socialists from amongst the young people involved in movements such as the Reclaim the Streets' anti-capitalist activity. Adopting a high-handed, undemocratic, sectarian approach to alliances is the quickest way to kill them off - as Arthur Scargill regrettably demonstrated with the Socialist Labour Party (which is now in a state of disintegration).


To gain broad support and become viable, a socialist alliance will have to be inclusive, democratic, open to a variety of organisations, trends and individuals willing to collaborate democratically in building an organised socialist alternative in preparation for the construction of a new mass workers' party.

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