|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Blair’s last election
New Labour celebrations after its election win were muted and short-lived. Within hours, MPs and commentators were calling for prime minister, Tony Blair, to resign. His government’s prosecution of the war in Iraq, and attacks on public services and civil liberties, have turned the tide against his neo-liberal government. PETER TAAFFE analyses the result and political developments in Britain.
THE NEW LABOUR government of Tony Blair has been returned in the general election for a ‘record’ third Labour term. Margaret Thatcher also won three elections but is now so discredited that even Tory leader Michael Howard distanced himself from her regime early in the campaign. The outcome of this contest is hardly a ringing endorsement of the ‘New Labour project’, as the government’s majority collapsed from 166 to 66, with its percentage of the popular vote, 36%, the lowest of any governing party in history: the most unpopular party to form a government since the 1832 Reform Act.
Despite this, Blair claimed that he has a mandate to govern, which is not borne out by the facts. For the first time, a majority government in Britain has been elected by fewer people than those who could not be bothered to vote: 36% voted for New Labour, while 39% of the electorate did not make it to the polling station. Only 21% of the 44 million electorate supported New Labour – another record in British electoral history. This is worse, for instance, than Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1974, which scored 39% of the vote and 28% of the electorate.
The Tories, on the other hand, flat-lined, gaining seats but, with 32.3% of the vote, this is just a 0.6% increase on their disastrous showing in 2001. Howard says he is going to resign and already has "something of the goodnight about him". (Andrew Rawnsley, Observer) In the popular vote, Labour scored roughly 9.5 million to the 8.75 million for the Tories. Support for the Tories slumped amongst women, for instance, with only 27% supporting the Tories, even compared to 33% in 2001. The only age group in which the Conservatives led was amongst the over-65s, with 42% of them voting for the Tories.
Nevertheless, in London we saw a swing from Labour to the Tories of roughly 3%, with eleven seats captured from Labour. This probably reflects the disgruntlement of Londoners on a whole series of issues, from dissatisfaction at the high cost of living, even compared to other parts of the country, the stress arising from the dilapidated transport system, opposition to the war, and support which the Tories garnered in their dirty campaign of vilification against immigrants.
As a by-product of the ‘nasty party’s’ anti-immigrant campaign, the British National Party recorded its best vote, an average of 4.3% in a general election. In parts of London, such as Barking in East London, it achieved its highest share of the vote in a parliamentary election, 16.9%, beating the Liberal Democrats into third place, and losing out to the second-placed Tories by just 27 votes. In neighbouring Dagenham, it notched up 9%.
ON THE LEFT, the Respect party of George Galloway, successful in Tower Hamlets in ousting the Blairite apologist, Oona King, won an average of 6.9% of the vote in what John Curtis in The Independent, in a one-sided way, described as: "The best performance by a far-left party in British electoral history".
If this were the case, it would be a cause for celebration for all of those on the left looking for an alternative to discredited New Labour and the fake radicalism of the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, despite the success of Respect, it is too narrowly based, gaining support from Muslims – many, if not mostly, workers outraged at Blair’s support for the war – but not from other non-Muslim sections of the working class, even in Tower Hamlets itself, where George Galloway was elected.
After his election, George Galloway was quoted in The Guardian as promising that he "would step down for a Bengali" after one term as an MP. Why not for a socialist or a good working-class fighter and, if the best candidate is a Bengali worker, who now have a sizeable presence in the constituency, all well and good? Was Oona King a better fighter for the workers of Tower Hamlets because she happened to be black? Is David Lammy, the black Blairite MP for Tottenham, a champion of the working class, black or white, in his area or generally? To merely pose this question shows how wrong and short sighted it is to choose fighters for the left and socialism mainly on an ethnic basis.
Some of the most oppressed sections of the working class come from the ethnic communities and it is the responsibility of socialists to reach them and win them to our ideas. But given the current character of many working-class areas, especially but not exclusively in London, with ethnic divisions and tensions, it is crucial that this should be done with care. By concentrating on just one community, even if it is the most alienated and persecuted, as is undoubtedly the case with Muslims and Asians generally, runs the risk of separating oneself from other decisive sections of the working class. With its almost total concentration on Muslim areas in this election – and with a programme that was not clearly socialist – Respect has unfortunately made that mistake in the run-up to and during the election. Hopefully, George Galloway and Respect will learn the lessons of this campaign.
If it remains narrowly focused on one section of the working class it will not be able to reach out to embrace even those leftward-moving workers looking to establish the foundations of a new, genuine, mass party of the working class.
The Socialist Party, in an alliance with the Socialist Greens – blatantly and shamefully denied any publicity both in the national and local media – conducted a spirited campaign which touched important sections of the working class and young people, even where they were not convinced to vote for us at this stage, and established a foothold in a number of important constituencies (see The Socialist, 6 May 2005).
A ‘presidential’ election
MOST SIGNIFICANTLY, THE Iraq war probably accounted for the majority of the 1.1 million votes lost by Labour between 2001 and this election. There was an element of a class split in this, with many of those working-class people voting Labour, while disagreeing with Blair on the war, motivated on more ‘bread-and-butter’ issues and particularly fearful of any return of the dreaded Tories, while a layer of radical middle-class people were indignant and voted against Blair, precisely because of the war. The relentless pounding away on the theme of ‘don’t allow Howard in by the backdoor’ – which begs the question of who left the backdoor open in the first place – had an effect on certain sections of the working class and others who, otherwise, would have been prepared to desert Labour and look for a more radical option. There is no longer a stable core vote for Labour, as New Labour imagined. The older generation, steeped in the tradition of what the Labour Party once was, at bottom a working-class party, and with painful memories of the Tories, still turned out to ‘stop the Tories’. The new generation, which has experienced ‘Labour’ through Blairism, is searching for more radical alternatives.
In reality, as even the tabloid press has commented, none of the establishment parties "can be completely happy" (Daily Mirror). One Labour MP commented to Andrew Grice of The Independent: "The worrying thing is that people don’t want any of us". This is the essence of Britain’s 2005 general election. For the three main establishment parties – New Labour, Liberals and the Tories – it was a ‘non-ideological’ contest between different management teams for control of ‘Great Britain plc’. The differences between the parties were minimal, highlighted by the fact that the tax proposals – a subject of heated ‘debate’ – amounted to a £4 billion difference between the spending plans of Labour and the Tories, a "piffling amount", according to a Financial Times correspondent, and amounting to about 1% of total public expenditure.
All pretence of collective leadership during the campaign was brushed aside by the leaders of all the parties as the election became a contest between virtual ‘presidential’ candidates. This was personified by Blair who adopted a more ‘humble’ posture but, even after his electoral setback, the day after the election in Downing Street, still uttered the phrase: ‘I, we, the government…’ A 1930s German semi-dictator, Von Schleicher, once stated: ‘First comes me, then comes my horse, then comes parliament’.
This aspect of Blair’s regime, increasingly an ‘elected dictatorship’, was evident in his personal decision, without real debate and agreement from the cabinet, to back Bush’s war in Iraq, as was also his government’s attack on democratic rights and civil liberties. It was this which helped to motivate the assault on Blair personally, both before and during the election, by an array of bourgeois commentators, such as the founder of The Independent newspaper, Andreas Whittam Smith. There is undoubtedly an element of Watergate in the way that Blair personally took the decision to support the invasion of Iraq and then drove it through in the teeth of mass opposition. When the US president, Richard Nixon, carried on the Vietnam war, after having promised that he would end it when he was elected in 1968, decisive sections of the American ruling class moved to impeach him over the Watergate break-in which forced his resignation. The revelations of the Attorney General’s contradictory ‘advice’ on the ‘illegality’ of the Iraq war highlighted how out of control Blair was from his cabinet and from parliament which, in theory, controls the government, as well as from the mass of the British people.
When a government displays such tendencies it sets the alarm bells ringing around the strategists of capitalism. They fear that Blair, having blundered into one war, could drag them into an even worse foreign adventure, if that could be imagined, than the disaster in Iraq. All of this, of course, threatens ‘democratic’ government. Yet the possessing classes can quite easily reconcile themselves to this government maintaining Thatcher’s vicious and undemocratic anti-union laws, but if it threatens to endanger their position will get short shrift. After the Suez adventure in 1956, the then Tory prime minister, Anthony Eden, was widely discredited and was compelled to resign on the grounds of ‘ill health’. The Iraq war was Blair’s Suez, part-payment for this crime being made in the election, with the rest to be paid later when his usefulness to big business and capitalism is finished.
FT backs New Labour
NOTWITHSTANDING THE WAR, the majority of capitalists – reflected in the stance of the media – were prepared to extend their support to Blair in this election. Not just the ‘dirty digger’, Rupert Murdoch, through the columns of The Sun, but the august Times, the Economist (reluctantly – ‘No Alternative (Alas)’) and, most importantly, the Financial Times, weighed in behind Blair and New Labour. The reasons for the Financial Times’ support are revealing: "The very vigour of the debate about things that do not matter much underlines the extent of cross-party consensus about things that do. The economy and business are at the epicentre of this new alignment. It shows that Britain has moved well beyond the old left-right disagreements about the economy, profit and the role of the market. All the main parties support the policy framework behind the sustained growth and stability of the past decade. Indeed, both the Conservatives and Labour had a hand in creating it. In other words, Britain no longer has a ‘business party’ and an ‘anti-business party’. Try as some might to point up the ideological distance between the parties, in fact, the gap between Michael Howard’s Conservative and Tony Blair’s Labour Party is smaller than the one at the last US presidential election between Republicans and Democrats". (3 May)
This brutal assessment by the organ of finance capital on the class character of New Labour, ‘unremittingly’ a big-business party, is in sharp contrast to the forlorn hankering of sections of the Labour ‘left’ for Labour to return to its roots as a working-class party at its base. This was highlighted in the election by the sad sight of Tony Benn explaining in The Guardian that, in desperation, New Labour spin doctors had drafted him in to convince wavering people to continue to support New Labour. He asserted that this was an indication that Labour ‘was beginning to change’ and heralded its return to its socialist roots. Similar claims have been made by left MPs returned in this election.
It is true that the cutting back of Blair’s majority in the Commons opens up greater scope for Commons rebellions on, for instance, the issue of identity cards. There is speculation, for instance, that if in the last parliament there had been a left-wing ‘wedge’ similar to that which has been returned to the Commons now, then issues like foundation hospitals and tuition fees would have been defeated. This leaves out of the account the fact that not just the Blairites but the alleged ‘Brownites’ eventually came to heel and supported the government over these measures. Gordon Brown, who was the real ‘victor’ in this election and is undoubtedly Blair’s replacement as prime minister after he is forced to resign – the timing of which is the only uncertain factor in the equation – supported Blair and Blairism on all decisive issues. Indeed, without the support of Brown, Blair may have suffered an even more serious setback in this election.
It is, however, stretching credulity to argue that if Blair had gone before the election, Labour would have lost no seats, as Labour MP Frank Dobson said. Brown, in the process of propping up Blair, has sullied his ‘radical’ credentials. As Blair floundered over his support for the war, Brown rode in behind him and declared that he would have supported the invasion. He has been as ‘unremitting’ in the pursuit of New Labour on, for instance, privatisation, the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and support for the ‘market’. His radicalism amounts merely to verbally seducing the left, occasionally, by showing ‘a little bit of his left ankle’.
MOREOVER, THE PERFORMANCE of ‘left’ MPs in the election campaign does not indicate a firmness of intention or character when confronting right-wing New Labour. For instance, Neil Gerrard, erstwhile left MP for Walthamstow, astonished teachers in a debate in his constituency involving the Socialist Party candidate where he came out in favour of New Labour projects such as PFI, specifically for a local hospital, Whipps Cross, and the setting up of educational ‘academies’, one of which had been previously defeated in a successful campaign involving the Socialist Party. Left-wing MP, Jeremy Corbyn, in his local election manifesto, praised the government for investment in his area and singled out Patricia Hewitt for praise. Tell that to the Rover workers who were made redundant while she stood aside like Pontius Pilate and did nothing!
In the election campaign itself the mistake of those, like Tony Benn and other left MPs who still cling to the party, was illustrated in the defection of Brian Sedgemore to the Liberals, one of their number previously in the Campaign Group of MPs and under-secretary to Tony Benn in the Labour government of 1974-79. This was a move towards the right, but one conditioned by the failure of left MPs and of trade union leaders, some of them in the ‘awkward squad’, who offer no alternative and still cling to New Labour. Before and during the election, the trade union leaders continued to pour their members’ money into the coffers of New Labour.
One such union is the Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by Tony Woodley, who was anything but ‘awkward’ in relation to New Labour during the Rover crisis, which meant he let down his own members. Blair unbelievably declared at the height of the crisis that ‘nothing could be done’. Yet the Heath government of 1972, a Tory government, in a similar crisis with Rolls Royce, nationalised the company in 24 hours. It is a measure of the capitalist character of this government, to the right of the Heath government of the 1970s, that it would not entertain for a moment such a ‘confiscatory’ conception. It was left to Dave Nellist, the candidate for the Socialist Party in Coventry North-East, to call for the workers of Rover to storm the plant and occupy it. Even Mark Seddon, on the Tribunite left of the Labour Party, suggested that the Rover workers should consider an occupation and ‘work to rule’, as did the Upper Clyde ship-workers (UCS) when their shipyards were threatened with closure in the early 1970s. Tony Woodley, subsequently, in an article in The Guardian, proposed partial state ownership of important industries that were facing closure. This was only after the Rover workers had reluctantly acquiesced to the closure and, under the direction of their leaders, looked towards increased redundancy payments.
The closure of this industry is a metaphor of what has happened to British capitalism as a whole under the stewardship of both Labour and Tory governments. One million jobs in manufacturing industry have been lost in the last ten years as the short-sighted and greedy British capitalists have relocated abroad, to China, Eastern Europe, etc, and the government has done nothing about this. Those displaced from industry in the past have sometimes found re-employment, but on the basis of drastically reduced wages in McJobs, with worse wages and conditions. This is the fate awaiting the Rover workers on the basis of diseased British capitalism. Little wonder that the now retired leader of the UCS workers, Jimmy Reid, in a letter to The Guardian, wrote: "The demise of the last British owned mass production car company happened on their [New Labour’s] watch; in the middle of an election in which New Labour boasts it has put an end to slumps. The word went out. Hush it up. Get it off the front pages. And union leaders duly obliged. Shame on them". (18 April)
Britain’s low-wage economy
ALL THIS HAS taken place at a time of Brown’s alleged economic fireworks, when the Iron Chancellor has supposedly ironed out all the contradictions of capitalism, eliminating booms and slumps. In reality, Britain’s ‘spectacular’ economic development under Brown and Blair is a chimera. From 1996-2003, gross domestic product per person grew by 2.4% a year, the same average rate as from 1982-96. It is true that the growth of the economy, both under Brown and the previous Tory chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, has not been as volatile as in previous periods. However, this is largely due to the 1990s boom which, in turn, has been sustained by a combination of neo-liberal policies involving attacks on the share of the wealth created by the working class, as well as low interest rates. This, in turn, has fuelled a consumer boom which is now coming to an end, as indicated by the worst sales in the retail sector for 13 years in April. Moreover, Britain’s performance only looks reasonable in comparison to the disastrous economic stagnation of France, Italy and, on the domestic front, Germany as well. Even in output per hour, when Britain is compared, France is 25% higher, the US is 16% higher, and Germany 8% higher. The reason for this lower productivity is "less capital invested per worker, businesses are less innovative and workers are less skilled". (The Economist)
An additional factor, perhaps the most important in the case of Britain, is the driving down of wages. This is now a low-wage economy, which has been achieved by weakening the trade unions. The chronic underinvestment arising from this is reflected in the trade deficit, which was £3.3 billion in February. It has oscillated around this figure for a considerable period of time, but diminished slightly, recently, largely because imports dropped by 1.5%. This, however, probably indicates a contraction of consumer spending which has been the main engine of growth in the British economy under Brown.
On top of this is that it is "clear beyond doubt" (The Independent) that the housing market has begun to stall badly. House prices, according to the Halifax Bank, did not rise at all in April. When a similar situation occurred in the Netherlands – not a collapse in house prices but a stagnation – this ushered in a serious economic crisis from which the Netherlands is still blighted and which has led to a wholesale assault on the wages, conditions, etc, of workers.
Answering his economic critics, Brown has claimed that economic growth will reach 3-3.5% this year. But this is highly problematical, given the developments in the world economy where the unsustainable twin deficits of the US, together with the rise of protectionism and the stagnation in the housing market in the US as well, could precipitate a serious recession which would have world ramifications.
The US Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan is attempting a slow ‘deflation’ of the economy by small incremental increases of interest rates over a period. This is bound to dissuade US consumers from continuing to borrow, which will reinforce the already recessionary trends in the economy. The extent to which the rest of the world is dependent on the US consumer to buy their exports is indicated by the fact that the trade deficit in the US is running at roughly £32 billion a month.
Gordon Brown’s nemesis
THE SAME DILEMMAS confronting the US, on a smaller scale, exercise Brown in his ‘management’ of the British economy. The pound is overvalued, hitting British exports and contributing to the yawning trade deficit, which will be compounded if Brown is compelled to engage in another ‘hike’ in UK interest rates. This would attract ‘hot money’ from the global speculators, but drive up the value of the pound even more. At the same time, inflation is on the rise, raising the spectre for Britain of a return to the ‘stagflation’ – a stagnant economy and rising prices – of the 1960s and 1970s. It is not an accident that capitalist commentators drew a comparison with the election and that of 1992. That was ‘an election to lose’, as subsequent events, particularly ‘Black Wednesday’, demonstrated.
Economic nemesis could confront this government in the not-too-distant future. Brown, it seems, regularly jokes that ‘there are two kinds of chancellor: those who fail and those who get out in time’. The refusal of Blair to quickly cede power to Brown, which is draining away from Blair in any case, could result, as noted by William Keegan, economics correspondent of the Observer and keen Brownite, in Brown’s popularity being severely undermined even before he takes over the ‘poisoned chalice’, the prime ministership, from Blair.
The fate, however, of the luminaries of New Labour is secondary to the impact the deterioration of British capitalism, which they have done little or nothing to arrest, means for the fate of millions of working-class people in Britain. The collapse of manufacturing industry has continued apace, as we have seen, but so also has the retooling of Britain’s shrunken industrial base, which has atrophied under New Labour as under the Tories. For instance, Britain’s spending on research and development, at 1.9% of gross domestic product (GDP), seriously lags behind that of France, Germany, Japan and the US. The parasitic character of modern capitalism, including British capitalism, is shown with its concentration on the ‘casino’ aspect of speculation in currencies – the colossal financial pyramid of hedge funds, for instance – and in tax swindles carried out by the rich and stashed away in secret accounts. This, in turn, means that the historical role of capitalism in developing the productive forces, its only real historical justification, has been abandoned.
This shift of wealth and resources from the poor to the rich was the ‘best-kept secret’ of this recent election. Only the Liberal Democrats half-heartedly proposed a ten pence increase to 50p in the pound for those earning over £100,000. They are now, after the election, preparing to drop this. This proposal was treated with scorn by Blair and Brown, and yet the ‘tax avoidance’ measures of the rich are one of the greatest acts of robbery ever carried out by the ruling class in Britain. Firstly, high income taxes of 83% were reduced to 40% and corporation tax from 52% to 30%. This has not prevented massive frauds undertaken by an army of accountancy firms salting away the loot of the rich in offshore islands. A staggering $11.5 trillion dollars (£6 trillion) of the world’s money is hidden in this fashion in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. If taxed, this loot could raise global revenues of £255 billion a year which, if used properly, as even the London Evening Standard concedes, "would help to alleviate poverty in Africa and developing countries". Britain alone is losing an estimated £100 billion of tax revenue annually, which again the Standard concedes "means ordinary people are paying much more than they need be".
Company profits have roughly doubled every eight years, but the taxes of the rich certainly have not. Inland Revenue statistics show that the UK income tax take of £48.8 billion for 1989-90 rose to £123.7 billion for 2004-05, while for the same period – after taking account of record company profits – the take from corporations rose only from £21.5 billion to £32.4 billion, which did not even keep pace with inflation. The total corporate share of tax in the UK has dropped from 11.5% in 1997-98 to 7.7% in 2003-04 – under the Blair/Brown management of British capitalism – which is less than 2.5% of Britain’s GDP, the lowest ever. Since 1997, the richest 1,000 people have seen their wealth increase from £99 billion to £250 billion. According to the Standard, "More than 65,000 rich individuals live in Britain but pay little or no tax". The capitalist accountancy firms have coined it in this situation and, particularly, from privatisation of state assets: "PFI alone has yielded more than £500 million in fees for big accountancy practices".
Classes on collision course
THIS HAS CONTRIBUTED to the maintenance, and deepening even, of the stark class chasm, notwithstanding the blandishments of New Labour that it was overcoming this divide. For instance, the difference in life expectancy between the poorest and most affluent parts of the country has grown to eleven years and is now more pronounced than in Victorian times, according to researchers quoted in The Independent. During the election campaign a report appeared that demonstrated that ‘social mobility’ – the movement of the working class into higher education and higher income jobs – has virtually stagnated under New Labour and is way behind the trends in other capitalist economies.
Three million children live in families who are poor, some of them extremely so. Only the Socialist Party and other forces on the left attempted to articulate the demands of this forgotten section of the population. This was one of the main reasons why a huge 39% of the population abstained once more from the ‘political process’. The turnout was boosted by a mere 2% compared to the 2001 election. This was probably due to the massive increase in postal voting, from two million in 2001 to six million in this election, accompanied by many examples of fraud. Also many students, crippled by tuition fees, others outraged by the Iraq war, and deprived and suffering sections of the population, who abstained in the 2001 election, were motivated to vote in opposition to Blair this time. The scandal of postal voting contributed to the disengagement from the ‘political process’ of millions, as did the absence of canvassing by New Labour – they were hardly able to show their face on the doorstep – and the virtually complete ‘media election’ conducted by the three capitalist parties.
The main reason, however, there was not a complete rout for Blair and Brown was the relatively ‘benign’ economic situation, with unemployment at a 28-year low, at least officially. True, millions can only get by now through longer hours because of low wages. But, as yet, the bottom has not completely fallen out of the British economy. This can all change, long before New Labour is forced to go back for a ‘mandate’. At the same time, Blair’s promise, as well as Brown, to pursue an ‘unremittingly New Labour’ agenda means further clashes with the trade unions and the working class. This does not necessarily require the government to go back for approval from parliament. ‘Primary legislation’ has already been passed on privatisation, PFI, etc. Ministers can just use parliamentary ‘instruments’ to carry out their programme. Therefore, the lefts’ claim that they can hold the whip hand in the new parliament is not the case. It will take more than parliamentary and verbal posturing to stop the Blairite neo-liberal onslaught on the rights and conditions of the working class.
The pensions battle – postponed by the semi-retreat of New Labour just before the election – will be renewed with vigour. The appointment of ‘hard man’ David Blunkett is likely to have an incendiary effect on public-sector workers, in particular, who face a drastic extension of their working lives. Local government workers could be compelled to take industrial action very soon if the government proceeds with its plans on pensions. Nurses at their conference during the election also warned of industrial action if they were attacked on the pension front. The issue of low pay will be resurrected now that the election is out of the way. The crisis in housing, particularly in the major conurbations and cities, can also become a burning issue. House repossessions increased by 35% in the last year. The determination of the government to pursue the establishment of ‘academies’ can also provoke a big movement of resistance, as was the case before the election. And then there is the case of council tax, which is now almost as unpopular as the poll tax was. This will be compounded by the revaluation of property which will mean further burdens on the working class.
Therefore, if one takes the likely stormy economic scenario, together with the determination of New Labour to pursue its neo-liberal agenda, this means that the relative tranquillity of the two New Labour governments can be shattered in the coming period. As Marxists have always pointed out, elections are only a moment, a snapshot of reality. This election was more of a moment than the previous two. They do not alter the underlying processes which, in Britain, are leading to a big collision between the classes. This will be decisive in shaping the political outlook of the working class, in particular, and its reflection in the change in the political scenario.
BLAIR’S SUPPORT FOR the Iraq war and the low turnout in the election have brought the issue of proportional representation back onto the agenda. After years of advocating strong centralising governments, some capitalist commentators have become latter-day converts to ‘weak government’, which they argue can constrain ‘over-mighty’ leaders like Blair. The Liberal Democrats are keen advocates for the obvious reason that they will probably gain. With its huge parliamentary majority, the New Labour government rejected a deal with the Liberals on this issue in 1997. Most Tories, it seems, also remain opposed. But if they continue to stagnate electorally then even they could change their position.
Socialism Today supports the introduction of proportional representation, but in its most democratic form which would allow the representation of small parties, as in the elections to the Scottish Parliament, with the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). A switch to the Alternative Vote System, with the stipulation that parties can only be elected if, through transfers, they are elected with a high percentage of votes, is inherently undemocratic and should be opposed.
Both the Labour Party and the Tories face post-election turmoil. Because of their shrunken base – their memberships are either old (Tories) or demoralised (New Labour) – this will be concentrated at the top. Howard, backed by most of the Tory tops and toffs, has had a little taste of rank-and-file ‘democracy’ and now wishes to dispense with it. The decision on the new leader should now be taken by MPs, they say. Michael Heseltine is magnanimous and states that the ‘members’ can be ‘consulted’, as long as the MPs have the final say. This has a certain logic because, after all, the essence of capitalist democracy is that the people can say what they like so long as big business decides. Therefore, why not apply the same rules to the traditional capitalist party!
Blair, on the other hand, faces insistent demands that he should go sooner rather than later. He is clearly a ‘lame duck’ prime minister who threatens to become a ‘dead duck’. Brown will, however, ride to his rescue as he did in the election campaign. As Benjamin Franklin said: ‘We must indeed all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately’.
Brown does not want to take over a party riven with divisions, or with the left and others claiming that they forced Blair out. It is not certain that this time he will be able to prop up Blair, particularly if big economic and social events develop. Blair will attempt to stay for 18 months, until after a European referendum, if it ever takes place. If the French reject the European referendum, however, all bets are off.
New workers’ party
UP TO NOW, a decisive step towards a new mass workers’ party has not taken place in Britain, apart from in Scotland with the formation of the SSP which, because of internal conflict on secondary issues, unfortunately, went back electorally in this election (see box). The task of forming a new mass party, or at least the beginnings of such a party, is more difficult because of the differences and the sizes of the population, amongst other things, in Scotland compared to England and Wales. But it is not an accident that in Germany, for instance, the first faltering steps towards a new party, the Electoral Alternative – Work and Social Justice (WASG), albeit not specifically socialist, has been established in advance of Britain. Yet here the issue has been under discussion for a much longer time.
There are both objective and subjective reasons for the delay in Britain in establishing a new party compared to Germany or, for that matter, the formation of Rifondazione Comunista (RC) in Italy at the beginning of the 1990s. There is a different economic scenario. Germany is experiencing a much more profound economic crisis, with features of what took place in Britain under Thatcherism but, this time, pursued by ‘Schröderism’, by the SPD Chancellor of the Red-Green coalition in Germany. At the same time, the official left, both within the Labour Party and the trade unions, has lacked the political perspective, and the decisiveness which would go with this, to step outside the shell of what remains of the Labour Party. Even the ‘most extreme’ lefts, such as Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, have urged that "the movement will have to stand together… It’s important not to be rolling off in fragments". (Morning Star, 28 April)
He was countered by RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, at a rally he shared with Alan Simpson. Bob Crow said that despite the "excellent work done by Mr Simpson and others like him in the Labour Party, the party can’t be changed. We need a new party to represent working men and women… The sooner we all realise the sooner we can pick up the pieces and move on". (Morning Star)
Similar statements have been made by Bob Crow and other left figures in the past but their words have not been matched by deeds. The RMT in Scotland supported the first steps towards a new workers’ party in the decision to affiliate and financially support the SSP. In England and Wales, however, the union leaders are ambivalent, and even give the impression that in some way the Labour Party can be salvaged. The RMT is reported to be taking out legal action against Labour, because it has been ‘expelled’. Will the real RMT and the real Bob Crow please stand up? To cling to the Labour Party in circumstances where it can no longer be reformed into a vehicle for working-class struggle and then refuse to draw the obvious conclusions is to let down millions of workers in Britain who are looking for a lead, including members of the RMT.
In this election the New Labour machine propounded the theory, once more, of the ‘lesser evil’. If it is on the ropes in the next election, as it is likely to be, it will again trundle out this ‘theory’. In the election after that, whether it is in opposition or in government, the same arguments will be used. In the meantime, the New Labour leaders will continue to fervently defend capitalism, thereby betraying the hopes and aspirations of working-class people.
The ‘lesser evil’ argument was also used by the Lib-Labs within the Liberal Party in the late 19th century. But then the recognition that the Liberal Party could no longer be even a partial vehicle for the aspirations of the trade unions led to a new generation of workers – most of them from families with a Lib-Lab tradition – to make a decisive break. They heaved the new Labour Party up on their shoulders. The new generation of workers, environmentalists and young people, in particular, faces the same challenge today. Before this election even New Labour admitted that three million former Labour voters were so disaffected that they were threatening to not support them in the election. Labour, as we have seen, did lose a million votes compared to the last election. But, on a mass scale, these disenfranchised potential supporters of a new mass formation had nowhere to go and, therefore, either abstained or supported the Liberal Democrats, a regression politically back to the pre-Labour Party of the 19th century. Some supported Respect or the Socialist Party.
Not just in elections, but in the much more important battles in between, these three million and many more must be offered a mass pole of attraction. The left can take the first steps towards this by beginning the process of once more seriously setting about organising the framework, through discussion and debate, of a new left formation. In order that this does not run into the sand, the lessons of the failures of the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, and the obvious weaknesses of Respect, have to be absorbed. A new party including socialists, left and radical environmentalists, socialist greens, disaffected trade unionists and others, can be drawn into a discussion and debate on the need for such a new formation. No time must be lost.
The election of Matt Wrack to displace the discredited Andy Gilchrist as the new general secretary of the Fire Brigades’ Union on the very day after the general election betokens a new mood amongst workers and a change in the industrial and political situation which will take place in Britain. Genuine forces of the left and socialists must do everything to build on such steps forward to politically rearm the trade unions with combative leaderships and to extend this into the political sphere with the beginnings of a new mass workers’ party. This can advance the interests of the British working class much more decisively than anything we have seen from the establishment capitalist parties in this election.