Article from the May 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI
Blair limps home to stormy third term
by Ciaran Mulholland
THE RESULTS of the general election in England, Scotland and Wales have delivered a severe blow to the "New Labour project". Labour's overall majority fell by 100 seats to 66.
Blair is now much more vulnerable to backbench revolts and is seen as a liability by many of his MP's. He has stated his intention to see out this term but his ambitions may yet come to nought.
This government will be far weaker than the last. Blair and Brown have made it clear that privatisation and attacks on the working class will continue. The threat of strike action by over one million public sector workers before the election to defend their pensions was an indication that workers will not be prepared to accept these attacks without a fight.
Blair and Brown promise economic tranquility but they will find it harder to deliver. A number of economic commentators sounded warning bells during the election campaign. Roger Bootle wrote in the Observer (1 May) "I think Tony Blair's choice of 5 May was apposite. If he had delayed it until the autumn, he could have been in serious trouble".
Paul Volker, chairman of the American Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, stated "Circumstances seem to me as dangerous as any I can remember and I can remember quite a lot".
Hamish McRae in The Independent (20 April) argued that "... you could say that - on economic grounds - this is one [election] you want to lose."
And Digby Jones, head of the CBI, challenged New Labour over the "black hole" in government finances and called on them "to look voters in the eye and say 'you pay'" (Financial Times, 6 April).
In June 1992 John Major was returned to power against expectations. Within just three months Britain was forced out of the European exchange-rate mechanism and he presided over a government of crisis until his overwhelming defeat in 1997. The same fate could face Blair, or his chosen successor, Gordon Brown.
Despite the viciously anti-working class nature of the out-going government, and despite the war in Iraq New Labour did win. The question is why?
Working people faced the dilemma of who to vote for when the three main parties are competing over who can best manage capitalism. As a result Labour were returned with the lowest proportion of the vote achieved by any winning party in 150 years.
Though the turnout in this election was slightly up on 2001, mainly because of a huge increase in postal voting, this was still one of the lowest turnouts since the First World War. Many voters, particularly in workingclass areas simply stayed at home. The turnout in David Blunkett's Sheffield constituency for example was only 38%.
The anti-Labour vote was fragmented with no one party benefiting. Posing as the anti-war party the Liberal Democrats benefited most from the discontent with Blair over Iraq. There were major swings from Labour to the Liberals in some traditional Labour seats. The Liberals did less well in seats they were expecting to take from the Tories, tying themselves up in knots as they attempted to face in two directions at the same time.
The Liberals have failed in their aim of replacing the Tories as the second party of big business, though the Tories were not seen as a credible alternative government even by their natural supporters and are feared and despised by working class people. They lost votes to their right wing populist rivals, UKIP and Kilroy-Silk's Veritas.
The BNP gained over 4% of the vote in the areas where they stood. This vote is a warning to the labour movement, demonstrating how, in the absence of an alternative, discontent can be reflected in an increase in the vote of the far-right.
Had there been a more coherent, viable and nation-wide alternative for working-class people this government would have been finished.
The many credible votes for anti-establishment and anti-war candidates who gained a higher media profile, such as Reg Keys in particular, whose son was killed in Iraq and who stood against Blair, shows how the Iraq factor could have had a wider impact.
The high-profile victory of George Galloway, standing for Respect in Bethnal Green and Bow, will be welcomed by many around the country.
George Galloway's campaign undoubtedly tapped into the mood of radicalisation and anger at New Labour - in particular amongst the Muslim community (around 40% of the electorate in the constituency).
The Socialist Party welcomed this victory and called for a vote for Respect - a party that stands to the left of the big three.
Unfortunately Respect did not stand on a clearly socialist ticket. Respect hoped that, by not being explicitly socialist, they would broaden their appeal. However, in areas without large Muslim communities their votes appear comparable to those previously achieved by the explicitly socialist Socialist Alliance and to those achieved the Socialist Party in this election.
A new workers' party will not be built by appealing overwhelmingly to one section of the working class. In addition George Galloway has not, at this stage, clearly drawn the conclusion that a new party is needed to replace New Labour and has mistakenly raised the prospect of Respect possibly playing a part in a process of "reclaiming" the Labour Party.
Whether George Galloway and Respect play a positive role in the process towards forming such a new mass workers party will depend on the approach they adopt in coming struggles.
In Scotland there was an alternative party standing in every area-the Scottish Socialist Party. Unfortunately its vote went down on recent elections. This is partly because of the first past the post nature of the general election and the recent disarray in the SSP after Tommy Sheridan's resignation as party leader. It also reflects the SSP's turn away from a clear socialist profile towards left nationalism.
The Socialist Party in England and Wales achieved some creditable results. In Coventry North East, Dave Nellist received 1,874 (5%), in Lewisham Deptford, Socialist Party councillor Ian Page received 742 votes (2.4%), in Coventry South Rob Windsor received 1,097 votes(2.7%). In Newcastle East, standing for the first time, Bill Hopwood gained 582 votes (1.8%) and in Walthamstow Nancy Taaffe received 727 (2.4%).
A new party of the working class will be built primarily as result of important sections of the working class entering struggle and seeing the necessity of building a political alternative to the capitalist parties. It was the experience of privatisation and strike action over pay, combined with socialists and trade unionists raising the issue, that led to the RMT and FBU severing their link with New Labour. Under the impact of future struggles, workers will conclude not only that they need to make that break but that they need political representation.