Belligerent to the end, Blair described Labour’s election results as a "perfectly good springboard to win the next election". In fact they were as disastrous for the government as last year’s local election results. Labour lost control in Scotland for the first time in fifty years, had its worst result since 1918 in Wales, and lost almost 500 council seats in England. There are now almost ninety councils where Labour has been totally wiped out. Blair in 2007 is as hated as Thatcher was in 1990. Undoubtedly, if he had not promised that he would definitely announce his departure the week after the elections, New Labour’s vote would have been even worse.
The Tories declared the night a triumph and it is true that they won more than 800 seats and broke through the 40% barrier for the second year in a row, which opens the possibility of them winning the general election. However, they failed to make breakthroughs in the major cities of the North, and still have no councillors in Newcastle, Manchester or Liverpool, although they did make gains in some smaller northern towns. This is a reflection that, for big sections of the working-class, the Tories still bear the ‘mark of Cain’ for the crimes they committed in the eighteen years they were in power. A new ‘Blair-style’ leader will not be enough to convince most workers that the Tories have changed. However, another section of society, predominantly middle-class, but also including a layer of workers, seem to have gone out and voted Tory, especially in the South.
This does not indicate a groundswell of popular support for the Tories. On the contrary, the defining feature of these elections was that people voted for what they saw as ‘the lesser evil’ in order to stop the party they disliked most. This included a section voting Tory to show their anger with New Labour, and another section, predominately working-class, voting Labour, despite their anger with the government, because they fear the return of a Tory government. At the same time the majority of working class people did not vote at all because they can see no difference between the three main parties - all of whom have virtually identical pro-big business, anti-working class, anti-public service, policies.
In general, it seems that smaller parties were squeezed in this election, largely because people voted for the party that they felt would be most likely to beat the party they disliked most; whether that was Labour or Tory. This was particularly the case in Scotland, where all the smaller parties were squeezed by the polarisation between the SNP and Labour (see separate article). In reality the SNP are a neo-liberal party but at this stage they are perceived as standing to the left of New Labour. This is also true of Plaid Cymru, who to a greater extent than the SNP consciously pose as ‘old Labour, and made some gains on that basis. However, when they have been in power at local level they have carried out the same cuts and privatisation policies as New Labour.
Nonetheless, despite the polarisation, Solidarity and Tommy Sheridan received a very good vote. Without the split in the socialist movement in Scotland, which the leadership of the SSP is responsible for, it is probable that Tommy would have been re-elected despite voters switching to the SNP to punish New Labour. The incredible number of ballot papers that were disallowed in Scotland, more than 100,000, will also have undercut Solidarity’s vote. Ironically New Labour are considering challenging the number of votes disallowed in the hope they can cling to power in Scotland, despite it being their administration’s responsibility that the ballot forms were so complicated!
In England as well smaller parties were squeezed. This included the ‘third party’ the Liberal Democrats, who lost heavily to the Tories, probably as a layer of the middle class, having previously abandoned the Tories because they appeared unelectable, returned to their ‘traditional party’.
Against this background socialist candidates received some impressive votes; particularly in Coventry St Michaels, where the Socialist Party were standing a new candidate, Lindsey Currie, who received 1156 votes, just 84 votes short of holding the seat. In Huddersfield Socialist Party member, Ian Slattery, standing for Huddersfield Save our NHS, received an excellent 1184 votes.
Far right fail to make breakthrough
The far-right racist BNP failed to make the breakthrough it hoped for in this election, despite standing in more seats than ever before. It had a net gain of only two seats despite claiming it was likely to double its tally of councillors from 49 to more than 100.
The BNP have been winning votes by falsely posing as a party of the white working class. When elected they show that they are nothing of the sort. In Burnley, the BNP councillors voted for massive cuts in services. In Stoke, BNP councillors voted in favour of a dramatic rise in council tax equal to almost double inflation. In Kirklees they sat through a six hour debate on the cuts budget without saying a word and then abstained on the vote. In Barking and Dagenham, where they 12 councillors, they failed to event turn up to the council meeting on the budget. It is probably partly the experience of BNP councillors that meant their vote didn’t increase. In Sandwell for example, their number one target nationally, where they have four councillors, they did not win a single extra seat.
However, this does not mean that the BNP cannot make gains in the future. Blair’s imminent departure has raised the hopes of some ‘traditional’ Labour votes that Labour will shift to the left. When, as is inevitable, it becomes clear that this will not happen the urge to punish New Labour will grow again. This will create opportunities for the development of a new mass workers’ party which would genuinely stands in workers’ interests. However, a further delay in the development of such a party would also create further opportunities for the BNP.
Gordon Brown will be ‘crowned’ New Labour leader in a matter of weeks. It is clear that the only possible opposition candidate he could face would be from the left of the party. John McDonnell and Michael Meacher have agreed that whoever gets the fewer nominations will stand down for the other in order to try and ensure a candidate to the left of Brown gets on the ballot paper. Even so, given the nature of the parliamentary Labour Party, it is far from certain either will get the 44 nominations they need. Brown is desperate to prevent a candidate on his left because he understands that, while McDonnell or Meacher would not stand any chance of victory, the trade union leaders would be under enormous pressure from their members to back a candidate that, unlike Brown, supports at least some policies in common with ordinary trade unionists. McDonnell, in particular, has a consistent record of arguing against privatisation. Nonetheless, the Labour leadership contest or coronation will unfortunately confirm that Labour cannot be ‘shifted left’, we argue that McDonnell and the other Labour lefts should draw the necessary conclusions from this and throw their weight behind the building of a new mass workers’ party.
Brown will be a weak prime minister from day one. He will be the leader of government that was elected with the lowest percentage of the popular vote, 36%, of any government in history. He, however, having not contested a general election as prime minister, will not even have that limited legitimacy. He will be under pressure to call a general election; but his capacity to win one is likely to be very doubtful.
He will be desperate to differentiate himself Blair; and temporarily a layer of workers will ‘hope against hope’ that he really is different. But this will not last because in substance he is no different.
He is under most pressure to appear different on Iraq. But even if he withdraws the troops from Iraq and superficially distances himself from Bush more than Blair ‘the poodle, in essence, he will continue to support US imperialism’s brutal foreign policy and may well increase the number of troops taking part in the occupation of Afghanistan.
He is also already hinting he will ‘clean up’ government by doing away with Blair’s ‘sofa government’. It is possible that this can temporarily create the illusion Brown is less ‘sleazy’ than Blair. However, in reality he will not be able to prevent the party continuing to be involved in sleaze of the ‘cash for peerages’ type. Like the Tories before them, any party that prostrates itself before big-business will inevitably end up mired in financial sleaze.
Big business Brownism
And Brown is totally at one with Blair when it comes to acting in the interests of big business. The 200,000 civil servants who were forced to take strike action last week against huge job cuts, privatisation and pay restraint understand that Brownism and Blairism are fundamentally the same - as Chancellor he has spear-headed the attacks on the civil service. Across public services there is already enormous anger at Brown’s attempts to hold down wages. He will attempt to continue the same policies as prime minister. Like Blair before him only mass struggle of the working class has the potential to force him to retreat from his neo-liberal offensive. However, Brown could face such a struggle more quickly than he expects. Despite the attempts of the right-wing trade union leaders to hold back their members anger; a one-day public sector strike on the question of pay is implicit in the situation. The UNISON leadership has also been forced to call a national demo on the NHS in the autumn; which has the potential to be huge.
The only slim advantage Brown holds at this moment is in the economy. Over ten years New Labour has managed the economy in the interests of big business, not working-class people. However, they have been able to get away with this because of a continuation of the relatively ’benign’ economic situation. True, low wages force millions to get by now through working longer hours. But, as yet, the bottom has not completely fallen out of the British economy. However, having been a very lucky Chancellor, Brown is likely to be an unlucky prime minister. Already, even on the basis of continued growth, the public spending deficit means Brown has been accelerating cuts in the public services. However, continued growth is largely based on multiple speculative bubbles, in the stock markets, in housing, and in consumer debt. This situation cannot continue indefinitely. It may hold for a while longer, but it could also reach crisis in the short term. As Will Hutton put it in this week’s Observer, "the crash is coming and it could be soon." Already the increase in interest rates is pushing many overstretched workers personal budgets into crisis. The average mortgage has increased by £1500 over the last year.
Time for a new workers’ party
The desperate need for a new mass workers’ party - that stands for the millions not the millionaires - is graphically shown by this election. Workers are already deeply discontented with all the establishment parties, and this will only intensify on the basis of economic crisis, but they do not yet have a mass alternative that would draw together, and give confidence to, the different struggles of the working-class. Of course, a new mass workers’ party, especially in its early stages, would not be immune to ‘lesser evil syndrome’, where workers vote, not for the party that they agree most with, but the one they perceive as being most likely to damage their main enemy.
However, as a new party gained social weight, and particularly as the depth of the social and economic crisis deepened, more workers would break with the politics of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. This is being shown at the moment in the Netherlands. The Socialist Party, a left formation, made major gains in the general election last November, and has gained again in the elections to the Senate this March, increasing its seats from 4 to 12. At the same time both big capitalist parties - the Christian Democrats and the ex-social democratic Labour Party - lost votes.
The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party is holding its second conference this weekend. All trade unionists who want to build an alternative to Brownism should attend.