TONY BLAIR hoped his Iraq ’victory’ would help New Labour in the 1 May elections. But rather than a ’Baghdad bounce’, it was more like a ’Baghdad trounce’. New Labour lost votes nationwide due to anger on the war. In particular, they lost several councils in areas with large Muslim populations such as Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester.
On 1 May there were local elections in England and Scotland, Scottish Parliament elections in Scotland and Welsh Assembly elections in Wales. Here we carry reports from England, Wales and Scotland. CWI online.
Blair’s ’Baghdad trounce’
A layer of voters remain in opposition to the war. Still more – two-thirds of people according to a poll – think Blair’s warmongering has increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks in the UK. New Labour even had difficulties motivating their own election activists as a result of the war.
New Labour’s loss of over 750 seats was also due to great anger over domestic issues, such as the recent 13% average council tax increase, the rise in National Insurance, cuts in services and the level of crime.
The Liberals gained their highest share of the vote in a local election but their net gain was only 185 seats and four councils. They are the traditional protest vote against Labour and the Tories but in this election also gained votes for not fully endorsing war on Iraq. Their results show that once in power they quickly repel people when it becomes clear they offer no real alternative.
The Tories gained 560 seats and 29 councils, mainly in rural and suburban areas. Tory shadow minister, Crispin Blunt tried to trigger a leadership challenge to Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith (IDS) by attacking him and resigning his position.
But it was an ill-timed move, made just hours before it was clear the party had won enough seats to save IDS for the time being. And despite IDS’s lack of support amongst Tories, they have no credible alternative at present. Incredibly, Blunt’s preference was to return to the failed leadership of William Hague!
The Tories are also well aware that they achieved nowhere near the votes they would need to win a general election.
Speculating on what the results would mean in a general election is a fairly futile exercise. With only a third of voters turning out, the ’snapshot’ of views on 1 May gives no indication of how the bulk of the electorate will vote. And in any case, attitudes can alter considerably as a result of events over even short periods of time.
THE TORIES were heralded as the largest party in local government, having gained 35% of the vote, as against Labour’s 31% and the Liberals’ 30%. But rather than significant increased support for them, their seat gains were mainly due to the fall in Labour’s vote.
Taking into account the low turnout and the fact that 12% of the electorate was not involved in elections on 1 May, all three main capitalist parties received the votes of around only 8% of the total electorate! This is the inevitable response by ordinary people to their similar polices of cuts and attacks on living standards.
All three parties had major problems in even finding candidates for many of the 10,427 council seats contested. Labour had candidates in only two-thirds of the seats being fought for in England.
As well as showing disillusionment in the main parties, the low turnout reflects the view that voting will not change anything, particularly in local elections as councils have had many of their powers taken away by central government.
New methods of voting such as all-postal ballots, phone and e-voting boosted the vote in some areas. However, they will not change the present fundamental disenchantment with voting, particularly of working-class people. These methods could also encourage vote-rigging, and they create a passive role for the electorate rather than an active one.
There is a continuing trend for independent candidates and small parties to gain seats, which disturbingly has also included the far-right BNP (see article opposite). The Green Party now have 53 councillors in England and Wales, their highest ever number.
Socialist Party councillor Karen McKay was re-elected in Coventry – we have four councillors nationally. The Socialist Alliance gained one councillor in Preston.
The Scottish Socialist Party’s gains in the Scottish parliament are excellent and there will be questions about whether socialists in England and Wales can achieve similar results. However, their gains were due to the system of proportional representation which is not used in England and Wales.
Nevertheless, steps towards left unity need to be taken in England and Wales, though these must be on a principled basis. The vacuum on the left and the successes of anti-cuts candidates and small parties, including the Socialist Party, shows the potential for a new mass workers’ party. With more government attacks imminent, this is urgently needed.
AS THE economy worsens, the government will strive to protect big business which will mean no respite for ordinary people. There was a small economic ’Baghdad bounce’ when the FTSE 100 share prices increased by 15% since their pre-war level but economic growth in the first quarter of this year was only 0.2%.
Chancellor Gordon Brown recently underestimated government borrowing by £1.2 billion and has overestimated future growth rates. A massive accumulation of debt has been fuelling consumer spending, but this is unsustainable.
With house prices now levelling off and unemployment likely to rise, spending will slow, pushing the economy into recession. The Ernst and Young Item Club predicts that Gordon Brown will need tax increases of as much as £15 billion to plug the gap in his figures.
Blair and those around him are preparing to counter future workers’ struggles against further attacks. He said recently: "We will not give in, in any shape or form, to any resurgent trade union militancy". John Prescott has tabled emergency legislation to try to force firefighters to accept a pay settlement and worse working practices.
But it is only a matter of time before a section of workers enters into struggle, whether it be further action by the firefighters or others such as health workers, council workers or teachers. Easter’s National Union of Teachers conference voted to refuse to implement the SATS exam system next year – SATS underlies much of the government’s education strategy.
Public-sector union leaders are reflecting the discontent from below on low pay by calling for a minimum wage of £6.50 per hour. While the new HSBC chief executive, William Aldinger has set a new UK record of greed by taking a pay and perks package worth £37 million, average earnings have been rising at below the rate of inflation.
Socialist Party candidates on 1 May condemned the capitalist system for such an obscene wealth divide. But rather than echoing those who just bemoan it, we include in our programme the need to take into public ownership the top 150 companies and banks that dominate the economy, under working-class control and management.
Almost every Socialist Party candidate gained an increased vote on previous elections, showing growing support for a genuine socialist alternative.
Morgan’s ’clear red water’ helps Labour in Wales
RHODRI MORGAN and "Welsh Labour" are celebrating gaining two seats and a total of 30 out of 60 Welsh Assembly seats. But all the established parties lost votes in the Welsh Assembly elections, as the turnout tumbled from 46% to 38%. Vote strikers outnumbered voters nearly two to one.
While the vote for left-wing candidates rose, Plaid Cymru lost five of their 17 seats and nearly half their votes from 1999. Labour, who won the election, shed over 50,000 votes. The election reflected disenchantment with politics but also the contempt that the Assembly is held in.
Labour gained mainly at Plaid Cymru’s expense. Labour’s leader, Rhodri Morgan, has cultivated an image of "Welsh Labour" which keeps "clear red water" between himself and Tony Blair. In 1999 Blair disastrously imposed Alun Michael as Welsh Labour leader to keep Morgan out. This resulted in massive gains for Plaid last time around.
Welsh Labour introduced free bus travel for pensioners across Wales, abolished SATS at Key Stage One, opposes foundation hospitals and promises free prescriptions and free primary school breakfasts. This built up an image of a Welsh Labour leadership different from right-wing New Labour.
Plaid Cymru’s leadership on the other hand, has been trying to show how responsible it really is. The huge gains in 1999, when Plaid appeared a radical alternative to New Labour, evaporated as Plaid lost 145,000 votes, doing particularly badly in seats in Rhondda Cynon Taff and Caerphilly, where it controls councils. Working people have discovered that very little has changed under Plaid.
Only the left increased its votes from 1999. Maverick ex-Labour Assembly Member John Marek won his seat in Wrecsam and his list gained 11,000 votes in North Wales.
The best results for socialists in the constituencies were gained by Socialist Party candidates in Aberavon and Cardiff South and Penarth. In Aberavon Rob Williams got the best socialist vote in Wales while in Cardiff, Dave Bartlett got the second best socialist result and doubled his share of the vote from 1999.
In this Assembly election Welsh Labour used a few radical-sounding promises to shore up its position. However the differences with New Labour in London are minimal and Westminster still controls the purse strings. The "clear red water" that Morgan claims lies between Welsh Labour and New Labour will prove to be an illusion.
The problems facing ordinary working people will not go away. The chronic crisis in the Welsh health service remains unresolved. Public services are in a mess while council taxes go through the roof. As opposition to "Welsh Labour" develops, support for socialist ideas will grow.
Constituency socialist votes:
Rob Williams, Aberavon, (Socialist Party), 608 (3.24%)
Dave Bartlett, Cardiff South & Penarth, (Socialist Party), 585 (2.91%)
Raja Gul Raiz, Cardiff Central, (Welsh Socialist Alliance), 541 (2.63%)
Chris Herriot, Ogmore, (Socialist Labour Party), 410 (2.45%)
Hugh Pudner, Neath, (WSA), 410 (1.85%)
Leigh Richards, Swansea West, (WSA), 272 (1.40%)
Richard Morse, Newport West, (WSA), 198 (0.92%)
Alan Thomson, Swansea East, (WSA), 133 (0.76%)
Dave Reid, Socialist Party Wales
Spectacular gains for Scottish Socialist Party
SCOTLAND’S POLITICAL establishment were licking their wounds after the Scottish parliament elections of 1 May. There were spectacular advances for the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), who between them won 13 seats – an increase of 11.
Four independents were elected including Dr Jean Turner, a hospitals campaigner who won Strathkelvin and Bearsden from New Labour. Denis Canavan was also reelected in Falkirk with the biggest majority in the Scottish Parliament.
In contrast, there was a massive rejection of New Labour and the SNP. With the turnout falling below 50%, Labour’s vote fell by 4% on the first vote (their lowest vote since 1931) and 5% on the second PR based party list vote.
The SNP, supposedly New Labour’s main opposition, were shattered by the loss of 20% of their MSPs, reducing them to 27 MSPs from the 35 they previously held. The nationalists’ pro-business agenda undermined their attempts to appeal to workers and young people. Their vote slumped by 5% on the first vote and almost 7% on the second.
It was the SSP and the Greens who between them captured the imagination of tens of thousands of those looking for a radical alternative to the establishment parties. Between them they won 250,000 second votes.
The SSP stood in 70 of the 73 first past the post constituencies winning 6.2% of the first vote. The party polled over 5% in 43 seats with Tommy Sheridan winning 28% of the vote in Pollok. Well over 100,000 people voted SSP on the first vote and 130,000 people voted SSP on the second vote – trebling the SSP’s vote compared to 1999.
All the SSP MSPs were elected through the regional party list vote. In Glasgow the SSP won two seats, Tommy Sheridan and Rosie Kane. With 16% of the city-wide vote the SSP almost defeated the SNP who won 17% of the Glasgow second vote.
One SSP MSP was elected in four other regions: Lothians, Colin Fox; South of Scotland, Rosemary Byrne; Central Scotland, Carolyn Leckie; and the West of Scotland, Frances Curran. The SSP also won two council seats. Keith Baldassara won the North Pollok ward previously held by Tommy Sheridan.
The Greens did not stand in the constituencies, concentrating on the second vote where they won seven seats. A pensioners’ campaigner won a list seat in Central Scotland and Margo McDonald, the former SNP MSP, won a seat on the Lothians list. Independent left and anti-establishment candidates, the Greens and the SSP took an incredible 20% of the Scottish second vote, and 10% of the first vote.
MEMBERS OF the International Socialists (the Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Scotland) stood as SSP candidates. Jim McFarlane polled 1,500 votes in Dundee West (6%) and Bruce Wallace in Angus doubled the SSP vote to win 1,300 votes.
The International Socialists proposed that we stood down in Dundee East where John McAllion, the socialist Labour MP, was standing. We also called on him to break with New Labour and help build a new mass party for socialism. John lost his seat by 90 votes to the SNP. This underlined the correct decision not to stand in an effort to maximise the socialist vote.
Probably Labour (50 seats) and the Liberal Democrats (17), will form another coalition Executive. For that Labour may have to pay the price of introducing PR for local government elections from 2007.
However the Greens may possibly back the new Executive in parliament while not formerly joining the coalition. This would be a variation of a "Red-Green" theme in Europe where the Greens have either entered coalitions as in Germany or backed the Social Democracy from the outside, for example in Sweden.
Whether there is a formal "traffic light" coalition involving the Greens or an informal one, support for the Greens will be undermined unless they maintain their distance from the Labour-Liberal coalition.
Resisting the pressure
We welcome the SSP’s success, which will be welcomed by tens of thousands of working-class people across Scotland. This important breakthrough can also lead to a significant growth in the party’s membership and influence.
Pressure on the SSP to adapt its socialist programme in favour of "practical measures" that can be implemented by the parliament will be intense. We fully support reforms such as the introduction of Free School Meals and the abolition of the Council Tax.
At the same time, it is essential that the SSP fights for public ownership of the major sectors of the economy under the democratic control of the working class as the only long term solution to poverty and inequality.
Philip Stott, Dundee SSP and International Socialist
Neo-Nazis blast a warning
THE NEO-Nazi British National Party (BNP) won 13 council seats in the elections and now have 16 elected local councilors. Their eight councillors in Burnley now make the BNP the official opposition to Labour.
This and other gains means a certain political breakthrough for the BNP, who have struggled to hide their neo-Nazi ideas to gain votes and new members, although they are still far from an important national force.
Many seats were won with very small majorities, and they failed to make the breakthrough they hoped for in areas like Sunderland (where they stood 22 candidates but none were elected).
The election of further BNP candidates is dangerous however, encouraging increasing divisions, racial tensions and prejudice locally.
The BNP’s leaders and key activists are neo-Nazis, believing that whites are superior to all other races. Their ultimate aim is a Nazi dictatorship, like Hitler in Germany or Mussolini in Italy, that can smash all working-class organisations and democratic rights.
They use racism and all other common forms of prejudice, to divide working-class people and help big business to keep exploiting us all.
The BNP leadership have been trying for years to build a far-right party which can attract support beyond a few scattered individuals. Time and again they have failed, defeated by mass movements against racism and fascism.
But now, when millions are alienated from mainstream political parties and looking to punish the establishment, the BNP try to ’rebrand’ themselves and lose their neo-Nazi image.
The asylum issue undoubtedly helped the BNP, particularly after many mainstream newspapers and politicians linked it to the terrible level of local services (in fact produced by years of cuts and privatisation). BNP members are delighted that the media and mainstream political parties are ’legitimising’ their anti-asylum seeker views in this way.
Particularly in relatively better-off areas with a mainly white population, racism was a big factor in BNP’s votes. However, most BNP voters are not convinced neo-Nazis, or even support all of the BNP’s public (very watered-down) policy statements.
Most people who are eligible to vote don’t vote in local elections, not seeing any point in voting for careerist politicians who promise the world and then do exactly the same as the party that were in before, while services are allowed to run down.
Much of the BNP’s new vote comes from people who don’t agree with the BNP on many issues but want to punish the establishment and the careerist politicians who represent it.
Sadly any progress for the BNP, with their policies of division and hatred, will make it harder for local communities to unite in campaigns to improve services and end the neglect that they have suffered for years.
The establishment is uncomfortable at the BNP’s growth and fears that a new anti-racist movement could develop in response. New Labour and other mainstream politicians argued for people to vote for any of the three main parties, whether you agreed with them or not, just to keep the BNP out. But it’s their unpopular policies that opened the door to the BNP.
To halt the BNP’s growth we need to build an anti-racist movement and a genuine left alternative to the mainstream political parties and the far right. Such an alternative must take up bread-and-butter issues like jobs, housing, low pay and privatisation. It must oppose the pro-big business policies of New Labour and the BNP with working-class unity and the power of the trade union movement.
Naomi Byron, secretary, Youth against Racism in Europe and Clare James, national organiser International Socialist Resistance
From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales.