Britain: Iraq comes back to haunt New Labour’s election campaign

Such is the distaste of the majority of the population for the coming general election that the numbers watching TV news has dropped 300,000 in the four weeks of the campaign.

New Labour has only one effective weapon in its battle to convince working-class people to turn out and vote Labour – fear of Michael Howard, the Tory leader, becoming prime minister.

The election is a bizarre ‘Alice in Wonderland’ affair with New Labour, on the one hand, claiming that if only one in 10 people who voted Labour in the last election fail to do so this time, then the Tories could win the election. Conversely, Howard is trying his hardest to convey to voters that he stands no chance of winning the election, and so it is safe to vote Tory in order to protest against New Labour!

In reality, barring a major political earthquake, New Labour is set to win the election, although the size of its majority is far from certain. This does not reflect any enthusiasm for a third New Labour government, but merely that they are seen by the majority as a slightly less horrendous alternative than a rabid, right-wing Tory government led by a Thatcherite Howard.

Nonetheless, the leaking of the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith’s, extremely equivocal advice on the legality of the Iraq war (which even the Cabinet never saw) combined with the leaking of a memo showing that Blair had decided to go to war in July 2002, has led to a serious further undermining of Blair’s authority. Even more devastating is the declaration by Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the man who led Britain’s forces into Iraq, that the government had not given him as an individual, or the armed forces as a whole, the legal cover necessary to prevent prosecution for war crimes and that he was determined to make sure that, if he faced prosecution, Blair and Goldsmith would be in the dock with him.

There is more than an element of Watergate in these series of new revelations from the establishment about Blair and Iraq. While it will not lose Blair the election, not least because Howard has said he would have invaded Iraq regardless of the law (although the Liberal Democrats who are widely perceived as anti-war will increase their vote), it is designed to ensure that he cannot embark on any other bloody adventures in the future, at least without the backing of the British ruling class. It is also increasing the likelihood that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, will take over from Blair earlier in the third term.

Whether Brown or Blair is Prime Minister, Labour’s third term will see a further escalation of privatisation and attacks on public services, pensions and benefits, particularly when the economy worsens. The threatened strike action by 1.5 million public sectors workers to defend their pensions before the election is only a foretaste of the kind of militant, determined strike action that will be necessary to defend workers interests against the next New Labour government.

Equally important is the need for a political alternative to New Labour. “There is no longer a mainstream anti-business party” crowed the Financial Times in its editorial on 26 April. And that is a key issue for working-class people in this election and after. Brian Sedgemore, a veteran Labour backbencher, has resigned from New Labour in disgust at Blairism, but has regrettably taken a step not to the left but to the right by joining the Liberal Democrats – a party which is pro-privatisation and stand for banning strikes in key industries, and the party which workers left one hundred years ago because they saw the need for independent workers’ representation.

The Socialist Party is contesting 17 seats in this election, and is standing as part of the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, which will contest 26 seats in total. We are showing in a modest but significant way the potential for a new mass left-wing party to be established.

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May 2005