The results in last Thursday’s local authority elections were a devastating blow for New Labour and could be a death blow for Blair.
The 2006 council elections in England have increased the pressure on Tony Blair and New Labour. The results show a continuing and increasing disaffection with the establishment parties. Socialist Party candidates scored some important victories, as detailed on pages 2,4 and 5. Hannah Sell gives an analysis of the national implications of the results. Below, Judy Beishon examines Repect’s development.
Local elections – A death blow for Blair?
In the aftermath of the election the mainstream press have concentrated on the civil war in the government – a civil war based primarily on personalities and power – and in doing so have covered up the real political issues.
Having lost 479 seats in the 2004 local elections, New Labour now lost another 319 last Thursday. They won a mere 26% of the vote, compared to 40% for the Tories.
The government has been trying to comfort itself by pointing out that it went on to win the general election in 2005, despite appalling local election results the year before. However, the last general election showed not the popularity but the unpopularity of New Labour and all the mainstream political parties.
It was the first general election where more people abstained than voted for the victorious party. The government was elected with the lowest percentage of the popular vote, 36%, of any governing party in Britain’s history: the most unpopular party to form a government since the 1832 Reform Act.
These local elections told exactly the same story. The Tories made considerable gains, winning 317 seats and are jubilant that they have finally reached the golden 40% figure – the first time they have done so since 1992. Finally, they hope, they have stopped flat-lining and set out on the road to power. Given the crisis in New Labour, this cannot by any means be ruled out. But in fact this time they only achieved a 2% increase on their 2004 result.
One advantage New Labour has over the Tories is that they are seen as more trusted to run the economy. Traditionally this has been the preserve of the Tories but in an astonishing historical turnaround it is now an advantage to New Labour.
Like the Tories before them, they manage 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, even official unemployment figures are now beginning to creep up and this can change completely, long before New Labour is forced to go back for a ’mandate’.
The Tories’ biggest problem, however, is that they still bear the mark of Cain for the crimes they committed during their eighteen years in power. In the major cities of the North they failed to make any breakthroughs. In Manchester they do not have a single councillor!
It will take more than a new young ’Blair-style’ party leader to dim the memory of Thatcher’s vicious anti-working class policies.
This is also true for the vast majority of working-class people in the South and Midlands. However in these regions, a section of middle-class voters, who exist in greater numbers particularly in London and the South East and perhaps even a thin layer of workers, seem to have voted Tory.
This reflects a number of different things. Many will have been traditional Tory voters who temporarily abandoned their party because of the stench of Thatcherism but are now turning out again. The Liberal Democrats suffered as a result.
However, the Tory victories in London also seem to be because of a greater drop in the Labour vote than in other areas. This reflects the depth of anger that exists in London, where the underlying crisis of British capitalism is in many ways more sharply expressed – with the housing crisis, the most expensive transport system in the world and the scale of under-resourcing of public services.
Nationally the turnout, while still higher than many local elections in recent years, fell to 36% from the 40% turnout in 2004.
The majority of working-class people abstained from the election because they could see no significant difference between the cuts, privatisation, lies and corruption of the ’big three’ capitalist parties.
No wonder. The ’cash for peerages’ revelations, which affect all the mainstream parties, is not accidental. Any party that prostrates itself before big-business will inevitably end up mired in financial sleaze. For most of those who benefited from New Labour’s largesse – peerages were the icing on the cake – the real spoils were the ’right to buy’ public services.
Several of those nominated were involved in running city academies. The scandal may have meant that Dr Chai Patel, chief executive of Priory Healthcare, has had to miss out on a peerage. But his company is still making super-profits from buying up chunks of the NHS.
It is inevitable that the capitalists’ only interest in public services is to make profits from them. Even the right-wing Sunday Telegraph declared that: "Until civil servants appreciate that private companies are out to make money and will do all within their power to extract the best possible returns, the taxpayer is always going to come off worst."
New Labour, however, have taken their worship of the market to unprecedented levels, believing that the market is best at everything. In this year’s budget Gordon Brown announced an almost doubling in PFI contracts to a massive £53 billion-worth. This has been combined with a huge escalation of other forms of privatisation, including city academies and NHS Direct Treatment Centres.
At the same time they are demanding that health Trusts balance their books, leading to swingeing cuts. Pennine Acute Trust for example, in the latest of a long list of job cuts, has announced it will cut 10% of its workforce, taking the total toll of proposed NHS job cuts to over 10,000.
The cuts in the NHS, the destruction of the remnants of social housing and the threatened closure of Peugeot Ryton, one of the only car plants left in the West Midlands – the traditional centre of the car industry, have all added to the deep seated disillusionment with New Labour. The continuing sore of Iraq also remains an important factor.
The far-right racist British National Party (BNP) more than doubled its number of councillors to 46 in this election. New Labour spokespeople have tried to blame everyone but themselves.
Even the hapless Labour Minister Margaret Hodge has been blamed, because she blurted out that eight out 10 voters in her constituency were considering voting BNP. While she exaggerated, her warning was confirmed when 11 BNP councillors were elected in the area.
This really is a case of shooting the messenger! Her explanation that the BNP would increase its vote because "white working-class voters feel Labour is not listening to their concerns" and were angry "at the lack of housing" was accurate, although she had no solution to offer.
New Labour listens not to the working class, white or otherwise, but to big business.
The BNP play a pernicious role in whipping up racism. New Labour and the other mainstream politicians express their outrage at this, yet they have all been prepared at different times to use ’anti-asylum seeker’ propaganda to shore up their popularity. It is against this background that the BNP have been able to get an echo.
It is not a coincidence that BNP leader Nick Griffin called David Blunkett his "best recruiting sergeant". Moreover, the primary blame for the growth of the BNP lies at the door of the Blairites for destroying any element of working-class representation in the Labour Party.
The BNP are 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 didn’t even turn up to the council meeting where council tax rises and £1 million-worth of cuts were voted through.
In Stoke, BNP councillors voted in favour of a dramatic rise in council tax, equal to almost double inflation. As a result the BNP appeared not to have done well in some areas with experience of their record as councillors. In Oldham, for example, where they made one of their first breakthroughs in 2002, they only stood three candidates, none of whom were elected.
However, it would be a major mistake to rely on the BNP’s own incompetence to undermine them. It is crucial that socialists actively campaign against the BNP.
In the early 1990s, when the BNP got their first councillor elected, Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), along with other organisations, led a mass movement which successfully undercut the BNP.
YRE’s main slogan was ’jobs and homes not racism’. This is equally applicable today. But after nine years of Labour government, disillusionment with all mainstream parties is far deeper than it was then.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, was quite right to say in the Guardian in response to the BNP’s increased vote: "It is clearer than ever that New Labour is turning away working-class voters in droves because it is trying to out-Tory the Tories. Working men and women need policies that put their interests first not the failed Tory policies of privatisation, PFI and giving big business everything they ask for."
Bob Crow rightly has no illusions that New Labour can be shifted decisively to the left whether or not Blair stays as prime minister. Blair may survive the latest bout of infighting but he is now a liability for New Labour. MPs and councillors want to cling on to power and above all to their salaries and increasingly believe that their best hope of doing so is to get Blair to stand down as soon as possible.
It is this which is motivating most of those MPs who have started to openly demand that Blair should go, or at least set a timetable for his departure. However, they are deluded in imagining that getting rid of Blair would wipe out the effects of New Labour’s policies of cuts, privatisation and war over the last nine years.
Brown, who remains the most likely successor to Blair, has repeatedly made clear his leadership would not mean "a shift to the left".
A Brown election might temporarily increase New Labour’s poll ratings, as some workers cling to the hope that he is a ’wolf in sheep’s clothing’ but reality would soon tell a different story. Brown would be a ’lame-duck’ prime minister from the start, continuing with fundamentally the same policies and unable to clear up the mess Blair had left behind him.
New workers’ party
What is needed is the formation of a new workers’ party that stands in the interests of the working class. Last week’s election results bring the need for such a party forcefully home.
The only way to decisively cut across the BNP is to move towards founding a new mass party of the working class which brings together community campaigners, socialists, left and radical environmentalists, socialist greens, disaffected trade unionists around a fighting socialist anti-cuts and anti-privatisation programme. Bob Crow, who agrees with the need for such a party, has, along with other left trade union leaders, a responsibility to help bring it into being.
A glimpse of the potential for such a party was shown by the votes received by the Socialist Party and others on the left in this election. In addition to those socialists who stood, the Green Party, which is generally seen as ’left’ by those who vote for it, got very good votes in some areas.
Although it was around a single issue, the election of Socialist Party member Jackie Grunsell on behalf of Save Huddersfield NHS showed how a new broad party could gain momentum. The Liberal Democrats ran a ’red scare’ campaign in the ward but to no avail.
The turnout in Crosland Moor and Netherton, where Jackie was elected was 49%, the highest in Huddersfield. Workers who don’t normally vote, having demonstrated against the NHS cuts, came out to vote for the NHS campaign. Jackie was elected with 2,176 votes, giving her a majority of 807.
New Labour is facing increasingly active and organised opposition from sections of the working class. In March, local government workers took part in the biggest strike since 1926 in defence of their pension rights. Railway workers are also likely to have to take strike action on pensions.
The civil servants’ trade union (PCS) has again had to strike against the decimation of the Department for Work and Pensions.
At the same time, local community campaigns are organising mass campaigns against the cuts in the NHS, which need to be linked together in a national demonstration. Crucially, increased trade union action needs to be combined with the development of a political alternative to argue in the interests of the working class.
The Socialist Party initiated the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) in March which has received an excellent response from rank and file trade unionists and community campaigners. Over the coming months CNWP will be stepping its campaigns.
Dangers in Respect’s development
Respect stood over 150 candidates and got 16 elected: 12 in Tower Hamlets, three in Newham and one in Birmingham.
The victories of candidates standing against the Iraq war, privatisation and the other neo-liberal attacks of New Labour and big business are welcome. However there are also strong danger signs regarding Respect’s development.
All of their winning candidates are from a Muslim background and won predominately on the basis of Muslim votes in areas with high Muslim populations. Winning support from working-class Muslim and other Asian, black and immigrant communities is an essential task of left and socialist parties. These communities face some of the worst housing conditions, jobs and unemployment in Britain and also suffer the consequences of increased racism.
However, the extreme difference between Respect’s election performance in those areas compared with areas with relatively few Muslims is striking. Virtually all of Respect’s results in towns and cities such as Plymouth, Portsmouth, Cambridge, Liverpool, Newcastle and Oxford were very much lower (around 2-300 votes) than their votes in areas with high Muslim populations.
On its website, Respect declares that their twelve council seats in Tower Hamlets are "one more than the BNP in Barking and Dagenham". This would be a cause for great celebration by the left as a whole, if it had been achieved on a clear class-based programme. But instead, unfortunately, Respect could unconsciously further the beginnings of a polarisation based on racial division, by not countering the growing perception that it is a ’party for Muslims’.
The white working-class BNP voters of Barking and Dagenham will only be won away from the BNP by a left party that puts forward a class-based alternative. It is not so much a question of what Respect’s election material says, but of what it doesn’t say. While it puts across opposition to NHS cuts, council house privatisation, the war in Iraq and other welcome positions, it does not consistently include a class-based appeal to all sections of the working class.
As the Socialist Party has repeatedly warned, it is necessary for socialists to stand clearly and firmly on a fighting, class-based programme that can unite working people from all sections of society. In Kirklees, standing for ’Save Huddersfield NHS’, Socialist Party member Jackie Grunsell won a council seat with 2,176 votes and a majority of 807, by appealing to both white voters and a significant Asian minority electorate. Victorious Socialist Party candidates in Coventry and Lewisham have also appealed to all sections of workers in those areas.
Another major challenge Respect now faces will be in living up to expectations to improve the lives of people in Tower Hamlets. Some of its new councillors there have a record of fighting privatisation and cuts, but as the second largest political group on the council they will soon be tested at a new level.
The housing, welfare and other urgent needs in that poverty stricken borough cannot be solved with the money presently given by the government and raised in local council tax. So Respect’s councillors will be faced with the choice of supporting cuts in some services, increasing council tax, or of mobilising all sections of the community into a major campaign to demand the necessary resources from the government, as Liverpool’s socialist councillors did in the 1980s.
Respect has already shown – particularly through the behaviour of its MP George Galloway – that its public representatives are far from accountable to the party. This, combined with the fact that many of its new councillors do not come from a socialist background, is cause for concern in Tower Hamlets.
What is needed, is a united, campaigning team of councillors, opposing all cuts and leading and basing themselves on the struggles of workers from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Only in this way can a successful campaign be launched against the New Labour government and council attacks on living standards and for the resources necessary to transform people’s lives.
Special feature from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.