Britain: Meltdown for Brown – but he won’t change course

Election meltdown for New Labour

The barbarians are at the gate. After the London mayoral victory of the Tory Neanderthal Boris Johnson and the New Labour meltdown in the rest of the country, that will be the opinion of many, if not the majority, of politically aware working-class people.

Moreover, it comes after the victory of Berlusconi in Italy, who claims that his government is the new ‘Falange’, the fascists who supported Spanish dictator Franco.

The nightmare of a Cameron-led Tory government is posed, given the 44% of the vote for them in these elections, which if repeated in a general election would result in a 100 seat majority for the Tories. The scale of the New Labour meltdown is unprecedented: “Opinions differ as to whether this should be called Labour’s worst defeat since 1973 or 1968 or 1066” (Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, 4/5/08). Over 330 council seats were lost, the worst for Labour for 40 years. Labour had 11,000 councillors in 1997 but this has now been reduced to 5,000.

This electoral massacre is worse even than that suffered by Tony Blair after the catastrophe of the Iraq war. Nowhere was spared, it seems, from this debacle, with northern councils like Bury and North Tyneside falling to the Tories. Even in Wales – historically a bedrock for Labour – New Labour suffered a catastrophe, with Torfaen, where it lost 18 out of its 34 seats, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent “abandoning Labour”. The party now controls only two Welsh councils, down from nine in 1999.

Moreover those associated with the New Labour shipwreck went down, like Plaid Cymru and, most spectacularly, Ken Livingstone. Undoubtedly, Livingstone suffered the most vitriolic campaign, not just from Johnson and the Tories but also from the capitalist media, led by the Tory house journal the London Evening Standard: “It was the Standard wot won it”. Not least in the poison spewed out against Livingstone – particularly by its chief hatchet man Andrew Gilligan – was the fear that if Livingstone won, the lucrative contract for their free journal Metro would be ended.

Johnson undoubtedly benefited enormously from this as well as the £1.5 million that poured into his coffer. This allowed an ‘army’ of helpers to be employed, particularly in the London suburbs, organised by Lynton Crosby, the political consultant behind John Howard’s three successive election victories in Australia. Despite this, however, Johnson could have been defeated by the independent mobilisation of working-class people and youth on clear socialist policies. Indeed, there was a late surge of workers in inner London of those terrified of a Johnson victory.

But, as New Labour MPs queue up to admit, they had no ‘foot soldiers’ in the election. Guardian writer Polly Toynbee states bluntly: “Labour has no firm territory of its own to stand on”. The organised working class has been enormously alienated, as has the middle class, by the attack on the poor symbolised by the withdrawal of the 10% tax rate, the rise in the cost of living through price rises. Added to this is the general dissatisfaction with the deterioration of services and living conditions, graphically felt in London where the huge divide between rich and poor is at its starkest. This offended not just the poor but sections of the progressive middle class who had swung over to an anti-Tory position in the past. Even Jackie Ashley in the Guardian – a flag waver for New Labour – admitted that on the doorstep workers said: “You have lost my vote for good”.

Incredibly, Boris Johnson was allowed to appear as a ‘rebel’, as something ‘fresh’, appealing to the general discontent and the inchoate idea that he might change things. Livingstone contributed to this by appearing arrogant, surrounding himself with a coterie of highly-paid apparatchiks and alienating workers like the tube drivers by his attacks.

But Johnson is not at all fluffy, as his image makers project. In fact, he represents retread Thatcherism. He is on record as wanting to smash the tube and rail unions in London, and as a minimum wants a ‘no strike’ agreement, which is completely dictatorial. He wants to maintain and, if possible, extend the disastrous Public Private Partnership (PPP), thereby opening the door to his rich backers. Whether he gets away with this depends upon the resistance of the labour movement and the fear of Cameron that if he is ‘let off the leash’ this will prove disastrous for Cameron’s own ambitions for national governmental power.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that despite the spurious appeal “to the ethnics”, the minorities in London, Johnson came to power partly helped, at least, by the second preference votes of the British National Party (BNP), which now has a toehold of one seat in the Greater London Assembly. What an indictment of New Labour that these creatures have been given a platform!

In general, however, the BNP fell short of their council seats target; why vote BNP when you can achieve the same objective by voting Johnson and the Tories? The BNP assembly seat will, however, provoke a backlash amongst workers and young people especially.

Socialist victory

More significant for the future was the tremendous victory of Dave Nellist in Coventry, which got no national publicity and only a line in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. Nevertheless, this was a shaft of light in the midst of the New Labour national debacle and is, moreover, a portent of what is possible on the basis of a clear, fighting, socialist lead and the mobilisation of committed socialists and trade unionists for a programme that can really change the lives of working-class people.

Livingstone based himself on campaigns like ‘Muslims for Ken’, a completely non-class, false appeal that could play into the hands of those wishing to whip up prejudices against Muslims. Dave Nellist was confronted by a similar shameful ethnic campaign from New Labour but successfully confronted this by appealing to Muslim workers on a class and socialist basis.

This Labour defeat is not down, in the main, to the less ‘attractive’ personality of Gordon Brown. It is the product, as with Blair, of carrying through pro-capitalist policies, which represent a brutal offensive against the rights and conditions of working-class people. The Financial Times declared that Livingstone – who on balance they preferred – was the candidate of big business in the London mayoral election and Boris Johnson of small business.

If Livingstone had been elected, like the Brown government he would have still been in hock to those who, in turn, operate the levers of economic power and who really control the destiny of Britain and the world. Will Hutton stated in the Observer: “The directors of the world’s top five companies sit on the boards of another 147 leading companies” and Gordon Brown’s government has bent the knee to this power. When the economy was doing well, Brown claimed the credit, but now, in the aftermath of this defeat, he says that his government’s woes are down to the world economic crisis.

If so, take the power away from undemocratic big business autocrats! When they threaten to take their business abroad, like the chemical company Shire moving to Ireland, stop them by nationalising all the banks and introducing a state monopoly of trade. Brown will not do this, or switch to some radical, reformist policies, as writers like Polly Toynbee argue. Instead he will attempt to undermine the Tories by shifting towards the right, like the defeated Socialist Party in France, trapped as he is within the neo-liberal concept.

Demand for change

Trade union leaders and left Labour MPs like John McDonnell are calling for a ‘change in course’. Labour MP Ian Gibson demanded the removal of ID cards, Trident missiles and “futile wars with astronomical costs”. He also called for “affordable housing and a national council house building programme, support for agency workers’ rights, the need for a publicly-owned railway system”, etc. As laudable as this is, there is not a cat in hell’s chance of these being realised under this government and with this prime minister.

It is possible that a challenge will be made to Brown, not now but some time in the future before the next general election, as the plight of the government worsens, as it will because it will be hemmed in by the world and British economic crisis. But a change of face with the same policy will be as ineffective as the switch from Blair to Brown has been. The drivers of the train are hell-bent on heading for a crash.

If the trade union leaders – particularly those on the left – are to be effective in defending their members, they must break with this discredited New Labour party now. It is time to step up the campaign for a new mass workers’ party as the only hope for workers caught between the hammer and the anvil of parties basically the same – the Tories, Liberal Democrats and New Labour – who all subscribe to the poisonous medicine of neo-liberalism. This means a further erosion of workers’ rights and conditions to the benefit of a “superclass”, with their 150 Gulfstream private jets and opulence, while millions struggle in poverty and deprivation.

The new capitalist barbarians can be stopped and turned back by a mass campaign for socialist ideas and policies. A new era has opened up in Britain by the seismic shock provided by Johnson’s and the Tories’ successes.

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