Britain: New Labour melt-down

Fighting socialist leadership needed

The outcome of the county council elections, followed by the ‘meltdown’ in the euro elections, represents a devastating defeat for New Labour and the Gordon Brown dominated government. They were beaten into third place nationally by the UK Independence Party (Ukip – ‘the BNP in blazer-jackets’). The Scottish National Party, for the first time in a UK-wide election, outscored New Labour in Scotland. They were beaten into second place by the Tories in the formerly Labour bastion of Wales for the first time since 1918. They were relegated to fifth place in the South-East and South West of England by the Greens, and came sixth in Cornwall, behind the Cornish nationalists! The scale of New Labour’s collapse is indicated by its share of the popular vote of almost 16%, the lowest since 1910 when it scored 7.6%!

The increase for Ukip – pushing Labour into third position nationally – and, particularly, the two seats won by the odious far right British National Party’s Nick Griffin and his partner in crime, Andrew Brons, was a sickening spectacle to those workers and young people who viewed it on television at the time and afterwards. But, contrary to the impression that could be given, these results were not a resounding victory for the ‘right’. Support for Ukip, but particularly the BNP, arose from the collapse, in the main, of the New Labour vote. As the BBC news website comments: “They actually got fewer votes in the North-West and Yorkshire and the Humber this time than in 2004.” The same applies to David Cameron’s Tories who, in effect, flatlined with their vote no higher than in 2004 and well down on the 36% they scored under former Tory leader, William Hague, in 1999.

The Greens scored a big increase in votes but with no increase in their MEPs because of the biased electoral system in Britain which is unfair to small parties. If the vote for the BNP represents a protest to the ‘right’, the Greens, in the main, is a ‘left’ protest vote and, paradoxically, is an indication of the potential for a new mass workers’ party. However, the Greens have not yet been fully tested out in action, apart from in some councils where they have been found wanting. In Ireland, they have been decimated – payment by voters for sharing power in the right-wing dominated Fianna Fáil government. Fianna Fáil received its lowest vote since the state was founded.

These elections reveal both the fragmentation and confusion in the outlook of millions of workers repulsed by the ‘mainstream’ pro-capitalist parties, and who are casting around wildly for an alternative. Hence the vote for parties based on religion. If this became the trend, it would be grist to the mill of the far-right in trying to generate a ‘white backlash’, which was evident in Griffin’s rant on BBC TV on the night of the count.

This feature – a scattered consciousness and, therefore, disjointed electoral protests – is evident also to some extent in the results of the EU elections in Europe. For instance, the ‘Pirate Party’ – so named because of the pirating of music on the internet – received 9% of the vote in Sweden! But the erratic voting patterns in Europe does not substantiate the arguments of commentators in Britain that the continent ‘lurched to the right’, that the ‘centre-right’ came out victorious in these elections. Most of the right-wing capitalist parties – Angela Merkel in Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy in France or even Silvio Berlusconi in Italy – merely held on to their previous voting percentages or ‘flatlined’, while the percentage of the vote to their opponents decreased.

In Germany, Merkel’s Christian Democracy suffered a big drop in its votes, but the Social Democrats – who share power with them – polled less. Without a clear, mass left alternative being offered, and despite the catastrophic economic situation which was the fundamental and a determining element in the background of this election, many acquiesced to ‘Nanny’ (with a strict approach), to right-wing governments and parties. Others, in sheer desperation, were seduced by the far-right, – including Ukip in Britain.

But this did not happen in Ireland because, among other things, we had the splendid campaign of Joe Higgins, under the banner of the Irish Socialist Party, who received a magnificent 13% of first preference votes and was elected to the European parliament on an unambiguous socialist ticket. This was probably the best vote for a clear left-wing socialist candidate in Europe. Other left parties gained. But Joe’s and the Socialist Party’s victory was achieved on the basis of an exemplary fighting programme in the election, but also on the back of the tremendous record of fighting the anti-water privatisation campaign and the mass struggle against bin charges, and Joe’s subsequent jailing. Also there was the crucial involvement in the extra parliamentary battles of the Irish working class, notably the Irish Ferries dispute and the struggle against the exploitation of immigrant labour in the case of Gamma’s Turkish workers.

Set against the organic corruption of the Irish political elite, Joe’s honesty, his refusal to take more than the average wage of a worker, and clear radical and socialist policies stood out. No possibility here for the far-right to make gains. Nor in Germany, where The Left party (Die Linke), despite its weaknesses in programme and structure, was an electoral obstacle on a national scale to stop workers in protest against the pro-capitalist parties swinging to the far-right. Unfortunately, no clear pole of attraction of this character exists in most of the countries in Europe.

But even new left parties where they exist – the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France, Syriza in Greece and Die Linke in Germany – in the main, did not do as well as they could have done because they did not campaign on a clear socialist alternative, in contrast to Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party in Ireland. Apart from the Socialist Party in Ireland, the only party to substantially increase its vote was the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) in Portugal which doubled its percentage vote to over 10%.

A heroic effort was made in this election by the No2EU-Yes to Democracy campaign. Unfortunately, the time between establishing the campaign and the election was too short, to attract substantial sections of the trade unions and the labour movement to its banner. This meant that it could not stamp its political imprint on the consciousness of workers – who it was aimed at – thereby overcoming, partially at least, the confused political situation. Nevertheless, it was absolutely correct for the Socialist Party, the RMT and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) to seize the opportunity to create a workers’ bloc as a rallying point for all those repelled by New Labour and looking for a means of striking back against the British and European bosses. The programme was limited – determined by the very nature of a bloc – but its significance lay in the fact that it was the first challenge made by a national trade union, in collaboration with others on the left, to the Labour Party since its inception.

It would therefore seem natural that those on the left who had been struggling for an independent political force to the left of Labour would welcome and support this development. But, incredibly, some opted for supporting New Labour or the Greens in some areas. Yet this election indicated clearly that it was the demonstrable feeling in solid working-class areas – pit villages in Yorkshire, as Griffin jeered on the television – which felt most let down by New Labour. Therefore, in desperation, some voted for the BNP. So, in a campaign ‘to oppose the BNP’, some urged a vote for the very people who have created the conditions which have allowed these creatures to grow and prosper!

No2EU-Yes to Democracy was a credible working-class alternative to New Labour. A bigger vote would have been welcome. But the combined vote for No2EU and the Socialist Labour Party (of 326,351) indicates the possibility of a united socialist campaign. Its real importance, however, lay in the very fact that it stepped outside the framework of an atrophied Labour Party to offer an alternative. No new force can establish itself overnight. Why should working people, disappointed in previous support for ‘new’ organisations, immediately transform their hopes to a new organisation, particularly given the virtual media black-out?

The charge that the Socialist Party lent itself to nationalist propaganda in this campaign is entirely false. Firstly, the programme is a basic class opposition to the EU and an appeal for “international workers’ solidarity”. Secondly, complementing the official campaign, the Socialist Party circulated, independently, tens of thousands of socialist leaflets which put the case for class opposition to the BNP and the Lisbon treaty, and for an international socialist appeal for a united socialist states of Europe. Given the grave threat to the working class of Britain – symbolised in the attacks by the Lindsey oil refinery bosses, at Visteon and elsewhere – it was the bounden duty of socialists to try and create a fighting, working-class alternative, no matter how limited this was. Moreover, those efforts have to be stepped up to provide an alternative in the forthcoming general election, when the same variety of brands of capitalist ‘soap powder’ – parties that stand within the framework of capitalism – will be once more on offer.

The Brown government, and with it New Labour, is in terminal decline. There is not an atom of real politics in the vicious and brutal clash between Brown and his opponents. It is a naked attempt by Brown to hold on and a naked lust for power by a motley array of his opponents, odious careerists, most of them from a Blairite background. Stephen Byers, acolyte of Tony Blair, declared that the parliamentary Labour Party must decide whether “Gordon Brown is a winner or a loser”. Moreover, he says, for Labour MPs, the present crisis is a ‘P-45 moment’ (the P-45 is a tax statement which is effectively a redundancy notice). Two million workers have already received their P-45s, in effect, through unemployment, and another million or million and a half wait in line for the same fate. It is not this that concerns Byers but whether Brown can ‘win’ for the MPs – not the working class – or whether they will be made ‘redundant’ in a general election.

What concerns us and working-class people in Britain is how best to defend the interests, wages and conditions of the mass of the working class. New Labour has demonstrated again and again – underlined once more in these elections – that it cannot fulfil this task. The Tories, so confident of winning a general election, already openly ‘confess’ that they will launch an attack on the living standards of the working class when they come to power. George Osborne, prospective Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, boasted to ‘business leaders’: “After three months in power we will be the most unpopular government since the war.” (Financial Times)

Brown is incapable of stopping this nightmarish prospect. He is so weak in the aftermath of these elections he is unable to select his own cabinet with ministers, in effect, ‘reshuffling themselves’. Alan Johnson, the ‘prince over the water’, has been imprisoned in the cabinet. If Brown goes on to face a catastrophic general election as the leader it is because Labour MPs have no real alternative and have resigned themselves to electoral wipe-out.

What happens to a motley crew of New Labour careerists is secondary to working-class people. What concerns them is the attacks which have been carried out, and the more horrendous ones that are coming from the capitalist parties. A fighting leadership in the unions and a new mass political party, with a bold leadership, is needed.

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June 2009