Britain - The "war bounce" backfires on the Labour party

May/June 2003

In the days preceding the outbreak of the Iraq war, Blair stated on TV that he was prepared to pay with his career for his choice to order British troops and aircraft into Iraq, against the opposition of majority public opinion. Of course, this was just another of Blair's attempts to pull one of his impersonation tricks - that of the virile "leader" who is willing to die for his principles, no matter what. Except that he was only risking his flat in Downing Street and, as a barrister, he would have a nice cushy job lined up for himself, if the worst came to the worst. In Iraq, however, others did pay for Blair's choice, with their blood, when they were killed by British bombs - only they never chose it. No wonder this new trick from Blair's arsenal did not impress very many people.

Nonetheless a number of servile commentators predicted that what they described as "such a display of courage and leadership" on Blair's part would be rewarded with a "war bounce" among public opinion, as they called it. As so often before, they have been proved wrong. Contrary to what they believe, spin-doctoring is not enough to shift people's opinion, especially when it comes to an issue involving thousands of innocent victims and the subjection of a whole country.

If the numbers of marchers in anti-war protests thinned out after the beginning of the war, it was not due to a change in public opinion. Many of those who had been on the pre-war marches may simply have felt impotent once the war had started: since one million protesters had failed to stop the war, they probably thought, what more could they do? But this did not mean that they agreed with Blair's criminal policy against the Iraqi people.

If this year's local elections show anything, it is precisely that a large number of Labour party voters did not fall for Blair's "strong leadership" performance and that they stuck to their opposition to his bloody war. And they kept to this, unlike many Labour and Lib Dem politicians who dropped their public opposition to the war as soon as the first bomb was dropped, under the pretext that "our boys" deserved all the support they could get. As if keeping quiet in the face of this criminal aggression against the Iraqi people was the kind of support British soldiers deserved - when they were being sent to risk their lives on the killing fields of Iraq for the sole purpose of boosting the profits of City shareholders!

Nevertheless, even the spineless opposition of the Liberal Democrats to the war paid dividends for them. While Labour failed to enjoy the predicted "war bounce", the Lib Dems did, in the absence of any other sizeable force which, unlike the Lib Dems, might have been seen standing uncompromisingly against the war. It is worth noting in this respect that a number of the Socialist Alliance's candidates, who were standing in these elections on an anti-war platform, increased their scores quite significantly. However this hardly shows in the national results since they were present in just 161 out of the 12,000 or so seats contested.

In any case, with a record 30% of the vote (compared with 24% in the last comparable election, in 1999), the Liberal Democrats equalled Labour's own performance, something which is unprecedented since World War II. By contrast Labour's vote went down by exactly the same amount, from 36% in 1999 to 30% this year. As to the Tories, whose policy with respect to the war in Iraq was indistinguishable from Blair's, their score remained at exactly the same level as in 1999 - 34% - which can hardly be hailed as a "victory" despite Ian Duncan-Smith's claims.

In terms of seats, the boundary changes and the first-past-the- post system tend to distort the impact of this overall swing from Labour to the Lib Dems, particularly where the Lib Dems were far behind the two main parties in 1999. However, significantly, this swing is particularly visible in a number of traditional working class Labour strongholds. So, for instance, 16 Labour-held seats went to the Lib Dems in Chesterfield, 15 in Durham, 8 in Birmingham, 8 in Leicester, 5 in Manchester, 5 in Newcastle, etc..

Of course many commentators, including some of those writing in that voice of fundamentalist "political correctness", the Guardian, have been quick to single out what they call the "Muslim vote", as the "culprit" for Labour's misfortunes. As if the reactions of Asian voters were necessarily religiously-motivated and only Mosque-goers could be outraged by the brutality of Blair's policy in Iraq! Isn't this verging on the side, if not of outright racism, at least of white arrogance?

In fact, a cursory look at the towns listed above shows that this is nonsense. Besides, this conveniently forgets the fact that there is a tradition among a section of workers to vote Lib Dem (and more recently Green) in local elections as a means of protesting against Labour's policies without having to vote Tory or spoil their ballot papers.

But quite apart from all this, what if this swing against Labour had been entirely due to Asian voters? Aren't they an integral part of the working population of this country, and in fact to a large extent, of the core of Labour's traditional electoral support? And does the fact that they, or their families, originate from Asia make their condemnation of Labour's policy in Iraq any less relevant? One can only wonder!

In any case, Labour's total losses this time round reached over 833 seats - or 21% of the seats it was defending. But, despite the swing from Labour to the Lib Dems and the stagnation of the Tories' vote, the first-past-the-post system ensured that the main beneficiary of Labour's losses would be the Tory party, which gained 566 new seats, while the Lib Dems gained only 193 new seats.

It should be recalled, however, that Labour's losses this year are merely the continuation of the sharp fall already registered in 1999, when it lost 1150 seats (20% of the seats it was defending). And since the policies behind the discontent leading to Labour's 1999 setback - namely Blair's austerity measures against working people and the on-going mess caused by the privatisation by stealth of public services - are not only still there, but have been aggravated since, there is every reason to think that the opposition to the war in Iraq has merely added to a growing discontent among Labour party and working class voters.

In particular, over the past two years, the government has been busy mending "leaks" in its budget at the expense of working people. These "leaks" are due to a combination of factors.

On the one hand, there is the escalating cost and overheads of privatisation in transport, the NHS, education, etc.. Part of this cost has been concealed behind headline budget increases, designed to look good with the electorate, but involving no real new money for the services themselves, only subsidies for private subcontractors. Another part, such as the soaring overspend around rail modernisation, has still to be pencilled in somewhere in a future budget, although the money has already been spent. Not to mention unplanned "extras" such as the cost of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

On the other hand, tax receipts from rich individuals, companies and financial transactions have gone down significantly, due to the collapse of the share market. Even the Bank of England has lost out as a result, since it had converted part of its gold reserves into shares, and although the Bank is said to be "independent", someone has to pick the bill - namely the taxpayer. Of course this is not because big shareholders and companies are becoming poorer - their wealth in shares was always just paper wealth anyway. But the tax system is designed in such a way that when they have losses on their shares, not only do they have no tax to pay on the rest of their accumulated wealth, but they can even offset their share losses from the new income they get from other sources. This is how a multi- millionaire can manage to pay less tax than a cleaner working overtime on the minimum wage!

Since there was no question for Brown of changing anything with regard to the tax privileges of the rich and companies, the tax bill paid by working people has been increased, partly by stealth and partly openly. By stealth, by using the traditional device of not increasing personal allowances in line with average wages, so that the number of tax payers increases while each one of them pays a slightly higher proportion of his or her wage packet in tax. And openly, through the 1% increase in employee National Insurance Contributions implemented in April, and through an average 13% increase in council tax across the country. Once again, the fact is that all three increases affect more drastically those who are at the bottom of the pile.

Already, a study of the Office of National Statistics showed that in the last tax year, the total tax bill of the 20% worst-off represented 41.7% of their income, compared with 34.2% for the 20% most well-off. And when it comes to VAT, duty and excise, the gap is even larger since the respective figures are 30.1% for the poorest and 10.4% for the richest. With this year's increased taxes, this gap is bound to increase even more.

Besides, Brown's much celebrated tax credit system, the new benefit system which was allegedly designed to "lift the poor out of poverty", has turned into a bureaucratic shambles. Cost-cutting and incompetence on the part of the private subcontractor in charge of putting in place the computer system designed to process applications and payments, has resulted in up to one million households still waiting for their welfare payments over three months after they handed in their applications. What is more the system is so confusing and the information provided by the Inland Revenue so inadequate that only 3.7m out of the 5.7m households eligible for tax credits have applied so far.

And it is against the backdrop of such a mess in public services and such growing inequality in Britain that Blair pretends cynically to have the right, and even the duty, to "put things right" in Iraq, in the name of the population's interests? Then it is the right, but above all in the interests of the working population and the jobless here, who are at the receiving end of Blair's arrogant pro-business policies, to "put things right" in this country, by using their own weapons, the weapons of the class struggle, to get rid of Blair's pro-business policies.

3 May 2003