Britain - The 5 May election could achieve nothing for workers, but the class struggle can.

May-June 2005

On May 5th, Blair finally got his comeuppance, of sorts, at least. This is incomplete, in that he gets away with remaining in office, without facing the headache of a hung parliament or the humiliation of an even more catastrophic turnout than in the last election, contrary to what had been predicted by many opinion polls.

Thanks to the continuing discredit of the Tories and the aberrant distortions caused by the first-past-the-post system, Labour managed to win 54% of the seats in the Commons, with just over one third of the votes. With 33 seats in excess of an absolute majority, Blair now has far less room for manoeuver in case of a backbench rebellion. But since he can usually count on the support of the Tories on most important issues, particularly when it comes to turning the screw on working people, this is unlikely to lead to any change in his government's policies for the working class.

Nevertheless Blair and his government did get a bloody nose. The outcome of this election is a clear enough warning to the Labour leadership that discontent is brewing against its policies, particularly among the working class electorate.

Blair may now be priding himself - albeit with an ostentatious touch of hypocritical modesty - of being the only Labour prime minister in history to have won a third term in office. But he is also the only prime minister of any political party to have won an election with such a derisory score - both relative to the actual votes and to the registered electorate.

With 35.2% of the votes (down from 40.7% in 2001), Labour scored less than the 36.9% it had won on the ill-fated day of 1979, when it was defeated by Thatcher! As to the backing it got from the electorate as a whole, it has now slumped to 21.6%, down from 24.1% in 2001, a drop of 1.5 million. This means that Blair can only claim the support of just over one registered voter in five, which is a clear indication of the unpopularity of his government's policies.

Blair himself acknowledged this fact when, instead of his usual arrogant rhetoric, he admitted during election night that the Iraq war had been "deeply divisive" and promised that he had "listened and learnt" from the election results. Of course, these are only words and will not result in any change in his government's policies. The politicians of the capitalist class are not in the habit of allowing the ballot box to distract them from defending the interests of big business. Nevertheless, this admission and other comments on election night will have given many working class voters the satisfaction of watching Blair and his Labour government licking their wounds!

From the point of view of the working class, however, nothing more could have been expected from this election, in which it had no real choice.

With the possible exception of a handful of candidates dotted around the country, none of the parties which were standing was prepared to express the interests of working people. So there was no way for working class voters to voice clearly, from the point of view of their class interests, their opposition to Labour's pro-business policies.

Beyond their politicking about taxes and the funding of public services, all the main parties stand for a system heavily biased in favour of the wealthy, in which public funds are squandered in order to finance the profits of a galaxy of parasitical companies and the main purpose of public services seems to be to serve as a milch cow for private profiteers.

Likewise, when the collapse of MG Rover was announced a few weeks before the election, throwing thousands of workers on the scrap heap, these parties shed tears over the workforce's predicament and blamed each other for having had the wrong policies in helping out the company. But none of them had anything to say on the profiteering of the big car companies, whose asset-stripping had finally led to this disaster for the workforce!

Of course, during the election campaign the Tories could give the impression of standing out from the other parties because of their shameless use of the most reactionary demagogy, on immigration, law and order, etc.. But this kind of demagogy was by no means the sole preserve of the Tories, despite the statements made, on the evening of the election, by some Labour dignitaries, who had the nerve to blame their losses on the Tories' abuse of the immigration card. Indeed, hasn't Labour legitimised in advance the Tories' despicable demagogy by promoting its own plan to enforce a quota system for immigrants and to treat so-called "illegal" immigrant like criminals by subjecting them to electronic tagging until their status is clarified? And hasn't former Home secretary (and now Pensions minister) David Blunkett blamed the overcrowding of the education and health systems on immigrants, in order to divert attention from the responsibility of the Labour government, thereby whipping up anti-immigrant prejudices?

In fact, Blair was so conscious of how little difference there was between the three main parties that he reneged at the last minute from a debate between the three party leaders on the last Question Time programme before the election. Instead each one of them appeared separately to answer the questions of the audience.

No, for workers, there was nothing to choose between parties which are only concerned with the welfare of capitalist profits and are prepared to use immigrants, that is those whose conditions are the most precarious in society, as scapegoats.

Of course, many workers tried to use this election at least to express their opposition to Blair's criminal policy in Iraq.

In 27 constituencies, they were able to vote for the candidates of Respect which had chosen to stand mainly on an anti-war platform. Except that this was an ambiguous way of expressing one's opposition to the war as, at the same time, Respect's campaign was deliberately designed to appeal to communal feelings, particularly among Asian voters, putting the emphasis on "ethnic minorities" as a special category of voters, separate from the others - as if the members of these minorities were not primarily workers, taxpayers, etc.. bound to the same rotten boat as any other working class voter! Moreover, Respect had a number of religious Muslim activists among its candidates, who used their election campaign to advertise their religious credentials. Given the reactionary role played by political Islam against the Iraqi population today, both on the side of the occupation forces and against them, this made it difficult to see a vote for Respect's candidates as a gesture of solidarity with the Iraqi masses, who are at the receiving end of the bloodshed and destruction caused by Blair's and Bush's criminal war.

Despite this, or maybe because of this, Respect did very well in four constituencies, all with a large population of Asian origin, particularly in Bethnal Green and Bow, where the former Labour MP George Galloway won the vote against the sitting Labour MP.

Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of Labour voters seem to have chosen to express their opposition to the war by shifting their votes to the Liberal-Democrats - which would account for the million or so votes gained by this party against Labour, compared with 2001. Except that, in this case as well, this was an ambiguous way of expressing one's opposition to Blair's policy in Iraq: after all, although the Lib-Dems did oppose the invasion before it took place, since then they have supported the occupation and policing of Iraq by British troops, and have stopped short of calling for their withdrawal.

It was, therefore, impossible for workers to use their ballot papers in this election to really make their collective voice heard, or even express a clear opposition to Blair's criminal policy in Iraq. But this only reflects the absence of a party which really represents the political interests of the working class - that is a workers' party whose aim is not to seek positions in the institutions of the capitalists' state, but to take the lead of the struggles of the working class against its exploiters. Such a party would have a policy to give workers a means of expressing their class interests in such an election, on the largest possible scale, so that they can at least use it to stand and be counted. But, for the time being, such a party remains to be built.

In the meantime, fortunately, the working class has other means to make its voice heard. Before the election, the bosses and the Labour government were already on the offensive against workers. There was a growing number of waves of redundancies in industries such as car manufacturing, while Blair's government was busy cutting jobs in the civil service and pension rights in all public services. This offensive is going to carry on. And the only way to stop it is to fight back, in the factories, the offices and in the streets, by building up a counter-offensive bringing together all sections of workers who are prepared to fight, regardless of any sectional or industrial boundary.

The cowardly retreat of the public service unions, which cancelled at the last minute the strike they had planned over pensions, in March, and the absence of any attempt by union leaders to organise a fight back at MG Rover, when the closure of the Longbridge plant was announced, show that the working class cannot expect any help from the union machineries. It will have to find the energy and determination to defend its interests within its own ranks, as well as the committed activists it needs to organise the fight back. If necessary, it will have to act without the support, and probably against the will, of union leaders who are more concerned with their cosy relationships with ministers and employers than with the interests of their members. This would not be for the first time. In any case there is no other way to stop the attacks aimed at working people.