Britain - 10 June: a kicking for Blair and his government

Jul/Aug 2004

It was generally predicted that Blair and the Labour Party would be humiliated in the 10 June elections and they were. This was not just because of Blair's joint war with Bush against Iraq, but also because of the increasing discredit of his government with regard to domestic policy, at every level.

That the crushing result for Labour is unequivocal, is reinforced by the nature of the ballot this time round. In fact it was an exceptional (and ridiculously complicated) 3-dimensional poll because all on the same day, the whole UK electorate was expected to vote for candidates to the European Parliament, while in Wales, all local councils were up for re-election, as were 89 shire councils, 36 metropolitan councils and 19 unitary councils in England. In London, the mayor and the 25-member Greater London Assembly had to be re-elected. Consequently, Labour's kicking turned out to be enhanced threefold!

Yes, thanks to Blair's policies, Labour became the only party ever to come third in local elections while in government, getting just 26% of the vote, somewhat behind the Liberal Democrats' 29%. The Tories, who gained 38%, have now established themselves firmly as the majority party in local government.

Labour did even worse in the European elections, with less than a quarter of the votes (22.6%) on average.

In the London Mayoral election, while Labour's candidate won, this was, of course, none other than Ken Livingstone, who was re-elected as mayor, having stood as an independent last time, in 2000, against Labour, before, only recently, being re-admitted to the Labour Party. In fact his re-election today is probably entirely due to the general perception that he is "anti-Blair", even if this is merely posturing - most notably so when it comes to his extremely servile attitude to the City of London business establishment. Despite this dubious "success" in the mayoral election, Labour lost 2 seats on the Greater London Assembly, going down from 9 to 7, while the Tories gained 2, taking them up to 9 seats - and giving them a simple majority on this Assembly.

A disenfranchised majority

It must be said, however, that as with previous local and European elections, the "largest party" was that of abstention with almost two-thirds of voters declining to vote at all. And this, despite every effort to increase voter turnout this time round and despite the high profile these elections were given by the media. So once again, the politicians of all parties proved how discredited they are as a whole, among the general population.

In the north of England the experimental introduction of postal balloting did succeed in increasing voter turnout to 44% as against 37% for the rest of the country. However, given the high level of complaints over undelivered ballot papers and irregularities, if not outright fraud, the relative "success" of postal balloting may well be turned on its head. But even a 44% turnout - not even half the electorate - is a clear enough indictment of today's political establishment, showing how little stake the majority sees itself as having in such elections.

As for the minority who did decide to cast a vote, they were faced with, in most cases, two separate ballot papers to fill in - and in London three - each of which would be scrutinised under a different electoral system - be it first past the post, as in the local elections, or several variations of a diluted form of proportional representation in the European and London elections.

In fact in London, as a result of a confusing "second preference" vote in the Mayoral ballot - requiring voters to place a tick in two separate columns next to the list of candidates' names, as well as a second vote in the GLA election to be cast for a party - a huge number of ballot papers (167,071 for the GLA ballot and 385,952 in the mayoral election - or almost 20% of the votes cast!) were rendered invalid due to ticks being made in the wrong places.

Labour's ongoing downward slide

However, despite the fact that only a minority ended up expressing its preference in these elections, and despite the practical obstacles that this minority had to overcome, it is still possible to make a number of observations about the results.

Labour's bloody nose, predicted well before 10 June, is a fact. But it is just the latest expression of discontent against Blair and his policies. Obviously one of the reasons for Labour's electoral catastrophe is the war in Iraq, and more precisely the general perception that Blair and his government have persistently lied about the issue, something which had already been a factor in Labour's losses in 2003. But this is not the only reason and possibly not even the main one.

How else does one explain the fact that ever since Blair got in, in 1997, Labour has been losing council seats and votes - and particularly in its own heartlands, in working class constituencies, in 5 out of the 7 local elections which have taken place? This can only be due to the increasing disillusionment, if not outright the disgust of working class people with the record of the Labour government, both at central and local level.

Let us recall Labour's 7-year balance sheet, which has compounded the Tory legacy of substituting "real jobs" with jobs on temporary contracts and low pay. Another half a million manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1997; but now the job cuts have extended once more to the public services like the 30,000 job losses in Royal Mail or the 40,500 proposed in the civil service by Brown when he announced his last budget - and the real figure may be over 80,000 job cuts.

In the areas where Blair is always so boastful, the promised improvements in transport, the NHS, in schools, have resulted mainly in improvements to the cash balances of private companies involved in various forms of "partnership" or subcontracting on the back of working peoples' taxes, or temporary measures to enable service targets to be reached in the short term and in the most superficial sense.

Little or nothing has been done to solve the dire shortage of affordable housing to rent, while house prices have soared, taking mortgages way out of the reach of the average worker. And while Blair has re-invented Thatcher's policy of cutting local governments' budgets by "capping", local council tax has increased by 70% in the past 4 years, against a background of shrinking local authority jobs and services - including those for social support of the elderly poor and local education budgets.

The latest blow to the working class is the loss of final salary occupational pensions (which the government claims it is unable to prevent - using its now well-worn excuse that it is up to the bosses of private enterprise to run their own show). What is more, the government itself is eroding state pensions and proposing to increase retirement age.

So it is hardly surprising that in 2003 already, Labour lost a net 833 council seats, spectacularly losing control of Birmingham council for the first time in 20 years. Added to the 2,000 or so seats lost between 1997 and 2003, and including the 476 lost this time, it makes a total of over 3,300 Labour councillors dismissed by the electorate, so far, since Labour came back to power. It is as a result of this that, by last year, and for the first time since the 1950s, the Tories became the largest party in local government. The elections this June only consolidated this state of affairs.

This time, Labour also lost Newcastle Council - to the Liberal Democrats, who attained a sizeable majority in this northern industrial city which had been a Labour bastion since WW2, bar a brief period of Tory dominance in the early 1970s. Half the Labour councillors lost their jobs including the council leader, who had been there for 24 years - and who put the defeat down to the anti-Iraq war vote. One Labour councillor said his party felt "crushed" and added "I may be the only survivor of the last Labour council. Labour will have to gather on a lifeboat somewhere and figure out how this could have been so bloody awful."

Even worse perhaps, than this, Labour lost control of Doncaster, another northern industrial city, which it had held ever since the inception of the party in 1905.

What these losses, protest votes and abstentions expose is Labour's increased difficulty in mobilising its own electorate to vote - in elections in which there seems to be no stake for most ordinary working people in the face of pro-business government policies which continue to degrade their lives. Despite the minimal boost to turnout given by postal voting in the north, overall turnout has failed to increase significantly.

Another blue herring in the net

The media and political commentators have, however, chosen to highlight the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in this election, rather than dwell on the significance of Blair's setbacks. UKIP, whose right-wing demagogy is expressed mainly as a stand in favour of complete withdrawal from the EU, managed to increase its share of the vote in the European election from 7.1% in 1999 to 14.5% with over 2.6m votes in all.

For politicians of all kinds, seizing on this phenomenon to explain their losses is convenient. Firstly, it avoids them having to admit to, or discuss, the real causes of Blair's discredit - i.e. the fundamental policies all the main parties share, whether it be in terms of austerity against the working class or the occupation of Iraq. Here they have the perfect alibi: a current of opinion which has nothing to do with these causes, but has, in fact, always existed to the right of the Tory Party, and to a lesser extent has also existed in or around the Labour Party - where, ironically, being anti-EU was often a feature of the so-called left-wing. And secondly, because it provides the Labour Party, but also the Tories, for different reasons, with another excuse to shift their agenda even further to the right. Indeed, this government can be trusted to use the "UKIP threat" as a pretext in this regard, much as Home Secretary Blunkett has already used in the past the insignificant "successes" of the BNP as a justification for his attacks against immigrant workers.

As for UKIP, it was formed in 1993 as a breakaway from the Conservative Party, initiated mainly by "one nation" die-hards in order to popularise their idea that the UK should pull out of Europe. Its present leader is Roger Knapman, who was the Tory MP for Stroud between 1987 and 1997 and a ministerial official in both Thatcher and Major's governments. Indeed, quite a few discontented Tories have crossed over to UKIP since the Conservatives lost the election in 1997 and subsequently proved unable to overcome their discrediting while in opposition. What is striking about the leadership of UKIP is its social make-up - the predominance of upper class wealth. For instance one of its founders is the real-estate billionaire Paul Sykes, who has helped to fund the party with a donation of £2m.

This does not prevent UKIP from using the kind of populism which aims at attracting racist and anti-immigrant votes. And to lend weight to this populism, it triumphantly presented as a candidate Robert Kilroy-Silk, an ex-Labour MP (he left parliament after 11 years in 1985), recently sacked from his job as a BBC TV presenter, because of an anti-Arab article he wrote in the right-wing tabloid newspaper, the Sunday Express. One of his xenophobic rants in this article included the proposition that paratroopers "herd the immigrants together and cart them off to Dover where they are dumped on a secure slow boat to - wherever." Kilroy pulled in actress Joan Collins to "promote" the party, which also boasts of other personalities in its ranks such as the TV astronomer "Sir" Patrick Moore. The reactionary opportunist Kilroy now has a new job as Euro MP for the East Midlands and has vowed to "wreck" the European parliament...

UKIP is, of course, trying to make political capital out of the xenophobic fears of a section of the electorate, by whipping them up. And while a lot of the votes it won come from disillusioned Tory voters (many of whom claim this was a one-off protest vote), it also won voters from Labour, for instance in Plymouth, who are even less likely to stick with UKIP in a general election. So the increase in UKIP's vote is hardly an indication of any change in the mood of the electorate. If it highlights anything it is the fact that there was no clear way of voting against Labour except by voting to its right. Indeed, while right-wing voters were spoilt for choice in this election, on the left there was nothing clearly identifiable to vote for.

Paper flood but a dry run for working class voters

Of course, there were a number of smaller parties such as the Greens - which already had some European and local representation and has more or less retained this - and the Respect Unity Coalition, which brought together some far-left political groups, left-wing cultural figures and advocates of "political Islam", behind the name of maverick ex-Labour MP George Galloway. These parties claimed to offer voters the chance to express themselves against the war and against Blair from the left. But in reality, they did not offer this possibility, because they were not prepared to stand squarely and openly for the defence of working people first and foremost - from which opposition to the war in Iraq and degradation of the environment naturally flows - but not vice-versa! (See the separate article on Respect in this issue of our journal.)

Elections have their limitations and one of them is that they cannot bring any significant change for the working class. But in addition, despite the veritable "flood" of ballot papers washing over the country on the 10 June, there was not even the possibility for workers to use these countless bits of paper to express their own feelings without any compromise.

This election, perhaps even more than others in recent times, was about negative voting - against Europe, against Blair, against his war. But where was the programme on offer which working class voters could have voted for in a positive way? That is, a programme asserting the necessity and the objectives of a counter-offensive of the working class to regain the ground lost? But then, of course, there is no party in existence yet which represents the distinct and progressive interests of the working class and therefore society as a whole. Such a party still has to be built.

The election arena has never been the best place for the working class to make its voice heard, anyway. But now that the polling booths are closed, we are back to the business of dealing with the bosses and their government's attacks. And the only way of doing that which will really count and change the course of events, is for workers to build up their collective forces for the necessary fight back, without waiting for another electoral charade. And it is only these working class forces and the struggles they wage which can truly lay the basis for the kind of political party of the working class which will be vital for the future.