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The General Election and After: Some General Observations

Bob Pitt

THE GENERAL election of June 2001, viewed from the standpoint of electoral pragmatism, was a triumphant vindication of the politics of New Labour. The huge parliamentary majority that Blair won in 1997 was barely dented, and the Tories suffered a second successive crushing defeat, throwing them into a deep political crisis.

While it can’t be theoretically excluded that by the time of the next general election the Conservative Party will have managed to unify around a credible leader and political programme, and will pose a renewed threat, nobody would put any money on it. Indeed, at the time of writing, there seems to be every possibility that the Tory membership will choose as their leader yet another bald right wing Europhobe with a charisma bypass, thereby helping sentence their party to a further lengthy period in the political wilderness.

Though it would be unfair, I think, to place the blame for the Tories’ electoral humiliation primarily on William Hague, as his critics, including some in his own party, are inclined to do. Veteran Tory "wet" Ian Gilmour, for example, writing in the London Review of Books (5 July), accused the Conservative Party of engaging in a "long orgy of self-indulgence" under Hague’s leadership, during which it was "intent on pleasing itself and its ultra-rightist supporters in the press, with the predictable and much-predicted consequence that it pleased nobody else".

Hague’s assumption that banging on about the evils of the euro would prove a vote-winner in the context of a general election (as distinct from a referendum on that specific issue) was a major miscalculation, it is true. However, the Tories’ defeat was due not so much to their leader’s tactical ineptitude as to the success of the political strategy adopted by the Blairites. Basically, this has involved moving the Labour Party’s programme so far to the right that it now occupies the ground formerly occupied by the Tories themselves – and not the fluffy, one-nation wing of the Conservative Party either, but the hard right, free-marketising, social authoritarian wing. That is the political territory that has been staked out by New Labour.

From the point of view of career politicians whose sole concern is to get their hands on political power, this is a brilliant strategy, placing the Tories in an almost impossible position. What was Hague supposed to do? He could hardly take the line that if the Tories were to form the government they would implement a similar programme themselves. Why then, voters would ask, should we abandon Labour for a party with no alternative to offer? So Hague was forced to differentiate his party politically from New Labour. But how?

On this or that individual issue, perhaps, the Tories can oppose Blair from the left – over the London Underground, for example, where they have backed Ken Livingstone in his opposition to the government’s plans for part privatisation. However, as was shown by the ferocious backlash against Michael Portillo when he proposed to move the Tories nearer to the centre on such issues as Section 28, cannabis legalisation and all-women shortlists, the nature of the party’s membership and electoral base prevents it shifting its overall programme to the left of Labour.

So the only thing for it was to shift to the right. Hague’s strategy, therefore, was to make a virtue of necessity and try to mobilise the Tories’ core support around a rightist Eurosceptic programme, hoping to take advantage of abstentions among traditional Labour voters disillusioned with the record of the Blair government. As it turned out, the result of trying to outbid New Labour from the right was that the Tories came over as a bunch of hopeless political extremists. This alienated the centre ground, produced a huge lead for Labour in the pre-election opinion polls and demoralised the Tories’ own supporters, who saw the party’s campaign as doomed from the start.

In any case, it was difficult for Hague to whip up a sense of urgency among Tory voters faced with the "threat" of a Labour government implementing what would in most respects be a Tory programme. Certainly, there were some dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries who took a very relaxed attitude towards the prospect of another four or five years of Blairism. William Rees-Mogg, for example, in an article in the Times (25 June) entitled "Hurrah for the New Tory Government", smugly observed that the government’s legislative programme was "almost entirely compatible with the Conservative Party Manifesto". He continued:

"The central measure in the Queen’s Speech is a splendidly Tory Education Bill. It will increase the number of specialist schools, allow private enterprise to take over failing state schools ... and bring private business into the management of schools. Hurrah for all that! Given the potential resistance of the teaching trade unions, could William Hague have done more? Could he have done as much? ...

"There will be a Welfare Reform Bill, designed to discover and prevent welfare frauds ... this is Ann Widdecombe territory. Hurrah for Ann Widdecombe as the new government’s inspiration on welfare reform! ...

"There will be a Bill to reform the NHS.... This Bill, which, to everyone’s pleasure, has greatly annoyed Unison, the public sector union, will ... expand private involvement in both financing and managing the NHS. From the Tory point of view, this is exactly what needs to be done. It goes, I think, a little beyond the Conservative Party Manifesto, but it is aggressive Toryism of which Margaret Thatcher might have been proud....

"Tony Blair has the courage to use the second largest Labour majority in history to force through a radical Tory programme of privatising the social services. Hurrah for Tony Blair! The only sense in which it will bring an end to Thatcherism is that it extends to the public social services the Thatcherite privatisation of the public sector of industry and housing. He is putting the roof on the building she designed."

Making allowance for the knockabout style, this is a fair summary of the Blair government’s programme. Coming from a bitter enemy of the labour movement, it underlines the fact that New Labour is something qualitatively different from the traditional Labour right. You’d have to go back as far as Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden in 1929-31 to find a Labour leadership remotely as right wing as Blair and Brown – and at least MacDonald and his chancellor had the good grace to renege on the Labour Party and join a coalition with the Tories in order to carry out their programme.

What are the causes of New Labour? Essentially, as I have already suggested, it is to be understood as an extreme form of political opportunism, a continuation of the process begun under Neil Kinnock of making the Party electable by any means necessary – though Blair has taken this much further than Kinnock would ever have envisaged. And whereas Kinnock always had the unconvinced and unconvincing look of a man conscious of dumping his principles out of political expediency, the Blairites have gloried in their adoption of Thatcherite ideology, enthusiastically embracing the myth of public sector inefficiency, aggressively promoting deregulation and privatisation, and encouraging the wealthy to further enrich themselves while at the same time cracking down on the "undeserving" poor. Their politics are so alien to the Labour tradition that even an old right-winger like Roy Hattersley has been moved to declare angrily that the Party has fallen victim to a coup d’état.

The background to this coup was a series of defeats, industrial and political, which had knocked the stuffing out of the labour movement. After a fourth successive Tory victory in the 1992 general election, many Labour supporters were affected by a mood of near desperation and were prepared to go along with almost anything that would get rid of the Tories. Blair was able to harness this mood and win the Party leadership by presenting himself as the candidate best placed to secure a Labour government. He then set about his top-down project of recreating the Party in his own image.

Others would argue that there are more fundamental processes at work here. According to one theory, New Labour is the inevitable product of a process of "globalisation" which has rendered the nation state obsolete and left elected governments powerless in the face of international capital. An extreme version of this thesis is presented in the July issue of Labour Left Briefing by former Lambeth Council leader Ted Knight. "Now we live in a globalised economy dominated by a handful of transnational corporations", he writes. "They pay as little tax as possible, demand and get a deregulated environment, move capital from country to country at will and exploit natural resources to the point of environmental destruction. They are more powerful than governments .... This is what Blairism reflects."

That is why, according to Knight, "a perspective of ’recapturing’ the Party from New Labour is futile". Rather, he argues, "the left needs a perspective that is based on creating a New World Order to replace the one that Bush and Blair are busily constructing". Instead of counterposing to Blair’s programme an alternative agenda of realisable demands on economic policy, reform of the anti-union laws, rights for asylum seekers, opposition to Bush’s Son of Star Wars programme and so on, Knight offers us the prospect of ... World Revolution! Evidently, you can take the boy out of Healyism, but you can’t take Healyism out of the boy.

Anyway, this whole "globalisation" argument is specious. There are in reality very few genuinely "transnational" corporations – what we are confronted with, more typically, is big businesses operating world-wide but based in one particular country, to which they repatriate their profits. The nation state has not yet been consigned to the historical dustbin, nor are governments reduced to complete impotence. If New Labour capitulates to international capital, this is largely a matter of conscious political choice.

Neither is it the case that the rise of Blairism was inevitable. To make an obvious point, if it hadn’t been for John Smith’s unexpected death in 1994, Blair wouldn’t have become leader. Against an unpopular and discredited Tory Party, Labour would have still won in 1997 under Smith, albeit with a rather smaller majority. A Smith-led government, though far from left wing, would have been much more Old Labour in its politics. It would have balked at such Blairite atrocities as chopping single parent benefit or imposing tuition fees on students, and while it wouldn’t have gone so far as to abolish the Tory anti-union laws it would at least have amended them sufficiently to avoid the embarrassment of having Britain’s labour legislation condemned year after year by the International Labour Organisation.

But Smith thoughtlessly and irresponsibly succumbed to a heart attack. And now we are faced with a New Labour government which is intent on implementing a Thatcherite agenda that wins the approval of the most hardened Tory ideologists. As Rees-Mogg commented: "The abstaining electorate got it right: it did not matter which party they voted for."

Indeed, the most dramatic aspect of the general election was the unprecedentedly low turnout (59%, compared with 1997’s 71%, which was itself on the low side in historical terms, or 79% in 1992), though conflicting interpretations were offered of this phenomenon. The Blairites were adamant that the difficulty in motivating citizens to vote was a product of satisfaction with the government’s record, the lack of a credible opposition, the consequent massive lead for Labour in the opinion polls and the recognition by voters that the result of the election was a foregone conclusion.

But this was at most only part of the picture. The two main reasons non-voters gave for abstaining were "it makes no difference who you vote for" and "you can’t trust politicians". This suggests that it is widespread alienation from the political process, rather than a passively contented electorate, which explains the low turnout – especially in urban working class areas. As many commentators have pointed out, New Labour’s electoral strategy is leading to the Americanisation of British politics. With two parties both self-evidently in the pocket of big business, one of them extremely right wing and the other only marginally more liberal, many working people see no point in voting for either.

In an analysis of the London results published in the Evening Standard (14 June), Peter Kellner found that Labour’s share of the vote had fallen particularly sharply in inner-city constituencies. By contrast, affluent outer-London seats which had gone Labour for the first time in 1997, and had been expected to revert to the Tories in this election, in fact swung even further to Labour. In Enfield Southgate, where Stephen Twigg famously defeated Michael Portillo four years ago, the Labour majority increased from 1,443 to 5,546. Kellner’s psephology has its flaws – one of the seats he lists as "Old Labour" is Hampstead and Highgate, which was Tory until 1992, while other constituencies such as Brent East which bucked the trend are ignored. Nor does any of this alter the fact that Labour’s core vote is still among the sociological categories C2, D and E. Nevertheless, Kellner did correctly identify a significant erosion of Labour support among the manual working class, and a parallel rise among the upper middle class. His analysis was confirmed by an ICM poll which found that Labour’s vote was up 5 points in the A and B categories and down 10 points among the Ds and Es.

Take the constituency where I live – Holborn & St Pancras, a classic inner-London Labour heartland seat. Turnout was down from 60% in the last general election to 53% this time. And whereas our MP Frank Dobson had won in 1997 with 24,707 votes, this was reduced to 16,770 in 2001 – in other words, almost a third of those who had voted Labour four years ago failed to support us this time. The Party’s share of the vote fell from 65% to 53%, and there was an 8.3% swing to the Liberal Democrats. The latter phenomenon is no doubt to be explained by the fact that the Lib Dems stand for a number of policies which Labour voters support, but which have been renounced by our own Party’s leadership – progressive taxation to fund public services, a humanitarian attitude towards asylum seekers and opposition to Son of Star Wars, to name but a few.

What was interesting (and entirely predictable – see my article in What Next? No.19) was that disaffection with the Blair government was not expressed in any significant turn to the Socialist Alliance (SA), whose supporters had anticipated that Blair’s violent lurch to the right would open up a political space to the left of Labour and provide favourable conditions for an independent socialist intervention in the general election. The SA’s average vote in the 98 constituencies where it stood was a derisory 1.69%, and only two of its candidates saved their deposits. Not surprisingly, SA leaders have struggled to put a positive spin on these unequivocally disastrous results.

In the July/August issue of the Socialist Workers Party’s magazine Socialist Review, for example, John Rees writes: "To have some sense of the Socialist Alliance’s progress let us compare it with the Green Party. The Greens did well ... saving ten deposits. But at the last general election, their fourth, they only saved one.... The Greens had a weak campaign but traded on their past. We had no effective past as a national organisation in a general election. There seems no reason to suppose that, having now created a nation-wide alternative to New Labour, largely in the course of the campaign, we should not do as well as the Greens next time out."

There is, in fact, every reason to suppose that the Alliance will never achieve anything like the Green Party’s level of support. The Greens are a distinct political formation, part of a Europe-wide phenomenon – parties which do not derive from the traditional labour movement but are of the left (broadly speaking), and which are able to tap into widespread concern for environmental issues ignored by the established workers’ parties. The average voter knows what the Green Party is and roughly what its policies are. The Greens are therefore able to attract Labour voters who are hostile to Blair and want to cast a protest vote for a progressive alternative. Indeed, in elections conducted under PR (for the European and Scottish Parliaments, and the Greater London Assembly), the Green Party has shown that it can win more than a mere protest vote and get some of its candidates elected.

On the extreme right, the British National Party (BNP) has a similarly high profile. Although the BNP’s electoral appeal is as yet restricted to a few areas of high racial tension – notably Burnley and Oldham, where the BNP’s candidates got between 11% and 16% of the vote – its policies of "rights for whites", racial segregation and repatriation are familiar to most voters. The BNP is therefore capable of exploiting the political disorientation of a layer of white working class voters, living in some of the most deprived inner-city constituencies, who understandably feel abandoned by New Labour.

The Socialist Alliance, by contrast, is an organisation of whom few voters have ever heard. If the SA has a public image, it is the Socialist Worker sellers that most people make a point of avoiding on the high street while doing their Saturday morning shopping. Rees’s prescription of raising the SA’s profile by standing in yet more elections won’t improve the situation – it will merely result in further minuscule votes and underline the SA’s political irrelevance. Anyone who doubts this should look at the SA’s results in London. Last year, the Alliance waged a vigorous campaign for the Greater London Assembly, and excused its meagre 2.9% of the poll with the argument that this was the first time it had contested elections and better results could be expected in future. Yet in the general election the average vote for Alliance candidates in Greater London was down to around 2.2%.

The SA did at least have the elementary political sense to adopt a general policy of not standing against left wing Labour MPs – though this didn’t stop it contesting Leyton and Wanstead where the sitting MP was Harry Cohen, one of the most outspoken critics within Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) of government policy over the Tube. The Socialist Party (SP – formerly Militant) showed no qualms at all on this issue, and broke ranks with the rest of the SA to challenge two Labour leftists – Neil Gerrard in Walthamstow and, even more bizarrely, Socialist Campaign Group chair John McDonnell in Hayes and Harlington.

This, it must be said, is entirely in line with the SP’s assertion that the Labour Party is no longer any kind of workers’ party at all but a capitalist party pure and simple. From that standpoint, Labour left-wingers are seen as an even greater enemy than straightforward Blairites because they are guilty of providing a socialist cover for a party of the bourgeoisie.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) took the same line towards the Labour left, standing in every Scottish constituency irrespective of whether the Labour Party candidate was a socialist or a New Labour clone. Writing in the Morning Star (5 July), George Galloway, the maverick left wing Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin, gave a revealing account of the sectarian antics of the SSP and its most prominent figure, Tommy Sheridan MSP:

"Though Sheridan himself has been able to work with other members of the Scottish Parliament in a fraternal way, his party on the ground has little idea of the concept of making alliances. Take me, for example. Just a few weeks after we were both carted off to jail after arrest at Faslane, Sheridan’s party unleashed a ferocious sectarian campaign against me in the general election. His members barracked and heckled me at every turn. When I arrived at George Square in Glasgow for an anti-Trident demo a few days before polling, on board a red open-topped bus waving red flags and playing the ’Internationale’ by the Red Army Choir, we were met with mocking Hitler salutes, chants of ’Tories, Tories’ and a barrage of abuse which made it clear that this party could not, or would not, distinguish between socialists in the Labour Party such as me and, for example, Tony Blair. At the counting of the votes when, live on television, I was promising Mr Blair a tough fight on his privatisation and Son of Star Wars agenda, the SSP crowd, behaving like ’shed-boy’ football supporters, heckled at every single word. Sheridan, who was present throughout, sat silently in his seat."

Galloway attributes the SSP’s idiotic behaviour to the Trotskyist origins of its leading group, but this only reflects his own Communist Party leanings. Whatever the deficiencies of the classical Trotskyist tradition as a guide to socialist strategy today (and in my opinion there are many), it contains nothing to justify this kind of infantile leftism. The SSP’s approach to the Labour Party runs counter to everything Trotsky ever wrote on the subject, not least his advice to the ILP on the tactics it should adopt towards Labour after splitting from it in 1932. The SSP’s political methods in fact bear a much closer resemblance to Third Period Stalinism – or, if you want to go even further back, to the sectarian stupidities of John Maclean’s Scottish Workers Republican Party.

The SSP is a rather more credible political force than the SA, but it still got an average of only 3.3% across Scotland. Its one real base is in Glasgow, where it has its origins in a split in the Labour Party arising from expulsions of Militant supporters during the Poll Tax Campaign. And even there, with an average vote of 7% in the city’s ten constituencies, it doesn’t represent a serious electoral threat to Labour. In Scotland, no less than in England and Wales, the future of the political labour movement hinges on developments within the Labour Party. But the SSP, as Galloway’s account makes clear, has taken refuge in ultra-left headbanging and has abandoned any attempt to develop a Marxist orientation towards a Labour Party which still has mass working class support.

In the light of the election results, the far left’s declared policy of breaking the unions from the Labour Party and winning them to the Socialist Alliance looks even more ridiculous that it did before. In fact SA supporters have quietly shelved the call for a split from Labour and now talk in terms of "democratising" the unions’ political funds. This would involve allowing branches or regional committees controlled by the far left to give financial backing to Socialist Alliance candidates. However, even if we allow that the proportion of trade unionists who support the Alliance is greater than among the general electorate, you would be hard pressed to find a union in which even 5% of the members vote SA.

When the Communication Workers Union bureaucracy provocatively donated money to Frank Dobson’s mayoral campaign, after the union’s internal selection ballot had produced an overwhelming majority for Livingstone, they were condemned for treating the political views of the membership with contempt. How, then, is it possible to defend, still less to characterise as "democratisation", the right of a left-dominated union branch or committee to donate its members’ money to a political organisation that only a tiny fraction of them support?

At several union conferences this year, motions originating from the SA or SP have challenged the link with Labour without explicitly calling for a split – usually by proposing a "review" of the union’s political fund. This has attracted some support from conference delegates, particularly in public sector unions that have suffered from spending cuts and privatisation under the Blair government. But it is a diversion from the real struggle to get the unions to use their power within the structures of the Party.

During the four years of the last government, union representatives at all levels of the Party generally blocked with the leadership to frustrate the emergence of an anti-Blairite opposition. On the National Executive Committee, they played a crucial role in isolating the constituency party representatives elected on the centre/left Grassroots Alliance slate. By blocking critical amendments to policy documents at the National Policy Forum, they helped to reduce the annual conference to an empty pro-leadership rally. What the left needs to do in the unions, therefore, is challenge the way in which the Labour Party link has been used, not to initiate a sterile and counterproductive debate over whether the link should be maintained or the rules loosened to allow financial support to politically irrelevant far left candidates.

When the trade unions did finally stage a minor rebellion at last year’s conference, over the demand for a return to index-linked pensions, it was notable that most of the constituency delegates supported the Party leadership. This was by no means a reflection of opinion among the membership, as the Blairites falsely claimed, but was due to the fact that many dissidents within the constituency parties had concluded that conference was so thoroughly stitched up that there was little point in getting delegated to it. The majority of those who did think it worth attending were either convinced Blairites or first-time delegates who were vulnerable to the argument that a public display of opposition to the leadership would damage the Party.

After Labour’s victory in 1997, there was a general anticipation on the left that the new government’s failure to deliver radical change would lead fairly quickly to a "crisis of expectations", producing an upsurge of struggle against Blairism. Myself, I always thought that the emergence of mass opposition to New Labour would be a protracted process. But even I wouldn’t have thought it possible that a Labour government implementing such a right wing programme would face so little resistance throughout its term of office. With an acquiescent trade union movement, a supine PLP and an increasingly demoralised membership all combining to obstruct a fightback, you began to wonder whether the log-jam could ever be broken.

The contrast with the situation post-election could not be more striking. No sooner had the result been declared than opposition broke out. In response to suggestions that the government was proposing to back Bush over National Missile Defence (NMD), 17 union general secretaries signed a letter to the Guardian opposing British support, a stance later vigorously endorsed by former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle, the one-time hammer of Militant, who called for a fight at conference over the issue. Even the Parliamentary Labour Party, which had spent the past four years rolling over and playing dead for Blair, began to reassert itself. More than half the 412 Labour MPs signed an Early Day Motion calling on the government to have nothing to do with NMD, and the PLP came out in open revolt over the attempt to remove the independently-minded Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson as chairs of Parliamentary Select Committees.

Blair’s arrogant appointment of Charles Clarke as "Party chairman", which ignored the fact that we already have a chair, elected by the National Executive, provoked further loud complaints. But the biggest uproar was over the proposal for increased private sector involvement in public services – which was suddenly announced during the general election campaign, without ever having been discussed, still less voted on, at any meeting of the much-vaunted National Policy Forum (you know, the one that was supposed to give the Party membership a direct input into policy-making). Indicative of the new mood of defiance was the GMB’s decision to withdraw £1 million funding from the Labour Party over the next four years, and to launch an advertising campaign to oppose the government’s privatisation plans for the public sector.

What explains this transformation? The answer, in large part, is that New Labour is a victim of its own success in marginalising the Tories. Faced with objections to the right wing character of the government, the Blairites’ endlessly repeated reply has been that the only alternative to a New Labour government is not an Old Labour or a left Labour government but a Tory government. After the general election, that argument carries little weight. With the Tories sidelined and posing no serious electoral danger at national level for the foreseeable future, the real opposition to Blair now emerges from within the labour movement itself.

The picture will become clearer after the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party conference have allowed us the gauge the depth of hostility to Blair’s programme. But it is already evident that supporters of the Socialist Alliance have completely misread the situation. Their electoral challenges to Labour and their efforts to undermine the union link have set them on a political course diametrically opposed to actual developments in the labour movement. Their plan for a demonstration outside what Socialist Worker calls "New Labour’s conference", without the backing of any significant section of the trade union movement, is yet another example of their failure to engage with political reality and develop effective tactics and strategy.

The role of socialists in the present situation is to help organise the opposition that is emerging within the movement, focusing on issues of democracy and policy which have broad support among Party members and trade unionists. Bearing in mind the debilitating effect that the past four years have had on the ranks of the Party, we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties we face. However, there is every prospect that the next period will prove much more productive for those of us who, rejecting the illusion that there are sectarian short-cuts to socialism, have remained committed to a Marxist orientation to the real labour movement.