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British General Election : Blair returned with little enthusiasm

Andrew Johnson

6th May 2005

Britain’s New Labour government has been returned to office with a comfortable, although sharply reduced majority. At the same time, Labour’s share of the vote was a mere 36% while there were signs of widespread alienation from the Blair regime, particularly over Iraq.

The Tory opposition, despite gaining 35 seats, remained stuck at the 33% polled by William Hague in 2001, and even their new parliamentary party is smaller than the tally of seats gained by Michael Foot’s Labour in the Thatcher landslide of 1983. The Tories have gained some cohesion and confidence under Michael Howard’s leadership, but are still a long way from being a credible alternative government. Their gains, mostly in outer London and the Home Counties, are testimony to Howard’s ability to mobilise the Tory core vote – but even so, the more spectacular Tory gains in seats like Putney and Newbury relied heavily on popular local candidates who had been cultivating the area for some years.

Why Blair couldn’t lose

The most striking aspect of the election was how little of political substance was at stake between the parties. The fact that the campaign was intensely boring was not just a matter of style, but a function of all three main parties having what was essentially the same programme. The British political spectrum has narrowed to a programme somewhere to the right of Thatcher, and the only possible dispute between Blair and Howard was over who was best placed to move it even further to the right.

So Blair’s project of “public service reform” amounts to mass redundancies of public sector workers and a swingeing attack on their pension rights. Howard offered even more redundancies. Blair invaded Iraq – Howard attacked him for invading on false premises, while saying that he would have invaded Iraq regardless. The government’s assault on civil liberties, a huge issue of controversy before the election, disappeared off the radar.

In this situation, where all the major players, including the Liberal Democrats, have essentially the same platform, it is extremely difficult to defeat an incumbent government, unless it is as exhausted and rotted from the inside as the Major government in 1997. This is why, despite widespread alienation from the government and especially Blair, no clear alternative was forthcoming. So the response to Blair’s unpopularity was not a swing back to the Tories, but apathy and fragmentation.

A fragmented discontent

While turnout rose instead of collapsing as the punditocracy had predicted, at around 60% it still remains low by historical standards. As in 2001, especially poor turnout figures were recorded from overwhelmingly Labour seats in depressed urban areas, which is the main reason Labour could win such an advantage in seats while only having a slim lead in the popular vote.

It was also clear that the Tories remain deeply unpopular, and the grab-bag of saloon bar policies put forward by Howard and his Australian guru Lynton Crosby failed to make much headway. This should not be surprising. Hague ran an election on race, crime and the EU in 2001 and made no gains. There was some evidence that the Tories’ immigration campaign had some resonance in the “white flight” areas of Essex, but thankfully this appears to have had limited effect. It is significant that Labour retained Dover, while the fascist BNP, though picking up some worrying results, were mostly restricted to traditional fascist strongholds like the Lancashire/Yorkshire mill belt where they could tap into a substantial white working-class racist vote.

But a large layer of voters wanted to kick the government over a whole range of other issues. The result was that the Labour vote fell considerably but in most areas it scattered among the opposition. There were some exceptions – the Lib Dems did particularly well in heavily student areas like Cambridge and Cardiff Central, where they were already well established and could capitalise on anger over Iraq and tuition fees. The Greens also made modest but significant advances, polling exceptionally well in Brighton. Labour also did particularly badly in areas with large Muslim populations. While the Lib Dems were the main beneficiaries, the Respect coalition – an amalgam of maverick MP George Galloway, the Socialist Workers Party and Islamic obscurantists – polled very high votes in a small number of heavily Muslim seats, with Galloway himself being returned by a narrow majority in Bethnal Green.

Galloway’s victory, and that of long-time Labour activist Peter Law in Blaenau Gwent, running as an independent after a rigged selection contest, are more signs of a generalised mood of protest than a radicalisation. The Scottish Socialist Party’s disappointing performance would tend to confirm this. The mood is not consistently left nor right, but could be best expressed as an alienation from established politics – hence high levels of abstention, and increasing protest votes for minority party candidates. While it is heartening that the far right – either the BNP, UKIP or Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Vanitas – have not been able to capitalise on the widespread discontent in a serious way, the very diffuse nature of this anti-political mood would make it difficult to harness to any socialist project.

Waiting for Gordon

The results would appear to vindicate Blair’s decision to step down during this parliamentary term. Far from being the invincible electoral asset of legend, it is clear that Blair is now a serious liability to Labour. The one Tory slogan to really hit home was “wipe the smirk off his face”. The real winner is not Blair but Gordon Brown.

This at least allows us to put to the test the common labour movement strategy of “waiting for Gordon”. The trade union leaderships are particularly culpable in this regard. During Blair’s premiership a million jobs in manufacturing have been lost, with the government apparently being completely unconcerned. The unions should at least have led a major propaganda campaign, but instead they have pulled out all the stops to protect the government. The so-called “awkward squad” have been no exception.

The broad left in the labour movement is going to have to realise that the scourge of Blairism is not reducible to the personality of Blair, and getting rid of the leader will not change the government’s course. What does Brown stand for after all, except Blair’s policies implemented by Brown? But the left is not trying to elaborate an alternative programme, or develop an alternative leadership. Instead we have the Micawberish perspective that if we only keep returning Labour governments, eventually they will do something for the working class.

The working class is not going to gain anything by waiting on favours from the New Labour establishment. The only way the working class will gain anything is by asserting its political independence and fighting for its interests.


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