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New Labour Takes a Drubbing at the Polls

Paul Flannigan

27th June 2004

Tony Blair’s New Labour government took quite a drubbing in the mid term local council elections held on June 10th. New Labour’s share of the vote sunk to a new low of 26% leaving the party trailing in third place behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Some 460 councillors lost their seats and the party lost overall political control over seven councils. The political damage to New Labour was mitigated to some degree by the fact that there was no local election scheduled for metropolitan London or for Scotland. However some bruising blows were taken in a number of Labour council heartlands covering the 166 councils in England and Wales, 36 metropolitan districts and 20 English cities including Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester. The New Labour stronghold of Doncaster was lost for the first time ever. The showpiece councils of Leeds and Newcastle upon Tyne were also lost, after thirty years of unbroken administration. For the first time in British political history the ruling party has been reduced to third position in the mid term local election. 

New Labour spin-doctors took some comfort from the fact that the main opposition Conservative Party failed to advance its claim to be a likely government in waiting. At best the Conservative party vote equated to a 38% share in a general election, a fair bit short of the 43% necessary to win an outright Parliamentary majority. And the supposition is that the Conservatives are still running some way behind New Labour. Any extrapolation from the limited local elections to a general election is dubious not least because the Conservatives are themselves under threat from the lesser parties of the Liberal Democrats and the United Kingdom Independence Party. If the Conservatives were on course for a general election victory, they would be winning back a city like Birmingham or at least making deeper inroads. In 1983 the Conservatives held six seats in the West Midlands: today they are down to just one.  The results suggest they are inching forward, but not nearly as far or as fast as they need to be. Take a parliamentary seat in Birmingham like Hall Green: it was Conservative until 1997 and is now New Labour, to become Tory it must be won back. Yet it was the Liberal Democrats that took all three council seats in the constituency. 
The results of the European elections spelt out a difficulty for the Tories even more clearly. New Labour took a real hammering, garnering just 23% of the vote, down 6% on 1999 and recording its lowest share of the vote since 1910, however the Conservatives benefited little from New Labour’s discomfort. If anything the party did worse, gaining a mere 27% of the vote, down 10%, recording their lowest share of the vote since 1832. The big winner in the European election was the emerging UKIP, which took away the third spot from the long established Liberal Democrats, winning 16.8% of the vote. The UKIP walked away with 12 of the UK’s 78 European parliament seats; the Conservatives 27, New Labour 19, the Liberal democrats 12 and the Greens 2.
The UKIP is a toxic remainder from the Thatcher era. It took 14% of the vote in the 148 council wards were it stood, part of a general rightward drift that saw the British National Party win an average of 16% in the 80 wards it fought. 

An after election ICM poll indicated that the UKIP vote might amount to something more than a mere protest one. While 36% of last week’s voters said they would go back to the Tories in a general election, 24% said they would stick with UKIP. This would reward it with a 4% national share, enough to scupper Conservative chances of winning the decisive marginal seats, and UKIP has already made it clear that it has the money, the candidates and the intention of contesting the next general election. 

In a separate election for the Mayor of London, the sitting holder Ken Livingstone was returned for a second term albeit with a reduced vote. In the main the New Labour vote in the London Assembly election followed the trend. It was reported that on being told of the mayoral result, Tony Blair telephoned Livingstone from Washington, to personally thank him. Livingstone did not do as well as last time, maybe because of his very public re-association with New Labour, he only just scraped in on the basis of second preference votes. The second preference vote of the Respect coalition candidate, plus transfers from the Green Party candidate, 5% and 8% respectively, were decisive in returning Livingstone as mayor. One of the last campaigning acts of the Respect candidate Lindsey German of the SWP was to make a last minute plea for support for Livingstone. In a letter to the Guardian newspaper she declared that there was ‘ real risk that Ken could be pipped by the Conservative… and for the sake of London, I will be voting for Livingstone on the second preference vote and I hope that Respect voters will too.’ 

Speaking in Washington about New Labour’s poor showing, Tony Blair said ‘I think it’s a question of holding our nerve and seeing it through- and realising that, yes, Iraq has been an immensely difficult decision.’ On the face of it is perhaps surprising that so many cabinet ministers were so open in blaming the Iraq policy for the government’s election debacle. The likely explanation is that the admission actually masks the presence of a more general disaffection with New Labour. New Labour spin doctors must be aware that some of their domestic policies are just as unpopular, like the big hikes in council tax and the creeping commercialisation of all the public services, to name but two. The response of the party backbenchers and councillors has been a plea for Blair to concentrate his attention on the domestic agenda rather than for a change to the Iraq policy. Only one MP actually called on Blair to step down, the ever-unpredictable Clare Short, indicating the political obsolescence of the old Labour left wing opposition. 

In the Euro election, the Respect coalition scored an average of 1.65% in those constituencies in England and Wales where it stood, a little down on the Socialist Alliance score of 1.69% in the 2001 election. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party captured 61, 356 votes or 5.21% of the share, a marginal improvement on last time. The George Galloway - Respect Unity Coalition on the whole failed to turn the Euro-election into a referendum on the governments Iraq war and occupation policy. 252,216 votes were recorded for the Coalition. This must be judged to be disappointing considering the reputed size of the anti-war constituency. The Socialist Alliance had been dissolved partly on the understanding that it could to be replaced by a federal coalition capable of mobilising millions rather than thousands against the war. The Respect website points out that in several parliamentary constitutions, unity candidates performed well, in the London Borough of Newham Respect vote reached 21%, in Hackney and Waltham Forest it was 9.5%, in Haringey 7.66%. Across Birmingham the vote averaged 7.4% and for Leicester it was 9.3%, and in the election for the London Mayor the vote was a touch over 5%. The Respect website concludes that ‘labour will look at our results in these areas and worry.’ However, the taking of sizeable votes in a few areas will likely only provoke the Livingstone dilemma even more intently. When the next general election comes up, can the supporters of the Respect Coalition really ignore the precedent already set by Lindsey Germain of voting for a New Labour candidate on the justification that the first priority is to keep the Conservatives out? 

The British elections indicate that we are coming to the end of the Blair experiment of cloaking Thatcherism in the guise of new labour.  Unfortunately it also tells us that the revolt is coming from the right – a recipe for further attacks on the working class. The vote for the Respect coalition shows how weak the left is.  That’s not their fault.  What is their responsibility is the failure even to begin the task of pulling together a nucleus of working-class resistance around a revolutionary programme.  The Livingstone fiasco where, within days of the Respect call for a vote, Ken Livingstone was calling on workers to break the picket line of RMT transport workers, shows just how pointless the present policy of the left is.



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