FT-CI

Great Britain

A harsh blow against Labour

19/05/2008

A harsh blow against Labour

With the worst result for the Labour Party in the last 40 years, the
municipal elections in England and Wales, and the election for Mayor
and City Council in London, on May 1, were won by the Conservatives
in both cases. This is undoubtedly a harsh blow that opens up a new
crisis in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government. New Labour (NL)
was left as the third political force, after the Conservatives and
Liberal Democrats.

Visibly affected by the outcome of the election and the crisis begun
in his party, Brown came out to say that the cause of the defeat had
been the weakness of the economy. However, some Labour MP’s are
suggesting that in reality the reason for the election disaster is
owing to "Brown’s weakness as party leader," and several political
analysts are wondering whether we are facing the end of the model
of "New Labour" or of the epoch of Blairism (alluding to former
Prime Minister Tony Blair).

Some bolder people have even dared to say that after 11 years in
power, "New Labour is dead." Undoubtedly, pessimism about the
economy was a big factor in the elections, strengthened by questions
about the fiscal reform that affected the poorest sectors and price
increases of basic products. But the repudiation of Labour has
different sources: on the one hand, the traditional base of this
party, workers and popular sectors, are very angry over price rises
in food and the loss of their purchasing power, while big interests
are being favored (as shown by the bailout of the bank Northern
Rock, which cost millions), and public services are being destroyed,
which widens the gap between rich and poor. This sector has turned
its back on the Labour Party, by choosing abstention (45% voted in
London and 35% in the municipal elections in England and Wales),
since they did not see any point in supporting the architects of neo-
liberalism with their vote. On the other hand, a more temperamental
middle class, which was New Labour’s base and experienced a time of
prosperity during Tony Blair’s two terms, did not stay at home, but
gave active support to the Conservatives, the big winners in this
contest.

The end of New Labour?

As we said last week (La Verdad Obrera N° 275), New Labour arose in
a context of economic growth and was based on expansion of the
financial market, a model broadly disputed, as the housing crisis
has shown. This model had allowed relative economic improvement,
especially for strata of the professional middle class, who approved
of the "modernization of the infrastructure" privatized under
Margaret Thatcher. Workers saw that while with one hand minor
improvements were given for the most impoverished sectors, like the
increase in the minimum wage, benefits for single mothers and
decreasing unemployment with the creation of flexible, temporary
jobs, agreements and contracts were being signed with businesses
with the other hand to build private schools to replace public
schools, undermining what remained of the welfare state. While it is
true that the Conservative governments that preceded Blair
facilitated privatization and took charge of passing anti-worker
laws, it is equally true that New Labour did not represent any
reversal of those measures. And not a single one of the anti-union
laws of the Thatcher era, like the ban on solidarity strikes, for
instance, was reversed either. But we cannot explain this election
outcome solely by the state of the economy. Actually, the weakening
of New Labour had already been expressed for some time. In 2000, the
dissent came from anti-capitalist youth who were opposed to the neo-
liberal model and then increased with the invasion of Iraq in 2003,
when 2 million people marched through the streets of London against
the war, repudiating Blair and his policy of unconditional alliance
with Bush. Another sign of the erosion of the Labour Party’s base
was the disaffiliation and withholding of part of the contributions
by the transport union, postal workers and municipal firefighters.

The profound transformation of the Labour Party promoted by Blair,
which represents the most complete expression of the neo-liberal
turn of the entire social democracy (known as the "Third Way"), is
the fundamental reason for this election disaster.

London: The golden brooch

One of the surprises of the elections was the victory in London of
the Conservative Boris Johnson, an openly racist, homophobic and
anti-immigrant candidate, in London. Johnson has already announced
that one of his first measures will be making the public
transportation union sign an agreement through which "they are
prohibited from going on strike." For his victory, this former
television show host, ridiculed by the media as a buffoon, took
advantage of the invaluable help of a big media campaign led by the
Evening Standard newspaper, part of a group known for its loyalty to
the Conservative Party.

As a result, 10 of the 14 election districts into which London is
divided, remained in the hands of the Tories (Conservatives).
Nevertheless, the defeat of the former Labourite Mayor, Ken
Livingstone, was not as overwhelming as that of New Labour in the
rest of the country. Livingstone, nicknamed "Red Ken" because of his
confrontation with the Thatcher government and famous for his
campaign for public transportation under the slogan, "Fair tickets
for everyone," came in second, with only 6% fewer votes than the
Conservatives, a small disadvantage compared to the Conservatives’
national lead of 20%.

Ken’s "red" tinge faded during his two terms, and although he took
measures to improve the public transportation system, "he showed his
true colors" when he furiously opposed the London subway workers as
their union announced a strike. Another one of his "red" measures
was increasing the number of police to fight the threat of terrorism.

The current slogan of the Tories, "If we win London, we win in the
general elections," shows that their victory in one of the biggest
cities in Europe was the golden brooch for the Conservatives. They
see that [their] position as a national opposition could anticipate
a favorable outcome for the next general elections.

Results for the left

In a context of a turn to the right by the entire electorate, when
anger was expressed by voting for the Conservatives, the left’s
performance in the election was pitiful, with one of the worst
elections in its history.

The Left List, with which the section of RESPECT that stayed with
the SWP took part, got 0.92% in the city council elections
(approximately 22,000 votes). They got a similar result in London,
with 0.68% for Mayor and 0.92% for city council. George Galloway’s
group, formerly RESPECT, under the RESPECT Renewal alliance, got
2.43% for city council, while they called for voting for Livingstone
for Mayor; however, in the East London district where they have city
councillors, they managed to get third place.

In its post-election flier, the SWP states that the split in RESPECT
damaged the whole left, and charges that the polarization between
Johnson and Livingstone overshadowed the vote for the left. These
arguments could be true; however, this must not stand in the way of
the fundamental discussion over the project the SWP was promoting,
even before the split in RESPECT. As we argued at the time, it is a
completely opportunistic election alliance, outside of a strategy of
class independence, with the aim of winning votes from the social
base disillusioned with New Labour. As a result of a lot of
dissatisfaction because of the war in Iraq, the first "public
appearance" of RESPECT in the elections was relatively successful,
beating Labour in some districts. Those results were understood by
the SWP leadership as a "reaffirmation" of the plan to try to occupy
a space on the left, given the crisis in New Labour and the social
democratic parties in general. However, that movement did not
develop as the SWP leadership was hoping. Now, they are trying to
justify the low election result by the split in RESPECT (see "Sobre
la crisis en el SWP y RESPECT" at www.ft-ci.org). Although the
elections expressed a turn to the right, as was also seen in the
elections in Italy, days of struggle like that on April 24 in Great
Britain show that there are sectors that are unwilling to surrender.
For that reason, it is more necessary than ever to fight for an
independent alternative for and by the workers to provide a
revolutionary way out.


- Winners and losers

- New Labour (the governing party): 24%, lost 331 city council seats

- Conservative Party (Tories): 44%, won 256 city council seats

- Liberal Democrats: 25%, won 34 city council seats

Translation by Yosef M.

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