British Elections

Socialists Challenge “New Labour”

Introduction by Peter Johnson

On June 7 voters in England, Wales, Scotland, and British-occupied Northern Ireland reelected the British Labour Party to a second full term for the first time in its 100-year history. Labour won a 167-seat majority in the 659-seat House of Commons, almost matching the 179-seat majority it won in 1997.

The victory seemed to justify British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s drive to transform the Labour Party into a bosses’ party like the U.S. Democratic Party. Blair has modeled his “New Labour” on his buddy Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats.”

As the following articles show, however, New Labour’s victory was much less than met the eye. Labour lost 3 million votes from 1997, as voters disillusioned with its neoliberal policies stayed home or cast protest votes. Labour won the election only because the Conservative (Tory) Party, its main rival, was even more discredited.

Moreover, socialists challenged Labour seriously for the first time since the 1930s. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), its English and Welsh Socialist Alliance (SA) allies, and the competing Socialist Labour Party (SLP) together won 180,000 votes, a post-World War II high for socialists in the United Kingdom.

The policy of the International Socialist Group (ISG), the British section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, was: “Vote socialist where you can; vote Labour where you must.” That is, vote for the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance where they ran, and for Labour elsewhere. The ISG also supported Arthur Scargill, leader of the 1984–85 British miners’ strike, but not his SLP.

Others on the left advocated other policies: Vote Labour, since Labour is still the party of the British working class and the socialist parties are marginal. Vote for socialists in safe constituencies and for Labour in constituencies where the Tories might win. Vote for candidates of the Labour Left, but not for Blairites. Refuse to vote Labour, since the Labour Party has become a bosses’ party.

They also debated whether the SSP, which is agnostic on the question of reform vs. revolution, was an adequate party for the Scottish working class or only a transitional formation, whether the Socialist Alliance should develop from an electoral alliance into a political party like the SSP, and whether the Socialist Alliance and the SLP should unite.

The labor left in the U.S. can learn from the British experience. Our Labor Party isn’t yet running in elections, let alone being corrupted by power. But some day we may face the difficult choice British socialists face today — whether to fight within the Labor Party to change its policies or to try to build a socialist alternative. 

New Labour: A Government with No Mandate

by Alan Thornett

Following are excerpts from an article on the British parliamentary elections by Alan Thornett, a central leader of the International Socialist Group (ISG). The article is from number 332 of International Viewpoint, the English-language magazine of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, of which the ISG is the British section.

By the kind permission of Britain’s grossly undemocratic electoral system New Labour won a “landslide victory” in the general election. It was achieved with the support of just 42 percent of those who voted and 25 percent of those entitled to vote.

The turnout was 59 percent, the lowest since 1918. Forty-one percent of those on the electoral register abstained from voting, and there are many others, not on the electoral register, who do not even appear in the statistics. A disproportional number of these are young and black and poor. Probably as few as one in five of the population of voting age voted for New Labour in this election. Labour’s vote went down by 3 million from 1997 election.

Some landslide, then. By any rational view [Prime Minister Tony] Blair does not have a mandate to do anything, not even form a government, but in terms of the British electoral system he is the most powerful prime minister since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The result was also achieved by shifting the electoral base of the Labour Party toward middle England [rather than the industrial north]. Blair was elected with fewer votes from the working class and more from middle-class middle England than any previous Labour government. The biggest abstention was from the traditional Labour strongholds.

The result is a government of the center based on a huge middle-class vote—which had been Blair’s aim since he was elected leader — and increasingly representing the mainstream of British capital. It is a “big tent” which has colonized the center ground of British politics, driven the Tories from it, and sent them into near meltdown.

The Tories could hardly be in a worse situation. William Hague has resigned as leader, and the leadership contest, which is already under ay, is wracked by historic divisions over the European Union. Blair had little real opposition in the last parliament; he will have far less in this one.

Blair, of course, claims that the election has given him a massive mandate for change, and the second term is going to be far more reactionary than the first. New Labour represents the radical rightist edge of European Social Democracy and is the clearest exponent of the neoliberal global project. Blair has already made it clear that he will push the neoliberal agenda forward with even greater vigor this time.

And the new attack on the public sector, which is planned, is already being spelled out in some detail. The private sector is to be brought directly into the management of hospitals. The other major services—health, education, and transport—are to be restructured as well, with, as Blair puts it, “no ideological constraints.” All this will, of course, be totally ideologically driven—and the ideology is called “the market.” The result will be a massive new round of privatization and deregulation.

At the same time the shifting of the hard-liner David Blunket to the home office will ensure that the victimization and scapegoating of asylum seekers will continue and increase.

The issue of the single currency may prove to be the most difficult issue the new government will have to face. During the election campaign Blair began to make the case for joining the euro, but now we have had the rejection of the Nice treaty by the Irish electorate, and things are not so clear. New Labour is split on the timing of entry, while there is a big section of British capital which expects the new government to use its election victory to go in as soon as possible...

The protest vote was divided, inevitably, between abstention (the biggest number) and voting for the Liberal Democrats (who are historically the junior party of British capital and who were well to the left of Labour), the Greens, who also ran a left campaign, and the two socialist alternatives: the Socialist Alliance (SA) and Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP).

The Liberal Democrats took the biggest part of the protest vote and increased their representation in Parliament. They also benefited from tactical voting — people voting to keep the Tories out, whether that means voting Labour or Liberal Democrat in a particular constituency.

The Greens had their best ever result in a general election, scoring an average of 2.25 percent in the 145 constituencies in which they stood. Their best constituency vote was 9.3 percent. This was the first time the Greens had saved a deposit in a Westminster [parliamentary] election; they did not save any in 1997. They achieved this despite a poor profile in the campaign and weak campaigns in most areas. Their best results were in London, where they benefited from [London Mayor] Ken Livingstone’s endorsement during the Greater London Assembly election last year.

As far as the left is concerned, the biggest achievement was the result won by the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) — which had merged with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Scotland in May and went into the election as the first united socialist organization in Scotland for many years.

The SSP won an average of 3.1 percent across all 72 constituencies in Scotland, with its highest scores in Glasgow and 7.8 percent in the best Glasgow constituency. It achieved a total vote of 72,500 and saved 10 deposits (i.e., with votes of over 5 percent). The SLP stood in a few Scottish seats but was marginalized by the SSP vote. This result puts the SSP in a strong position to win more seats in the next elections for the Scottish Parliament—which is held under proportional representation.

This achievement represents a big step forward for socialist renewal, not just in Scotland but in the whole of Britain. The SSP remains the model to be followed.

The socialist vote in England and Wales was split between the Socialist Alliance, which was standing for the first time, and the SLP, which stood in the last election in 1997.

The SA polled better than the SLP, but only just. The Alliance polled a total of 55,635 votes in the 93 constituencies in which it stood in England, with an average of 1.75 percent. It saved two deposits with scores of 7 percent and 6.8 percent. The SLP scored 54,880 votes in England in the 104 constituencies it stood in and saved one deposit...

The average score the SA achieved was lower than some of the SA activists expected. But it has to be looked at objectively. It was the first time it had stood outside of London, and its results are equal to those the SSP achieved in its first electoral challenge. It was also the best far-left result in the postwar period, better than the Communist Party scored in 1950, when it stood 100 candidates.

It is also clear that when the time came to vote many of those considering voting for the SA failed to do so. The pressures to vote for who will form a government in a general election under the first-past-the-post system is considerable, as against voting for an alternative which under that system cannot possibly win representation. Others decided to give New Labour a second chance — which was the pitch of New Labour propaganda in the final days of the campaign.

Things may well be different next time, when the full extent of New Labour’s second term has been seen and the SA has established itself as an ongoing campaigning organization which is not just there during elections.

Meanwhile the SA brought the argument for socialism in front of millions of people at a time when the left inside the Labour Party has declined dramatically and had no profile in the election whatsoever. The importance of projecting a socialist alternative can be seen in the rise of the [fascist] British National Party in some places, generated by what they have whipped up in Oldham.

The result clearly shows that there is a growing minority of people who are looking for a socialist alternative and are prepared to register this in an election. This has been an increasing phenomenon throughout the 1990s, as New Labour was created and moved ever further to the right.

The result put the SA on the map and built an organization out of an election campaign—a factor which is decisive in the longer term. It established active organizations in every constituency in which it stood—and these are set to continue as campaigning organizations in the post-election situation...

The balance sheet is, therefore, extremely positive. The SA has already begun campaigning against New Labour’s second term, and the discussion has already opened up as to how the Alliance can strengthen its structures, launch itself into campaigning activities, consolidate the gains it has made, and prepare for future elections.

Socialist Alliance Election Manifesto

People before Profit

Following is the first section of the Socialist Alliance election manifesto. The rest of the manifesto details the Alliance’s proposed policies. The election manifestos of the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party are quite similar.

In 1997 millions of people voted Labour in the hope of a real change. They believed that “things could only get better.”

But four years of Tony Blair’s government have seen New Labour drawing ever further away from the needs and concerns of its working-class supporters. Blair’s team has rushed headlong into the arms of big business, and there has been a seamless continuity in the Thatcherite policies of privatization, deregulation, and squeezing public services — the very policies voters thought they were bringing to an end in 1997.

The gap between rich and poor has widened. Privatization is being pushed into areas that even Thatcher considered sacrosanct. While corporate profits soar, pensioners have been ripped off, students robbed, asylum seekers victimized, and health workers, teachers, and other public sector staff underpaid — all because New Labour is opposed to taxing big business and the rich, and prefers to hobnob with millionaires rather than listen to working people. Tony Blair’s New Labour Party is no longer accountable to the labor movement, and as a result working-class voters have been effectively disenfranchised.

Tony Blair has already made it clear that the next Labour government will be even more pro-big business than the last.

He has stated that in a second term he wants more cuts in taxes on the rich and big business, even tougher rules to press-gang the unemployed into low-paid jobs, more privatization and “reorganization” in public services, including health and education. He intends to privatize air traffic control and the London Underground, and is inviting private profiteers into our hospitals, schools, and prisons, as well as a wide variety of other government agencies.

He aims to restrict even further our democratic rights and our access to justice, and to step up the hounding of asylum seekers. He says the answer to our education crisis is to promote selection and classes in “entrepreneurship” — presumably sponsored by large corporations — in state schools.

New Labour’s move to the right has created a vacuum on the left of British politics. There is now a dangerous consensus among the major parties around the “neoliberal” policies of privatization and deregulation. This consensus excludes millions of people — and a wide range of vital ideas. We have already seen its impact in the high levels of abstention in recent elections, especially in Labour’s traditional “core” areas. The turnout in the coming general election threatens to be the lowest for generations. We believe democracy has to be about more than the choice between Tony Blair and William Hague.

By standing candidates in 100 constituencies in England and Wales, and in partnership with the Scottish Socialist Party, which is standing in all 72 seats in Scotland, we are mounting the biggest left-wing electoral challenge to Labour in modern times. During the campaign we will speak out for the people who are voiceless and disenfranchised. We will offer new hope to all those who have been let down, ignored, and attacked by New Labour. Instead of voting for a “lesser evil,” in 2001 working people will be able to vote for a party that represents and fights for their interests.

By voting Socialist Alliance you can send a clear warning to New Labour’s leaders. You can help make sure that politicians and the media know that there are substantial numbers of people who are fed up with the big business consensus and want an alternative. The larger the vote for the Socialist Alliance, the greater the pressure on the next government to listen to working people.

The Socialist Alliance is not just about elections. We will help build and support the day-to-day struggles of working people in defense of jobs, living standards, trade union organization, health, education and welfare, democratic and human rights, and against racism, national chauvinism, and the exploitation of the Third World by big business and the banks.

We appeal to all those who have been left out and let down by New Labour — working-class people and their families, trade unionists, council tenants, pensioners, young people, black and ethnic minority people, lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, environmentalists, peace activists, campaigners for social justice and even Labour Party members themselves—to join together to build the widest possible support for a socialist alternative to New Labour.

The Socialist Alliance is:  

An INTERNATIONALIST alliance, founded on the principle of solidarity with all those resisting inequality and injustice across the world.

A DEMOCRATIC alliance, which is proud of its efforts to unite socialists from many different traditions while allowing free debate and discussion within its ranks. The alliance is controlled from the bottom upwards through its local groups and grassroots members, and the involvement of its supporting organizations, rather than from the top down like Tony Blair’s Labour Party.

A PROGRESSIVE alliance, [which is] dedicated to social equality without compromise, and which fights against all forms of discrimination and oppression—against racism, homophobia, and bigotry.

A CAMPAIGNING alliance, which fights for immediate reforms and improvements in the lives of ordinary people, even while arguing the need for more radical socialist policies.

An ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS alliance, which fights for an end to the destruction of our natural environment and the squandering of the earth’s vital resources by a wealthy elite.

A SOCIALIST alliance, which believes that it is necessary to replace the current system of exploitation, oppression, and inequality with a new economic and social system based on common ownership. Capitalism is neither invincible nor permanent. We see the fight for socialism in this country as part of a global movement to build a socialist world, in which the working people whose labor creates the wealth in society collectively own and control that wealth, and plan our economy to meet the needs of the many, rather than sustain the privileges of a few.

Our policies and our campaign will highlight the need for a new type of government, one that acts in the interests of workers, not bosses. We need a government that supports, encourages, and is rooted in the organizations and struggles of working people. We need a government that builds a partnership with labor, not capital. We need a government committed to genuine democracy, not rule by a self-serving elite. We need a government that puts people before profit.

Our Priority Policies for the General Election

Our candidates offer a working-class alternative. If elected, they will be workers’ MPs [Ministers of Parliament] on a worker’s wage. For them, representing working people is a privilege, not a route to a personal fortune!

We propose an emergency plan to meet the demands and needs of workers and the jobless, and to defend and extend democracy: