Socialist Review | It’s hard to remember that only nine months ago 1 May was projected as a likely general election day. Then, the theory went, Gordon Brown would be able to take Labour to a fourth election victory, strengthen his position as elected prime minister and continue for another four or five years. Brown was at that time — again hard to remember — enjoying a honeymoon following the unlamented departure of Tony Blair.
Instead the local elections in parts of England, Wales and London on 1 May, alongside the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, were terrible defeats for Labour. On the basis of these results, the Tories would have a 116 majority in parliament if there were a general election now. We can therefore be pretty certain that there will be no election, if Labour has anything to do with it, until late in this parliament.
These elections mark a watershed in a number of ways. Most importantly, they presage the return of a Tory government for the first time in more than a decade. May also saw the election of a Tory mayor, after eight years in office for Ken Livingstone, who won first as an independent against Labour in 2000, and then as the Labour candidate four years later. Alongside the election of Boris Johnson, the fascist BNP won a seat on the London Assembly.
None of this is good news for the left. While some right wing candidates made advances in the London elections (the notable exceptions being UKIP and the English Democrats) candidates from the Lib Dems leftwards either lost votes or only just maintained their previous ground (as in the case of the Greens).
It would, however, be a mistake to see the result as simply a shift to the right. Much more it represented a collapse of support for Labour with the Tories being the main beneficiaries. Why did that happen? Firstly, the election as a whole was fought on the basis of right wing politics. Crime and immigration dominated the issues being discussed, and this was a deliberate decision on the part of the main parties. When that happens it is much harder for a space to the left to open up, especially when Labour goes along with the consensus of more police on the streets and being tougher on crime.
More fundamentally, traditional Labour voters were punishing Labour for the 10p tax, the rise of food and utility prices, the housing crisis and much more besides. In the circumstances of a right wing and unpopular Labour government, staggering on after 11 wasted years, it is unsurprising that some voters saw little difference between Labour and the Tories.
It is instructive to consider two feature articles which both appeared on the same day a week after the election results. One, by Ken Livingstone in the Guardian, heralded his support for and in the City of London. The second, by David Cameron in the Independent, appealed to all those who were progressive on green or equality issues to join the Tories. No wonder voters were confused.
At the same time as these electoral gains for the right, there was another story during the election period. Teachers, lecturers and civil servants struck and demonstrated on 24 April. The demonstrations on that day were some of the youngest and most militant workers’ demonstrations for at least a generation.
The carnival held in London’s Victoria Park the weekend before the elections attracted 100,000 in opposition to the BNP.
In addition, there is no evidence that attitudes on a range of issues — from privatisation to war — have changed in the course of the election or that the results are likely to lead to such a change of views. In many instances the general public remains to the left of politicians on these questions and on many more. There is one major exception to this — immigration.
The consensus here is much more right wing, with even those who claim to be anti-racist and pro-diversity (which even Tories like Johnson now boast) saying that there have to be limits on immigration. Or, as it’s sometimes put, “the country’s full up”. This, plus the growing wave of Islamophobia, has given a base for the BNP to grow. Even liberal opinion has played its part in this. The BBC’s White Season showed a concern for the “white working class” not evident when reporting strikes, or the class bias in education, or the housing crisis.
Even in the case of the BNP vote, however, it is clear that for many it represented a protest against the Labour government by people who felt they had been ignored or left behind by Labour. That does not mean we should dismiss the vote. While the proportion of the vote was not much higher than four years ago, the absolute number of votes was higher, and the election of an assembly member for the BNP gives them a profile and a level of confidence which they have not had in London for many years.
The BNP vote also highlights the contradictory nature of the politics in the recent elections. There is a sense of frustration and disgust with the policies of the mainstream parties and politicians, who are widely seen as corrupt and only in it for themselves, and this sentiment can be channelled in different directions. In these last elections the main beneficiaries were right wing parties, particularly over the question of immigration. But this was at least partly because the main parties have taken up and promoted anti-immigrant policies.
Most shamefully, New Labour continued to do so in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, held just weeks after the local elections. Literature for the Labour candidate highlighted “concerns” over immigration and invited voters to consider, “What do you think is the biggest problem facing the area?” offering “immigration” as a tick box reply.
The left failed to meet the challenge presented by this election. In London it became a Boris and Ken show, with little substantive differences on most policies, and some of those not to Labour’s advantage (for example on ID cards or conductors on buses). The other parties were squeezed, especially UKIP whose vote fell most dramatically from over 100,000 to just over 20,000 and who lost two seats previously held on the assembly; and the vote I received in 2004 for Respect at around 61,000 first preferences fell to under 17,000 this time. It’s clear that many voters did not want to risk voting for a smaller party for mayor in case it led to the defeat of their favoured candidate.
While this squeeze affected the votes for mayor, the split in Respect and the divisions on the left did no one any favours in the list elections when they were in direct competition. The left vote was therefore split in London, with neither the Left List nor George Galloway’s Respect getting close to winning. There was clearly great confusion over the name. In addition, any division leads to political confusion with some people taking the view that they will vote for neither. The Left List vote was disappointing. It is clear that the weeks which we had to publicise a new name were not sufficient and that some people voted for Respect thinking they were voting for us.
It was, however, right to stand in the elections. When we took part in hustings we made a real impact, helped to pull the campaign to the left and put distinctive policies on housing, crime and immigration onto the agenda. We were also able to intervene around the teachers’ strikes and against the BNP putting a political alternative. It would have been wrong to take part in an election campaign where no one challenged the dominant consensus.
At the same time, it was also right not to put all our emphasis on elections. Elections are a very useful snapshot of consciousness among working class people at any one time, but they don’t tell the whole story. Of necessity, they reflect the past more than the present in the sense that people still vote mostly on past loyalties or on issues which particular parties have or have not taken up in the past. The different groups of workers going on strike over pay, or the 100,000 who attended the carnival, or those becoming radicalised over the banking and economic crisis and the high cost of food and commodities, or the students who have campaigned for fighting unions, have a specific weight regardless of if or how they vote.
Any socialist or left organisation has to relate to them, as well as to ethnic minorities suffering immigration raids, or the Muslim community suffering racism and attacks on civil liberties. Opposition to the war continues, as does defence of women’s rights, especially over abortion and the reactionary attempt to reduce the time limit. The outcome of the various struggles that take place in the coming months can have a greater impact on the balance of class forces, on people’s lives and their willingness to engage in further struggle than where they put their cross on a ballot paper.
Where does the left go from here? Firstly, this is a time when many on the left want to discuss why Livingstone lost, whether a Tory government is inevitable and how the left can organise to defend ourselves. We have had nearly a decade when the movement has seemed on the rise, since Seattle in 1999, and this is a reverse which requires explanation and serious analysis if it is not to lead some to despair.
Secondly, we have to engage in activity which can counter despair and point a way forward for the left: whether against fascism, for higher pay or over housing needs. But that activity on its own is not enough. We also need political solutions to the major ideological and political questions that face us. Socialists are well placed to do this: we have a set of ideas which attempt to understand the world in order to change it, also because we take a wider view of the working class movement.
The crucial questions facing the movement today are how do we develop successful struggles and how do we build an alternative to Labour which has so badly failed generations of working people? The election results were bad for the left overall in London — although even here there were some very good votes in north and east London which show the left can present an alternative — but in parts of the country the results were extremely good, for example in Sheffield and Preston. Other results, for example the anti-academies councillors in Barrow, who won four seats, show there is space to the left of Labour that needs to be filled.
That is why it would be a mistake to abandon the electoral field, and why the Left List should continue to organise locally, through meetings, networks and activities which can allow us to build a base in the localities. In London we began to establish very good networks among different ethnic minorities and trade unionists, but in this election they did not translate into votes. We have to build on our areas of success to find a way of winning more votes in future.
The left also needs to build links and organisation on every issue which confronts us — war, fascism, a growing housing crisis, attacks on living standards — which at present will fall short of total electoral or programmatic unity, but which should aim to go beyond single-issue campaigns. Labour MP John McDonnell has put forward a list of demands that Labour should adopt to win the next election and these sorts of issues are ones which can unite the left.
Finally, socialists are too few in number to bring about the changes and policies we need. That has to change, both by winning more people directly to socialist ideas, and by deepening our influence where we can make a difference and where we have already shown the importance of socialist organisation. That also means spreading our influence geographically, especially to areas such as outer London where the fascists have gained support in recent years.
The world is changing very fast. We do not know the full extent of the economic crisis — only that it is already affecting jobs, wages and housing. We can see the terrible impact of neoliberal policies as people riot in different parts of the world to gain enough to eat. We know that there is great disillusion with existing politics and a sometimes inchoate desire for change. Socialists can give a lead and make a real difference by fighting on the economic, political and ideological fronts.