The slow death of new labour
Gordon Brown must be looking at the prospect of the next General Election with dread. All the indicators point to a disaster for New Labour. The European elections saw the Labour Party gaining their lowest share of the vote in a national election for a century. The recent Norwich North by-election saw the Tories seize the seat from Labour with a 16.5% swing and a majority of more than 7000. The significance of this vote was not that Labour voters switched to the Tories – they didn’t. Instead they stayed at home. A rising sense of disenchantment with the New Labour project has been heightened by the global economic crisis and the MP’s expenses scandal.
Gordon Brown may have hoped that the worldwide financial meltdown would be to his advantage. After all he was Chancellor of the Exchequer throughout the ‘boom’ years and may have believed that international praise for his ‘decisive’ actions in bailing out the banks will have been to his advantage. Most voters did not see it that way. With unemployment rising rapidly and millions fearful of losing their jobs and homes, formerly loyal Labour voters are recognising that the Prime Minister has to take some of the blame for the crisis. It was with Mr Brown in number 11 Downing Street that the banks were encouraged to speculate in the race to make ever greater profits with ever decreasing regulation. New Labour bought into the capitalist lie with zeal.
Now billions have been spent bailing out the banks, but the government declined to nationalise any of them. Thousands of financial sector jobs are certain to go whilst executives quietly get back to the business of awarding themselves large bonuses. Small wonder that Labour voters are not rallying round, despite the threat of a Tory victory.
The MP’s expenses scandal proved a devastating blow for all the establishment parties. Voters were disgusted by the revelations of Members of Parliament spending enormous sums of taxpayer’s money on luxury items and expensive home improvements. Moat cleaning and £200 alarm clocks were the talk of the nation. Worse still were those MP’s who dishonestly ‘flipped’ which of their homes was listed as their main residence in order to maximise their expenses. At a time when the financial future was bleak for millions this was too much. The establishment were exposed as all having their snouts in the same trough and seemingly lacking the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.
Both Tory and Labour MP’s were implicated in the scandal but as the governing party it was Labour who were blamed. A key part of the current anger from Labour voters is the rejection of the concept of New Labour itself by an increasing number. They have been angry about the war in Iraq and the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. They have been unhappy about the back door privatisation of our schools and hospitals through the PFI/PPP schemes. They have felt growing anger about the state of public transport after privatisation and the threats to privatise the Royal Mail. The New Labour project is stalling and increasingly discredited amongst the parties core voters. However there is little chance of a turn to the left from the Labour Party. They have become the ‘centre-left’ creatures of capital. It is therefore the duty of genuine socialists to provide an alternative.
One feature of the recent elections was that the votes for small and more radical parties, including those of the socialist left, did not go up significantly. Only a relatively small number of Labour voters opted to switch whilst most simply stayed at home. The fascist BNP also made gains amongst a section of disillusioned white working class voters. The BNP breakthrough in the European elections was certainly a cause for alarm and a challenge to the left to develop a credible strategy to politically tackle them, however the increase in their actual votes was modest and their electoral success was down once again to absentee Labour voters.
Since the European elections we have seen a number of initiatives and calls for unity across the left. These are, in principle, exactly what we should be doing. However many socialists are weary of calls for unity from organisations who have been central to splits in successful parties such as the SSP and Respect. The other possibility is that sections of the Trade Unions could give a lead. This would be welcome particularly if it was in the context of a more general fight back. The example of the RMT sponsored No2EU campaign is not inspiring however. This campaign suffered from a poor political orientation exemplified by a name hardly designed to rally progressives. It had an undemocratic top-down structure with participation in its campaigns seemingly by invitation only from a select group.
Whoever forms the next government it is certain that they will seek to solve their budget deficit with savage cuts to public spending. Jobs will go and services will suffer throughout the public sector. Parallel to this we will continue to see job losses in the private sector as well.
Any new initiative on the left will need to be based around resistance to the impact of these cuts. It will need to have practical answers to the suffering of working class people and lead by the example of militant action. From the examples of the Socialist Labour Party and No2EU we know that top-down exclusive bureaucratic organisations will not prove attractive. Instead we should look to the grassroots and choose to link up with those who are resisting the environmental disaster of climate change.
Neither can any new body pretend that politics in Scotland, England and Wales takes place in the same context anymore. Things have changed and a clear position around the national question is increasingly essential. The approach of the SSP to this issue deserves to be studied more widely.
Politicians have been rejected, New Labour has been rejected but the need for the politics of socialism, solidarity and unity has never been greater.