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Milan Rai says the anti-war movement must resist Labour scaremongering
The British anti-war movement currently has three
broad options in relation to the British General Election: vote anti-Tory (as
Tony Blair is urging us); vote anti-Labour (as Michael Howard and the more
punitive elements of the movement are urging us); or to vote anti-war. (There is
also the option of not voting, discussed below.)
The vote is indeed a blunt instrument, but the danger of a 100-seat Labour
Government majority is greater than that of a Conservative victory. We must vote
Labour Against The War,
that anti-war activists who support the Labour Party should campaign for any
nearby anti-war Labour candidates, for example, whatever they do with their vote
in their own constituency. This tactic might sometimes also apply to supporters
of other parties.
Apart from voting, there is also the question of who you campaign for, if
anyone. It has been suggested by
Returning to the question of how to use your vote, what does 'voting anti-war'
mean? For JNV, it is an approach rather than a definite prescription, an
approach that attempts to respect the differing political loyalties and
commitments activists hold within the anti-war movement.
THE LESSON OF THE WAR
The big question for the anti-war movement is what lesson the British political
establishment is going to draw from this election regarding the war on Iraq. Is
the election going to show that you can't get away with a major war which is
clearly illegal and massively unpopular, even if you are 'the most gifted
political communicator' of your age? Or is the election going to show that, in
the end, the voters will forgive you such misdemeanours if you can present
yourself as the lesser of two evils?
How will the political establishment judge the election? One indicator will
definitely be the number of seats Labour loses in the election. Another will be
the share of votes going to 'anti-war' parties. I put 'anti-war' in quotation
marks because what matters, from the Establishment point of view, is how the
parties are perceived.
The Liberal Democrats, for example, opposed the war on Iraq before it started,
then supported it as soon as the bombs started falling. They've supported the
occupation of Iraq, but they've also called for the end of the occupation in
December of this year. These are not the positions of a principled anti-war
party. However, the Liberal Democrats are *perceived* as an anti-war party, and,
yes, they are the only mainstream party setting a timetable for withdrawal from
A vote for the Liberal
Democrats will be *seen* as an anti-war vote.
As will a vote for the Green Party, for the independent anti-war candidates who
are springing up around the country, for the Scottish Nationalist Party, for
Plaid Cymru, for Respect, and for the Scottish Socialist Party and for a host of
other socialist parties.
The proportion of votes going to such parties - particularly the parties which
have the highest profile and are most clearly identified as 'anti-war', such as
the Lib Dems, the Greens, the independent anti-war candidates, and Respect -
will be part of the foreign policy establishment's assessment of the political
cost of war on Iraq.
The logic of this analysis, then, is that anti-war activists should vote for
'anti-war' parties, even people who have formerly voted for the Labour Party.
The beauty is that no vote is wasted. Even in a 'safe' Labour or Tory seat,
votes for anti-war parties will count towards the national total of 'anti-war'
A complication is that there are also 'anti-war' Labour MPs and candidates, some
of whom are fighting in marginal seats. Should traditionally-Labour-voting
anti-war activists support such candidates? The argument against is that
returning a Labour MP, even an anti-war one, helps to re-elect Tony Blair. On
the other hand, there are two strong arguments in favour of supporting such
candidates (if you are inclined to vote Labour at all).
Firstly, if anti-war Labour MPs do better than pro-war Labour MPs (holding their
majorities or increasing them, when pro-war MPs lose votes and seats), this will
sharpen the lesson of the war. Secondly, if Labour is returned to power, it is
important to the movement to have as large a proportion of the Parliamentary
Labour Party composed of anti-war MPs as possible.
In general, then, voting anti-war means voting for anti-war candidates. But the
Labour Party high command are trying to get *anti-war* voters to vote
*anti-Tory* instead of anti-war. The Robin Cook line is that you can't vote for
an anti-war government. You can only vote for a chastened Labour government,
which has learned its lesson, or for an enthusiastically pro-war Conservative
Labour loyalist Polly Toynbee argues that you should 'Hold your nose, vote Blair
and Brown will be the victor'. (Guardian, Wednesday 6 April, p. 22) (This is
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who financed the invasion of Iraq,
and who funds the continuing occupation without demur.) In the Independent,
Johann Hari surveys the quiet redistribution policies of the Blair government,
and quotes Ken Livingstone: 'If we experience a disastrous result on election
night, it will not be Tony Blair who is punished. It will be the poorest and
most vulnerable in our society.' (6 April, p. 35)
LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Polly Toynbee writes: 'forget retribution and look to the future... Revenge for
a war that will never be repeated is a poor excuse' for voting against Labour.
What matters is the future, and especially the future of those who would suffer
under a Conservative government which would reverse the social welfare
programmes put into place by the Blair administration.
the purpose of an anti-war protest vote is not simply backward-looking revenge.
We're interested in the future. In the future, what kind of government is most
likely to bring British participation in the ongoing occupation of Iraq to an
early end? In the future, what kind of government in Westminster is most likely
to be an obstacle for future US warmongering? In the future, what lessons will
British political parties and British governments draw from the Iraq experience?
The election can influence the make-up of the next Government, can place limits
on its foreign policy ambitions, and can have a lasting impact on British
politics - if and only if an unpopular war of aggression results in enormous
The anti-war movement is concerned for the future of the Iraqi people, and the
future of other peoples under threat from President Bush's so-called "war on
terrorism". We are far from convinced that Iraq was 'a war that will never be
repeated'. The only way to reduce the chances of it being repeated is to deal a
punishing blow to Tony Blair and his government.
A BLUNT INSTRUMENT
Jonathan Freedland (and others) notes that many of 'those people who usually put
a cross by the word "Labour".... would like to vote for an option marked "Return
a Labour government, but with a sharply reduced majority so that Tony Blair
learns the lesson of the Iraq war." ' He points out that these and other
desirable options are not on the ballot paper.
Freedland points out that when you vote, you can only vote for a Labour
candidate or for the candidate of another party -- you can't vote for a
'reduced-majority Labour government'. Key sentence: 'If everyone who wanted that
outcome withheld their vote, the result would be a Tory victory.' For the vote
is 'a blunt instrument.' (Guardian, 6 April, p. 21)
What Jonathan Freedland, Robin Cook and all the other nose-holders fail to point
out is that the reverse is also true.
If everyone who wants to prevent a Tory victory turns out and votes for Labour,
then the government will be returned with a majority of over 100 parliamentary
This will be seen as vindicating Tony Blair. It will be seen as rewarding the
invasion of Iraq. It will help to clear the way for future wars of aggression.
If left-wing and liberal voters put the defeat of the Conservatives as an
overriding political priority, and vote Labour, they will hand Tony Blair a
mandate for future wars, and signal that the war on Iraq was an acceptable
foreign policy option.
What is the worst-case scenario for the anti-war movement? Is it a Conservative
victory? Or is it the vindication of Tony Blair and his decision to launch the
invasion of Iraq? In my own view, the worst-case scenario would be a Labour
victory of over 100 seats.
Yes, the Conservatives are a pro-war party, but their victory would not be
interpreted as an endorsement of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The defeat
of the Labour Party would be a severe lesson to the British Establishment.
At the time of writing, the balance of probabilities is very much in Labour's
favour. The question is how large Labour's majority is going to be. It is said
that Michael Howard's goal is actually to reduce the Labour majority; he does
not hope to actually win the election.
Even when the polls give them a level pegging, Labour is ahead because of the
distribution of its voters across constituencies. The Conservative Party 'needs
a 10.8 per cent swing from Labour to gain a majority of one.' (Ben Hall, FT, 6
April 2005, p. 3) The Tories need to be over 10 per cent ahead in the opinion
polls to win the General Election (if the swing is uniform throughout the
country and counting only those who are actually going to vote).
Given the polls as they stand at the moment (15 April) the chances of ending up
with a Conservative government are remote, to say the least. The question of the
day is how large the Labour majority is going to be.
Conservative strategy is apparently to appeal to its core voters and to motivate
them to turn out, while turning off everyone else so that overall turnout is
At the beginning of the campaign, 'On a 78 per cent turnout, Labour would have a
majority of 128 in the Commons. On a 56 per cent turnout, that majority falls to
about 50.' (Financial Times/MORI, 1 April, p. 4) 'On a 55 per cent turnout,
however, if the Conservative five-point lead were to be replicated, Labour would
still be in power - just - but in a hung parliament and at the mercy of the
Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government.'
Robert Worcester, head of MORI, comments: 'The "project" - the proposed pact
between Labour and the Lib Dems - would be back on.' (FT/MORI, 5 April, p. 3).
The Sunday Times reported two weeks ago that, 'Early indications show that
Labour is likely to lose more than 68 of its 408 seats and that its majority
will be cut from 161 to less than 60 seats... Professor Paul Whiteley, one of
the authors of the 2005 British Election Study, said there was evidence that the
turnout could slide even further, to as little as 53% this time, and that such a
turnout could seriously undermine Labour's prospects.' (3 April, p. 10) That
sounds like we could have a hung parliament.
But then Michael Howard's racist rhetoric about immigration spurred more people
to support Labour.
The FT noted early on that 'a prediction based on an average of polls taken in
the past month by Electoral Calculus, the online election predictor, gives
Labour a four-point poll lead, which would produce a majority of 106.' On the
other hand, punters on the internet 'are betting that Labour's election majority
will be slashed to about 60 seats, a much smaller margin of victory than most
polls suggest.' ('Punters bet on Labour majority shrinking to about 60 seats', 1
April, p. 4).
According to James Blitz of the Financial Times, reporting the consensus view, a
majority of 70 is the minimum needed to provide the Prime Minister with a
comfortable working majority. 'A margin of 100 would be a solid win that went a
long way to wiping clean the Iraq problem in politics'.
A widely-held judgement of overwhelming significance to the anti-war movement.
Blitz notes that, 'Anything fewer than 40 - a big haemorrhage of Labour seats -
would raise serious questions about how long Mr Blair could stay in office.'
(FT, 6 April 2005, p. 3) Blair might be forced to resign immediately as Labour
leader and as Prime Minister. Alternatively, such a disastrous result might
'encourage Gordon Brown to challenge him for the leadership.'
This election is going to be decided in marginal constituencies. If Labour loses
76 of its most marginal seats, it will lose its majority in the House of
Commons. (For an explanation of the mathematics, see Alan Watkins, 'Unglaze your
eyes: the magic number is 76', Independent on Sunday, 10 April 2005, p. 27).
A full list of Labour marginals is
In those 76 constituencies (from Dorset South down to Watford), activists should
have no hesitation in voting for anti-war parties (unless there is an anti-war
Labour MP standing for re-election) even if this is likely to let in
Conservatives. If Conservatives get in to these seats, it will erode Tony
Blair's majority. That is entirely acceptable from an anti-war point of view.
In particular, Liberal Democrat supporters who have voted Labour in the past
(following an anti-Tory strategy) should have no hesitation in voting for their
beliefs in those constituencies, stopping their tactical voting, and voting
At the constituency level the highest priority is probably to vote (or campaign
for) for anti-war MPs, people who voted against the war and who oppose the
occupation of Iraq - if you can stand voting for their party. As pointed out
above, maintaining or increasing the proportion of anti-war Labour MPs in the
Parliamentary Labour Party would be a valuable achievement for those parts of
the anti-war movement who are at all willing to vote Labour. Rewarding anti-war
Labour MPs for their courage would contrast with, and deepen, the punishment
handed out to pro-war Labour MPs for their dishonesty and cowardice.
In marginal constituencies, it is clear, many former Labour voters are defecting
to the Liberal Democrats in order to register their disgust with the behaviour
of the Blair government, over Iraq, and over many other issues also. There is
certainly an argument for this defection. The argument is particularly strong
when, as in my own constituency of Hastings & Rye (62 in the list of Labour
marginals), the Liberal Democrat candidate is strongly anti-war (he is actually
a former Labour Party mayor and councillor who defected in disgust over the war
It is difficult not to sympathise with the voices calling for abstention,
spoiled ballots and so on. Neither of the two potential governments-in-waiting
is enormously attractive. On the other hand, for the anti-war movement this is a
historic opportunity to demonstrate to the British political establishment that
blatantly illegal and deeply unpopular wars of aggression carry real costs.
Spoiled ballots and abstentions by anti-war activists cannot be distinguished
from the general and growing disillusionment of the electorate at the empty
convergence of the major parties.
Given (a) the serious risk that the anti-war movement voting (and/or
campaigning) for Labour candidates will mean victory for Blair on a scale that
grants him vindication,; and (b) the remote possibility that voting (and/or
campaigning) for non-Labour candidates will lead to a Conservative victory, the
anti-war movement must set a clear overall priority.
In general terms, it is more important for the anti-war movement to prevent a
(quite possible) 100-seat-plus victory for Labour than to prevent a (quite
unlikely) victory for the Conservatives.