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What's the alternative?

Declan O'Neill


Tariq Ali’s call to vote Lib Dem in constituencies where this is the only way to punish pro-war Labour MPs has engendered little support on the left. As Andy Newman’ s article “The Lib Dems are yellow Tories” demonstrates the Lib Dems offer no sort of left alternative to New Labour. There is no doubt the Lib Dems are a thoroughly capitalist party, who will say anything to get elected, but is this the crucial issue? As Andy has argued elsewhere, “despite the fact that the government has convincingly lost the argument about the Iraqi war, and despite its neo-liberal agenda, it is the right who are making all the running.” Respect may yet win in East London, Dave Nellist and a few others may poll well in a few seats in England, and we can expect some good results for the SSP and Forward Wales, but the reality is that the next parliament will be dominated yet again by the three “mainstream” parties, who all endorse the politics of privatisation and the market. The most likely outcome remains a Labour victory, and if Blair wins another convincing majority, he will claim the result as an endorsement of the wars he has led, the attacks on civil liberties, the privatisations and the rest of his right wing agenda.

This is where the problems with Andy’s article arise. He writes "A strengthened Lib Dem vote strengthens the drift of the political spectrum to the right, and makes building an alternative more difficult. It may be frustrating if that means the only choice in your constituency is pro-war Labour or abstention. But where there is no left of Labour candidate that is the only choice there is, and voting for the Lib Dems is no better option than voting for UKIP" Apart from the rather silly comparison of the Lib Dems and UKIP, what does this mean in practice?

For example, where I live, Oldham East and Saddleworth, we have a right wing pro-war labour MP. If there were a danger of the Tories taking the seat my priorities might be different, but this is a tight Labour–Lib Dem marginal. I cannot vote for a Labour candidate who has backed an illegal war which has led to the deaths of tens of thousands, has endorsed attacks on asylum seekers, has supported attacks on fundamental civil liberties and cuts to benefits, and I do not see how his defeat, even by a Lib Dem, can “strengthen the drift of the political spectrum to the right". Is abstention, leading to the re-election of a pro-war Labour MP a better option than voting Lib Dem in this instance? I remain to be convinced, though neither alternative is particularly palatable.

Even if we accept that “though Labour is a thoroughly capitalist party, its historical links to the workers' movement still means that there are socialists within it, such as Alan Simpson and John MacDonnell, and the Labour Party has a structural antagonism with the progressive agenda from the affiliated unions,” what conclusions does this lead to? As a member of the Labour party for fifteen years, I witnessed in practice just how ineffectual “progressive” opinion was – and that was before Tony Blair consolidated his control of the party.

No government emerging from the next election is likely to be good news for the Left. Blair/Brown returned with a large majority definitely won't be. Would a much weakened Labour government, or one dependent on the Lib Dems, be better? The Lib Dems may be yellow Tories, but where is the evidence that their participation in the Scottish Executive has pushed Scottish Labour to the right? And what does this say about the actual politics of Labour today, as opposed to its “historical links to the workers’ movement”? Of course the Lib Dems have been two-faced throughout in their attitude to the war on Iraq, but would the return of a host of pro-war Labour MPs be a more "progressive" outcome? How would that aid the Left? Given the absence of a socialist, or even Green, challenge in most constituencies, many thousands of Left voters may well vote to punish the warmongers.

PS  Just received my first Labour election leaflet, almost entirely on the issue of "crime". The second page is particularly good. Headed "Lib Dems Soft on Crime" it accuses the Lib Dems of voting against dispersal orders, the Anti-Social Behaviour Act and fixed penalty notices, and of seeking to end all jail sentences for drug possession. Apparently Lib Dem policy is "never send young teen criminals to court", and "they are more interested in the rights of yobs than in the law abiding majority". Are they trying to force us to vote Lib Dem? Never mind I am sure the Lib Dems will deny all these heinous charges within the week. Is it any wonder that abstention is the increasingly popular option?


April 2005


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism