The Socialist Unity Network

Big losers, Small Winners:

The European Elections June 2004

Matthew Caygill

I was expecting the European elections to be as dull as they have been in the past, although the Green's 15% in 1989 stands out as a briefly intriguing sign of a political breakthrough that never really got going. But this year, by the time the results started coming in it had got definitely exciting, and the Thursday to Sunday wait for results certainly added to the tension. Would the mainstream political parties do as badly as expected?  Could Respect  come in from under the radar screen of opinion pollsters and through the general media wall of ˜sorry you're not on our agenda" and provide the big political upset we hoped for and were promised?  Well as we all know Respect didn't make a huge breakthrough or make the big upset to the political system, but it did make some promising waves. And the bourgeois political parties all did worse than expected and even the party that did make the big upset, UKIP, didn't live up to its own expectations.

For Labour this was their worst election result since 1918. The Tories had their worst election result since 1832 and distant origins of modern representative democracy. As a sign of just how bad things were for them even some of the spin-doctors had to say their parties did quite badly, even if the others all did worse!

The basic fact is that the Stay at Home party still emerged victorious. The turn-out was around 40% for the local elections, up by about 9 points on last year. Postal voting in some of the Euro constituencies (where Labour thought it would help them the most) certainly increased the turn-out even more, but at the same time some of the limited collective democratic experience was lost. Political scientists have a phrase for this: ˜Schumpeterian democracy", in which so long as voters vote and then let the political elites get on with the real political stuff everything is fine. Low turn-outs were general across Europe and we should remember that it isn't us who fail the political system, but the political system that is failing to involve us in its workings. There are lessons here: we need to make sure our politics gets into the places that mainstream politics doesn't.

Sensational and inflated stories about attempts at postal impersonation and corruption shouldn't distract from the far greater impact of  a complex and badly designed voting system. Voting is a right, not a privilege for those who can get their envelopes in the right order!

Poor Old Labour

We could see the poor performance of the Labour Party coming well in advance. Poor old Ken Livingstone facing a last minute surge for  the Tories because of he'd rejoined the war-making party!  Labour's results of roughly 24% in the local elections and 23% in the Euro elections are worse than the kind of results in the 1980s that gave commentators the idea that Labour, socialism and the working class were dead, and were the inspiration for the project of getting rid of those unpopular socialist ideas and trade union links in order to make themselves electable. A decade later New Labour produces the result that it was meant to cure! 

Frank Dobson (˜Change course or face defeat", Guardian June 15th)  put the problem for Labour very well. "The "midterm protest vote" of last Thursday could become an "end-of-term protest vote" at the next general election unless the government recognises how bad things are. Labour came third in the local elections, while in the Euro elections our share of the vote was the lowest for nearly 100 years. Membership is the lowest for decades and in many areas has halved in recent years. Worse still, I can't recall a time when we had fewer members willing to do the local party work which is vital in every constituency before and during a general election."

Predictions for the next General Election are unwise, but there are a number of points to be made about how these results will impact on Labour in the coming months. Firstly Tony Blair is still wedded to the American imperialist project in Iraq. He's been in touch with his God and his conscience and he knows he is right, he knows it was right to invade and then occupy Iraq. That the majority of the population disagree  is of no account. The Blairites hope this will all become water under the bridge,  but  they are wrong because the wars and lies used justify it have already undermined the ˜trust" we were meant to hold in Blair. The antiwar movement might not have stopped the war, but I would argue it has made it a lot harder for Britain to go ahead with another of Blair's Wars (five so far) and that might, just might, tip the balance against the US going ahead with another major imperialist intervention. It's a mistake to think we can talk about ˜two million people on the streets" in the present tense, but it is absolutely right to keep antiwar politics in the forefront of our politics. As an attempt to develop the anti-war movement into an electoral challenge to Blair, Respect was absolutely spot on.

The departure of  Tony Blair from leadership has been much predicted for some time now and these results keep that delightful prospect in the frame. The microdetails of politics again make prediction unwise, some commentators have already said that Clare Short's call for him to resign has already made it easier for him to stay. Even though the likeliest replacements for Blair will keep the neo-liberal thrust of New Labour (tweaked with ˜neo-classical exogenous growth theory" or whatever else is in Gordon Brown's mind), the fall of Blair will help discredit the ideas of the Blairites and make that agenda harder to keep to. So we need to keep on finding ways of keeping the pressure on Blair. And we need to remember that yes, ˜It's the War, Stupid" is still a good guide, the focus against war needs to be linked very strongly to all the other things we believe in. The front page of the Financial Times today (June 16th) is emblazoned with the headline "Blair ˜will protect" UK Labour laws". Sounds good until you get to the detail, what Blair is anxious to stop is any component of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights that might allow trade unions greater rights to strike. Meanwhile The Guardian tells us that the future political battleground will be public spending and quotes Tony Blair to the effect that ˜improving  public services is the reason why I get up in the morning". These are our issues and we should fight for the socialist response.

Poor Old Tories.

If Labour is doing badly the Tories aren't getting all the benefit. The Conservatives might have got the most Euro MPs, but their share of the vote dropped  from 36% in the 1999 Euro elections to 27% this time round, a far steeper decline than Labour suffered. On all counts the  Tories are still as far away from being a potential governing party as before. What's more, ˜Europe" has returned as an issue in politics and this is obviously a potential bombshell for the Tories. The possibilities for them to fall to pieces over this issue is huge. The electoral success of the petty-bourgeois populism of the UKIP (˜BNP in blazers" as Gaby Hinsliff  put in The Observer, ˜fascism-lite" I'm tempted to say, but okay, we need to recognise the real differences between this and the fascism of the BNP (in which the mask of ˜respectability" barely covers the old slavering race-hate and thuggery) mobilising around a complex of  reactionary resentments and nostalgias ranging from a racist  attitude to asylum-seekers and a xenophobic desire to get Britain out of the European Union and into a backward-looking utopia in which schools still have cadet forces  can be seen as an attempt to fill the ˜vacuum on the right". UKIP clearly has a loose membership, fragile structures and an uncertain future, but for the moment they are clearly having a big effect on the Tories, pulling them to the right and away from electoral success.

Liberal Democrats

I was expecting the Liberal Democrats to do much better, play more of a role in squeezing the anti-war vote going to RESPECT and generally making more of a Brent East style by-election style impression. The actual results were much more mixed than that for them. One the one hand there were local election successes, especially in some northern cities like Newcastle, but in the Euro elections they were pushed into fourth place by UKIP. Certainly there were people on the left who were prepared to say that if you want to give Blair a bloody nose the best thing you can do is vote Liberal Democrat, and they were absolutely wrong about.

Towards the next big electoral challenge

The elections resulted in a glorious muddle, but the underlying tendency is towards a fragmentation of political allegiances. There was a time (back in the ˜political consensus" years of the '50s) when Labour and Conservative got over 90% of the total vote. In the Euro elections they got under 50%. This fragmentation was helped by the voting system for the Euros (and STV would probably have made it even more obvious) and the number of  three-seater contests in the local elections. There is an argument that this fragmentation can be seen as an admittedly polarisation (see Phil Hearse ˜what is the significance of the UK Independence Party") between reactionary right and progressive left. I think it's more complex than that, but we'll see. However the next contestation is likely to be on the familiar first-past-the-post system with all that implies about our politics being squeezed out. The only answer is to start campaigning now and keep on campaigning until the next elections. A by-election in Leicester South might be a good starting point. Some of the results for Respect in East London look pretty hopeful for being able to mount strong and winning challenges. Maybe Preston could show the way again.

There are going to be difficulties. In Yorkshire and Humberside Respect was up against the Alliance for Green Socialism as well as the Greens. Efforts towards unity on the left need to be intensified, we can't just say ˜isn't Respect brilliant, join." Europe is now going to be an issue in the coming period. The SA had a position against joining the Euro that a minority of comrades found difficult to accept. This isn't the place to revisit old and difficult arguments, but it already looks like the EU Constitution has some advantages over Tony Blair. Respect is going to have to deal with this as an issue. In particular the depths of  a potential mobilisation around ˜Little Englandism" have been made clear by the success of UKIP (and has anyone else been  disturbed by the number of  England flags attached to cars?) and its poorly concealed racism. This isn't to say that we can't combine our genuine internationalism with a position against the neo-liberal assumptions and implications of the Growth and Stability pact, but making a left-wing case alongside the massive right-wing xenophobic anti-Europeanism in the current situation is going to be a difficult test..

One of our arguments about standing in the 2001 General Election, or for Respect standing in the Euro and GLA elections was that  people unhappy with Labour could vote left-of-Labour without the threat of a return of the Tories a reason to still vote Labour. One of the things shaping our politics is a refusal to say that Labour and the Tories are absolutely identical and that's still quite right. After these elections the argument that a left-wing challenge to Labour is going to help the Tories is going to be posed in ever stronger terms. Sometimes that argument will come from genuine left-wingers who still think that the way forward can only be through the Labour Party, but that will be overtaken by the propaganda outriders for New Labour. We're going to have to counter that argument, but the best way to do that is to build RESPECT as a campaigning party with strong local roots.

June 2004


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