Labour is back in office. But its
majority is more than halved, and it received the support of the lowest
proportion of voters of any government since the introduction of universal
The percentage of the electorate
voting, 61 percent, was only marginally up on 2001 — which was the lowest
turnout ever. Labour won 36 percent of that 61 percent.
Taken together that means they won
the support of 22 percent of those who could have voted.
The social base on which the
government stands is still millions, but it is very narrow, especially as we
know that many of those who voted Labour did so with a very heavy heart.
Tony Blair survived because the Tory
party is in an even worse state than Labour. Its percentage of the vote was
almost exactly the same as at the last election. So although it gained some
seats, the Tory party’s purchase on the minds of voters has not widened at all.
At the beginning of the campaign
many people felt that the issues of immigration, asylum and crime, aggressively
pursued by Tory leader Michael Howard, would attract some working class voters.
These so called “dog whistle
policies” were meant to be heard outside the established political spectrum and
attract people on a right wing populist basis.
Everyone heard the dog whistle and
most people didn’t like it. That’s why the Tories had to change tack in the
middle of the campaign. The Tories tried to raise the Iraq issue. But Michael
Howard blew that up by out-Bushing Bush in his enthusiasm for regime change. At
this point the entire Tory strategy descended into shambles.
The election result was even worse
for the non-mainstream right. UKIP and Veritas collapsed.
The Nazi BNP achieved some worrying
results, in particular the 17 percent in Barking in east London, but secured no
The overall balance of the election
result underlines the fact that the majority of working people stand to the left
of the Labour government. The deep disillusion with New Labour has not so far
produced a platform for a Tory revival as it did in 1979.
The Liberal Democrats were the party
best placed to make gains from this alienation from New Labour. It is an
established party and had done enough in broad political terms to present itself
as an anti-war party. Its policy platform was to the left of New Labour on many
To some degree it did gain, with 11
more seats than at the last election.
But the overall assessment is that
the Liberal Democrats are too establishment, too conservative, too remote from
the feelings of working people, too distant from the anti-war movement and too
Because of this it cannot provide an
adequate vehicle for the left of Labour sentiment in many parts of the country.
And that reality may become even
more apparent because many influential voices inside the party want it to move
rightwards to become more attractive to Tory voters.
The three established parties have
not dispersed the sense of alienation that many people have from mainstream
The Iraq issue and the anti-war
movement have irreparably damaged Blair’s position. In the period since the
great demonstration of 15 February 2003 many people said that we marched against
the war but nothing changed.
This was always to see the effect of
a mass movement in too narrow a timeframe. Now we can see the full effect of the
mobilisation of millions on that day and since against the war.
The arguments that the Stop the War
Coalition first put in the run-up to the assault on Iraq and since have become
accepted as good sense by many millions of voters. And they registered this
verdict on Blair’s government.
It is now not a question of whether
Blair will go, but how soon. It is now beyond doubt that the Iraq issue will be
credited with ending Blair’s premiership, just as the poll tax was with Tory
Labour movement turmoil
There is already enormous turmoil
inside the labour movement and the Labour Party because of the election. It is
normal for a party leader who has lost an election to be greeted by newspaper
headlines demanding his resignation.
It is a sign of the degree to which
Blair has suffered a defeat that a party leader who has won a third term in
office faces speculation as to how swiftly he will resign.
Under these circumstances the vote
for the left alternative — the Respect vote — is of pivotal significance. If
George Galloway had not won Bethnal Green & Bow, the whole arc of the Stop the
War movement would have suffered an enormous reverse.
The Blairites and the opponents of
the anti-war movement would have proclaimed a famous victory, and the most
prominent member of the Stop the War Coalition would have been out of
This victory, in the first place for
the anti-war movement, now opens up a very different prospect. The mobilisation
by the Stop the War Coalition for the G8 demonstrations in July will go ahead
with renewed vigour.
There is the possibility of very
large mobilisations later in the year demanding the withdrawal of British troops
More than this, George Galloway’s
victory is a victory for Respect as the political project whose aims include and
then run beyond the anti-war movement.
It is the beginnings of an
organisational and political embodiment of a mood previously visible only in
opinion polls. These show the majority of people against privatisation and
racism, and in favour of trade unionism and the welfare state.
This is the significance of
Respect’s election results — not just in Bethnal Green & Bow, but also the 28
percent achieved by Salma Yaqoob which almost defeated Labour’s Roger Godsiff in
They also include the 20 percent
votes that gave Abdul Khaliq Mian and Lindsey German second place in East Ham
and West Ham, the similar vote for Oliur Rahman in Poplar & Canning Town, plus a
clutch of saved deposits and near-saved deposits.
These show that in little over a
year Respect has emerged as the dominant force on the left in British politics
and is a real contender for a place in the national spectrum.
Labour’s campaign in the East End of
London stopped at nothing in an effort to defeat Respect by fair means or foul.
Labour’s Oona King twice had to pay
libel damages to George Galloway in the course of the campaign and alleged
electoral frauds in Bethnal Green & Bow are being investigated by the
Baseless accusations against Respect
of racism, and more baseless accusations of violence, were the routine reaction
of a New Labour machine that simply could not believe that anyone had the
temerity to challenge it in one of its safest seats.
However, Respect’s victory is only a
bridgehead, and no bridgehead can be sustained from counter-attack unless it
makes further progress inland.
In the depressed state of
establishment politics, even the best electoral victories stand on a relatively
Winning 15,000 votes for Respect in
Bethnal Green & Bow is a magnificent achievement, but the electorate is 85,000.
Respect has to reach out to all those who voted for it, and to many of those who
did not, in order to sustain and widen its base.
We did not campaign solely on Iraq
and we certainly cannot broaden the base of support by campaigning on Iraq
Cheek by jowl
Bethnal Green & Bow is in the
borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest in the country. It sits cheek by
jowl with the square mile of the City of London, one of the richest areas on the
Many of Tower Hamlets’ people live
in poverty, suffer poor housing, and are served by grossly underfunded public
services and schools. These people will not continue to support a party that
cannot show it is fighting effectively on these issues.
Respect emerged as a political wing
of a campaigning mass movement. It will sustain itself as a viable project only
if it continues to generate other campaigns on other issues which it also seeks
to represent politically.
We need a housing campaign, with
some of the features we saw in the 1960s and 1970s, where tenants demand control
of estates, where privatisation is pushed back, and where affordable housing
becomes a central issue.
The Crossrail project, set to wreak
havoc in the inner city area of Bethnal Green & Bow, must find vigorous
opposition from the Respect MP and the Respect party in Tower Hamlets.
These and many other issues have to
be central to Respect’s political project.
And the more the gathering recession
takes hold, the more central these issues will be for working people everywhere.
In all this, networks, which are so
crucial to Respect as a successful political organisation, must be built and
Respect fails when it is simply a
collection of left activists. Respect succeeds when the left, which comprises
its core, reaches out to and engages and involves wider networks of trade
unionists, campaigners, mosques and other communities.
This task has to be achieved in
short order. In a year’s time there will be council elections throughout
England. To sustain the victory achieved in the general election, it will be
necessary to secure more victories in the council elections.
This can only be done if the sort of
political alliances created in east London, Birmingham, Preston and other areas
where Respect has good results, are generalised throughout the entire
In this project the socialists in
Respect, who have the clearest understanding of the general situation in which
we operate and the greatest organisational ability to create the alliances, have
a crucial role to play.
Where they are capable of engaging
and leading the wider forces, Respect will succeed. If they fail, Respect will
fail. There is too much at stake to allow this to happen, and too much to be won
not to succeed.
Working people are now crying out
for an alternative to neo-liberal politics, neo-conservative foreign policy and
They have suffered a generation of
decline in welfare provision and they want a political force that can express
their concerns and focus their energies.
But nobody can tell how long such an
opportunity will last. Working people will give short shrift to political
projects that do not adequately embody their aspirations.
The present mood has found some echo
in a variety of political forms — from the populist right to the socialist left
— here and in other parts of Europe.
The left has a great opportunity.
The price of failure is high and the time is short.