frontline issue 3

Labour's underwhelming victory

In many ways the general election on June 7 was extremely predictable. Labour started as winners and ended as winners, the Tories started and ended in crisis. But it was hardly a glorious victory, and it was a landslide only in terms of seats. The Labour Party not so much romped as slumped to victory on the lowest turnout since 1918. Frances Curran looks at the election and what lies in store now.

To win the election with the support of only 25% of the electorate was hardly a vote of confidence in either New Labour or Tony Blair. Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election with a million more votes than Blair won this one with. The huge level of abstention, more than 4 electors in 10, was the most significant feature of what was otherwise a predictable and thoroughly boring election campaign.

Scotland had the lowest turnout in Britain, with none of the Gang of Four free-market parties having much to write home about. Labour lost 200,000 votes, the SNP 160,000 and the Tories 120,000. The Liberals increased their vote by a modest 13,000. The only party with a significant increase in support against a background of a fall in turnout was the Scottish Socialist Party, whose vote increased sevenfold from the last election to reach over 72,000.

New Labour and the Tory crisis

The Tory crisis and the mass abstention on the part of 40 percent of the electorate can both be linked to the same source, the point in time when the Labour Party became New Labour. Socialists have no reason to shed tears over the crumbling careers of Tory politicians such as Hague, Rifkind or Portillo as they are rejected by the electorate and/or their own colleagues. However over and above the fate of individuals, it is the Tory Party itself that is well and truly in crisis. The question is, what has caused this once powerful party to limp into opposition for the second time in a row?

Tory leadership contender Ian Duncan Smith was recently asked who were his heroes. He answered: 'Mrs Thatcher, because she came to prominence just after I left university, and up until then everyone had believed you could only slow down the ratchet of socialism - she showed you could reverse it.'

Unfortunately, he was right. Margaret Thatcher's government was ideologically driven. The goal was to fight against the ideas of socialism and establish the ideas of the free market as the accepted views of society. The god was to be profit, making money - for multinationals or individuals - the most important human endeavour. The welfare state and public services cost too much and didn't make a profit. Young people should aspire not to change the world but to become millionaires. Richard Branson was presented as their role model, the Che Guevara of the Tory years.

And Thatcher put her ideas into practice. There was an onslaught against the public services which had stood as a legacy of the Labour Party, the trade unions and working class struggle. Publicly funded education, health, and welfare systems were under attack and publicly owned industries privatised. Four years ago millions of people delivered a landslide rejection of these ideas. The Tories were ejected and New Labour installed. Millions of those who voted Labour last time and expected the government to affect their lives differently are still trying to get their heads round the fact that the party in power changed, but the ideology remained the same.

Two parties, one ideology. A very favourable situation for the ruling class, but a huge problem for the Tories. They can hardly be an effective opposition to Labour when they agree with 90 percent of Labour's manifesto. As Ian Duncan Smith put it, 'Blair camps on our ground and we fight over technicalities.'

Working-class abstention

But it is also a huge problem for working class people. They are faced with two parties representing one class interest. The capitalist class are spoken for, the working class in big numbers are sitting this one out. The really catastrophic collapse in Labour's vote took place in Labour's heartlands, the urban working-class areas. The attitude of New Labour's strategists is quite clear and very cynical. The middle class still need to be wooed, but they are prepared to leave behind Labour voters in working-class areas because they have nowhere else to go.

A typical example is Glasgow Shettleston constituency, which had the lowest turnout in Scotland ' 38 percent. Shettleston is an inner city constituency with huge poverty and deprivation. But the Labour MP, Bob Marshall, was still returned to his now '52,000 a year job. There is no relationship between this man and the lives of the 62% of his constituents who chose not to vote. A huge gulf has opened up between the lives of politicians and those of ordinary people. As a result, aprocess of disengagement is taking place between the electorate, political parties and elections. Does this signal a retreat into apathy? The anecdotal and statistical evidence would say not.

The Shettleston constituency is currently the scene of a major community battle to save the Govanhill pool. A 24 -hour occupation, now into its 4th month, has massive local support. The only people in favour of closure are the Labour council. One commentator made the point during the election that there was a dearth of window posters for political parties in the area, but every second house had a poster in their window declaring support for the occupation. These people have probably also given money and signed a petition: hardly a sign of apathy.

A MORI poll conducted after the election found that although 41 percent didn't vote only 11 percent of people say they are 'not at all interested in politics'. And 24 percent of the 18-34 year olds who didn't vote had been politically active in the sense of taking part in a protest or writing to their MP. Even more startling is that 61 percent of those who started the election 'very interested in politics', lost interest by the end of it. Can you blame them?

Where is the Tory Party Going?

Meanwhile the currently leaderless and rudderless Tory Party goes in search of a new identity, the old one having been shamelessly hijacked by New Labour. There are two main wings within the Tory Party and regardless of who wins the election contest the battle between them will continue. One wing wants to move the party further to the right, trying on some of the clothes of people like Haider in Austria, using immigration and asylum rights to whip up racism, pandering to a Little Englander mentality by attacking the European Union and anything foreign, coupled with extreme law and order policies and a curb on human rights. But Hague went some way down that road and the electorate was not impressed.

The other alternative is that the Clarke wing of the party wins and that we get the Tories and New Labour with virtually identical programmes. In that case elections will become largely personality contests, like the Republicans and Democrats in the US. But whatever the outcome of the leadership election, the Tory party is far from the end of its troubles.

Where does that leave the Scottish Tories? They are now a marginal force politically. Any move in the direction of the Little Englander party nationally will leave them with a major problem, as it would hardly have much appeal in Scotland, even amongst Tory supporters. Their only lifeline may be to distance themselves from the national party and seek more autonomy. The idea has already been floated by some Tories that Scotland should move even further to have its own tax raising powers and control of the economy in Scotland, and that the UK as a whole should move from a centralised to a more federal state. That would imply more autonomy for Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland, an idea which would be fiercely opposed by the Tory leadership. Even with a change in political direction the Tories will remain a marginal force in Scottish politics.

Public services in the firing line

Over the next four years, the cutting edge of New Labour government will be the battle to introduce privatisation into public services such as health and education. The overriding objective is to reduce the percentage of GDP spent on public services. At the moment the US spends around 30 percent of GDP on public services and many European countries around 50 percent. Britain is in the middle with around 40 percent and New Labour wants to move towards the US model.

Everyone knows that the Public Finance Initiative and the Public Private Partnership (PFI/PPP) are a massive con trick, with the only winner big business. The jackpot is estimated at '30 billion for private companies. It's the same idea as buying a three-piece suite from Crazy George. You pay it up over 3 years and you end up paying three times the cash price. Instead of buying furniture the government are buying schools and especially hospitals - ninety three hospitals to be precise.

A recent response from the Catalyst think tank to the Institute for Public Policy Research commission on PFI concludes: 'On the basis of the evidence on PFI in health which is omitted from the IPPR Commission report we conclude that PFI has failed to deliver affordable or appropriate hospital developments for the NHS in the 21st century. The extra costs of PFI are being borne directly by staff, patients and local communities, with serious implications for access and for patient care. The high costs of PFI and the associated public service reductions make it likely that individuals will become increasingly responsible for paying for more elements of their care'.

It goes on; 'The effect of PFI has been to downsize the NHS by: (i) raiding NHS capital budgets to create subsidies to the private sector;(ii)reducing hospital beds and requiring hospital closures;(iii)raiding the budgets for clinical care.' There you have it. This is the consequence of private sector involvement in health and education. So why is Blair setting out on a collision course with both public sector workers and those who use health and education services? Blair is merely implementing the decisions that are taken in places like Seattle, Nice, Gothenburg, Genoa, and many other international summits. He is applying the agenda of the IMF and World Bank, the co-ordinating committees of international capitalism. It is part of the restructuring of capitalism as an economic system to meet the needs of the global corporations.

Blair is launching a Thatcherite offensive against public services and has made his determination clear, declaring 'we are not going to back down on essential reform of public services'. Trade union leaders have so far huffed and puffed, been to tea with Tony Blair and have come back empty handed. They won't even be able to accuse Blair of breaking his promises: he didn't make any. That sums up the relationship today between the unions and New Labour. The unions elect a quarter of the seats on Labour's national executive, they cast half the votes at party conference and contribute 30 pecent of Labour's funding. It will not make a blind bit of difference. Workers in health, education and other public services will be forced into action to defend their wages and conditions, in turn creating a radical, politicised layer of workplace representatives and shop stewards. The union leaders will come under pressure to support industrial action, but for the most part will attempt to avert effective action against government policies.

It is from this conflict that the debate has erupted over trade union links with the Labour Party. Union activists in growing numbers are demanding that their union subs are not given to a party which is attacking them, but are switched to fund political parties fighting in defence of workers and their rights. So far the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has passed a resolution allowing support for candidates whose policies the union supports. UNISON - Britain's biggest trade union with 1.3 million members - has passed a resolution for a review of the use of money from their political fund. The rail workers' union, the RMT is also reviewing the link. Other union conferences have for the time being defeated resolutions calling for a review of the link with Labour: the question is for how long. The GMB has announced a cut of a million pounds in its donations to the Labour Party over the next four years and is using some of the money to fund a campaign in defence of public services.

The stage is set for a big upheaval within the trade unions. The leaders will still cling to Blair's government while the ordinary members are organising to fight it.

The role of the SSP

The role of the Scottish Socialist Party has never been more important. Established three years ago, it is now established as the fifth political party in Scotland. We may not have reached our target of 100,000 votes, but to have won 72,000 votes - over 3 percent - is a considerable achievement. More importantly, the ideas that we are putting forward stand as a direct challenge to New Labour, the Tories, Liberals and SNP.

For the SSP the real electoral test of support will be the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, where we are poised to gain a significant group of MSPs. At every turn and with every success we will be moving the political debate onto the question of what kind of society we want to live in, contrasting a socialist organisation of society to the one being negotiated at Gothenburg and Genoa.

The SSP could attract significant sections of trade unionists. The Labour Party in their eyes is already discredited. The leaders of the Scottish trade unions will not be far behind if they fail to defend their members against privatisation. In the next few years the SSP needs to turn its attention to the unions and campaign to get the best union militants to join our party. The party needs to take steps to assist our existing trade union members who in many cases are at the forefront of local negotiations and struggles. Ordinary trade unionists are making up a big part of the new applications to join the SSP. Twenty-seven of the SSP candidates at the election were members of UNISON. A few years ago the ISM (Scottish Militant Labour as we were called then) had some discussion around the development of the SNP and the role of the Scottish trade unions. On the back of the anti poll tax movement the SNP had moved to the left. It clearly had a programme to the left of Labour, especially on public services, where it called for re-nationalisation of industries Thatcher had privatised. We discussed at the time if it was possible that the SNP would be the beneficiary of mass discontent in the unions once Labour came to power. At the time SNP leaders were also courting the unions. Alex Salmond spoke at the STUC conference. The SNP had established national trade union groups. Since then the SNP has completely changed its orientation. Now steadily moving to the right, it has ditched its re-nationalisation policies and is more interested in courting big business. Its policies on corporation tax and how to fund public services are becoming a mirror image of New Labour. Many SNP activists who consider themselves socialists are already at odds with this shift. Some leading SNP members have already come over to the SSP. Many more will now be considering the future of the SNP and whether they have a place in it.

What is clear is that any link with the unions, even informally, is now off the agenda. It would be a mistake to conclude from this that the SNP, despite its rightward move, will not be a major factor in Scottish politics. The opinion polls still show Labour and the SNP running neck and neck for the Holyrood elections. And these elections will take place after another two years of Blair's government. The poor showing of the SNP in the Westminster elections does not reflect a receding of national consciousness on the part of big sections of the Scottish people, not least among the working class. The establishment of the SSP and its growth into a credible socialist alternative, is of critical importance. We are beginning to give the lie to Blair's smug assumption that disenchanted Labour voters have nowhere else to go. In Scotland they do. The present rise of racism and the increased activity of the BNP underlines that there is also another, more sinister alternative on offer. The challenge before socialists is to win workers and young people to our alternative rather than leave them to the demagogy of the fascists. This is true even to a limited extent in Scotland, where the appeal of parties like the BNP is weaker. It is a much bigger problem in England. That places a big responsibility on the Socialist Alliance to develop into a credible alternative.