Despite the brave face being put on by Tony Blair at Labour’s spring Conference over the weekend, the Blair leadership received a bloody nose from the by-election defeat in the parliamentary seat of Dunfermline and West Fife. Not only was he faced with this humiliation; Blair was also forced to postpone the publication of the education bill, again fearing a further defeat in the House of Commons. If anyone had any doubts that the Blairite project is coming apart at the seams, these two facts should help them to think.
Thursday night’s election debacle in Scotland was a further nail in Blair’s coffin. Labour’s vote in this safe seat fell from 20,100 votes in the general election to 10,591, a swing to the Liberal Democrats of 16.2%. Despite the sex and alcohol scandals faced by the Liberals over the past few weeks, they managed to capitalize upon the disillusionment with the Blair government. It was the first time Labour had lost a Westminster by-election in Scotland since the SNP took Govan in 1988, and the first time Labour had lost to the Liberals in a Scottish by-election since 1945!
Not only was it a shattering blow to Tony Blair’s leadership, but it was also a devastating defeat for Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, the heir apparent when Blair goes. Brown had played a leading role in the by-election campaign, a parliamentary constituency next to his own. His appeal as a potential Prime Minister will certainly now be questioned by many in the party. If he could not deliver the safe seat of Dunfermline, what chance would there be in a general election? To allay the fears of big business, Brown has gone out of his way to identify himself with the Blair legacy, which has proved to be the kiss of death for him. Brown along with Blair has become an election loser.
The Labour candidate Catherine Stihler, a member of the European Parliament, was a typical Blairite with no appeal for working people. The attempt by the Tories to realign themselves under David Cameron has also failed to impress the voters, whose candidate trailed far behind with only 2,700 votes and whose share of the vote had gone down by 2.5%. Again the Scottish National Party was also left floundering and their call for Scottish independence found little echo.
Despite rows over the tolls on the Forth Road Bridge and the announced loss of 700 local jobs at Lexmark, the Nationalists faced an uphill struggle. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, completely failed to take advantage of Labour’s plight and will certainly upset their plans for success in the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. The SNP remain stalled in third place.
According to Professor John Curtice, of the politics department at Strathclyde University, the result was “extremely embarrassing for Gordon Brown.” The 16.2% swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats epitomized the government’s difficulties in the loss of ground since the Iraq war.
“It could also mean that Mr. Blair goes sooner rather than later. It’s a salutary reminder to Labour of how badly they did in last year’s general election when they got just over 36%.”
“It is also the worst SNP result in a by-election since 1982 on the change in share of the votes. The SNP’s potential as the natural repository for protest votes is now undermined.”
This snapshot is further evidence that the support for nationalism has waned. It flies in the face of all those who panicked at the SNP revival in the past, especially those on the left, who abandoned all principles and class analysis and buckled before nationalism. Many of these people who were swept way by nationalist feeling ended up in the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party. They had the great illusion that they were going to cut across nationalism by offering a left variety of Scottish nationalism. But they have been proved wrong.
The SSP stood in the by-election with John McAllion as their candidate. McAllion was a Labour MP but was sidelined by the Blairites. He had a great reputation as a left-winger and fighter in the local area. If anyone could make headway for the SSP it was McAllion. However, it is clear that such credentials are insufficient in and of themselves to defeat the Blairites. He managed to gain only 537 votes and came within the same range as candidates from ‘Abolish Forth Bridge Tolls’ (374) and the ‘Scottish Christians’ (411). It is a very disappointing result for the party. The SSP is going nowhere fast and on this current performance would lose all its members in the Scottish Parliament at the next Holyrood election.
The result, however, will further embolden the anti-Blair rebels within the Parliamentary Party. Blair will be faced with parliamentary revolt after parliamentary revolt in the weeks and months that lie ahead. The attempt to placate the Labour opposition with concessions over the education bill is an example of weakness not strength. Blair’s authority is rapidly crumbling away. He has less and less support as each day passes. His programme of so-called reforms (i.e. counter-reforms) is provoking widespread opposition within the party and beyond. It is creating a massive backlash, as was witnessed in Dunfermline.
This result will provide the Lib Dems with a short reprieve. In the coming period, if they try to win disaffected Tory voters they will have to shift to the right, thereby losing their appeal to disillusioned Labour voters. They are a party based upon protest votes and that is their grave weakness.
The ruling class, which has been relying upon Blair to do its dirty work, is also not confident of giving the reigns to Brown. He cannot be fully trusted to hold the line with the mounting pressure from the trade unions. That is why they are trying to once again play up the Tory Party, their traditional ‘first eleven’. In the process the Lib-Dems will be ground between two millstones.
If Blair is forced to retire early, it is not a foregone conclusion that Brown will now get the leadership. The pressures are mounting up within the trade unions and the Labour movement generally. But even if Brown gets it, he will not have the same room for manoeuvre as Blair, who was cushioned by the world boom.
The economy is heading downwards, unemployment is rising and the housing market is about to take a dive. We are in a period of sharp and sudden changes internationally and in Britain. A new convulsive period is opening up between the classes. This in turn will transform the Labour movement from top to bottom. The process of a shift to the left is already taking place now within the trade unions. This process will inevitably affect the Labour Party at some stage. The small splits and divisions of today will turn into open chasms in the future. The right wing, which is politically on the ropes, will be spewed out and the way will be opened up for class politics and a socialist programme. The Marxist tendency represented by Socialist Appeal will play its full role in this struggle to rearm the Labour movement and prepare the way for the struggle for a socialist Britain.
February 13, 2006