The British State, Bourgeois Democracy and Civil Liberties
"There is no greater civil liberty than to live free from
terrorist attack" according to Tony Blair, writing in The
Telegraph (24/02/2005). If this were true then there would be no
greater threat to our civil liberties than Blair’s government.
Their slavish support of American imperialism’s invasion and
occupation of Iraq has made Britain a terrorist target. In turn this
threat and the climate of fear carefully cultivated around it are
being used precisely to undermine our democratic rights.
No greater civil liberty, claims Blair. What about the right to vote?
The right to demonstrate? The right to strike? The right to trial by
jury? The truth is that many of these rights have already been
whittled away. Blair’s government undermines that which he claims
to be the greatest of civil liberties, just as it is attempting to
trample over other hard won freedoms.
The assault on our democratic rights, won by generations of struggle,
is not a secondary matter. It is not enough to shrug one’s
shoulders and announce that we are not really free under capitalism
anyway. We do not elect judges or police chiefs, newspaper owners or
the bosses of the banks and big companies that dominate every aspect
of life. All this is true, the state in capitalist society is an
instrument for maintaining the rule of the minority over the
majority, and ultimately it is the big monopolies and their interests
that decide all important questions. This hardly exhausts the subject
though. It is clearly easier to organise a struggle for jobs and
wages, or for that matter for revolutionary change, in conditions of
democracy than under a dictatorship.
The democracy afforded to us by capitalism is restricted, but we can
no more ignore the attacks launched on our political rights than we
can attacks on our jobs, wages and conditions. In fighting for better
social and economic conditions we are not promoting illusions in the
ability of capitalism to provide for our needs. In the same way in
fighting against these assaults on democratic rights, we do not sew
illusions in Democracy, the Law etc.
Beneath the cloak of fear being woven by the propagandists of
‘anti-terrorism’ are very real attacks on our ability to protest,
to fight back, and to organise to change society. Blair complains
that “we are trying to fight 21st-century crime – antisocial
behaviour, drug dealing, binge drinking, organised crime – with
19th-century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens."
(Tony Blair, 27/09/2005)
Indeed Dickensian era laws are still being used, not to combat 21st
century crime but to stifle protest. In September The Guardian
reported that a student campaigning against cruelty to animals, had
his city centre stall in Lancaster confiscated under the 1824
Vagrancy Act. "Every Person wandering abroad and endeavouring by
the Exposure of Wounds and Deformities to obtain or gather Alms …
shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond…" This Act was intended
to prevent veterans of the Napoleonic wars from begging by displaying
their injuries, but the police decided that this rule could be
applied to the pictures of animals’ wounds on anti-vivisection
Some of the laws they use against protest predate Dickens, and even
Shakespeare, being more familiar perhaps in the time of Chaucer. In
two recent cases, protesters have been arrested under the 1361
Justices of the Peace Act. So much for Blair's 21st century methods.
The Canterbury Tales could have included a cautionary tale about the
woman arrested by Kent police for the heinous crime of writing two
polite e-mails to an executive at a drugs company begging him not to
test his products on animals. Such electronic threats to national
security warrant undermining freedom of movement, freedom of
association, the right to trial by jury, and the presumption of
innocence in the eyes of Blair and the ruling class. In the new
period we have entered more ‘modern’ laws are evidently required
to protect the system.
Last autumn the headlines were dominated by the assault on 82 year
old Walter Wolfgang, violently removed from Labour’s national
conference, and then held briefly under the Prevention of Terrorism
Act, for heckling the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw by shouting
‘nonsense’ as Straw tried to defend the indefensible occupation
of Iraq. This exposed the control freakery of Blairite stage-managed
conferences. More important still are the implications for civil
There are many other examples hidden away from the front pages which
demonstrate that this was not an isolated accident, and the threat to
democratic rights is quite real.
The student who had his stall confiscated in Lancaster was one of a
group of half a dozen students and graduates of Lancaster University
who were recently convicted of aggravated trespass. Their crime was
to have entered a lecture theatre and handed out leaflets to the
audience. Staff at the university were meeting people from BAE
Systems, Rolls-Royce, Shell, GlaxoSmithKline, DuPont, Unilever and
other big companies to learn how to "commercialise university
research". The students were hoping to persuade the researchers
not to sell their work. They were in the theatre for three minutes.
As the judge conceded, they tried neither to intimidate anyone nor to
stop the conference from proceeding. They were prosecuted under the
Tories’ 1994 Criminal Justice Act, as amended by Labour in 2003 to
ensure that it could be applied anywhere, rather than just "in
the open air".
The new laws on harrassment give the police the power to arrest
almost anyone demonstrating anywhere about anything. Had Mr Wolfgang
said "nonsense" twice during the foreign secretary's
speech, the police could have charged him under the Protection from
Harassment Act 1997.
In 2001 two peace campaigners were prosecuted for causing
"harassment, alarm or distress" to American servicemen at
the Menwith Hill military intelligence base in Yorkshire, by standing
at the gate holding the Stars and Stripes and a placard reading
"George W Bush? Oh dear!" In Hull a protester was arrested
under the act for "staring at a building"!
Section 132 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 is already
becoming an effective weapon against democracy. This bans people from
demonstrating in an area "designated" by the government.
One of these areas is the square kilometre around parliament. The
problem is that we do not get to know where is and where isn’t
‘designated’. The Home Office explains the policy: "It's an
operational matter for the police force," says a spokeswoman.
"It's up to them to act in the context of a situation so it's
not for us to rule out X, Y or Z. Taking a dog for a walk in a
dockyard – it's up to the police to decide if they pose a risk or
not. There are no circumstances where we could say it can't be used."
The law that has proved most useful against protest is section 44 of
the Terrorism Act 2000. This allows people to be stopped and searched
without the need to show that there is "reasonable suspicion"
that a criminal offence is being committed. This has been used not
just against Mr. Wolfgang but repeatedly against anti-war protestors.
With all this legislation already in force, not to mention the
criminal shoot to kill policy, what more powers do they claim they
need? The right to hold suspects for three months without charge on
the say so of a politician, which cost Blair his first defeat in the
Commons; the introduction of compulsory identity cards; and now the
so-called ‘glorification of terror’ law. The opposition parties,
and the legal experts have all protested that the term
‘glorification’ is too vague and ill-defined to stand up in
court. They argue that there is plenty of old legislation on the
statute books – such as those quoted above, or those used to jail
Abu Hamza – without inventing new ‘bad’ laws. On the one hand
Blair’s insistence on the word glorification is typical of his
attempts to curry favour with the Daily Mail. On the other,
vagueness may well prove to be useful to the authorities when they
wish to arrest someone who has not broken a specific law.
Even the judiciary are frightened that Blair is going too far. The
attempt to give the Home Secretary the right to hold suspects without
charge for ninety days provoked a flurry of opposition from the legal
profession. The lord chief justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers,
said it would be "wholly inappropriate" for a politician to
try to put pressure on them. Blair denied that he was "browbeating"
the judiciary and went on to warn the judges – again in explicit
terms – that they must not rule against the anti-terror measures that
were being proposed. "When the police say this is what we need
to make this country safe, you have got to have good reasons to say
no to that."
Charles Clarke attempted to justify the principles underlying his
terror bill by arguing that political violence to topple a government
is no longer justifiable anywhere in the world, under any
circumstance. "I cannot myself think of a situation in the world
where violence would be justified to bring about change," Mr
Clarke said. Does this rule out British support for any other US
imperialist adventure in the Middle East? What else was their
invasion of Iraq than ‘political violence to topple a government’.
Marxists are no fans of violence, of course. Whilst we are not
pacifists, only a lunatic would glorify violence. We base ourselves
on the political power of the working class to transform society. Yet
we, along with many others, may be accused of just that crime for
supporting liberation struggles of people forced to take up arms
against imperialist occupation, for example. Perhaps bonfire night
celebrations (the glorification of an attempt to blow up parliament
on 5/11 as some wits have pointed out) will be ruled out by this new
Clarke assures us that this is not so. The new legislation is
designed to protect ‘our way of life’. In case the meaning of
this threat is too subtle, The Daily Telegraph helpfully
published a list of "10 core values of the British identity"
whose adoption, it argued, would help to prevent another terrorist
attack. These were not values we might choose to embrace, but
"non-negotiable components of our identity". Top of the
list were "the sovereignty of the crown in parliament"
("the Lords, the Commons and the monarch constitute the supreme
authority in the land"), "private property", and "the
family". These values can be readily shortened to their more
common name – capitalism.
Identity cards will do nothing to protect us from suicide bombers,
but it will help the authorities to keep a close eye on
troublemakers, anti-war activists, militant shop stewards, and so on.
Giving the Home Secretary the right to hold ‘suspects’ for three
months would have been little short of a return to the repression of
internment. With this or that minor amendment the bill passed still
constitutes an assault on long held freedoms.
There is no greater threat to democratic rights than a capitalist
system in fear of its future. As we have stated many times, and we
make no apology for repeating, this is not a secondary matter. In the
end to achieve real democracy, that is control over our own lives,
and over society as a whole we must take power out of the hands of
the privileged few, the capitalist class, and their repressive
institutions. Even the limited democracy of the past is no longer
safe under capitalism. The struggle for political, social and
economic freedom is the struggle for socialism.
The importance of this question was demonstrated by the fact that it
was responsible for Blair losing his first vote in parliament since
Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997. A Labour majority of
67 was, as predicted, no majority at all for this Blairite ‘reform’.
Unlike the frequently ignored votes of Labour Party conference –
where Blair has shown his contempt for democracy on many occasions –
this one was a little harder to dismiss.
The significance of the vote was far wider than whether or not the
government succeeded in getting the reactionary policy of holding
suspects for 90 days without charge onto the statute book. Blair did
not just lose, having put his authority on the line and having made
this vote a three-line whip (i.e. making it ‘compulsory’ to toe
the leadership’s line), he was humiliated. The scale of his
embarrassment was compounded further by having to drag Gordon Brown
back from a trip to Israel only hours after he had arrived there.
Similarly Jack Straw was flown back from Moscow because Blair needed
every vote he could get. Ian McCartney had to limp in from his
hospital bed despite just having had a triple by-pass heart
operation. Yet even these desperate measures were not enough.
Blair had convinced himself that he had won over the parliamentary
party with a speech appealing for unity. He did not understand the
extent to which his authority has been undermined even in these upper
echelons of the party. As one former minister explained in The
Guardian, with his tongue firmly in his cheek: "It was
brilliant. I have never heard him so convincing since he sold us
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
Blair has long since lost the support of trade unionists and rank and
file party members. His policies have already been defeated on the
floor of the now ruthlessly stage-managed party conference. He has
suffered, but survived, previous close votes with the help of his
friends on the Tory benches. Now his authority in Parliament and the
Parliamentary Labour Party has been shattered.
Forty nine Labour MPs voted against this reactionary Blairite
legislation and thirteen more abstained. Together with the votes of
the Tories and Liberals the result was a defeat by 322 votes to 291.
Blair has had to rely on Tory votes in Parliament before. This time,
however, with the Tories intent on giving the prime minister a bloody
nose, the Labour leaders astonishingly appealed to the most
hard-line, right-wing Tories for support, goading them that the Tory
leaders weren’t right wing enough! The Tories’ spurious
principled opposition to this bill, couched in hypocritical verbiage
about civil rights, will have fooled no one. This was opportunism, a
chance to defeat Blair in parliament and breathe some life back into
their long comatose party.
There is a real irony in the complaint of one Tory MP, who
interrupted the Prime Minister’s speech, shouting out “we aren’t
in a police state”. This from a party which has consistently
opposed civil liberties and democratic rights. The irony, however, is
that in the current atmosphere, Charles Walker, the Tory MP in
question, was lucky not to be arrested for the new terrorist offence
In constantly appealing to the authority of the police – Blair’s
speech appeared to be an appeal on behalf of the Police Party rather
than Labour – the Prime Minister demonstrated just how
authoritarian he has become.
This was not the biggest rebellion by backbench Labour MPs that we
have seen, more voted against the war in Iraq, for example, but it
was the biggest defeat in a ‘whipped vote’ since the Callaghan
Labour government of the late 1970s. On health and education, even
bigger Labour rebellions can be expected in the next period. The
difference on this occasion was that the rebels won, Blair was
defeated, and if his reactionary plans can be defeated once they can
Were we right to argue that this one defeat in parliament meant the
end of Blair? No-one now doubts that this was one of the last nails
in his coffin, but then his days have been numbered for some time.
However, when is a different matter. Major’s Tory government
continued for two years without a majority. His government lost four
votes in parliament. The difference here is that Blair is hell bent
on confrontation, and not just with the Parliamentary Labour Party.
He is intent on carrying through his Tory policies of privatisation
in hospitals and ‘reform’ of schools. This will provoke further
rebellions inside parliament and outside.
The arrogance of the man is staggering. In responding to his first
defeat he made it clear that he was right and those who voted against
were wrong. "The country will think parliament will have behaved
in a deeply irresponsibly way, I have no doubt about that at all,"
he said. ‘President’ Blair would no doubt like to dissolve this
“irresponsible” parliament and elect a new one more loyal to him
and the police. "Sometimes it is better to do the right thing
and lose,” Blair continued “than to win doing the wrong thing. I
have no doubt what the right thing was to do in this instance, to
support the police.”
Even in the restricted democracy afforded to us by capitalism it is
generally understood that Parliament is elected to make laws whilst
the police and legal system are supposed to implement them, not the
other way around. Of course, ultimately parliament, the judiciary,
the police are all parts of the state machine designed to manage and
defend capitalism. However, as we have often commented, the needs of
that system in a new period are coming into conflict with parts of
this establishment as they try to refashion it into something more
suitable to the task of defending capitalism in a new era. These
splits at the top of society represent divisions in the ruling class
over how best to proceed in a new situation.
So what will happen now? In reality, despite Labour winning the last
election with a majority of 67 Blair now effectively leads a minority
government. No doubt if there were a vote of confidence tomorrow
morning he would win. However, as for the rest of his modernising
agenda, this will now face stern opposition in parliament. For his
Tory privatisation policies Blair will now rely on the votes of the
Tory party to outnumber Labour rebels. In this sense he will lead a
kind of ‘national government’, with a Labour opposition behind
This will be the case particularly in relation to Blair’s proposals
for commercialising the National Health Service and, above all, in
relation to his proposals for schools.
The amendment passed to the anti-terror bill allowing suspects to be
held for 28 days is an affront to civil liberties and democratic
rights, and is not the last of such reactionary policies. Not just
privatisation, and attacks on education and health, but also the
continued disastrous occupation of Iraq, the introduction of identity
cards and other assaults on democracy, and every other repressive or
reactionary proposal emerging from Ten Downing Street are all
symptomatic of the impasse of capitalism.
The identity cards bill was passed with little opposition in the end.
Backbench MPs argued that it is difficult to vote against something
that was in the manifesto. As if anyone reads political parties’
manifestoes. They did not have any such difficulty passing the total
ban on smoking in pubs, clubs etc, despite this being in conflict
with what they had written in the manifesto. The new education bill
will be a different matter. The only question is the size of the
rebellion, and how long Blair will be able to continue after it.
Sooner rather than later he will have to go.
Blair may well have won the election, but Blairism is dead. The
pipedream of converting Labour into a British version of the US
Democratic Party, which seduced many of the sectarian groups, as well
as the Labour leaders, has evaporated. The triumph of Blairism was a
consequence of defeat and demoralisation in the labour movement,
leading to a period of inactivity. The right of the movement always
rest on such periods. However, that period is over. Blairism reflects
yesterday, not today and tomorrow. To borrow an expression of
Trotsky’s, history has turned its backside towards these people and
the inscription they read there is their programme.
Replacing Blair with Brown will solve nothing. That will not be the
end of the matter, however, but only the beginning of a period of
change. The task of Marxists is not to be seduced by the surface of
events, not to see things in black and white, isolated and
unconnected, but instead to piece together all the available evidence
to grasp the process under the surface, the direction in which events
Things are beginning to change. In the context of a new international
situation and the impact events like the war in Iraq have already had
on all classes in society, we now have important changes taking place
in the economy, and a new militancy beginning to develop in the trade
unions. What we are witnessing as a result of all these changes is a
growing class polarisation of British society.
That means developments to the right and the left. There will be a
growth of reaction, of various right wing groups which cannot be
ignored. The Tory Party will move further to the right. However the
fundamental feature will not be this but the movement of the working
class, and the shift to the left in the workers’ organisations, in
the trade unions and, at a certain stage, the Labour Party too.
In the next period the working class will turn their organisations
inside out and upside down, transforming them time and again until
they are more suited to fighting for their needs, for the needs of
society, just as the ruling class are busily transforming their state
machine to defend themselves against those needs.
The Marxist tendency and the ideas we represent have a vital role to
play in that struggle inside the labour movement which represents the
cleaning and sharpening of tools in readiness for the job in front of
us, namely the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a new
socialist society. The ideas of Marxism must become a potent weapon
in the armoury of the working class in all its day to day battles and
in the struggle to transform the planet. Only in that transformation
can the problems we face be permanently solved and all the remarkable
advances in science and technology be put to use rationally,
scientifically and democratically in the interests of all humanity.
Labour was not elected to introduce identity cards, nor to turn NHS
hospitals into department stores. In short they were not elected
because of what was in the manifesto. They were elected to keep the
Tories out because they would have been even worse. The common
complaint since 1997, ‘we voted Labour but got Tories’, will
become literally true as Blair relies on Tory votes to pass Tory
policies. Even if only for a short time he will have achieved his
destiny and become a Tory prime minister.
The Tory Party: New Leader, New Recovery?
Michael Howard did his job – namely propping up the Tories’ support
in the election by winning back the ‘little Englander’ vote from
the UK Independence Party (UKIP). He succeeded in this task to a
large extent, though even UKIP’s much reduced vote robbed the
Tories of several seats they might otherwise have won. By taking
around two percent in some areas they clearly stopped the Tories
winning, for example, in Battersea where they won 333 votes and
Labour held onto the seat with a majority of 163.
Despite winning the biggest share of the vote in England, the Tories’
support remains rooted in the south east. There is little evidence
that they won many votes from Labour. Nationally their vote increased
from 31.7 percent to 32.4 percent. As former Tory Defence Secretary
Michael Portillo remarked, “the Tories used to see themselves as
‘the natural party of government’, now they are thrilled to gain
30 seats even though this is more a result of less people voting
Labour than of more voting Tory.”
The UK Independence Party could not repeat their startling successes
of the last European elections. That was never a realistic prospect.
They remain essentially a foretaste of how far to the right the
Tories will move in the next few years.
The BNP, that pernicious, nasty, little fascist grouplet, secured a
few thousand votes in Keighley and in Barking. They are not an
electoral threat but they do pose a physical threat to local
communities and the labour movement must be vigilant, not to their
imminent political rise as some falsely claimed, but must mobilise to
drive them back under the stones from beneath which they crawled.
They will be hoping to use the votes they secured in the general
election to build support and gain further council seats, it is a
task of the labour movement to ensure that they do not.
The Tories, as was inevitable, have begun to recover in the polls
under their new leadership. They remain the main party of the
capitalist class for all their recent woes, and those yet to come –
divisions over Europe will inevitably re-emerge sooner or later. The
Liberals are not going to overtake them. Electoral statistics do not
decide which party is the bosses’ main representative, that is a
class question. We have explained previously that the Liberals base
in the south west, mid-Wales, and in the countryside, together with
their radical membership, is too weak and too unreliable for the
capitalist class to lean on.
The Tories have entered 2006 with yet another new leader, their fifth
in ten years. As we have commented on many occasions the paucity of
leaders in the Tory Party is an accurate reflection of British
capitalism’s long term decline. We have analysed this crisis in the
three Cs of the establishment many times. The crises afflicting the
Conservative Party, the Church and the Crown are accurate reflections
of the degeneration of British capitalism over a long period.
As well as exposing once more the racist, arrogant, archaic,
reactionary face of the monarchy, the leaking of Prince Charles’
diaries about the handover of Hong Kong (The Great Chinese Takeaway),
caused a furore in the press. The Mail and co took the
opportunity to argue for the ‘right’ of the monarchy to interfere
in politics. They portray a ‘radical’, political prince, and hint
that the country would be better off if he were running it. Whilst
this is not a serious threat at this time, it does underline the
purpose for which capitalism maintains the monarchy in reserve –
something we have analysed in detail in earlier documents.
The crisis in the Anglican church continues to deepen. They now
intend to create new Bishops for those of their worshippers who won’t
accept women being elevated to this position. These are to be called
Provincial Regional Bishops, or flying bishops. If you support the
idea of women bishops you can go to church as normal. If you are
opposed don’t worry they will send you a male flying bishop
instead. This is tantamount to a split. If this were not bad enough,
the Anglican church worldwide already faces a split over accepting
homosexual clergy. What an unholy mess. For most people this will
pass by unnoticed. Yet it should not be completely ignored as it
represents another example of the splits and divisions within the
ruling class and its institutions.
Meanwhile the crisis in the Tory Party is not over by a long way. We
have pointed out previously that the Tories would continue to move to
the right as part of the process of polarisation taking place in
society. On the surface this would appear to be contradicted by the
election of David Cameron who has been at pains to present a more
caring, sharing image for the Conservative Party. Fortunately
memories are not so short. Beneath this New Emperor’s Clothes lies
the same old naked reaction. If the Tories were to be re-elected they
would inevitably pursue a reactionary course. Indeed they would have
little alternative. As the main party of capitalism they must act in
the interests of the capitalist system. The system can no longer
afford reforms in the way that it could in the past. On the contrary,
in social, political and economic policy they would attempt to pass
the burden for the crisis of the system on to the working class,
while undermining civil liberties and democratic rights. If you are
thinking that this just sounds like Tony Blair, then that is not an
accident. Having firmly affixed their chariot to the free market the
current Labour leaders must pursue the same policies as their Tory
friends. It is not an accident that barely a cigarette paper could be
squeezed between the opinions of the leaders of all three parties.
According to the media this is because they are all trying to occupy
the ‘centre ground’. There is a long standing myth in British
politics that the main political parties all need to fight for this
‘centre ground’ if they are to win elections. On the surface this
sounds logical, providing one is willing to accept that the majority
of people find themselves half way between left and right. This is a
cunning ruse in which left and right are both positioned within the
limits of the capitalist system. The choice is not between capitalism
and socialism, but between a reformist or liberal view on the one
hand and a conservative and reactionary programme on the other. The
reason why there is so little difference between the main party
leaders is not that they all represent some mythical ‘centre’,
but is because there is less and less room to manoeuvre within the
confines of capitalism. This system can no longer afford reforms in
the way that it could in the past (and even then they had to be
fought for). They are like men forced to stand ever closer together
in a room with the walls closing in around them.
Cameron’s strategy now is to present himself as the natural
successor to Blair, the occupant of the centre ground. He is
attempting the not exactly difficult task of driving a wedge between
the Labour Party and the Blairite leadership. In doing so it is not
so important to him to appeal to the electorate but to prove to big
business that he can be trusted more than Brown to carry on Blair’s
good work. While Brown is busily prostrating himself before the city,
Murdoch and co. Cameron is in the wings pointing not at Brown, but at
the Labour backbenches and the inability of a Labour government even
with a majority of 67, let alone one that loses still more seats, to
carry the policies required by enfeebled British capitalism. Sooner
or later the ruling class will want to install their first eleven
into Number Ten. They have been able to rely on Blair for a whole
period. No doubt they would have no principled objection to Brown who
has done a good job on their behalf as Chancellor. It is not Brown,
but the opposition growing in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and
above all in the trade unions, to which they object. They rightly see
and fear the process of transformation which will begin to unfold in
the labour movement in the next period. In such conditions they could
not rely on the second eleven – the Labour leaders – but will
turn back to their main party, the Tories.
The Liberals – New Leader, New decline?
Were the Liberals not the biggest winners of the 2005 election? In
reality the only party to come near 40 percent was the ‘none of the
above’ party representing all those who did not vote for anyone.
Inevitably since the Liberals fought the election on the basis of
being to the left of Labour, (supposedly) opposing the war and
tuition fees, for example, they stepped into the vacuum and picked up
a good deal of the protest vote. However, they also lost some seats
to the Tories by the same token.
Their gains were in the main due to a protest vote against the war in
Iraq. On paper (specifically in their manifesto) standing to the left
of Blair, they secured that section of the protest vote that did not
simply stay at home. They scored particularly well in seats with
large student populations such as Leeds North West, Cambridge and
Cardiff Central. Their opposition to student fees as well as the
imperialist adventure in Iraq won them seats from Labour in these
areas, and they managed to come second in many safe Labour seats for
the same reason. Yet, ironically, they lost some seats to the Tories.
This illustrates their catch 22. By standing to the left of Blair
they pick up disillusioned Labour votes, but by the same token lose
those Tory voters who had supported them as a kind of Tory-lite, a
capitalist party with a nicer face. In reality they are not a third
force in British politics but a fifth wheel. Any shift to the left in
the future in Labour will see these protest votes haemorrhage back to
the Labour Party.
For the last fifty years or so the principal function of the Liberals
has been to soak up disaffected Tory votes and prevent them going to
Labour. In this election that was simply turned on its head, they
were a safety net for disaffected Labour voters. They will now return
to their aim of replacing the Tories as the main opposition to
Labour. To do this many of their leading lights argue that they will
have to move to the right. The Orange Book tendency named after a
publication by David Laws MP for Yeovil, argue that they need to be
more ‘economically liberal’. This is Liberal for move to the
right. Expect new leader Sir Menzies (Ming) Campbell to move quickly
to ditch raising taxes to pay for public services, in an effort to
win Tory votes at the next election.
The Liberals’ success in the recent Dunfermline by-election was
essentially a protest against Labour, and interestingly against Brown
whose own seat in parliament is next door. Despite all their woes
over the ousting of Kennedy and the scandal surrounding their
leadership contest, they picked up another protest vote. This was a
vote against Blair and Brown rather than a vote for the Liberals.
The recent growth in support for the Liberals is reaching its limits.
This was inevitable as we have long pointed out. The pipedreams of
them replacing the Tories were only based on the most empirical
analysis of election results. They never took into account the more
serious question of class relations, and the class basis of the main
Recently they have provided a home for anti-Labour protest votes, on
the one hand because of the dire mess of the Tory Party, and, at the
same time, by presenting a left face. However, to go any further they
would always need to move further left to win Labour votes, or, as
has been the case recently, further right to pick up Tory votes. This
process was already underway before their latest leadership crises.
As the Tories recover somewhat under their new leader, the Liberals
will see their support fall in the polls, regardless of theirs. It is
the historical role of the Liberals to be crushed between the two
main parties. This too is a symptom of the growing polarisation in
The Nationalists, the SSP and Respect
That polarisation is reflected in some of the more interesting
results to emerge from the last election. By far the most interesting
were those where there was some kind of alternative to Labour on
offer. In seats all around the country all kinds of fringe elements
stood and received derisory votes. This is as normal. Despite the
fact that working people are to the left of Blair and co, they have
no interest in the insignificant sectarian organisations.
In Scotland and Wales the nationalists could make no real progress
from the mounting opposition to Blair. The Scottish parliament and
Welsh assembly reforms, and in turn the minor reforms they have
implemented, have probably played a role in undercutting support for
the nationalist parties. In Scotland the SSP having dumped their
front man Sheridan have also lost a layer of the support they had
begun to build up. Their vote actually fell from 72,000 to 44,000.
The nationalist and reformist degeneration of this group has
continued in the form of an approach to the SNP by an important
sector of the leadership, the Independence Convention being the most
obvious case. If they continue along this road many of the workers
and youth that have been attracted to the SSP will be looking for an
alternative in the next period.
There were two contests in the general election which provided us
with an interesting insight. Undoubtedly the most high profile
exception to the rule that workers are not attracted to the small
parties to the left of Blair being the victory of George Galloway in
Bethnal Green and Bow. The prominent expelled Labour MP, nationally
known for his opposition to the war in Iraq, defeated the Blairite
Labour candidate Oona King by 800 votes. Although his Respect party
picked up a few votes in other seats, it was really only here, thanks
to the celebrity status enjoyed by Galloway; the fact that he is an
expelled Labour MP; and, according to many press reports, a certain
opportunism toward the large Muslim community in this area of east
London, that they were able to gain from the enormous antipathy
towards Blair and the war in Iraq.
The other highly interesting exception came in the rock solid Labour
seat of Blaenau Gwent in South Wales. Here the Labour leaders
attempted to impose a Blairite candidate, Maggie Jones, by insisting
on an all-women shortlist to select a candidate to replace retiring
left-wing MP Llew Smith. This seat was famously held by Aneurin
Bevan, the left-wing Labour MP who introduced the National Health
Service during the post second world war Labour government; and the
former Labour leader Michael Foot.
Local party members would not accept this imposition from on high and
backed the independent candidature of Labour Welsh assembly member
Peter Law. Even though there is no particular evidence to demonstrate
that Law is left-wing (having said that he did stand as an
Independent Socialist), there can be no doubt that for ordinary
working people in this safest of Labour seats this was a straight
contest between Old Labour and New Labour (in almost laboratory
conditions since there was no chance of splitting the vote: the other
candidates, Tory, Liberal, Plaid Cymru, receiving around 3000 votes
in total between them) The Blairites were roundly defeated. A Labour
majority of 19,000 was transformed into a 10,000 majority for Peter
Like the Bourbons the Labour leaders forget nothing and learn
nothing. This is not the first time their heavy handed manoeuvring
has backfired on them resulting in opposition in Wales. The attempt
to impose Blairite Alun Michael as First Minister in the Welsh
Assembly saw them embarrassed by the rank and file and the unions
rejecting him in favour of Rhodri Morgan, a process that was more or
less repeated with the experience of Livingstone and the contest for
The Tories have begun to recover, the Liberals are reaching their
limits, the various sectarian fronts are on the road to nowhere, and
on the electoral front Labour is the only show in town. The two cited
exceptions only serve to prove the rule (in the original meaning of
that saying, that is, to test whether it is valid or not) that
workers are not interested in small, irrelevant little groups outside
Labour. In one case an expelled Labour MP was elected, in a clear
protest against the war in Iraq. In the other an old Labour candidate
defeated a Blairite. In both cases, essentially, Labour defeated
Blair Sets Collision Course with Backbenches and the Working
With a much smaller majority in Parliament Blair and co vowed to
continue with their ‘reforms’. However, what they intend and the
reality may turn out to be somewhat different. Now the backbenches
find their opposition more potent. It will in turn bolster, and be
bolstered by, mounting opposition in the unions. The decision to be
unremittingly ‘New Labour’ set this third term Labour
administration on a collision course, not only with the backbenches,
but above all, with the trade unions and the working class.
If you remain within the constricting confines of capitalism then you
have to follow its rules and obey its laws. Blair and co remain
firmly, ideologically wedded to the market, therefore they must
follow its dictates. The working class has already paid a heavy price
for the economic boom of recent years in terms of stress and strain,
in terms of health and family life. Now that boom is drawing to a
close and there are no prizes for guessing who will be asked to foot
the bill for a new period of economic recession.
Electoral statistics can tell us quite a lot but only if they are
seen in the context of all other events in society. It is crystal
clear that the economy was not the central question in this vote. The
deterioration of public services, and many other factors played a
part, but it is not just ‘bread and butter’ questions that affect
the outlook of the working class. The war in Iraq had a major impact
on the election, and that is far from over. Its impact and each new
development will continue to affect British politics for some time
Meanwhile a simmering discontent in the workplaces is preparing new
industrial explosions. We have already seen glimpses of a new
militancy in several episodes over recent years. As we have always
explained this process does not proceed in a simple straight line but
through all kinds of ebbs and flows. The conditions are being created
for big defensive battles by workers under attack. Rather than face
massive strike action, Blair and co postponed their assault on public
sector pensions – a policy which amounted to telling a million
workers that the government would delay scrapping their pensions
until after the workers had voted for them. If they plough ahead with
that attack then massive strike action is what they may well face.
More than a million workers are balloting for industrial action on
this question. The result could be the biggest strike since 1926.
On the parliamentary front Blair has lost another vote, this time on
his religious hatred bill, despite having secured victory on the
question of Identity Cards in the Commons, demonstrating the inchoate
nature of backbench opposition.
The decisive vote on the parliamentary front will undoubtedly be on
Blair’s education proposals. Opposed by over 100 Labour MPs when
first published, they were backed by new Tory leader Cameron, as part
of his strategy to define himself as Blair’s true heir apparent.
In a desperate attempt to forestall a deeply damaging rebellion the
leadership have made many concessions and amendments to the proposal.
Either the bill is passed because it is undermined, or it is passed
by a coalition of Tories and Blairites with a Labour opposition
voting against. In other words the vote will either demonstrate that
Blair is a lame duck, or that he is a lame duck. In either event he
cannot win. There is a third possibility, that the Tories and Labour
rebels all vote against, in which case the bill will be defeated and
Blair will be exposed as… a lame duck. Whichever course this vote
takes it is likely to prove the final nail in Blair’s prime
The war in Iraq has proved to be the central question in British
politics in recent years. The economy has certainly not been at the
top of the political agenda. The consequences of British capitalism’s
failure to invest over decades – the domination of the economy by
services, consumer spending and credit – a low wage, high stress,
insecure society have nevertheless all been important factors in
determining the outlook of the working class.
Blair has been tremendously fortunate that the British economy has
managed to drag itself along on the coat-tails of the world economy
during his premiership. As a result there has been no economic
crisis, no recession, which has helped him survive longer than might
have otherwise been the case. Brown likes to take credit for this
‘success’, though in reality having turned economic management
over to the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, abandoned
industry to its fate, and privatised large parts of the public
sector, the government has had little to do with the boom of recent
years. As we have explained that boom has been at the expense of
enormous stress and strain on the part of the working class. It has
also been fuelled by unprecedented levels of borrowing. It is this
credit binge, and the price that will be paid for it in falling house
prices, collapsing consumer spending and rising unemployment, for
which Brown will get the blame. Like the conjoined twins in DBC
Pierre’s new novel Ludmilla’s Broken English, when Gordon
and Blair are separated, Brown will find that his luck has run out.
On the one hand, the dependence of the British economy on a world
market heading for a fall, and on the other British capitalism’s
own sickness – demonstrated by a colossal debt, the decimation of
manufacturing and a reliance on services and banking – all point to
Brown moving next door just as the economy heads for a fall. To
parliamentary rebellions and unrest we must add this third factor of
instability, this third promoter of potentially sharp and sudden
changes in the situation in front of us – the likelihood of
Brown boasts of how well he has managed the economy, yet any measure
taken to limit credit brings all economic activity to a grinding
halt. Manufacturing is now a hollowed out shell, unemployment rose
for six months on the trot in the second half of last year. The Bank
of England cannot decide whether cutting interest rates, raising them
or leaving well alone will produce the worst result. The only person
left who cannot see the black hole in public finances is the
Chancellor, who resembles Dickens’ Mr Micawber, confidently
expecting something to turn up. As in David Copperfield it
will be the creditors that come knocking.