June 10th saw British voters using the local and European Parliament elections to punish Blair and the Labour Party for the war in Iraq. Despite desperate attempts to shore up support, with one pro-war minister reportedly reminding people that many Labour MPs had voted against the war as well, Labour lost hundreds of local council seats and a number of MEPs.
Local and European elections have notoriously low turnouts in Britain, often even as low as US electoral turnouts, and combined with the fact that they are often used to give the ruling party a mid-term message, Labour’s undoubted disaster in June doesn’t necessarily mean they will lose the next general election. It is, however, a useful indicator of the mood in the country and many people used it to give Blair a bloody nose.
The one big exception to Labour’s run of defeats was the return of Ken Livingstone, London’s leftwing mayor, for a second term. Livingstone, who was expelled from the Labour Party four years ago after standing against the official Labour candidate, was welcomed back after the Blairites realised they wouldn’t win the mayoralty against him. This was despite his uncompromising anti-war stance and on the understanding that he would continue to operate as a maverick within the Labour Party.
When George Bush visited London last November, Ken called him ‘the biggest threat to peace in the world’, which embarrassed Blair, but made him popular with an electorate who possibly hate Blair’s close relationship with Bush even more than the fact that they both took us to war in Iraq.
The anti-war vote was not the only trend in the elections though. The elections saw the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party, a fiercely xenophobic anti-Europe organisation, fuelled in part by celebrity endorsement and a media obsession with them. They increased their number of MEPs, won local council seats and won their first two seats on the 25 member London Assembly. Whilst their popularity seems to have sidelined the fascist British Nationalist Party (the threat of which had prompted the left and trade union movement to launch a new coalition, Unite Against Fascism) their success is worrying. Clearly, disillusion with Labour has not pushed people automatically to the left.
Parties which were most obviously associated with the anti-war movement had mixed results. The Green Party’s share of the vote was only up by 2% nationally, although it is hard to be sure why. It may have been that Labour voters simply stayed at home rather than switching their votes, though this is somewhat belied by the increase in voter turnout out compared to the last European elections. Certainly the Greens have quite a small activist base, making campaigning hard for them, and only a few leading figures of any calibre. They may also have gained more votes had it not been for the entrance of the newly formed Respect Coalition into the fray, though the two parties’ campaigns played to quite different audiences. The Greens voting base is more left-liberal and middle class, Respect played to a largely working-class muslim audience and to a lesser extent the left of the labor movement.
Respect itself did worse than they seem to have expected, gaining no MEPs or even the London Assembly seat which might have left them with at least a partial claim of success. Formed just four months previously by some of the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition (STW) including anti-war former Labour MP George Galloway, Respect undoubtedly fielded the most ethnically diverse list of candidates. In some restricted areas with large muslim populations who have traditionally voted Labour, Respect candidates did do well. These areas included parts of inner London and the North West. But their overall share of the vote was not as great as Respect claimed it would be in advance.
What does all this mean for the future? The left seems to have missed a bit of an opportunity. The nadir of the anti-war movement, the February 15th demonstration of up to 2 million people, seems also to have been the point where the anti-war movement lost its way a bit. Once the war broke out, with little mass direct action to up the ante, demonstrations gradually got smaller, the protests against Bush’s visit being the only exception. Then, as STW obsessed with accusing Blair of lying over the evidence used to take us to war, opposing the occupation of Iraq seemed to take a back seat. Of course, they were right about Blair lying, but in retrospect this direction seems more aimed the forthcoming electoral attempt, rather than the correct orientation for a multi- (and non-) party social movement.
The attempt to bounce an electoral coalition out of the anti-war movement only four months before they aimed to win seats and with a heavily top-down approach where leaders and candidates were selected before local organisation was formed, seems now to have been misguided. Of course the memory of mass opposition to the war was not lost – Respect did better than the Socialist Alliance had done before (the latter was effectively dissolved into the former) – but it did feel more like a memory than a still extant movement. We have been left with both a movement and an anti-war party which has kicked well below its potential.
This is not the only problem, of course. Trade Union leaders, many of whom supported the anti-war movement have been slow to rock the boat on many issues, and most have not broken with the Labour Party. There is now an attempt to call a conference to form a ‘labor representation committee’ within the Labour Party, but this is 10 years after Blair won the leadership of Labour and the need to ‘reclaim’ it was first mooted, and there is little evidence that things will go any faster in the next 10 years.
Meanwhile we need to do two things. Firstly we need to start giving the Occupation of Iraq the opposition it deserves. This is essential not just for the people of Iraq, but for the health of the movement in this country. The simple message that Blair is a liar is no longer enough, we need to start to expose the realities of the occupation and the much bigger lies it’s built on.
Secondly, elections are important. Elected positions can be used to reach out to a much larger audience, and can also be a platform from which the left can start to roll back the tide of racist filth about asylum seekers which has infected Britain over the last few years, and which has surely influenced the unsophisticated anti-Europe vote we’ve just seen. We therefore need a serious left party which is alive to environmental campaigning, has a clear anti-racist and anti-imperialist orientation, but which is also breathing with the air of an enthusiasm which comes from real pluralism and democratic participation built from the grassroots. Whether Respect can now rise to that challenge remains to be seen.
These two aims are not mutually exclusive, in fact they are intimately linked. A healthy movement is the lifeblood of any left electoral attempt. The arrival of this year’s European Social Forum in London in October, if used properly, can act as an inspiration for the British movement, bringing the experiences of the global ‘movement of movements’ to Britain. It can also involve wider and wider layers of people, including many of those politicised by anti-war campaigns, in the project of creating a radical left for the 21st century. But crucially, we have to understand the opportunities that exist without falling into self-congratulation or bombast based on the undoubted achievements of the anti-war movement. Elections are often a reality check for the left – let’s hope we can face up to that reality enough to be able to change it.
James O’Nions is an activist with the Radical Activist Network in London.