Huge anti-war vote in British elections

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The vote for Respect was a vote against the war. Huge London protest on 19 March this year. Photo from Stop the War Coalition webpage

This year’s general election was a disaster for Blair and saw a significant breakthrough for the Left.

The 2005 general election will go down in history in several different ways. It marked a historically low vote for any ruling party. Labour picked up only 36 percent of the popular vote, the Tories lost on 33 percent, and the Lib Dems rose only slightly to 23 percent. The turnout was slightly up on last time at 61 percent. It also marked the revival of the Left electorally in Britain. George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green and Bow, in one of the hardest fought campaigns of the election, Salma Yaqoob’s brilliant vote in Birmingham Sparkbrook, the results in West Ham and East Ham of around 20 percent of the vote, have not been seen since 1945 when Communists Phil Piratin and Willie Gallagher were returned as MPs.

The best Respect results put the party in first or second place in these constituencies, knocking the Tories and Liberals off their traditional runner-up perches and causing a political sensation. They should be put in the context of the election results overall, which were a less than ringing endorsement for our major parties or for the system of democracy about which we see fit to lecture the rest of the world. The lack of engagement in politics, the neoliberal consensus of free market, the privatisation and war which dominates the political discourse, the growing cynicism about politicians who do nothing to help those who elected them, all contributed to the mass abstention from politics which has barely changed since the disastrously low turnout in the 2001 election.

Negative role of Tony Blair. The issue which galvanised people in this election was the Iraq war — an issue which all the main parties were happy to keep off the agenda most of the time. Blair lost one million votes in this election (indeed he was elected with two million fewer votes than Neil Kinnock lost with in 1992). The Daily Mirror asked, were these the people who marched back in February 2003? The Lib Dems were the main beneficiaries of Labour’s decline because of the perception of them as an anti-war party, and despite the lacklustre campaign of Charles Kennedy.

But paramount in this election was the negative role of Tony Blair himself. Everyone who had the most tangential relationship to this election campaign knew that the way to win votes and to sustain maximum discomfort to Labour activists and candidates was to raise the question of Blair — something which most Labour candidates were reluctant to do in their own literature.

Glenda Jackson, the Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, told Blair, “In my constituency, I was not just fighting against the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. The fundamental problem for the Labour Party is you.” This time Blair could only appear in public alongside Gordon Brown — a man who only a few months ago was saying that he could never believe another word that Blair said, and whom Blair was threatening to consign to the backbenches after the election.

But Brown could only stop a rout. He couldn’t prevent Labour losing more than a million votes. There were huge swings to the Lib Dems in some university towns, where Labour was hit by a double whammy of opposition to war and tuition fees. Even many anti-war Labour MPs suffered big swings against them, as former Labour voters simply could not stomach a vote for Blair. A failure of the traditional rightwing party to make any real gain, and which seems stuck in a historic decline, plus a refusal by many to vote for Labour, has opened up a space to the Left which the Left can fill. The votes for Respect stand out in this context.

The best Respect votes represented four of the top ten swings towards another party in the whole of Britain. They stand in comparison with all the other minority parties from both Left and Right. The Greens stood 200 candidates but did disappointingly — their one major success being the vote of Keith Taylor in Brighton Pavilion who got over 20 percent but came third behind Labour and the Tories. In the vast majority of cases, the Greens failed to achieve the five percent which would allow them to keep their deposit. This was despite the much greater publicity given to the Greens and their longevity as a party of 30 years’ standing.

Exciting challenges. Respect scored the successes where it did because it was able to tap into a new thirst for politics and a new commitment to work together from groups which had not done so previously. During the election campaign in Newham, we saw the beginning of a new politics which holds out exciting challenges for the Left, if only we can generalise it. Respect was able to group together many activists and supporters from across the board. Our candidate, Abdul Khaliq Mian, who stood in East Ham, was from the Muslim Alliance which organised among the Muslim community and was very important in helping to deliver this vote. But there are two important caveats to this: the Muslim vote was politically divided. Many Muslims, politicised by war, attacks on civil liberties and issues like the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, were open to the ideas of Respect, and many of them voted and campaigned for us. However, from the beginning, some Muslims called for a vote for Abdul Khaliq and not for me — some called for a vote for Labour, others for the Lib Dems. So there was a political debate within the community.

The second caveat is that both the socialists and the Muslims organised in Respect did not want it to be seen as a campaign “just for Muslims,” but for everybody. Right from the start we approached the campaign aiming to reach out to the whole of Newham. It is a traditionally very strong Labour borough, one of the most diverse in the country.

We aimed to get support from trade unionists, pensioners, and students as well as the different ethnic communities. Every day, we visited primary school gates in the different wards to talk to the parents about the campaign. That was highly successful and I believe we won many votes there. We gained variable responses from other groups, and we got a great response from young people — in schools and colleges we won the hustings hands down, and we also got a pretty good response from pensioners.

But without a doubt, the most important thing that we did was canvassing. There is no substitute for knocking on people’s doors and asking them whether they will vote for you. We were the only party in Newham to do this systematically. Indeed the main parties really didn’t bother to campaign most of the time.

The Respect campaign brought together black, white, Asians, gays and lesbians, women, and school students to campaign for each other, and it worked. In Newham we are discussing how best to continue campaigning and prepare for next year’s London council elections.

The election results have changed little with regard to the main parties. Blair claimed he was listening to the people during the election campaign — obviously not very carefully, since his first act was to appoint David Blunkett to preside over the demise of our pensions. Other pronouncements include pressing ahead with ID cards and appointing the architect of tuition fees, Andrew Adonis, to privatise the schools. The Blairites act like a tiny fanatical sect, free from electoral constraints and now kicking all those people who urged a vote for Blair to get Brown in. Those like Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee who issued clothes pegs to wear while voting Labour now look rather foolish. Time to take the clothes pegs off and smell the stench of New Labour policies, privatising and downsizing everything in sight. Blair may be fatally wounded by this election and by the legacy of the war, but while Labour MPs and Labour activists refuse to drive the stake through his heart, he will continue to wreak havoc and damage people’s lives.

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