Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Election special: Time for real change

Lindsey German

In town halls, pubs and clubs across Britain scenes of jubilation met the massive victory of the first Labour government in 18 years. Some of the most despised figures of the Tory regime found themselves victims of the onslaught. The defeat of Michael Portillo, Olga Maitland, Neil Hamilton, David Mellor and Rhodes Boyson was welcomed up and down the country. Such defeat had obviously never been contemplated. The stunned faces and mumbled excuses were a far cry from the arrogance and confidence of only a few days ago.

This vote was a class vote. It was a dramatic rejection of Tory values and priorities which were said to have been so entrenched in every level of society, that ideas of collective responsibility and redistribution of wealth were history. Far from being history, these ideas are central to the expectations that the mass of people have in the new government.

The mood for change can be experienced in every bus queue, in every supermarket. The memories of the poll tax and the pit closures loom large. Despite the best efforts of Blair and his publicity machine, many working class people now believe that their time has come. The fact that the Labour government has the biggest majority in its party's history gives fewer alibis to Blair. Labour has the ability to set a decent minimum wage, to restore union rights, and to stop hospital closures and selective education.

This mood which swept Blair to office needs to be harnessed if real change is to come. For a time the majority of people may be willing to accept that after 18 years of Tory misrule dramatic change won't be immediate. But over specific questions, for example the closure of a local hospital, cuts in the fire service or the reinstatement of the Liverpool dockers, the clash between people's expectations and the government's intentions may be swift.

Socialists have been arguing for some time that there was a political shift to the left going on in British society. The decisiveness of the Labour victory is dramatic evidence of this, but it is not the end of the story. For in the months leading up to the election there was a large audience for socialist ideas far to the left of those put forward by the Labour leadership. These people will be at the forefront of the struggles which lie ahead. They will be making demands on the Blair government to carry through change in favour of the working class people who voted for him. They can form the foundation of a real socialist alternative to Labour in the future, if, and only if, socialists make the most of the massive opportunities that this sensational election result provides.

A landslide country

It was common at the start of this election campaign for the media and politicians to talk about the essential conservatism of British people. Their support for Labour, it was claimed, was the result of Labour's closeness to Tory policies, rather than because of any radicalism. Tony Blair accepted this view, arguing only two days before the vote that Britain was 'not a landslide country'.

Yet 1 May showed differently. Millions of people in seats that no one least of all the Labour leadership believed would fall voted Labour in a clear expectation that things would change for the better. The mood of working class people was that this marked the beginning of the end for attacks on welfare, for privatisation, for the fat cats and for the growing gap between rich and poor.

A poll of young voters (those under 40) in the Daily Mirror at the beginning of April asked what were the most important issues when deciding how they would vote. They listed education, jobs, health, care of the elderly, crime and poverty at the top, while bottom of their priorities were lower taxes, defence and Europe.

These priorities were even implicitly recognised as Blair's election campaign went on. Labour started its campaign by showing broadcasts of business men and women and even talked about further privatisations. It ended by striking a chord through attacking Tory plans to privatise pensions (even though Labour had privately conceded to the media only a month previously that it agreed with much of the Tories' plans).

For once, right wing Financial Times columnist Samuel Brittan put his finger on why this landslide happened:

'It has occurred to me frequently since Mr Blair became Labour leader that his party would have almost certainly been on course for victory even if the process of policy reform had gone no further than Neil Kinnock was able to take it... This is because the British public remains hopelessly collectivist in its attitudes' (Financial Times, 3 May 1997).

Brittan pointed out that majorities agree with sentiments such as, 'There is one law for the rich and one for the poor', 'Ordinary people do not get their share of the nation's wealth', 'Unemployment benefit is too low and causes hardship', and 'Big business benefits owners at the expense of workers.' Around half believe that 'government should redistribute income from the better off to the less well off.'

The disillusion of many people with the effects of the market means, as Brittan says, that 'it is partly a matter of luck for those of us who believe competitive capitalism is the least bad economic system that Labour elected a leader who partially shares this belief and yet has managed to maintain control of his party.'

Brittan understands that this was a vote for the collectivist values which so many people espouse in Britain. Nor should we accept that Blair succeeded by appealing primarily to the well off. Only 10 percent of people in Britain earn 35,000 or over and the vast majority of these will not be Labour supporters. Many of those he wooed in the City of London and elsewhere will have stayed Tory. A poll of managers' voting intentions taken by the Institute of Management in March showed that, although there was disaffection with the Tories and an increased willingness to listen to Blair, the figures were almost exactly the reverse of those of the polls as a whole. Around 40 percent were planning to vote Tory, while only 25 percent were going to Labour (Observer, 13 April, 1997).

So this was a class vote with the vote moving most strongly towards Labour in precisely those areas where many working class families had most illusions in Thatcherism and which have been hit hardest by the ravages of recession and Tory policies in the 1990s.

By and large the shire counties stayed Tory apart from a few which fell to the Liberals. Scotland, Wales and the big cities increased their Labour seats. But some of the most spectacular swings to Labour came in suburban and commuter areas round London and in the West Midlands. Large parts of south Essex and north Kent, Hertfordshire towns such as St Albans, examples of middle England such as Shrewsbury and Worcester all swung to Labour.

The most dramatic changes came in London itself, where the Tories entered the election with 41 seats and came out of it with only 11. Both the Harrow seats went Labour, as did Thatcher's old seat of Finchley and of course Portillo's Enfield Southgate seat on a 17.5 percent swing. Although London contains many of the richest people in Britain, it also contains some of the worst poverty. Even for most people with jobs in London, they pay higher amounts for housing and transport than elsewhere and many real incomes are low. Issues such as homelessness, inequality, hospital closures and tube privatisation (which the Tories thought was a vote winner) all contributed to the anti-Tory mood.

What lessons can we draw from the election? The essential conservatism of Blair and Mandelson meant they were completely unaware of the scale of opposition to the Tories. Even pro-Blair commentator Martin Kettle made this point: 'The denial of the landslide [by Blair] was also a statement of belief. It was an assertion of a pessimistic world view, a foundation of fear on which the whole relentless project was constructed.' He went on, '[Labour] feared the power of the Tory Party, of the Tory press, of the Tory philosophy' (Guardian, 3 May 1997).

Perhaps more surprising is that those far to the left of Blair inside the Labour Party went along with all this. The left is bitterly unhappy with Blair's agenda (John Lloyd described the party during the campaign as being 'in a state of silenced uproar' Financial Times, 19-20 April 1997). The union leaders were also prepared to put up with contemptuous attacks, despite giving the party 12 million this year and providing 9,000 helpers in the election campaign.

The vote for Labour clearly expresses an authentic voice for change. But real change will only come if working people go beyond voting Labour to fighting to ensure that their interests, hopes and aspirations are delivered. For that they cannot rely on New Labour or on Old Labour which has no fundamental alternative to the party leadership but by organising and agitating to turn the desire for a better world so eloquently expressed on 1 May into a reality.


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