Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Labour was the most warmongering government of all the Nato powers over the Balkans War. But despite the triumphalism of the Blairites, Labour has ended the war in its worst crisis for many years. In addition, the triumph of Nato in the Balkans has made the world more unstable and dangerous. The victory of western imperialism over Yugoslavia, far from ushering in a period of peace, is likely to lead to further wars. Even as the war continued, fighting broke out in Kashmir between the two nuclear powers of India and Pakistan. The peace deal further unsettled Russia, still a major nuclear power. China refused to vote for the UN resolution on the peace deal and dismissed the explanations of the US as to why Nato had bombed its Belgrade embassy as not credible.
Against this background the US signed a new agreement with Japan and Taiwan, clearly aimed at forming a military alliance against China. Meanwhile the various conflicts around Russia's borders continued, with the west trying to gain advantage through alliances with some former Soviet states while others are pushed towards Russia. In the Balkans itself the war and the postwar policies are both making further fighting a real possibility. Nato is encouraging ethnic cleansing of Serbs, standing by as they are terrorised by the KLA. Its policies are designed to encourage secession by Montenegro at the same time as penalising the mass of Serb civilians.
The war set a dangerous precedent, and means that Nato will now feel able to intervene in other arenas. It is already bombing Iraq intermittently, has occupied large parts of the Balkans, and is trying to extend its influence to more and more parts of the world. However, the balance sheet from the Balkans should also inject some caution. Militarily, the campaign was hardly a great success. It lasted 77 days instead of the expected five, and the bulk of the Yugoslav army and its equipment was left intact. Civilians bore the vast brunt of the bombing. Politically, there was always substantial opposition and even wider scepticism about the war. As more emerges about the nature of the war and the conduct of the peace, opposition is likely to grow.
The argument is all the sharper because the bombing was conducted by Labour and social democratic governments, who were able to win support for the war among some of their supporters who might traditionally have opposed such interventions. But even they could not win the argument about escalating it--opposition to ground troops in most countries remained high. More importantly, as demonstrated in the European elections, they have won little political credibility for their warmongering.
Discontent with them at home is very high. People began to make comparisons between their support for imperialist war abroad and their attacks on workers at home. In Britain, Tony Blair is embroiled in a huge row inside the Labour Party because of Labour's disastrous election results. Union leaders such as John Monks and John Edmonds are asking whether Labour has moved too far towards the middle ground. There are calls for a return to Labour's traditional policies from all sides, while a substantial minority of Labour activists are now turning their backs on the party in disgust.
Opposition to the war helped focus the minority who oppose Blair. Now it must be channelled into opposition to policies over benefits, attacks on single mothers and asylum seekers. Blair may feel that he has won the war in Kosovo. He must not be allowed to win the war at home.
The reasons given are familiar: Blair acts like a Tory, he doesn't care about the Labour Party and he favours big business. His policies penalise the poor and the disadvantaged. Schools, hospitals and transport have all got worse since Labour came to power. One Labour minister was reported anonymously as saying that going round canvassing in his constituency, there was repeated outcry against Blair, with many refusing to take election literature because it had his picture on it. Time and again, opposition to cuts in disability benefit and to the Asylum Bill was mentioned as the last straw for many Labour supporters. The union conferences reflected this mood of criticism, with a general feeling that activists have been betrayed by Labour--a feeling even expressed by the union leaders.
The war was not popular among many of Labour's key activists. A good proportion of the 33 percent who were against the war in opinion polls must have voted Labour in 1997. Many did not do so this time, and the war was clearly a factor. This was an international phenomenon. The German Red-Green coalition lost votes, exit polls citing Kosovo and unemployment as the main factors for voters switching since last September's general election. The PDS, the openly anti-war former Communists, greatly improved their vote. In Italy, Massimo d'Alema's coalition government was hammered, with the right benefiting.
This disaffection can clearly not all be put down to opposition to the war. But if the war was so popular, why did the main belligerent parties do so badly? Of course, the mainstream media barely bring the war into the equation. Instead they talk about apathy or anti-Europeanism. However, it is obvious that the failure to vote was often a conscious political decision, as most Labour voters refused to vote Tory but also refused to vote Labour (the Tory vote in fact did not increase much--it just looked good in comparison to Labour's). People are not apathetic, but are keen to talk about political issues. They are alienated from establishment politics.
Above all, events of the past weeks demonstrate that there is real unhappiness with Blair's project, and a growing mood to do something about it. There is fear of greater instability in the world as a result of the present conflict, plus a sense of despair that there is always money for war while there is no money to improve the lives of working people around the world. The open coffers for weapons compare with the meanness of the western powers in forcing the poorest countries to pay their debt to the world's banks. This mood is leading to a greater sense of flux and change on the left as many reject Labour and begin to search for an alternative.
Labour's crisis will not go away. Blair's response is to endorse his backing of big business and try to bring back Peter Mandelson--both likely to exacerbate the situation. There is little understanding among the Blairites about the depth of the disaffection which means that many thousands are looking towards alternatives to Labour. The war split the left, with those like Ken Livingstone becoming some of the most enthusiastic warmongers. That split made it harder for the movement but it has led to much greater questioning and a change in left wing politics. There are signs that campaigns are growing around a range of issues, from opposition to Third World debt to trying to stop privatisation of council housing and the London tube.
The test will be whether the left can work together in future campaigns which can begin to challenge the ruling class agendas faithfully carried out by Blair, and whether socialists can build a new pole of attraction for those who are questioning many of the ideas they have long accepted. Given the growing disgust with Blairism and revulsion at labour's imperialist war, both prospects look hopeful.