Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Britain in decline?


Tony Blair is planning to win the next election. But, as Judy Cox shows, Labour has problems on its left flank

By official standards the Labour government should be feeling pretty cocky--with a general election looming it is high in the polls and the Tories remain unelectable. Yet behind the scenes it is worried by the mass abstention of its core supporters in recent elections. After the initial euphoria of the Labour victory in 1997 the numbers turning out to vote Labour in subsequent elections and by-elections has collapsed, especially in former Labour heartland's. The crisis of political representation, the widening of the gap between voters and official politics, is much more profound among Labour supporters and it is proving hard for New Labour to motivate its supporters to turn out and vote.

Protests have grown under New Labour
Protests have grown under New Labour

In some of the solidly working class areas of the Glasgow Anniesland constituency in last Novembers by-election, around 83 percent of the population stayed away from the polls. Labour's claim that this abstentionism is a product of contentment is undermined by the fact that where left wing alternatives are on offer, people turn out to vote for them in very large numbers.

In Scotland and in areas of London, electoral alternatives to the left of Labour have been established for some time.

Even new organisations can score impressive results where they unite wide forces in opposing New Labour. The London Socialist Alliance was very new when it scored big successes in the GLA elections and in the Tottenham by-election last year. The Lancashire Socialist Alliance was only a few weeks old when its candidate Terry Cartwright won 5.7 percent in the Preston by-election last November. John Kreeger, a Natfhe activist who campaigned for the LSA in west London, said, 'The votes indicate that between 5 and 10 percent of the population are prepared to vote for candidates identified with socialism. These are good figures in a situation of continuing economic expansion and relatively full employment'

Decline in Labour's membership

The success of left wring alternatives to Labour is all the mote impressive if the question of resources is taken into account. Joyce Cartwright independent councillor and SA supporter in Preston, says Labour has abandoned its grassroots and has no idea how ordinary people live. She described how during the recent by-election Labour put a huge amount of resources into producing several glossy leaflets, bussing in paid officials to compensate for the lack of local activists, and into telephone canvassing. Joyce, whose partner Terry was the LSA candidate, was actually phoned at 6pm on polling day by Labour canvassers. 'All that effort and they only got 9,000 votes--we got 1,210 votes on a shoe string. We are still new and people have got to get to know us. I hope lots of people see that people are leaving Labour and joining us.'

Excellent though these election results are, they are actually the tip of Labour's shrinking iceberg. A decline in Labour membership is nothing new. The highpoint of membership came in the early 1950s in the aftermath of the 1945 Labour government which saw nationalisation and the creation of the welfare state. As the memory of the 1945 government has faded, so membership has declined. Blair's s declared aim on being elected leader was to attract a million individual members. This aim has failed--recent estimates puts Labour membership at 350,000, which means 50,000 people have left since the 1997 general election.

At the same time once-reliable activists are leaving the party. Increasingly, it is the Labour spin doctors who are out of touch with the popular mood, while activists can find a big audience around a whole series of issues often in direct opposition to New Labour's policies. This leads to the potential for single issue campaigns to stand candidates. For example, in Crawley recently a candidate opposing cuts in the local hospital won over 31 percent of the vote and ran Labour a very close second. However, many activists are not satisfied with narrow, single issue campaigns and want to create socialist alternatives to Labour.

Leading activists and socialists up and down the country who have given years to the movement are leaving Labour and becoming more politically active. Ron Yates joined the Labour Party in 1946. He was chair of the Fabian Society, the secretary of Preston Labour Party and Labour's election agent in 1972. He left Labour in 1998 and during the last by-election he campaigned for the Lancashire Socialist Alliance. Alongside campaigns such as the defence of council housing, he described how much he enjoyed the recent by-election, being an old hand on the megaphone. Ron loved 'rubbing Labour's nose in it' and is looking forward to taking on Jack Straw in Blackburn at the next general election.

Labour spin doctors try to dismiss the LSA's successes as little local difficulties, the result of isolated local issues. In reality, the whole Blair project causes outrage amongst its ex-supporters. The question of privatisation has come to symbolise New Labour's advocacy of profit over people's needs. Tony Reid, former deputy leader of Preston Borough Council and now an LSA supporter, explained, 'The biggest issue is privatisation. I was cynical about New Labour before the election. I didn't think they would renationalise, but to keep on privatising--that just shows how in hock they are to big business.' George Rhodine, an ex Labour Party member and TGWU convenor at a bus garage in west London, says, 'Privatisation is an issue I feel strongly about. They have not made an effort to stop or reverse it. Look at air traffic control--the Tories privatised the railway and we have never seen so much death and chaos. It will take another disaster and planes falling out of the sky to make Prescott stop it.' Opposition to local privatisation can lead quickly to opposition to the whole priorities of capitalism. According to Tony, during the Preston by-election, 'local issues were important, but so was the question of renationalising the railways,' while a campaign against the sell-off of Preston bus station 'raised all the questions of how international capitalism works'. Ron thinks that a local campaign to stop Tesco being taken over by Gap took off because Gap was associated with sweatshop wages in the Third World.

There is a widespread sense of angry bewilderment that Labour, with such a huge majority, is prepared to jeopardise its own electoral success to pursue a right wing agenda. Ex Labour councillor George Taylor explained that New Labour played into the hands of the right wing. 'Jack Straw fanned the flames of racism over refugees. He refused to explain that they were people fleeing for their lives. Labour will come unstuck over these questions. It's the same over releasing Pinochet. They didn't know he would be put on trial. Look at the fuel crisis--rich hauliers and farmers sending out their workers and scaring poor, vulnerable people into buying petrol they couldn't afford. I remember the police during the miners' strike stopping us taking food parcels to Nottingham and Kent--they couldn't have been more different during the fuel blockades. We have to fight New Labour to get to the Tories and that means we need a new working class party.'

The political crisis of Blairism is matched by an organisational crisis. New Labour was punished at the polls for imposing unpopular candidates such as Frank Dobson in London and Alun Michael in Wales. Yet it has repeated the same tactic, riding roughshod over the members up and down the country. On a local level the results have been as damaging for Labour as those for the London mayor and the Welsh Assembly were. In Preston Terry Cartwright was deselected as a candidate for the council because he wasn't New Labour. In disgust he stood as Independent Labour and won. Labour spinners said it was because people thought he was official Labour. When Joyce Cartwright stood as Independent Labour and won, they said it was because people thought she was Terry. But when a third Independent Labour candidate, Paul Malliband, stood and won, Labour ran out of excuses. Those who had stayed with Labour out of loyalty to a left wing branch formed the Radical Preston Alliance, creating a political home outside the Labour Party. This group is now affiliated to the Lancashire Socialist Alliance.

The left's gain

The local Labour Party branch used to be where socialists would meet to plan campaigns. Today, however, many are closed down or in decline.
The local Labour Party branch used to be where socialists would meet to plan campaigns. Today, however, many are closed down or in decline.

This is far from being an isolated example. George Taylor was a councillor for Havering and Redbridge for four years. He won the local ward away from the Tories but was deselected as a candidate because New Labour 'was obsessed with style instead of content. There was a hung council and I embarrassed their Tory friends. Next time I think they will lose the seat.' In Newark New Labour MP Fiona Jones was found guilty of election fraud. In an attempt to pass the buck, accusations were made against an Old Labour councillor, Jill Dawn. She was exonerated by a police investigation but was suspended along with the whole Newark Town Labour Party branch. Jill resigned from the Labour Party and a new group, Newark Left, has been formed. The Newark Left website argues that 'the party is not interested in justice. It's only interested in the political fix. If individual members have their toes trodden on in the process, that's just too bad. It is an appallingly disrespectful way of treating the membership. They all joined because they wanted to do something active to further the cause. They are hampered in this intention by a group of people who are interested in power for power's sake and who will quite cynically exploit their elevated position in the hierarchy to keep "trouble makers" in their place.' Similar crises have led to splits in Walsall and Knowsley. Two Labour councillors in Knowsley have left and formed the Kirkby Residents' Party. Tommy Rossiter explained that the Labour group on the council took the attitude that 'it was their way, or no way'. When they planned to sell off the local playing field, 6,000 local residents signed a petition in protest. A group of dissident councillors forced a public inquiry and won. In response the Labour group actually appealed to the high court to have the decision overturned! Tommy says, 'People joined the Labour Party to make a difference. Too many of the councillors have forgotten why they stood in the first place'

It is important not to underestimate the significance of these Old Labour activists leaving the party, but Labour's loss can be the left's gain. Having candidates known for fighting for local communities is important for running credible campaigns. Talking to Terry Cartwright, it is easy to see why he was a popular Labour councillor who maintained support as an LSD candidate. He described how while he was out canvassing, residents on a local estate complained that a gate from a local retail park was being opened, allowing traffic to pour onto the estate. Terry phoned the police and explained that residents would demonstrate and the gate would be blockaded. Several days later he returned with residents. The security guard told him that he now had instructions to keep the gate shut. This is a small victory but it shows how grassroots activists who would once have helped bind people into the fabric of the Labour Party are now part of winning people to the Socialist Alliance. Tony Reid explained, 'Terry Cartwright had a base in his ward. You can't just stand a candidate and expect to keep your deposit. For the general election, we should look at 50 or so candidates. As our profile grows we can consider standing in more places. Look at the Green Party--they got less than half the vote the LSA got in Preston because they did no campaigning on the ground.'

There is still an Old Labour current inside the Labour Parry which showed itself in the pensions debate at last year's conference. However, it is in the context of a loyal opposition to Blair. Tony Reid says, 'I wouldn't say this is the very end of Labour, but there has been a big haemorrhaging of support over the last few years. So many good old members have lapsed out of politics--I think the Socialist Alliance can revive their interest.'

Getting the message across

Vote Terry Cartwright

The Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party can be a beacon to all those who cannot face voting Labour again. John Kreeger from west London described how 'people were very receptive to the LSA campaign and it offered the first possibility for socialists to conduct mass campaigning on that level in many years. To some degree, the Livingstone issue propelled this forward, but he has failed to provide a political alternative to Blairism. It may be tougher to gain votes at a general election but the SA's arguments will get across to people if they are a clear alternative to Labour's policies. That's why the issue of a programme is important.'

In contrast to the demoralisation of activists inside the Labour Parry, there is a great sense of enthusiasm from all those who have campaigned for left alternatives. Campaigning for Iain Hunter in the recent Falkirk by-election meant tapping into anger against cuts in the local hospital and for solidarity with local bus workers in dispute with their management. And in Preston Tony described how everyone enjoyed the election campaign. 'It was not just a replica of an Old Labour campaign. It raised local and national issues--with all the ingredients of international capitalism. I felt we were reaching out to people. Not every issue I have campaigned over has been popular, but this felt more like campaigning for the miners in 1984. We attracted a good cross-section of people and of all ages.'

There is a massive crisis at the heart of New Labour. Many of their supporters are disillusioned and a significant number are considering alternative strategies to fight for real change. Flowing from this is the potential to create a united left wing challenge to New Labour at the next election that can give expression to working class bitterness.

'Members will vote with their feet'

  • 'Gordon Brown has so much money he is hanging on to for a rainy day. Isn't it raining hard enough already?'
    George Rhodine, ex Labour Party member, TGWU convenor

  • 'We have a prime minister, a deputy prime minister and a chancellor who are as hell bent on privatisation as the Tories. With their majority they could turn the sky green and change the date of Xmas if they wanted--so why is the NHS short of thousands of nurses?'
    George Taylor, ex Labour councillor, LSA candidate in Redbridge and Havering GLA election

  • 'If they continue to disrespect their membership they will find members will continue to vote with their feet. They will do this with sadness because there is no other party which has Labour's commitment to social justice, but they will do this to retain their own ideas of self respect, integrity and dignity. This is what is happening all over the country.'
    Andy Stanton, ex-Labour, from Newark Left website

  • 'The Socialist Alliance is so different from the Labour Party. It is not hierarchical and you don't have to spend your time dealing with internal disputes and procedures. I would advise socialists in the Labour Party to join the Socialist Alliance and enjoy politics again. It's brilliant that people put aside their differences. I feel born again. The best step I ever took was leaving Labour and getting involved in the Socialist Alliance.'
    Tony Reid, ex deputy leader, Preston Borough Council

  • 'Blair has continued Thatcherism. He's defended the gains of those who profited from the privatisation, of the 1980s and is extending privatisation in the form of PFI and PPP. Blair didn't expect or want a landslide victory at the last general election. His real hope was for a coalition with Liberals and liberal sections of the Conservatives.'
    John Kreeger, Natfhe NEC (Outer London Region)

  • 'I think people should leave Labour and join the LSA. You get nowhere in Labour--why should you finance them and give them credibility with your hard work? When you go out canvassing, go out canvassing for real socialism. We are all in the same trap and we all need to struggle out of it together.'
    George Taylor, ex Labour councillor, Redbridge and Havering Borough Council

  • 'Labour talks about social partnership, but in any business partnership the real issue is who is the dominant partner? Allowing business interests into the public sector without gaining any control over them will allow them to set the agenda and it will be a profits agenda. That will mean more cuts, but it won't mean health, education or transport.'
    John Kreeger, Natfhe NEC (Outer London Region)

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page