Issue 250 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
The working class movement is emerging from its long night of defeats of the past 20 years. Discontent inside the working class movement with New Labour's policies is also beginning to cause problems with the whole 'Blair project'. These are the conclusions socialists have to draw from the upsurge in political activism and militancy, especially marked since the beginning of the year.
Tony Blair should be sailing effortlessly to a smooth election victory. But there are signs that Labour's base is eroding. Blair himself is terrified that 'apathy' can eat into what should be another massive majority. This apathy is concentrated in Labour's heartland working class areas. In every election of the past two or three years, turnout in elections in strong Labour areas has been at sometimes record lows.
Privatisation of the tube, the attack on comprehensive schools, the terrible state of the NHS and the introduction of privatisation into every area all add to working class anger. The bombing of Iraq led to major protests at Labour's local government conference, including from TGWU leader Bill Morris. The crisis over foot and mouth disease is widely perceived as a result of government incompetence and the spread of the market into agriculture.
On top of this comes increasing evidence that anger is being translated into greater resistance. Over the last few weeks there has been strike action in the post office, on the tube, at Vauxhall and at Rolls-Royce. Much of this action has been illegal, and has often been supported by other workers refusing to cross picket lines. One of the things that makes this pre-election period unique compared to those of the past is that it seems the nearer the election becomes, the greater the willingness of ordinary people to take action, often with the support of the trade union leadership.
Although desertion of Labour is unlikely to be sufficient to deny the government victory, it may be enough to illustrate the level of deep discontent with the government. If this happens it will give confidence to all those who have been at the forefront of resisting Labour's attacks to carry on and extend the fight after election day.
Hence the importance of the electoral challenge coming from the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, and the Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland. In this election we face the exciting prospect of the largest left wing challenge to the Labour Party ever. For many there will be great relief that there is someone they can vote for who takes a principled position on issues such as refugees, increased taxes on the rich, or cancelling Third World debt. And the fact that all the socialist candidates are ordinary working class people, local activists or campaigners means the audience will be huge with the possibility of a large socialist vote.
There is a new spirit of resistance inside the working class movement, which we can see from the growing enthusiasm for socialist electoral policies, from the rank and file militancy, and from the growing protests against global capitalism as articulated by the successful Globalise Resistance conferences, which brought together thousands of activists across the country. Far from being single-issue campaigners, most of these activists see the links between the attacks on the environment, privatisation and the industrial struggle. We can test the success of this new movement electorally. But increasingly it is beginning to make its voice heard in campaigns, strikes and demonstrations up and down the country. This is not apathy--it is political protest, combined with a political rejection of the politics of New Labour.