Issue 284 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review
New Labour apologists such as Polly Toynbee argue that we should all 'move on' from the war in Iraq. This is a bit rich given that Blair wants to claim the invasion as a precedent for future pre-emptive attacks.
The insistence that to oppose Blair is to collaborate with the Tories is astonishing given the right wing axis he formed with Bush, Sharon, Berlusconi and Aznar. Just as the Spanish people made José Maria Aznar pay for taking them to war, and exposing them to retaliation, so in Britain there is now an opportunity to attack New Labour from the left at the ballot box. On 10 June there will be elections to the European Parliament, for the London mayor and the Greater London Assembly contested by a new political force, Respect: The Unity Coalition.
Predictions of historically low election turnouts show the depths of the disillusionment with the neoliberal consensus dominating mainstream politics. The fact that an estimated 3 million extra people in Spain voted in order to punish Aznar indicates the enthusiasm that can be tapped by a principled, campaigning force like Respect. It includes many leading figures from the anti-war movement--including George Galloway, John Rees and Salma Yaqoob--but this is no single-issue campaign.
Respect will challenge the neoliberal consensus on PFI, will stand up for civil rights and against the scapegoating of Muslims and asylum seekers, and will support working class people in the fight for decent wages, conditions and public services. It will do so having combined an impressive range of progressive forces, as indicated by the quality and diversity of its candidates. For example, the West Midlands list includes Winifred Whitehouse, a Unison shop steward at the Dudley group of hospitals; Cheryl Garvey, who works for the Race Action Partnership; Anil Seera, a Longbridge car worker; Esme Reid, a local government worker; Penny Hicks, branch secretary of the Association of University Teachers; Majid Khan, former president of Birmingham University Islamic Society and co-founder of the city's Stop the War Coalition. In London, a Respect candidate for mayor will bring class issues like housing and transport to the heart of the campaign.
Toynbee's injunction to applaud New Labour's 'achievements'--such as leaving 'only' one quarter of children in poverty and introducing a pitifully low minimum wage--will stick in the throats of the millions suffering spiralling debts, insulting pensions, and underfunded schools and hospitals. To join her in cheerleading the New Labour project--or to concede that 'there is no alternative'--would be to strengthen precisely the right wing forces she uses as a bogey. The proportional system used for the June elections means that every vote counts positively, and that there is no credible argument for anti-Tory tactical voting. To do so would only embolden the Blairites to believe the storm of discontent has passed.
The anti-war demonstration on 20 March, the conventions to choose candidates, the launch rallies and the debate about affiliation opening up in the unions have all shown that this is not the case--that there is a thirst for an alternative such as Respect among a diverse range of existing activists and beyond.
Much of the long term success of the project depends on an impressive first electoral outing in June. In the two months until then we have an urgent task to make the coalition and its policies known to the widest possible audience. The prize is that on 11 June the world will hear how another right wing warmonger has been humbled at the polls.