LONDON — It wasn’t long ago that a visibly annoyed British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on people in the country to “move on” from the issue of the Iraq war. Unfortunately for him, the results of the May 5 British general election suggest that he will forever be tarnished by the conflict.
Blair and his neoliberal bedfellows tried to frame the Labor Party’s election campaign in terms of the government’s economic record. The opposition Conservative Party — traditionally representing Britain’s wealthy Establishment — hired Lynton Crosby, the adviser who helped elect right-wing Australian Prime Minister John Howard last year. Despite Crosby’s efforts to exploit anti-immigrant sentiments and other “populist” media obsessions, he couldn’t overcome the deep-seated mistrust of the Conservatives that began with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous privatization policies and tax cuts for the wealthy.
The Conservatives were also hampered by the fact that Blair and company have moved in on their traditional turf, ditching Labor’s socialist heritage in a whirlwind of spin and glitzy promotion to pursue wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, increasing private-sector involvement in the state sector and intensifying assaults on civil liberties.
Nevertheless, the British trade unions, which helped found the Labor Party back in 1900, still provide most of the party’s funding.
The Communist Party of Britain’s electoral policy was to support Labor as the preferred alternative to the Conservatives, while calling for votes against its chief warmongers. This strategy was based on the belief that the Labor Party can be returned to a progressive path through debate and campaigning from within.
But it is clear from the election results across Britain that many traditional Labor supporters disagreed. Disillusioned by both the Iraq war and the government’s obsession with the private sector, thousands of voters turned away in disgust.
While the Conservatives slightly increased their vote, the biggest swing was from Labor to the Liberal Democrats, a center-right party that “flip-flopped” over the Iraq war but presented itself as antiwar during the campaign. The Green Party, which did not succeed in electing an MP, polled as high as 20 percent in one constituency.
Each constituency is an electoral district containing about 70,000 voters represented by an MP in Britain’s main parliamentary chamber, the House of Commons.
Britain’s first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system means that thousands of votes in “safe” Labor or Conservative seats aren’t reflected in Parliament. Smaller parties — whether left or right — have little chance of getting an MP, even if they gain a sizeable percentage of the vote.
Just over 35 per cent of voters voted for a Labor Party candidate — the lowest winning percentage in history. Add to that the fact that turnout was the second lowest since 1918 at 62 per cent — up slightly from 59.4 per cent in 2001 — and it is clear how few people actually voted Labor. However, under Britain’s archaic electoral system, this translated into Labor’s winning a whopping 356 of 646 total seats.
The Conservatives won 197 seats with 32.3 per cent of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats 62 seats with 22 per cent. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties account for all but three of the remaining MPs.
Added spice was provided on election night by the presence of Respect, a coalition whose most high profile figure is George Galloway, an MP who was expelled from the Labor Party over his vocal opposition to the Iraq war. Galloway’s victory against a Labor candidate in an area of east London with a high Muslim population sent shockwaves through Labor. Respect candidates also ran very close to the Labor Party in neighboring areas and several other urban constituencies.
While the Labor government still commands a sizeable 66-member parliamentary majority, down from 167, a small bloc of progressive Labor MPs will make it more difficult for Blair to push through the kind of deeply unpopular measures passed during the last parliament.
Big hikes in university tuition fees and assaults on the universal nature of Britain’s free health system were passed by the narrowest of margins last year, with Liberal Democrats and Conservatives — in general opposing for the sake of it — joining Labor rebels to vote against.
There have already been calls for Blair to stand down sooner rather than later, but his likely replacement Gordon Brown would follow the same policies.
Left-wingers within the party have scheduled a July conference to draw up an alternative left-wing Labor Party program. However, for many on the British left who believe that the road forward lies outside the Labor Party, the loudest call now is for a fairer electoral system.
Richard Bagley is a journalist for the British-based socialist daily Morning Star, www.morningstaronline.co.uk.