Votes of no confidence

Issue: 107

Chris Harman

The ‘no’ vote in the French and Dutch refendums. The loss of a million votes by New Labour in Britain’s election. The defeat of Germany’s social democrats in the state election in the Ruhr. One simple fact emerges from them all. Europe’s rulers are failing to find a popular constituency for neo-liberal policies at the centre of their agenda.

There were, of course, particular factors in each case. The scale of opposition to the Iraq war was, of course, central to New Labour’s lost votes and to the Tories’ failure to pick up more than a small fraction of them. By contrast the main beneficiaries of disillusionment in Germany have been the conservative right, although the newly formed Wahlalternative did pick up enough votes (2.2 percent) for former economic minister Oscar Lafontaine to suggest it lay the basis for a wider left alliance. Right wing xenophobic feeling may have been behind a few of the ‘no’ votes in France, but it was very few, despite the media coverage in Britain (opposition to Turkish membership came seventh out of eight in the list of reasons people gave).

But what emerges clearly is the enormous gap between the neo-liberal policies to which social democrat and conservative governments alike are committed and the expectations of the mass of people, even if these are not always articulated clearly. Yet these policies are the only ones that meet the needs of Europe’s capitalists in their competitive struggle with rivals in East Asia and North America.

During the election the mainstream parties attempted to paper over the gap by disguising their commitment to neo-liberalism. Chirac in France pressured the European Union to drop, temporarily, its Bolkestein directive liberalising services. In Germany, Schröder’s party resorted to what the Financial Times’s Bertrand Benoit saw as ‘an anti-capitalist campaign resurrecting arguments and imagery reminiscent of early 20th century class war rhetoric’.1 New Labour in Britain moved the neo-liberal reformism zealot Alan Milburn away from the centre of its campaign, dropped Tony Blair’s picture from most of its local propaganda and called in trade union leaders and veterans of its left (even Tony Benn) in an effort to get its vote out.2 And the campaign of Britain’s Tories was quite different from Thatcher’s heyday: they tried to present themselves as the best defenders of the National Health Service and sacked a parliamentary candidate who spoke of savage cutbacks in government spending. The only tactic left to them was to try to outdo New Labour in authoritarianism and covert racism.

Worried candidates effectively told both parties that the mass popular reaction against neo-liberalism that tore apart the Thatcher and Major governments in the 1990s and brought Labour its sweeping victory in 1997 has not gone away. In much the same way, the mood that swept Labour-type governments to power in the mid-1990s in Italy, France and Germany still exists even after disillusion has allowed conservative parties to return to office.

Yet all the governments know they now have to forget what they said in the campaigns. Blair was quick off the mark, dropping his talk about ‘listening to the electors’ and preparing for neo-liberal assaults on disabled benefits and (once an inquiry by the former head of the bosses’ CBI reports in October) pensions, as well as engaging in more authoritarianism. Schröder was no different, announcing that he was to campaign vigorously for neo-liberal ‘reforms’ even as he called for early national elections. The near unanimous response of ‘mainstream’ opinion to the referendums is to demand a pushing through of the ‘reforms’ embodied in a European constitution even if the French and Dutch votes mean it is formally dead.

But this cannot happen without encountering resistance which does not only take an electoral form. Ten years ago, as he spoke to striking rail workers at Paris’s Gare de Lyon, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said they were involved in the ‘first strike against globalisation’. There have been many ups and downs in the struggles across Europe since. The growing alienation of people from mainstream political structures means that bitterness expresses itself in different ways, sometimes flowing to the right, not the left, and sometimes not visible at all. Every time there is a lull, there are those on the left who say that a ‘cycle of struggle has come to an end’. The huge demonstrations against the war in Italy, Spain, Greece and Britain, the public sector strikes in France two years ago, massive unemployed protests in Germany a few months ago, the most recent elections and referendums, all show that this is not so.

We can expect new explosions of anger as those who failed to convince people at the ballot box proceed to implement their measures anyway.

Britain’s election

Four things stand out in voting in Britain’s election:
-The long-term decline in support for the mainstream parties. Labour got the support of only 22 percent of those eligible to vote (compared with its peak of 40 percent in 1951) and received fewer votes than when it lost to the Tories in 1987.
-Unlike the pattern with previous Labour governments (see our last issue), the right were not the beneficiaries of disillusion with Labour. The Tory vote only rose marginally, with five out of six people who deserted Labour voting for parties which were seen as being on the left because of their opposition to the war.
-There is enormous electoral volatility. The far right populist party, UKIP, did very well in the European elections last year. This time it and the Veritas split from it suffered humiliation everywhere. The Nazi BNP has continued to pick up worrying votes in some places, particularly the old textile towns of the north and the outer London borough of Barking. But it has so far failed to consolidate its bases in areas it has done well in before.
-The success of Respect, not just George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green and Bow, but the 20 percent of the vote achieved throughout the east London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham, the 27.5 percent won in Birmingham Sparkbrook and votes of between 4 and 6.5 percent in six other seats. This is the first time that forces to the left of the Labour Party have won a seat in Westminster elections since the Communist Party in 1945. The impact was shown within ten days of the election results, when George Galloway went to Washington to confront the US Senate in front of the whole of the world’s media.

There have been attempts to disparage the Respect vote by claiming it was a ‘Muslim vote’ – and some Respect supporters have accepted this line. There is nothing wrong if a party standing against war, racism and attacks on the working class wins votes from people who have been on the receiving end of oppression because of their religious background. But the reality is that the Respect vote was not a ‘Muslim vote’. As Salma Yaqoob points out, ‘There were three other Muslim candidates in this constituency. My result shows that there is no such thing as a Muslim block vote – every vote cast for me was a positive vote for Respect.’ Lindsey German, who came second in West Ham, makes the same point:

The majority of Muslims did not vote Respect in three of the four east London constituencies, and possibly not in Bethnal Green and Bow either. George Galloway, like Salma Yaqoob, was opposed by Muslims standing for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. In my constituency New Labour went round Muslim areas telling people not to vote for me because I was not a Muslim and around white areas saying Respect was a Muslim party.

Those of us who went canvassing in the area found many white former Labour voters who were voting for Respect. A geographic breakdown of the East End vote shows that Respect’s vote was highest in the poorer areas, and lowest in the yuppie area along the Thames. It was because Respect combined opposition to the war and to Islamophobia with a class approach that it won votes which all too easily could have gone to the Liberal Democrats, as ‘Muslim votes’ did in most other places.

The strong feeling among Muslims about the war, the occupation and Palestine helped create the critical mass necessary for Respect to seem more than a marginal force and votes for it not to be seen as ‘wasted’, but only because so many Muslims were drawn into a massive anti-war movement, most of whose supporters were not Muslims. Respect could not have achieved the breakthroughs it did without attracting large numbers of votes from non-Muslim whites, Afro-Caribbeans, Africans and so forth.

The Respect breakthroughs showed that the left can begin to seem like an alternative to people – but only if it learns to relate to their concerns, to campaign over issues like the war that worry them deeply, but also over the class issues that affect their every day lives.

The task for Respect

The left in Britain has great responsibilities in this situation. It has to seize the opportunity to build Respect on a much bigger scale than the left has known in many years. We must reach out to all those who have been thrilled by the election successes and the publicity received after Galloway’s performance in Washington, and draw them into Respect as a living force in each locality.

This means not sitting back and waiting for next year’s local elections, but taking up issues that present themselves. The war will continue to be one of the key issues. Resistance to the occupation will not go away, however much the Blairites and Brownites would like it to. But it will not be the only issue, or even, at times, the one that most concerns people and produces mass activity. All the class issues we’ve mentioned before can suddenly provoke new waves of agitation.

One thing is clear from the pattern of struggle internationally over the last five years. Protests suddenly take off over issues when people least expect them. Just as static electricity discharges as lightning in unpredictable ways, so does the widespread alienation from official politics suddenly find a way to express itself.

We have to turn Respect into a focus which people naturally turn to each time they are moved to act. This means working now to make it the political gathering place for the best activists in each struggle and each locality.

Revolutionaries and Respect

Respect is a coalition of forces from different backgrounds, brought together by opposition to the war, racism, Islamophobia and New Labour’s attacks on working class people. It is not yet an explicitly anti-capitalist organisation, still less a revolutionary socialist one. No one should feel ashamed of this. We have always insisted in this journal on the need to build a revolutionary socialist party – that has been the burden of the polemics in a number of the debates in our pages in recent years.3 But a revolutionary party is not built by proclaiming itself. Rather its precondition is full-hearted participation in struggles against the horrors of the system alongside others who as yet have different notions of how society can be changed. Only then can the comradely discussions take place which are necessary if people are to be won to a genuinely revolutionary perspective.

The discussions are important. Issues will arise at various points in the future which do not immediately seem as clear-cut as hostility to the Iraq war or an all-out attack on civil liberties or pension rights. In those situations activists who have not been won to a revolutionary perspective can find themselves confused and bewildered. But if such confusion is widespread, the responsibility will lie with those socialists who have stood back from building Respect and engaging in the discussions it raises. Not for the first time in the history of the international socialist movement, sectarians who turn their back on new forces drawn into activity would be leaving them prey to the confused ideas that dominate existing society.

Respect provides the left with the opportunity to avoid two mistakes made in Europe in the last decade. One is sticking to a sectarian ghetto with little impact on the large numbers of people who are radicalised every time new protests erupt. The other is simply dissolving itself into wider movements and so losing its capacity to argue against those who would divert the mood of resistance into the creation of new neo-liberal governments with a vague left colouring .This happened in France when sections of the left joined the government led by Jospin in 1997; it is in danger of happening in Italy as Rifondazione Comunista’s leaders place their hopes in participation in a government led by Prodi; and there are those who want it to happen in Britain through ‘reclaiming Labour’ behind Gordon Brown. We cannot avoid the arguments. But through Respect we begin to win them and shape a new left.


1: Financial Times, 19 May 2005.
2: The Guardian, 4 May 2005.
3: See, for instance J Rees, ‘The Broad Party, the Revolutionary Party and the United Front’, International Socialism 97 (winter 2002); and the reply by Murray Smith, International Socialism 100 (autumn 2003).