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Long trail of betrayals by New Labour's Tony Blair
What's at stake in the British elections?

By Alan Maass | April 29, 2005 | Page 11

BRITAIN WILL vote in a general election May 5, but there is little chance that the result will reflect the opposition of millions of people to the policies of war and economic austerity upheld by the country's rulers.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party government has held power for eight years, with a comfortable majority in parliament. But anger with Blair's betrayal of the principles that Labour once claimed to represent has grown.

Despite the opposition of the vast majority of people in Britain, the Blair government was a junior partner to the Bush administration in the U.S.-run invasion and occupation of Iraq. But the war is only one element, says Clive Searle, a socialist in Manchester and national council member of the recently formed Respect, a left-wing coalition that is running candidates in the election.

"Blair's 'New Labour' project was to present a repackaged Thatcherism, dressed up in the guise of equality and modernization," he says. "Eight years later, despite claims to have created an economic miracle in Britain, the disillusionment with Blair is immense. There are many reasons for this--from Blair's constant love affair with big business and the private sector, to recent attempts to make public-sector workers work an extra five years before claiming their pensions. However, the factor that has come to dominate Blair's leadership, and that encapsulates so many of the other disappointments, is the war in Iraq.

Left-wing author and socialist Mike Marqusee says that Labour can no longer be viewed as a political representative of workers in any way. "The party has gradually severed its roots in and links with the working class, demolished its democratic structures, and become something akin to the Democratic Party in the U.S.," Marqusee says. "It is now the principal instrument of neoliberalism in the country, and its role in taking Britain into Iraq side by side with the U.S. confirmed the extent of the decay."

Nevertheless, polls show that Blair and New Labour are likely to keep their majority in parliament, and therefore the right to form a third government under Blair.

Labour's main opposition is the Conservative Party, known as the Tories--the traditional party of big business in Britain. The Tories were an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war, so their campaign for the general election is built around racist scapegoating of asylum seekers and Gypsies. Party leader Michael Howard defined the Tory campaign with a rallying cry against Blair of "Taxes, up! Crime, up! Immigration, up!"

Blair and Labour are counting on this right face from the Tories to hold onto their disgruntled voting base--by posing as the "lesser evil" to the hated Tories. As antiwar activist Omar Waraich, writing on the CounterPunch Web site, put it, the argument--a familiar one to U.S. activists--is "that no matter how awful life under New Labour gets, we must seek comfort in the fact that they are not the Conservatives."

Like the U.S., the British political system favors the two biggest parties, but large numbers of people are looking to at least cast a protest vote against Blair and New Labour.

Some on the left support a vote for the Liberal Democrats--the third largest party in parliament, with 55 seats, about 8 percent of the total. But the Liberal Democrats' record is anything but consistent. Though its members in parliament joined Labour dissidents in opposing the Iraq invasion, they "were only against the war until it started," Warwaich summarized.

Marqusee says that a vote for the Liberal Democrats could "make sense" in some places, but an overall position of support "ignores some salient facts. First, many of their candidates are pro-war. Second, as a party, they vacillated hopelessly, on every major issue, including the war--and they support the occupation. Third, in many inner-city areas, they have emerged as a right-wing alternative to Labour, basing their appeal on hostility to Black people and immigrants, and opposition to public-sector unions."

A number of smaller left parties are vying for the support of people disillusioned with Blair. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party hopes to make a strong showing. The Green Party has been "inconsistently antiwar," according to Marqusee, but does represent a left alternative. It will have candidates in about one-quarter of the constituencies.

Antiwar politician George Galloway--a former Labour member of parliament who was expelled from the party for his opposition to Blairism--is heading a list of 26 candidates sponsored by the Respect Coalition, which is backed by several socialist organizations, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

Searle says that Respect has "brought together existing socialist organizations and former Labour Party members, as well as those new to political activity altogether, in a party that we hope can help to rebuild confidence and act as a school in which the traditions of self-organization and resistance can be relearned by a new generation of activists."

A key success, says Searle, has been "building roots among Britain's Muslim community, who have been at the sharp edge of Blair's backing for the 'war on terror.'" "Respect is just 15 months old," he concludes, "but we are making a real impact."

But Marqusee is sharply critical of Respect for "forming top-down alliances with some very dubious authoritarian forces," and shifting to more moderate positions on some issues, compared to the Socialist Alliance, in which the SWP and other socialist groups joined forces in previous elections. "In its utter disdain for internal democracy and for pluralism within the antiwar movement and the left, the Respect leadership offers not a step in the right direction, but an obstacle to the much broader forces that could be brought together to launch a meaningful platform--one that could be sustained beyond a single election."

Searle disagrees. "I was an enthusiastic member of the Socialist Alliance," he says, "but the sad reality was that it never grew beyond an alliance of the existing hard-left groups--some of which are very tiny--and few independent socialists."

Respect's founding convention, he says, "did not adopt a fully, explicitly socialist program, but a looser set of agreed principles. We didn't want to set up barriers to people at the very start of the process. Nonetheless, these principles are far to the left of any other electoral party in Britain. Our election manifesto further develops our policies and principles in what can be seen as an implicitly socialist direction."

One other factor in the election is the impact of two independent antiwar campaigns by parents of British soldiers killed in the war.

In Scotland, Rose Gentle, a determined activist since her son was killed in June 2004, is running against the Blair government's Armed Forces minister. Several candidates of smaller parties have stood down in support of her. Even more explosively, Reg Keys, whose son was killed in June 2003, is challenging Tony Blair himself, in a district that is usually reliably Labour, but where discontent because of the war and New Labour's economic policies is high.

But whatever happens in the vote, says Marqusee, "the most important thing is what happens after the election"--with the development of a left-wing alternative to the policies of war and neoliberalism supported by Labour and Tories alike.

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