WORKERS IN Britain woke up with a big shock after council elections on 1 May, as the Tories pushed Labour into third position.
The results reveal a Labour Party in deep crisis. Overall, they polled 24 per cent, losing 331 seats, the worst result in 40 years.
Even Labour’s traditional supporters came out to send a strong message to prime minister Gordon Brown that they had had enough.
Ken Livingstone, a left leader who opposed the Iraq war, lost the London Mayor position to anti-union Boris Johnson after a well-orchestrated Tory campaign, at a cost of 1.5 million pounds, assisted by Lynton Crosby, the political consultant behind John Howard’s election victories.
Respect, standing under the name Left Left, George Galloway’s new party and the Greens were all squeezed as most of the left unsuccessfully rallied around Ken Livingstone.
Even worse, the Nazi British National Party (BNP) won a net gain of ten council seats nationally, including a place in the London assembly.
Since the election, Labour lost a by-election in Crewe, a safe Labour seat, with the Tories winning 49 per cent to Labour’s 31 per cent.
Most people blame Gordon Brown’s leadership, but the problem is far deeper.
Labour’s rightward shift
This election followed ten years of privatisation in public services like health, housing, education and postal services.
In 1997 Tony Blair defeated Margaret Thatcher and the Tories after years of vicious attacks.
Rather than undo the Thatcher legacy, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown championed the so-called “Third Way” between the Tories and “old” Labour.
“New Labour” adopted neo-liberalism, pioneering “public-private” funding and continuing privatisations, along with a new politics of symbolism rather than substance. This included reform of the House of Lords and devolution of government to Wales and Scotland.
Blair championed “humanitarian intervention” strategies, helping make it acceptable to invade other people’s countries, culminating in the war in Iraq. Islamophobia reached new heights as the war on Iraq progressed particularly after the London bombings of 2005.
The victims of these policies are usually the working poor, who soon saw there was little to differentiate Thatcher from Blair, nor Blair from Brown, in terms of their living standards.
It’s no coincidence that these victims are often the targets of policies of a new moralism, particularly targeting and scapegoating young people (for binge-drinking), poor families (for being “problem families”) and immigrants (for not speaking English).
This was an attempt to discipline the people who responded in the “wrong” way to the economic agenda.
Those looking for an alternative are bitter and angry. No wonder some turn to the Nazis in the BNP. It is despair of poverty and disempowerment.
Unless a left political alternative to Labour is strengthened and cohered, further disastrous election results are likely in the national elections in 2010.
Looking backwards to the future
Blair’s strategy took something from Australia’s Labor governments from 1983 to 1996, when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating pioneered an economic rationalist agenda. They privatised the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas, while undermining the influence of trade unions with the Prices and Incomes Accord and attacks on the building unions.
Workers were then saddled with enterprise bargaining and real wage cuts, and the bosses increased their share of national wealth.
These policies are the result of a major shift in social democratic politics since the 1980s, as they more and more adopted the neo-liberal agenda.
Without their own economic strategy and in the context of the collapse of “state socialism” in the Stalinist countries, the left of the ALP is following this trend.
Even though profits will continue to rise over 18 per cent in 2008-09, nothing in the ALP’s strategy hints at an attempt to redress the increasing levels of inequality in Australia.
Yet in defeating Howard, Rudd’s ALP raised the promise of better lives for Australian workers, particularly as it was workers who carried him to victory.
Just like New Labour in Britain, it is this contradiction that will define this government.
Even as Labour took a hammering in the polls, across Britain hundreds of local campaigns were fighting the government over everything from post office and hospital ward closures to those opposing racism, war and privatisation.
Public sector unions are gearing up for a struggle to win wage rises greater than inflation. Around 100,000 attended the Love Music Hate Racism carnival last month.
There are important lessons in the British Labour Party’s experience that should point social democratic parties in the direction of undoing the damage caused by previous neo-liberal agendas. Much is at stake in continuing down the path of Howard’s legacy.
By Judy McVey