Saturday, May 03, 2008

London Meltdown

What could go wrong did go wrong. Boris Johnson is mayor, with a convincing lead. The BNP got a seat on the Assembly. And the Left List failed to make an impact except in a few concentrated areas. The reasons for the latter are obvious enough: launching a new brand name in the space of a couple of months; set-back by a recent split in the organisation; squeezed by the Tory surge and the desire of many to 'Stop Boris' by backing Labour; squeezed by direct competition with those who still had the old name (who did poorly, but better than us overall, and much better in City and East); squeezed by a higher turnout. There were so many things militating against a strong Left List showing. But even I would not have expected last night's atrophy. New Labour has collapsed decisively not on some right-wing hocus-pocus about crime or immigration (although the media hysteria obviously contributed to Livingstone's defeat), but on the ten pence tax rate and the economy and the sense that Labour doesn't even try to represent ordinary working people any more. But the Left has not been in a position to make any inroads as a result. On the contrary - all of the Left experienced a decline, and the right-wing parties got a boost. And, in part because of the poisonous climate generated over immigrants and Muslims, the Nazis of the BNP are on the Assembly while their estranged half-cousins from the National Front (who consider the BNP sell-outs) polled strongly in Bexley and Bromley as well as in Lewisham and Greenwich. There are some hard fights ahead.

The Blairites' advice was evidently no use to Ken, who lost it in the last few days with a series of bizarre declarations, building up to his claim that he wanted to arrest people for littering. Even Boris Johnson didn't go that far. The Blairite strategy is to move so far to the right on certain issues that even the Tories can't criticise you, while giving the left some friendly words. More accurately, this is the Clintonite strategy of triangulation developed by the Republican PR man Dick Morris. Livingstone listened to this kind of advice at his own immense peril, but what else did he have to offer? He tried at the last minute to cut a vaguely 'progressive' looking deal with the Green Party, but I suspect that most Berry voters would have given him a second-preference anyway. And the Greens didn't do all that well in the end, despite some locally strong votes. They kept two seats on the Assembly, but gained little from the extensive media exposure. Livingstone didn't have anything new to offer Labour voters, wasn't really keen to distance himself too much from the government, had no chance with most right-wing voters - his niche was exhausted and depleted. The Tories have been canny in selecting Boris because, despite his obvious unfitness for the role, his burlesque comedy obscures the memory of the 'nasty party'. I suspect that 'nice' centre-right voters who might previously have lumped for the Lib Dems went back to the fold. It's been hard to detect much in the way of policy from the Tories, and certainly little distinctive. Johnson did not win on an aggressive platform of clubbing the unions, hammering immigrants and brutalizing petty criminals. This isn't Margaret Thatcher, the next generation. It is BoJo the Bozo, the clown from hell, all slapstick and bravado. His platform consisted of some relatively unthreatening centre-right soundbites, which is one reason why the (quite legitimate) attempts to make him sound scary didn't work. One very small contributor to Johnson's win is highlighted by John Harris in the Guardian today: "the topsy-turvy, faux-progressive politics minted by the self-styled pro-war left". I don't credit Nick Cohen, Martin Bright and company with very much influence at all, but they certainly contributed to the reactionary media campaign about 'Islamism', providing a 'progressive' proscenium for the racist dramaturgy.

What of Labour's national wipe-out? First of all, we've just seen the complete enervation of the New Labour vision of a Whiggish coalition, a 'progressive' lib-lab bloc for centre-left hegemony in the 21st Century. New Labour collapsed, but the Liberals didn't pick up very much of the slack. In Wales, as in Scotland, the nationalists are getting the benefit of the anti-New Labour vote. In England, the Liberals lost control of some councils and gained some, and they seem to have a net gain overall of just one council. It is surprising in this context to see the Lib Dem result being spoken of as if it's a credible one for Nick Clegg. Commentators have been quick to draw comparisons with 1983, but the last time Labour's share of the vote was this low was in 1968, shortly after Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech and at the height of Harold Wilson's unpopularity over devaluation. Wilson's government had also, despite some moderate reformist pledges, reneged on many commitments at the behest of the IMF. What is different this time round is the extent of Labour's collapse in its heartlands. It didn't just crumble in the marginals. It lost core votes across Wales, in Hartlepool, and in Wolverhampton. It lost a strong presence in Reading, by no means a marginal seat. It was kicked out of Bury in Greater Manchester after 22 years. The rapid erosion that began under Blair is now an avalanche. Blair's 2005 election victory was more of a loss for the Tories than a thumbs-up for New Labour, with just over a third of voters backing the government and with less voters than supported Labour when it lost in 1992. It is now obvious that the Labour Party will crash to a poor second in 2010, while the Tories will pick up around 40% of the vote. The Lib Dems will not match their 22% vote in 2005.

Anyone who thinks that Labour is about to turn left is kidding themselves. Far more likely is that the government will take a more aggressive stance toward the unions (as it did in 1969, with 'In Place of Strife') and make a demonstrative crackdown on immigration (as it did with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968). Labour doesn't contain the resources for a regeneration of its battered left, any more than it did when John McDonnell failed to get enough PLP support to even run a campaign against Gordon Brown. The last vaguely leftish credible alternative to Brown was the late Robin Cook, whose standing after his dignified antiwar resignation speech would have made him the obvious candidate. And even he would have struggled. Just because the left-of-Labour vote was poor, just because the Tories have made a decisive recovery, don't think that we can place our hopes in a New Labour conversion, or that we can avoid continuing to try to build a left-of-Labour alternative. We will be lying to ourselves in quite a dangerous way if we imagine that we can claw back some space by just abandoning the electoral terrain to New Labour. The fact that it is now a more difficult task in the short-term does not mean it can be wished away.

For socialists, however, elections are not our main kind of activity. Saying that, I run the risk of appearing to diminish the hard work put in and the hopes invested in the campaign, and that is not my meaning. However, while we should spare no blushes in being directly honest about what just happened, we should not allow ourselves to disappear up our own ballot-boxes. How we intervene in the coming crises over pay, the economy, and the rising threat of racism and the far right, is far more significant than how many votes we rack up. One of the first things we can do is turn out for the protest against the Nazi BNP outside City Hall, this coming Tuesday at 6pm.