Any doubts that may still have been entertained about the seriousness of the New Labour government’s plight, were finally dashed by the Glasgow East by-election last Thursday (24th July).* The constituency has been a Labour stronghold for sixty years. It is one of those seats about which it used to be said that if the Labour Party stood a donkey as candidate, the donkey would get elected with a huge majority. On Thursday, a Labour majority of 13.500 was wiped out with a 22% swing to the Scottish National Party. The SNP won the seat with a majority of 365. The results were: SNP 11,277; Labour 10,912; Tories 1,639; Liberal Democrats 915. No-one accused SNP leader Alex Salmond of exaggerated hyperbole when he declared “The earth has moved in no uncertain terms. The earthquake has arrived”.
For the benefit of U.S. readers who may be unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the British electoral system and regional patterns of voting, a few words of explanation are necessary. Scotland and Wales both have their own parliaments with limited powers to legislate. This devolved government was introduced by New Labour after coming into office in 1997. The SNP is committed to full independence for Scotland, an objective which, if achieved, would break up the United Kingdom. Last year, the SNP, by a majority of one seat, won control of the Scottish Parliament, which sits in Edinburgh. The Tories were wiped out in Scotland in the 1990s and there is very little chance that they will be able to make a come-back there. But for the Labour Party, Scotland has always been a rock-solid base. Until now, that is.
It must be understood that the SNP is a radical party in the old social democratic tradition which has been abandoned by New Labour. Alex Salmond, is a former Labour Party left-winger. Since his party’s victory last year, he has been Scotland’s First Minister. His popularity has increased, largely because he has positioned the SNP to the left of Labour and introduced policies which have benefited some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged people. For example, National Health Service prescription charges have been abolished as have fees for university students in Scotland. As the SNP’s popularity has grown, Labour’s has plummeted. One of the SNP’s main demands is that Scotland should reap the benefits of North Sea Oil. An independent Scotland, it is claimed, would be transformed by its oil wealth.
In British national elections, the Scottish constituencies return MPs to Parliament at Westminster. Gordon Brown holds his parliamentary seat for a Scottish constituency. It is now clear that the Labour Party is in just as serious trouble in Scotland, where its support used to be rock solid, as it is in the rest of the U.K. Until recently it was assumed that Scotland would not in any foreseeable future, vote for full independence from the U.K. That can no longer be taken for granted. A year ago, as Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair, no-one would have imagined that his government would have so quickly sunk to its present level of unprecedented unpopularity. Scottish independence may be on the agenda sooner than many think. Should Scottish opinion swing decisively in favour of independence, it will not be easy for a U.K. government, either Labour or Tory, to stand against it. British governments have, since the early 1990s, championed the separatist movements in the Balkans and elsewhere, that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union. If it’s good for Kosovo, it might be argued, why not for Scotland?
But the electorate of Glasgow East did not vote for the SNP because of its nationalism – at least, that was not their main reason for turning against New Labour. The constituency is one of the most impoverished in Britain. Male life expectancy is below 70 years. Alcohol and nicotine related mortality rates are amongst the worst in the country – and in Europe. Improvements in terms of nursery provision and education over the past decade have been insufficient to alleviate the effects of post-industrial decline going back to the 1970s. Against this background of long-term decline there has also been the more immediate impact of rising food and fuel prices and the abolition of the 10 pence basic tax rate – all of which have hit the poorest hardest. Also, disenchantment with New Labour did not begin with Brown. However popular Blair may have been in the USA, he was always deeply unpopular in Scotland. The erosion of New Labour’s support north of the border started a long time ago.
So where does all this leave Gordon Brown and his government? Briefly, in a desperate situation. Let’s look at the details. The term “safe seat” refers to the size of the majority over the closest contender by which a member of parliament wins the election in a parliamentary constituency for his/her party. The larger the majority, the safer the seat. On this reckoning, Glasgow East was the 25th “safest” seat in Britain for Labour. It was the 3rd safest seat in Scotland. This was a by-election (see footnote), and it is usually assumed that by-elections are not fair indicators of what may happen in a general election, where voters’ minds are supposedly concentrated more acutely on the national outcome of their choices – that is, what kind of government they want to run the country for the next five years. But this received wisdom may not always hold. If the result of the Glasgow East by-election were to be replicated in a general election, the Labour Party’s representation in the Westminster parliament would be reduced to 24! Of those 24, only 2 MPs would represent Scottish constituencies. The Labour Party would be wiped out. It would be far worse than what happened in 1931 following Ramsay MacDonald’s treachery, when Labour representation was reduced to about 35 seats, because then, the majority of Labour MPs defected to the “National Government”. If things continue as they have been, such an outcome in a year or so from now cannot be ruled out.
Should there be such a result, the Tories would be the main beneficiaries in England. Even if the Liberal Democrats were to make substantial gains, there would be a Tory government with the largest majority in British parliamentary history, running into several hundreds. This would be a real “elective dictatorship.” But that would only be part of it. Even though the Tories might make some gains in Scotland, the real victors there would be the nationalists. Labour’s collapse would make the SNP’s case for independence irresistible. An independent Scotland could also re-activate the demand for independence in Wales.
In one of my recent columns I wrote that New Labour had no hope of being re-elected to office unless Gordon Brown was replaced as leader. Now, this is more evidently true than ever. His replacement is being openly discussed and I think it is likely to happen sooner rather than later. But will replacing Brown make any difference? Probably a little, but not enough to prevent Labour’s defeat in the next election, which now seems all but certain. Only one of the possible contenders for his office might stand a chance of clawing back substantial support, and that is the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. But his chances would be very slim.
The fault is not simply with Brown, as much of the media coverage would have us believe. As I have argued consistently in these columns, the fault is with the New Labour project itself. The Labour Party has been destroyed as a party of social democracy. Its destruction was intentional, but the intention of the New Labourites was to wipe out the old Labour Party and replace it with a completely new type of political machine, controlled and manipulated by a clique of neo-liberal “modernisers” determined to complete the destruction of the “mixed economy”, weaken the power of organized labour and complete the privatisation of public services begun during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. Those who hijacked the Labour Party, notably, but not solely, Tony Blair, were happy to subordinate Britain’s foreign policy to the overriding interests of the Bush administration. This has been a shameful enterprise. Although Blair himself cannot be accused of betraying the Labour Party, because he never had any affinity with it in the first place, this cannot be said of many of his accomplices. Far too many of them were prepared to go along with him. There were numerous occasions where they could have challenged him and, had they stood against him, could have stopped the betrayal in its tracks. But most of them didn’t. Only a minority were consistent in their opposition. The majority of Labour MPs have been complicit in the betrayal of their principles. They deserve little sympathy now as they sleepwalk towards electoral disaster.
As I see it there is only one possibility of stopping the rot. A new leader should be elected, committed to a radical change of course. He would have to be committed to at least the following:
A windfall tax on the huge profits of the privatised public utilities; re-nationalisation of the disastrously inefficient and expensive public transport system; a progressive taxation system targeting the wealthiest; substantially increasing the statutory minimum wage; cancelling of the Trident project, thereby saving £25bn; withdrawal of British forces from Iraq.
A new leader, democratically elected by the membership, might be able to turn things round. But it is unlikely to happen, because none of the obvious candidates is committed to such a course.
End Note. Barak Obama is in London, having just arrived from his triumphant progress through Europe and the Middle East. In Berlin he was rapturously welcomed by a crowd of 250,000 mostly young Germans, who have extremely high hopes of him. In London, his reception was rather more low key. Nevertheless, he was cheered enthusiastically by those who got a glimpse of him in Whitehall. He was asked by a reporter outside Downing Street, where he faced the TV cameras alone, whether he had any advice for Gordon Brown. For once, Senator Obama seemed at a loss for words. What he said, finally, was that all political leaders are more popular before they are elected than they are afterwards. I was reminded of a fateful evening in 1992, when Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour Party, greeted euphoric crowds of supporters on the night of a general election everyone thought he had won. When the results came in the next morning, Labour had lost and the Tories were in power for another five years.
Note. * By-elections. Between general elections, if a member of parliament dies or resigns, a by-election has to take place in his/her constituency. In such by-elections it is quite common for voters to express their feeling for the government in office, by voting against the governing party’s candidate. This rarely happens with such a vengeance as witness in the Glasgow East by-election. Gordon Brown’s government has suffered badly in three by-elections in recent weeks.
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