On 18 September the residents of the Brent East constituency in North London participated in the unthinkable – their actions not only lost Labour its 13,000 majority and with one of its safest parliamentary seats (only 57 seats were safer), but also recorded a blistering criticism of the present Labour Government. Labour had not lost a by-election since 1988 and had not even had a close contest since Tony Blair became party leader 9 years ago. The results in 2003 for the three main capitalist parties were as follows (with 20,962 votes cast on a 36.43% turnout):
Lib Dem (Sarah Teather) – 8,158 (39.12%)
Labour (Robert Evans) – 7,040 (33.76%)
Conservative (Uma Fernandes) – 3,368 (16.15%)
Bourgeois papers have concentrated their attention on comparing these figures with the results in the General Election of 2001 which were (with 29,111 votes cast on a 50.1% turnout):
Labour (Paul Daisley) – 18,325 (62.9%)
Conservative (David Gauke) – 5,278 (18.1%)
Lib Dem (Nowsheen Bhatti) – 3,065 (10.5%)
The newspaper headlines of a 29% swing to Lib Dem come from looking simply at the Lib Dem, 39.12% in 2003, compared to its 10.5% in 2001. Clearly several other factors, not least of which was the turn out, are much more significant in analysing these results than this superficial view which focuses the reader only on voter changes between the main capitalist parties.
The three main capitalist parties
Whereas the bourgeois media spent pages ‘analysing’ the tactics of Labour, Lib Dem and Tories in the campaign leading up to 18 September, few actually addressed the most significant factor, namely that Labour ‘lost’ 11,000 electoral supporters between the General Election 2001 and the by-election in 2003 (down from 18,325 to 7,040), and the total of votes cast was also down by about 8,000 due to a lower turn out.
Against a background of what was mildly referred to as antipathy because of the war on Iraq, the tactics of the capitalist parties were mulled over endlessly by the political pundits of the newspapers, radio and TV. The tactics of Lib Dem were praised because they opened their campaign office in a disused WH Smith, with the candidate already selected on 1 July (the day of the funeral of Paul Daisley, the former MP); millions of leaflets were distributed by Lib Dem activists coming from as far afield as Cornwall and Scotland, cancelling their holidays to stuff envelopes and pound the streets; canvassing as few have witnessed by bourgeois parties for a long time; issuing news sheets that looked like a local paper but were part of a series of spreadsheets on local issues such as graffiti, litter, crime, etc. with endless pictures of Sarah – your ‘local’ (i.e. Islington) Lib Dem activist.
The tactics of Labour, on the other hand, were criticised for not having the election earlier (could have been in July/August – before Hutton); rejecting capable ethnic minority candidates and opting for Robert Evans (seen as a Blair candidate – and not local) when the constituency had a high Muslim and African-Caribbean population. The Tory candidate, Uma Fernandes, could have been seen as a strong challenger if being local (Brent resident for 30 years and Brent councillor) and black was really the issue.
Both Labour and Lib Dems drafted in dozens of MPs to parade up and down Willesden High Road; and both parties knocked on doors throughout the constituency even in the South Kilburn Estate which had not previously even had election communications delivered by the Post Office, let alone seen a prospective Labour MP canvassing on an estate which has been in urgent need of attention for many years (the Labour Council incidentally now want to knock it down and rebuild what is most likely to be unaffordable local housing).
The Iraq Factor
The main issue behind the by-election was obviously the Iraq war. There were voters who were opposed to the naked brutal aggression perpetrated by Britain, now rightly seen by many as a ‘War for Oil’. There was also powerful disillusionment with a Government that lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction; that ‘illegally’ invaded Iraq (without even the cover of a UN resolution); that lied about the 45-minute threats and the suspicious circumstances of the death of David Kelly; that ignored the opinion of 60% of the population who opposed the war, etc. This was often summed up in the short phrase “I don’t trust ’em”. The Labour Government, that has a strong majority in parliament put there by many just like the electorate in Brent East, was seen by many of its traditional voters as not being worthy of their support. The legacy of the Iraq war was the significant factor that influenced large numbers of voters to stay away from the polls. The Labour Government was seen as lying (i.e. untrustworthy on the Iraq war) and this outlook spread to residents looking at other ‘promises’ that Labour had made with regard to education, hospitals and public services in Brent. From international, national to local issues the shine had gone off Labour’s delivery of a better life. One very solid Labour activist spoke of how impossible it was to get 3 regular Labour voters to support Labour this time – and even this activist did not get to the poll booth in time. This incident shows just how disillusioned the Labour grassroots were with the Government and is a small, but telling, example of how Labour lost the by-election.
Comparing the 29,111 votes cast in 2001 with the 20,062 votes cast in 2003, shows that the ‘lost’ votes amounted to about 8,149. It seems most likely that a large number of these were disillusioned Labour supporters who, either out of deliberate protest or out of lacking the enthusiasm to give positive approval to Labour’ decided to stay away. As the Independent admitted “Iraq was a big issue in the north London seat, where more than half of the population is from an ethnic minority and many former Labour fans stayed at home or voted Lib Dem in protest. From the local halal butcher in Willesden, who had voted Labour since immigrating to Britain in the 1960s, to middle-class lawyers who had supported Labour all their lives, the war proved the decisive issue” (20 September 2003).
The awkwardness that all three main capitalist parties felt towards the ‘Iraq Factor’ is best illustrated by their relative silence on this issue. At a time when the by-election was seen to be a referendum on Labour policies, the war against Iraq was hardly mentioned in TV coverage and also kept at a low level by all the main capitalist parties. The Lib Dems gave out the appearance of opposing the war since Charles Kennedy, Lib Dem leader, had been on an anti-war protest and their election material referred to a ‘Tell us the truth on Iraq’ petition, but 99% of the same ‘Brent News’ sheet covered street cleaning, NHS waiting lists, street crime, a pedestrian crossing near the Hindu temple, schools funding crisis and a Tory councillor defecting to Lib Dem.
Likewise, the Labour candidate, Robert Evans, although he voted for the European parliamentary resolution in January stating that the breaches of the UN security council resolution identified by the weapons inspectors did not justify military action, did not speak out against the war and so Labour supporters assumed he would quietly go along with the Government’s warmongering polices that have stretched from Afghanistan to Iraq. Even having Ken Livingstone (Brent East MP from 1987 to 2003) to give out red balloons; writing a personal letter to constituents in support of Robert Evans; and making a photo opportunity casting his vote alongside Robert, was not sufficient to persuade Labour voters to turn out.
One result of the disillusionment and the attempt to avoid the Iraq Factor meant that the 3 capitalist parties jostled, through using every tactic in the ‘Campaigners Briefing Dossiers’, to squeeze votes out of a dissatisfied electorate – at this the Lib Dems opportunistically just managed to get a few more votes than Labour.
The other 13 candidates
Brent East was different not only for the large number of disillusioned voters, but also for the significant effect that the other candidates contributed to the campaign, and to the result.
Martin Kettle in the Guardian, after accepting that pundits in the press have “examined the entrails of the Brent East by-election … in terms of the perpetual circlings of the three-party battle” goes on to state (for his own reasons) that this “misses out too much that remains unexplained about what is happening in British politics. As a result, it is a bit like a medieval cosmologist attempting to explain some movement of the heavens without the benefit of Copernican theory. It is all perfectly plausible, but in the end it is inadequate” (‘Brent East was all about the small 13, not the big three’, 23 September 2003).
Kettle’s concern with the other 13 soon became clear as, in the face of what he calls the “dealignment” and disillusionment “more than 1 in 10 votes went to the 13 ‘fringe’ candidates. Between them they polled 2,286 votes. Put another way they polled more than twice Teather’s 1,118 majority over Labour’s Robert Evans”. Thus he warns that “there is an electoral cost to Labour from the presence in the contest of the minor parties of the left, and from the preparedness of small but sometimes significant numbers of people to vote for them”. So he concludes that in electoral politics, particularly left candidates, can make a difference between winning and losing for Labour, so “Tony Blair needs a plan to get rid of it [this effect]”.
The socialist alternative
But Kettle too is confining his arguments, namely, to the bourgeois domain of electoral politics. A Marxist viewpoint is the only one that can go beyond the narrow confines of one by-election and assess the significance of this event from a dialectical standpoint.
The Labour Party has been a party of imperialism supporting aggressive wars abroad and attacks on workers at home for a very long time. This Labour Government blatantly has shown that, whoever voted for it, it is not in business to deliver services for the working class, rather its agenda is dictated by the oil barons and the finance magnates. However it has taken a long time for significant numbers of people to become disillusioned with its record – to see through its rhetoric and see the reality of its delivery. When Labour shed even the figleaf of socialist rhetoric in the removal of Clause 4 from its constitution and ended any pretence of ‘democratic’ processes in the Party, on 29 April 1995, it became increasingly clear to any honest worker that Labour was no longer what it had tried to pretend to be.
The founding of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in response to this final removal of any appearance of being socialist, made possible an organisational break with social democracy. From its founding in May 1996, the Socialist Labour Party has represented a big step forward for the working-class movement. It has opposed Labour’s imperialist warmongering from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan to Iraq, exposed Labour’s record at home and brought that message to workers through its activities, newspapers, leaflets and also at the ballot box. This is what has earned it, quite rightly, the hatred of bourgeois press hacks, as well as other bourgeois media who have sought to blank it out with silence.
The fact that a variety of ‘independents’, and also the Socialist Alliance (which only came into existence after the SLP was formed – and presented an SWP candidate to the Brent East electorate as an SA candidate with the pathetic slogan ‘You can Trust ME’), stood in Brent East is in small measure due to the influence the SLP can have.
“The preparedness of a small, but sometimes significant number of people” to choose to vote for socialism and against imperialist war (the clear platform of the SLP election communication) is the reason that not only the bourgeoisie, but also opportunists in the working-class movement are bitterly opposed to the SLP. Those who are dissatisfied with Labour not just in a protest vote, but are conscious of its long history of treachery, can, now that a party like the SLP does exist, have no excuse for continuing the futile exercise of ‘reclaiming Labour’. Equally, those now busying themselves with building a ‘Peace and Justice’ coalition, are merely engaged in safeguarding the careers of some ‘lefties’ in some sort of social-democratic outfit, while failing to expose social democracy as the enemy in the working-class movement. Those of principle could completely break with the Labour Party and join SLP – not that the Benns, Corbyns, Livingstones – and the Galloways of this world are very likely to do so. Only an organisational and political break with Labour can really give Labour a “bloody nose” (a Blunkett assessment of Labour’s performance in Brent East) and transform the political landscape in Britain by building the only socialist alternative.