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Joe Bord © 2005


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"Our victory is unambiguously a victory for the anti-war movement and for the real Labour people whom Blair has tried to silence." So said George Galloway in the wake of his remarkable win in Bethnal Green and Bow with 38.9 percent of the votes cast. Even while affirming that Respect is gravely mistaken over the desirability of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, it would be churlish for me to deny that Respect has achieved an extraordinary result for the far-left in British politics. The coalition saved eleven deposits out of twenty-nine seats contested (including three anti-war independents supported by the party). Four candidates gained very significant vote shares besides Galloway: Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham Sparkbrook (in second place with 27.5 percent); Abdul Khaliq Mian in East Ham (20.7 percent); Lindsey German in West Ham (19.5 percent); and Oliur Rahman in Poplar and Canning Town (16.8 percent). Thus while the Respect performance was uneven, with most battles yielding the low percentages typical of fringe campaigns, the coalition still managed to attract 6.7 percent of the vote across all contested seats. This compares with a Green percentage of 3.4 percent in constituencies fought. The Greens waged a wider campaign, losing 177 deposits in the process, while clocking up 22 percent in Brighton Pavilion, 11.5 percent in Lewisham, and 7.3 percent in Norwich South. Put another way, Respect’s focused strategy succeeded in achieving the "critical density" needed in its key seats under the first-past-the-post system. This means that there is the real prospect of a serious challenge developing in local authority elections.

Unfortunately, the same can be said to some degree of the extreme-right British National Party (BNP). The fascists lost 84 deposits, but gained 16.9 percent in Barking and 13.1 percent in Dewsbury. Party führer Nick Griffin was beaten off in Keighley, Yorkshire, with just over nine percent of the vote. Some of this is due to the fragmentation of Labour's traditional working-class base (particularly in London) but this is by no means the whole story. The lack of a Tory revival in the north, just as the Conservatives stoked up immigration fears, meant that the fascists were able to exploit cross-class prejudice against foreigners.

Despite the relative success of far-left and right, the real (if modest) winners of the 2005 general election were the Liberal Democrats. In Scotland and Wales, the Lib Dems benefited from the decline in voting share of the nationalists. In fact this nationalist decline stemmed the trend away from the main parties. Across the whole of Great Britain, New Labour lost between five and six per cent of the total vote directly to the LibDems. This meant a solid increase of ten seats and some pronounced swings. In Cambridge, we lost a good centre-left Labour MP to one of these by-election-style offensives. The Tories failed to raise their vote and despite some consolidation in the south-east, also suffered an overwhelming parliamentary defeat – a dozen seats short of Michael Foot's Labour "suicide" tally of 209 in 1983. The fact that a perfectly adequate Labour victory (a majority of 66) feels like a setback is really due to the Liberal Democrat advance. Labour insiders were betting on a majority of 80-95, while assuming that the landslide majority of 2001 could probably not be sustained. It is the difference between these figures – the "realistic" expectation and the actual performance – that explains why the reaction against Blair has been so sharp in the aftermath of the poll.

Before the election, I calculated that thirty-six core Labour rebels, members of the "internal opposition", were standing for re-election. These were MPs who had opposed the government on at least three out of four litmus divisions including the Iraq war (in addition to university fees, foundation hospitals or the prevention of terrorism bill). There was one mistake in this calculation: Jim Marshall, the member for Leicester South, had already died and precipitated a by-election in 2004 which the Liberal Democrats had won. This Leicester seat was retaken on 5 May by a Labour local government worthy. However, despite a close call for Bob Marshall-Andrews in Medway, and John Grogan in Selsby, all thirty-five of the remaining group were returned. This firmly sceptical wing is now large enough to deprive the government of its majority on controversial questions if it so chooses, without even taking into account the rather wider group of anti-war and occasionally rebellious MP’s. Again, this emphasises the importance of the gap between the 66 majority obtained and the "reasonable" expected surplus of 80-95. The shortfall closes off Blair’s impunity, and ensures that public-service marketisation, civil authoritarianism and future wars will all be much more difficult to push through.




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