This is a guest post by Andrew Burgin
Britain’s swing to Labour mirrors electoral results across Europe as people seek to oppose brutal austerity policies. In many places this is the first real opportunity for those facing such measures to make themselves heard at an electoral level. Those responsible for implementing these policies have been punished.
In France, the presidential election looks set to be won by the Socialist party candidate Francois Hollande. He is campaigning on a programme opposing the austerity policies of the right under Sarkozy, and for creating jobs and growth through investment with some limited proposals to tax the rich. He has been pushed to the left by the vibrant campaign of the Front de Gauche headed by Jean-Luc Melenchon and this has given him that extra sustainable edge over the incumbent.
In the Greek elections, the perpetrators of austerity will be punished – in this case the social democratic PASOK is likely to take the biggest hit – with anti-austerity parties of the far left expected to make large gains. Anger and disenchantment at the continued collapse of the economy and drive to further cut wages and increase unemployment are finding their reflection at the ballot box.
In Britain, Labour advances indicate strong dissatisfaction with coalition policies as Labour won back more than 800 council seats. The party strengthened its position across the country, reasserting itself in former Labour heartlands in Wales and England and holding its position in traditional working class areas in Scotland. It took overall control of Glasgow city council which it was widely expected to lose. This, together with setbacks for Plaid Cymru, may have put a brake on the advance of the nationalist parties. Revelations of Alex Salmond’s close links with Rupert Murdoch may have limited the SNP’s progress.
However, Labour’s advance came with little enthusiasm from the voters. Whereas in France, 80% turned out to vote for their president, actual turnout in Britain was reduced to just over 30%. Whatever the differing levels of interest displayed at state and local level, this cannot mask the collapse of voter participation. Even at this time of economic crisis where political decisions massively affect people’s everyday lives and livelihoods, the majority of people just could not be bothered to turn out and vote, even against government parties. Explanations for this abound, not least disenchantment with the major parties and a feeling that whatever the outcome there will be more of the same. And of course the first past the post system contributes to this assessment. But one of the striking factors in these elections is that even in spite of the obstacles presented by the electoral system, people have voted for alternatives and some of those alternatives have made progress, sometimes strikingly so.
The success of the Green Party in London is not surprising, given their track record in the city, strong anti-austerity policies and increased national profile with Caroline Lucas now in Parliament. And Jenny Jones’ third place for London Mayor is a breakthrough as Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick fell to a paltry fourth place, punished for his party’s disgraceful role in propping up the Tories in government. No doubt they will face a serious threat to their future as a national political organisation should they continue to play that role.
Other anti-austerity forces also did well. In Bradford the resurgent Respect Party took five seats and ousted the council leader. With Labour the largest group in the council, yet without overall control, a crucial test for Respect will be the pressure they can bring to bear to move council policies to the left. This has been the mark of successful left parties in Europe – making advances for the working class where they have political clout and can influence social democracy to the left. In Preston, independent socialist Michael Lavalette, who was endorsed by Respect, regained his seat.
The BNP did not benefit from the turn away from mainstream parties. This is a tribute to the consistent work of the anti-fascist left and one that should be noted across Europe. The BNP took none of the seats that they contested. Whereas UKIP advanced, taking on average 13% in the 700 seats where they stood, Griffin’s attempted ‘modernisation’ of his party failed to convince the voters and they also lost their seat on the London Assembly. But this should not lead to complacency about the far right threat, as other parties have exploited racism and Islamophobia to scape-goat these communities for the economic ills imposed on us by the free market policies of our ruling class.
The biggest setback for the anti-austerity movement in these elections was the narrow defeat of Ken Livingstone in London. Livingstone’s programme included cutting fares on public transport, the reintroduction of EMA for young students and the creation of new low cost housing. A vicious personal campaign was waged against Livingstone by the Evening Standard and the Murdoch corporation. Boris Johnson’s campaign was masterminded by ‘attack dog’ Lynton Crosby. Johnson played little part in his own campaign – which was remarkably devoid of concrete policies for London. He was surrounded by minders who kept him away from ordinary Londoners who will now pay the price for this despicable anti-political campaign. The loss of Ken Livingstone from the political scene is much to be regretted.
The lessons of these elections are clear: there is massive popular dissatisfaction with the policies of the coalition government – sharply exposed by the recent budget and the ‘omnishambles’ that has followed. But there is also frustration with the mainstream parties and an increasing understanding that they do not offer a way out of the political and economic crisis that we are in. For many this means, in essence, political abstention through no show at the polls. For others this means a turn to political alternatives including anti-austerity parties of the left. The challenge for the anti-austerity movement is to strengthen the case for alternatives to the neo-liberal orthodoxy which is devastating our society and communities, whether through driving Labour’s policies to the left to meet the needs of its constituents or through posing clear political alternatives that give people genuine electoral representation. Both of these will be strengthened and advanced by the continuing and growing work of the Coalition of Resistance. We are now at the beginning of the campaign to build the largest possible anti-austerity demonstration this autumn, working hand in hand with the trade unions which will lead this vital initiative. The building of a mass campaign against the cuts, on the streets and in our communities, is the clearest way to ensure that the limited gains reflected in these election results will translate into real and permanent economic and political change.