Council elections were held on Thursday 4 May for the 144 English authorities and 32 London boroughs.
The ruling Labour Party suffered serious losses, just as would any party having governed the country on behalf of capitalism for nine years. Like the Tory government in 1997 when Labour took over, it is now Labour which is the “tired government, all out of excuses”, to use the apt description of George Jones in the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph of 5 May. (‘Blair punished at the polls’)
The Labour Party’s overall share of the vote was a mere 26 percent, 7 percent down on its showing in the 2004 council elections, which was already poor compared with the overwhelming majority by which it took power in the General Election in 1997. Labour lost control of five Councils (Bexley*, Crawley, Croydon*, Ealing*, and Hammersmith & Fulham*), and lost a further 14 Councils to no overall control (Barrow in Furness, Brent*, Bury, Camden*, Derby, Hounslow*, Lewisham*, Merton*, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Plymouth, Redditch, Stoke on Trent, Tower Hamlets* and Warrington). (The asterisked councils are all London Boroughs.)
There was thus something of a north/south divide apparent in the voting, insofar as Labour held up its vote in the north, and even gained seats in Manchester. Nevertheless, on the face of it, the election result was in no way extraordinary. However, there are two features which we believe require a brief comment.
Concerted attack on the Labour government in sections of the press
The bourgeois press has always tended towards the Tory Party as the preferred instrument of bourgeois rule, but, in 1997, with the Conservatives discredited beyond repair through a combination of sleaze, sex scandals and deep internal divisions on questions ranging from the hated poll tax to the European Union, the British bourgeoisie needed to be represented by a party that was in a position to deliver on two questions. These were: 1) deeper integration into the EU; and 2) attacks on the social wage (ie, that part of wages which is taken as tax and used to pay for services such as healthcare, education and pensions) of the working class.
At that time, the Tory Party, which contained within its ranks a large proportion of Little Englanders who wanted nothing to do with Europe because it was full of foreigners and others who wanted to maintain the ‘special relationship’ with the US, was hopelessly split on the issue of the European Union and incapable therefore of implementing the wishes of British finance capital. It accordingly had to be replaced by a party that could deliver – the Labour Party.
Of course, the Labour Party, too, had its anti-Europe dissidents, but it also had long experience in neutralising the dissident element, and was therefore considered the ideal choice of government for the bourgeoisie in the then prevailing circumstances. As a result, the bourgeois media at the time of the 1997 election were full of stories of Tory sleaze and incompetence, as well as the inevitable sex scandals involving top Tory worthies. All this, added to a general disillusionment with life under capitalism, resulted in Labour being elected with a massive majority in parliament.
In the years that followed, the Tory Party was rendered impotent by its internal contradictions, and it lost most of the prestige it still had left, becoming practically unelectable.
Labour, too, was unable to deliver on the question of the European Union in view of the Eurosceptic public not only in Britain but also in many European countries, in particular France and the Netherlands, whose electorates gave a knock-out blow to the European Constitution in recent referendums. On the question of privatisation, Labour has delivered well (in the eyes of capital). With the trade unions in its pocket, it has taken big steps in the direction of privatisation of education and the health service – steps that a Tory government might have had difficulty accomplishing.
However, after eight years in office, Labour too has lost credibility. It is deeply unpopular because it took Britain into the filthy imperialist wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and earlier against Yugoslavia. There is deep public disquiet that Labour might plunge Britain into yet another war – against Iran this time.
Meanwhile, Labour’s policies on education and health are arousing great opposition, with the result that it could get its way on education ‘reform’ legislation in the House of Commons only with Tory support. In addition, Labour has continued the previous Tory government’s policies in the area of housing. While the stock of public housing is fast disappearing, no social housing provision is being made. Consequently even petty-bourgeois sections of the population cannot find affordable accommodation in big cities, especially in London.
Besides, as is customary in capitalist Britain, especially at election times, Labour was portrayed by sections of the press as being soft on crime, illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. Some of the same elements in the press have been making frantic efforts to present the Tory Party in a favourable light, difficult though this task undoubtedly is, and portray Labour unfavourably. All the classic ingredients are there: sleaze, sex and alleged mind-numbing incompetence. Stephen Pollard in the Daily Mail of 6 May put the anti-Labour campaign in a nutshell when he wrote:
“Labour’s attitude towards the electorate has become almost contemptuous: a Deputy Prime Minister who has admitted a demeaning affair with his secretary; a Home Secretary who disgorges foreign murderers on to our streets; the cash-for-peerages scandal; a Health Secretary who boasts that the NHS has enjoyed its best ever year; and Tessa Jowell’s mind-boggling personal finances.” (‘Morally bankrupt, impotent, he is now doomed’)
The fact that these stories were all released shortly before or in the run-up to the council elections indicates that sections of the bourgeoisie now lack confidence that the Labour Party will be able to carry forward its agenda as effectively in the future as it has done in the past and wants them out and the Tories back in.
Incidentally, the fact that the bourgeoisie does not for the moment want the services of the Labour Party in no way indicates that Labour is somehow preferable from the point of view of the working class to the Tories – but we shall deal with that point further below.
The other issue that needs some commentary is the success of the overtly racist and fascist BNP in several carefully selected wards, including wards in the London Borough of Barking. It will be recalled that this is the borough that formerly hosted Ford’s Dagenham plant, which has now closed, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs and opportunities for the young. In Barking, the BNP won 11 of the 13 seats it contested.
In addition, the BNP won one seat in the adjoining borough of Redbridge, six seats in the London Borough of Epping Forest, three seats in Stoke-on-Trent, one seat in Redditch (south Birmingham), one seat in Solihull, one in Leeds, three in Kirklees (West Yorkshire), seven in Burnley and one in Pendle. Its total was 50, having stood 356 candidates throughout the country.
What were the reasons behind these successes?
First, the British media have been fuelling racism with a vengeance throughout the period of the election campaign with stories alleging that the ‘incompetence’ of the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has led to foreign murderers, rapists and paedophiles being let out of prison to terrorise the population when they ought to have been ‘considered for deportation’. The fact that most of them will have been convicted for relatively minor offences is ignored; we were simply told that those released ‘included’ murderers, rapists and paedophiles, in such a way as to give the impression that over a thousand dangerous criminals were roaming the streets. In actual fact, only one case has been cited (they obviously couldn’t find a better one) of a foreign prisoner who re-offended – a rapist in fact – but he had both been let out of prison and re-offended at a time when Charles Clarke was not yet Home Secretary!
However, it was just the kind of story to fuel racism, so its irrelevance was entirely ignored. On this occasion, Charles Clarke had actually not demonstrated any incompetence. All murderers, rapists and paedophiles, be they British or foreign, are let out on the street once they have served their sentences. In the case of people of foreign origin who are settled in this country, there seems to be no reason why their punishment should be made more severe than that of local-born villains by deporting them as well. Generally this will have a completely unfair adverse impact on people in their families who are innocent of any crime, and there must be some question of it offending against Britain’s human rights obligations. Besides which, if ex-prisoners are going to re-offend, one has to have a very chauvanist mindset to believe it’s OK to deport them abroad where their victims will be foreigners!
Of course, the Labour government did not try to defend Charles Clarke against the accusations of incompetence. They too wanted to spread the racist message that foreigners are a danger to our society. That was done by resolutely sacking Charles Clarke the minute the election was over.
Hence Charles Clarke, who is certainly an arch criminal in political terms, has been, in the interests of keeping the flames of racism aglow, branded an incompetent. In actual fact, he is only too competent, as The Independent of 6 May points out:
“He devised a regime of control orders allowing suspects to live at home under tight restrictions, which drew the wrath of civil rights campaigners and many lawyers …
“After the scale of the threat from terrorism became clear on 7 July last year, Mr Clarke unveiled a raft of tough new anti-terror measures, including 90-day detention, a plan which led to the government’s first Commons defeat. …
“While he was Education Secretary, Mr Clarke got the Bill introducing university tuition fees on to the statute books despite a massive Labour revolt, with the government’s majority slashed to five at one point. Alan Johnson, his deputy at the time, said they got measure through by means of a ‘charm offensive’ – ‘I was charming and he was offensive.’” (‘Winners and losers on day of ministerial merry-go-round’)
All in all, never was injustice meted out to a more deserving subject!
The fact remains, however, that the whole debate about released foreign prisoners was designed to, and did, encourage people’s racism, and was part of the reason the BNP was able to do as well as it did in the council elections.
For this, all the ‘respectable’ bourgeois parties have to share the blame, as they all vie with each other to offer promises of xenophobic measures allegedly to ‘solve’ the problems faced by their electorate. In fact, the Tories and Lib Dems rendered further assistance to the BNP by simply not standing against them in some of the wards the BNP went on to win.
The second reason the BNP was able to attract votes was the parlous state of housing policy. Since Mrs Thatcher privatised council housing, not only have thousands of homes been lost to council housing stock but, worse, hardly any new housing has been built, converted or acquired with a view to maintaining the provision of homes to low-paid workers who cannot afford to purchase a house. Even workers who were themselves able to snap up their own council homes found the chickens coming home to roost when there were no homes to be had for their children as they grew up.
Among working class people everywhere, but especially in areas where housing is particularly expensive, as in London, there is absolute fury among working people at being denied their most basic right, the right to a home.
But where is the bourgeois party that is offering to provide sufficient affordable homes for all? Totally non-existent. What the BNP is saying, however, is effectively that they would house white people at the expense of black people, on the basis that those who are born in this country of parents and grandparents who were also born here have a greater right to housing than anybody else.
This ‘argument’ appears to be attractive to people who happen to fit that description, but, of course, if implemented, would cause horrendous injustice and social unrest.
People’s housing problems need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The way to address them, however, is to stop council house sales, rapidly build up a new stock of council housing and ensure that all people living in this country, whatever their colour or nationality, are able to secure a good home at an affordable rent.
If these demands are not met, the blame should be put fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the penny-pinching ruling bourgeois class, which systematically maximises its profits at the expense of working people.
Finally, decades of British imperialism have produced in the British working class a tendency – which was already noted by Marx and Engels in their day – to consider themselves racially superior.
The British ruling class, which needed to mobilise working class people for use as cannon fodder in its more dangerous imperialist ventures, encouraged its domestic subject class to think of the subject races as little better than animals. This racist contempt for people of foreign origin, particularly for those from former colonies, festers in many British workers, and is kept constantly alive by the bourgeois press.
Such contempt for foreigners is divisive, and renders the working class impotent in its struggle for its own social emancipation. The ruling class is well aware of this, and takes full advantage of it at every corner – blaming foreigners for unemployment, homelessness and increasing crime. In the circumstances of all-pervasive bourgeois racist propaganda, and in the absence of a revolutionary leadership and the all-too-prevalent and suffocating embrace of social democracy that the working class finds itself in, it is hardly surprising that some working people take the bait put out by the likes of the BNP and vote for it, blaming all the ills of capitalism on the foreigners.
In the near future, with attacks on welfare benefits, pensions and the like in the offing, this weapon of racism will undoubtedly be used extensively unless in the meantime good progress has been made in educating the working class along the lines of proletarian solidarity and internationalism.
The BNP – a gang of petty criminals
As an aside, we would note that the BNP proclaims itself to be ‘tough on crime’, making itself attractive to those of thuggish disposition who, bereft of any better and more effective ideas, vainly imagine that hanging, beating and flogging will solve the deep-rooted problems of our society, most of which are the consequence of the deprivations visited on the mass of the working people as a result of the capitalist system.
The BNP, however, is itself full of ex-cons, as has been exposed by Grant Rollings in The Sun of 2 May 2006. (‘So which fascist thug is going to get your vote?’) Alan Bailey, who stood as a candidate in Romford, assaulted a white man married to a black woman in 2004, kicking him to the ground – an offence he describes as “quite minor”. Mick Treacy, who stood in the St James ward, has five convictions for offences of dishonesty and breach of public order. Kevin Scott, who stood in Gateshead, has two convictions for racist abuse. Jason Douglas, who stood in Redbridge, has a conviction for soccer hooliganism, as has Luke Smith, elected to Burnley Council in 2004.
The BNP’s ‘security chief’ (!), Warren Bennett, is a known soccer hooligan and has been convicted for breaching public order. Roderick Rowley, who stood in Coventry’s Woodlands ward in 2004, is a convicted paedophile, while David Copeland, who carried out nail bomb attacks in the predominantly West Indian district of Brixton and the predominantly Bangla Deshi district of Brick Lane, as well as against gays in Soho, killing three people, was also a BNP member, as is Stuart Kerr, who was sentenced to 12 years for arson.
The BNP’s National Organiser, Richard Edmonds, was convicted for his part in a bottle attack on a mixed race couple in a London pub in 1993, and its ‘group development officer‘ was given two years in 1985 for bomb making. In 1991, Edmonds was sent down for another three years for unlawful wounding inflicted during a gang attack on a Jewish teacher.
Brian Turner, an elected Burnley councillor, was convicted last year of a violent attack both on his own wife and on a police officer, while Michael Dafter, a BNP member from Gateshead, besides being a well-known soccer hooligan, has a conviction for attempted robbery and theft. He has also been cautioned three times for disorderly behaviour, trying to enter a football match when drunk and attacking a minibus after a football match.
Nick Griffin, the Cambridge-educated leader of the BNP, who is strenuous, incidentally, in his denunciations of ‘welfare scroungers’, was himself on benefit when he left university. When confronted with the criminal records of so many of the BNP’s members, all he had to say was: “If people seek to involve working-class communities in politics, they are going to get some chaps who 20 years ago did something daft”!!
Be that as it may, to the extent that the bourgeois media are willing to publicise these lurid details about the BNP, it shows that ‘our’ bourgeoisie is a long way from wanting to go over to a fascist government in this country. When a Labour government is so willing to promulgate all the fascistic laws that the bourgeoisie feels it needs for the moment, where is the need? The main value of the BNP to the bourgeoisie is in helping to keep racism firmly embedded in working-class minds, as well as to draw attention away from the racism of the main bourgeois parties.
At the same time, it is the duty of all communists seeking to lead the struggle of the working class in the latter’s mission to overthrow the rule of capital and establish the democratic rule of the working class and for the working class (ie, the dictatorship of the proletariat) to help workers to remove the racist worm that prevents them from fighting effectively to promote their own interests. This can only be done by patiently and conscientiously explaining to the working class masses what are the real causes of their problems, ie, the effects of the capitalist system, not their fellow workers.
What can one say, then, of ‘communists’ who tell us that they cannot struggle against racism among their fellow workers because racism is too widespread, and that one would lose influence among them. One can only say that such ‘communists’ are in utter dereliction of duty to the working class. They should have confidence in the good sense of the overwhelming majority of workers, even those who are influenced to some extent by racist views, to embrace the truth when it is explained to them, so that they are then able to reject racism in time because it harms their interests.
What can one say of ‘communists’ who urge the working class to ‘vote Labour to keep out the BNP’? What can one say, when it is the racism propagated by the Labour Party, among others, that encourages people to look to the BNP for their salvation? What can one say, when it is the Labour government that has taken over the Thatcherite housing policies, which are the biggest grievance of the working class, and encouraged them to believe that only the BNP’s outrageous policies can find homes for their children?
What can one say when, at this particular time, the bourgeoisie itself is not promoting the BNP and has not the slightest intention of putting it in government, since it is able to rely on the ‘democratic’ bourgeois parties, like the Tory Party and the Labour Party, to implement any racist and divisive measures to which it feels the need to resort?
What can one say of ‘communists’ who urge the working class to vote for Labour because the Tory Party is the preferred party of the ruling class? Actually, these ‘communists’ were also rooting for the working class to vote Labour when the Labour Party was the preferred party of the working class. In any event, we would say the same to them as we would say to any mentally deficient person who urged the working class to vote for the BNP because the Tory Party was the preferred party of the ruling class. All these parties are parties that seek to serve bourgeois interests, and it would be only in very exceptional circumstances that one would advocate a vote for any of them.
For the moment, the priority has to be to expose the imperialist nature of the Labour Party in order to win people away from any illusions they have that it is a party that somehow represents the interests of the working class.
‘Communists’ of the various types mentioned above are as “tired” and as “all out of excuses” as the Labour government itself. They want the fight for socialism to be an easy part-time pastime and are not prepared for the backbreaking and self-sacrificing work that being a communist demands. No point, then, in calling yourself a communist, comrade!
For those who are not so faint-hearted, there is an Augean stable to be cleared out. It can and must be done, and there’s no time to start like the present!