What is to be gleaned from reading the tea leaves of the council and regional assembly elections held in the UK on 3 May this year? On the face of it, electors were faced with a choice of bourgeois parties, none of which were offering policies significantly different from the others. It is therefore rather difficult even to use these elections as a gauge of the maturity of the working class – the main value of bourgeois elections, in Engels’ view.
Overall, however, one can make the point that the electorate voted against the government and for whoever was the alternative most likely to win: in southern England, this was the Tories, in the north it was the LibDems and in Scotland it was the SNP. In Wales, Plaid Cymru made a minor comeback. Votes for also-ran parties such as the Greens, the Socialist Party, UKIP and the BNP, and even the LibDems in many parts of England, were down as voters concentrated on the anti-government vote, or traditional Labour voters joined the ranks of the abstentions. Overall, the Tories gained some 900 councillorships, while Labour lost 485.
Voters were expressing their grievances at the record of the Labour government on such issues as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the loss of pension rights, the creeping privatisation of the NHS, the soaring cost of housing, the loss of free tertiary education, the deindustrialisation of Britain, etc. But they were voting against, or abstaining – they were not expressing any faith that any of the alternative parties might have the solution to the problems that capitalism is visiting on the masses of British people.
Brown for prime minister
Nevertheless, if we want to know more about this election, it is to the surrounding media hype that we should look rather than to the results, since this gives us some indication as to where the preferences of the British big bourgeoisie lie with respect to its next government.
It seems clear that the big issue for the dominant section of Britain’s ruling class at the moment is disengagement from the war in Iraq, and possibly from Afghanistan also. These wars, although delivering profits to a few armaments companies and the like, have seriously failed to deliver the bonanza of superprofits that had been generally anticipated by the bourgeoisie when the decisions to invade were taken. On the contrary, the treasury has paid, and continues to pay, a heavy price in money, materiel and lives: the continuing people’s war in both countries has seen to it that imperialism’s enrichment opportunities are minimal, while the expenses of war are vast.
The question of which government will deliver on the required exit strategy is problematic for British imperialism. While it is the Labour government that got them into war in the first place and has up to now failed to disengage despite mounting pressure to do so, the only other party that is realistically likely to win an election at present is the Tories – yet David Cameron is happily contemplating the invasion of Iran (he won’t rule it out!). Gordon Brown, on the other hand, is more than willing to talk about disengagement, and would undoubtedly be able to unite the bulk of his party behind it – something that David Cameron would not be able to do, even if he wanted to. Brown is also much liked by the bourgeoisie for his skilful handling of the economy to their advantage (at the expense of British workers, of course!) The ability of the Labour party to take the sting out of all or any industrial action, especially when it is the party in government, is also appreciated by the mega-rich.
Tony Blair has been an obstacle to this, either because he is too intimately implicated in the scandal of the lies told about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction or because he had personally been hoping that the tide would turn in Iraq and that he could leave government as an honoured war leader, a latter-day Winston Churchill – or both. At any rate, the May elections provided the opportunity to appear to break with what Labour had stood for under Blair – in particular for imperialist war – while leaving enough time to prepare the ground, after Blair hands over the office of prime minister to him at the end of June, for a victory for Gordon Brown in the next parliamentary election.
Even though the Labour party only secured 27 percent of the vote in this year’s election, the media are reminding us that the result in 2004 was worse (at 26 percent) but Labour still won the general election in 2005! And there are two years to go before the next general election.
Not wasting any time, the whitewashing of Gordon Brown has already started in earnest, with various bourgeois newspapers absolving him of involvement in the cash-for-honours scandal, and broadcasting far and wide his declared intention of pulling out of Iraq, even if it offends the Americans (in order to pull out from Iraq at the soonest opportunity, the Labour party would have to put the ‘special relationship’ with the US in danger). No doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more about his ‘progressive policies’ over the next few months, since he is really a very good leader for British imperialism – at least, compared to the alternatives.
At the same time, the Tories’ inadequacies – David Cameron’s yuppie university days, the squabbling over grammar schools, etc, get enough coverage to make it a racing certainty that ‘our’ bourgeoisie is not hoping for a Tory victory at the next general election.
Having mustered as much of the ‘left’ for this election as was humanly possible by holding out the hope of a ‘left-winger’ committed to ‘socialist policies’ challenging Mr Brown for the premiership, the Labour party unceremoniously dumped McDonnell within days after the election – he was only able to muster the support of 29 MPs, whereas he needed 45 in order to mount a leadership challenge.
One assumes that the Labour party bigwigs are confident that these are people who will never learn and who will be happy to go on turning out the ‘left-wing’ vote for election after election, even though it is obvious that no ‘socialist policies’ will ever be forthcoming. There will be minor posts in the trade-union bureaucracy and a smattering of grants for community work, and experience shows that the would-be ‘left’ wing of the Labour party is really quite cheaply kept on message.
The Scottish electorate have proved stubbornly uninterested in seeing Scotland become independent of the UK. True, they did vote in the SNP by 47 seats to 46 in the Scottish Assembly, but this was only a very marginal win, in an election in with a less than 60 percent turnout (admittedly high for the Scottish Assembly elections).
Furthermore, several of the results are in doubt in view of the fact that there were a larger number of spoilt ballots than the difference between the winning candidate and their nearest rival in several constituencies. This was due to the fact that Scottish voters were presented with only one ballot paper for three different kinds of vote, with the effect that a relatively large minority became confused and voted incorrectly on all or some of the ballots, thereby invalidating all votes (100,000 ballots, about 1 in 20, were spoilt). It is quite possible that a majority of the spoilt papers were from less educated voters who might have been expected to vote Labour rather than SNP – and Labour may well have been robbed.
But there you go. As has been noted above, the votes for SNP were in any event more of a protest vote than support for the SNP’s policies, although it should be noted that, in order to help win over the Labour vote, Alex Salmond was helped by the fact that his party is now more to the ‘left’ than Labour, having opposed the invasion of Iraq, opposed university tuition fees and opposed the introduction of ID cards. All in all, it seems quite clear that the ‘victory’ of Alex Salmond by no means indicates any real interest in secession in Scotland.
One cannot help but mention some of the glaring absurdities of the electoral system that were highlighted by this election.
Since all that is at stake is which representative of the ruling class is going to misrepresent the electorate in parliament and form Her Majesty’s bourgeois government, these absurdities go almost unremarked, although they would certainly be considered sinister if they appeared in the elections of countries imperialism opposes: China, for instance, or Russia, to say nothing of Iran or Zimbabwe.
Apparently, the total proportion of votes in favour of the Conservatives was 41 percent. In a general election this percentage of votes would usually result in around 362 Conservative seats, although 41 percent of seats available only comes to 270. Labour’s 27 percent of the vote would translate into 179 seats, which is near enough 27 percent of the seats available, but the LibDems’ 26 percent of the vote would only yield 78 seats! The distribution of council seats is equally skewed, as the Conservatives have now almost three times as many as Labour, even though their share of the vote was well below double the size of Labour’s. The LibDems’ share of the vote fell only marginally, yet this cost them 242 seats in England alone.
As is usual in council elections, the rate of abstentions was high, especially in less affluent areas. The Scottish regional assembly excited the most interest, but even there the turnout was under 60 percent. In Wales, it was a more typical 40 percent.
This rate of abstention reflects an instinctive feeling on the part of the electorate that as far as they are concerned there is not a whole lot of difference between one bourgeois party and another, although at least the fact that there are elections ensures that each of the parties that might gain power is prepared to make some effort not to annoy the electorate any more than it can help while serving the interests of imperialism.
Under the present democratic form of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in this country, where there are only bourgeois candidates to choose from, and the victors are almost invariably those favoured by the kings of finance capital and backed by the mass media owned by the latter, the right to vote is of far greater value than its exercise.