Local Elections: 'Labour's Membership Has Gone Underground'

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'Many people have left the Labour Party. There are also large numbers who have let their membership lapse. In east Dorset, where I come from, there are only five Labour candidates put up for 34 seats. I have actually registered as Dorset Stop the War and we are fielding ten candidates.'

So said Damien Stone, a former Labour councillor who is standing in the local elections on 1 May. Some 10,000 seats are being contested, yet despite newspaper reports of a postwar surge in support for Blair and New Labour there are plenty of signs that they will face a difficult night on 1 May.

One indicator is the demoralisation among Labour activists themselves, as Damien Stone explains: 'I have been a member of the Labour Party for ten years and I certainly didn't expect Blair to take us to war against Iraq. I set up public meetings against the war and at none of these have there been Labour Party members--nobody was prepared to put the case for war. It is like the Labour Party membership has gone completely underground. All these people who worked so hard to get Labour elected over all these years have disappeared.'

It was a view echoed by Labour Party member Christina Muspratt of Wirral South in Merseyside. She said, 'People like me were appalled at the war in Iraq. There is deep discontent, and this has gone across the boundaries, not just those who are traditionally left wing. I have been in the Labour Party now for 40 years, and I did think about leaving over this issue, but some comrades persuaded me that that would be the wrong thing to do. I think it would just be a gesture to leave. I would feel disloyal, but I do feel the government has been separate from the rest of the party on this issue.'

Labour has only found candidates for two thirds of the seats being contested. The Labour leadership played down expectations prior to the election. Ian McCartney, Labour's new party chair, admitted at the launch meeting in Birmingham, 'It's going to be a tough election out there for us.'

In some areas people will have the opportunity to vote for a socialist candidate. The Socialist Alliance is standing around 160 candidates, and is focusing on opposition to the war and the occupation of Iraq, as well as local issues. In Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party is hoping to increase its share of the vote, although the SNP has been doing well recently in the polls. There is also the danger of the Nazi BNP vote in a number of areas. In the run-up to the election anti-Nazi campaigners and trade unionists were taking their campaign to the streets with a major demonstration through Manchester, sponsored by Unison.

All the indications are there that anger over the war in Iraq and New Labour's attacks on working class people at home has led to a growing resentment and disillusionment among Labour's activists. This increases the opportunity to build resistance to these attacks in the weeks ahead.