Off to a Flying Start

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Problems for New Labour in the elections and Iraq

It may have been less visible than the 2 million person march against the war and the mass protests that greeted George Bush when he came to London last year, but the vote for the Respect coalition in the recent elections represents a huge step forward for the left in this country.

It is true that neither Lindsey German nor George Galloway got elected, but that should not hide how impressive some of Respect's votes were in working class, inner city areas. In this month's Socialist Review we look at some of these areas. Of course this is a selective sample. We make no apologies for that, because in the absence of the kind of wall to wall media coverage granted to the UK Independence Party, the subjective element of lively, grassroots campaigning was vital. If we are to spread and build upon our best results we need to understand how we won them - how we tapped into anti-war networks, where we best engaged in local campaigns and with groups of workers.

In a sample of mainly inner city areas, Respect polled 97,028 out of a total of 1.56 million votes cast. That represents 6.18 percent of the electorate. Not bad for a coalition that has been in existence for a mere few months.

The traditional vote of the two main parties seems to be melting away. Both Labour and the Tories are facing a crisis of support. It was clear during the recent election that Labour did not have the cadre to get out on the doorstep and improve their vote. And so disillusioned are their supporters that many simply refused to vote at all.

Secondly, there is a debate raging within the trade union movement as to who the unions should support. The recent decision by the FBU to stop funding the Labour Party should not be underestimated. This comes on top of the RMT's expulsion for daring to democratise their political fund. Significantly, both unions have faced the reality of the party siding with their bosses in recent disputes-as have postal workers, who voted to open up their fund at CWU conference, though the motion was not carried by the union as a whole.

Thirdly, it is clear that New Labour and Tony Blair will carry on regardless. The response to their recent election debacle was to say 'no turning back'. In tones that echoed the worst of the Thatcher days, Blair declared that there will be no U-turns, that they must proceed more quickly with the 'pace of change'-meaning more privatisation, attacks on the poor, and the continued occupation of Iraq.

In the light of these factors what should the left's response be? Some people argue to rejoin Labour in order to pull it back to the left. The trouble with this strategy has been illustrated by the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, who, just a few weeks into his new term justified scabbing on the London Underground workers strike.

The alternative is to build on the breakthrough that the left made in June's election. This will involve campaigning with those workers on the front line of New Labour's attacks and building solidarity and support. It will also mean carrying on the opposition to the war in Iraq. And it will mean challenging New Labour at the ballot box. With parliamentary by-elections already planned for Birmingham and Leicester, and other council by-elections due, this will give the Respect coalition an even greater opportunity to prove its credibility as an alternative to New Labour. For we are not going away.