The Election Starts Here

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Rarely can a prime minister have been so weak in the run-up to a general election as Tony Blair. Iraq runs like a festering sore right through the heart of New Labour.

With its credibility eroded, it is little wonder that the Labour Party is splitting at its head. There is now acknowledged open warfare between the prime minister and the chancellor. While they will surely attempt to show a semblance of unity in the run-up to May's poll, there can be little doubt that tensions between the two camps and their supporters will hit the headlines again soon.

Such weakness can be further exposed by the growing revolt over New Labour's attacks on pensions. The TUC's call for a day of action on 18 February, and the moves to ballot for strike action in March by several major unions have been enthusiastically taken up by workers desperate to fight back. Further action will probably be necessary to force New Labour to back down, but this is a promising start in a campaign with the potential to revitalise the labour movement in Britain.

The right wing election agenda shared by the three major parties can be thrown off course by the fights over war and pensions. New Labour has made it clear that it wants law and order issues to dominate. This has given the Tories the confidence to play the race card knowing that New Labour will run scared of a rational, let alone a principled, response. But this remains a desperate strategy from the Tories - such is their continuing deep seated unpopularity they can expect to gain little from the election. Instead it is the Liberal Democrats who believe they are about to make a big breakthrough. But their pathetic parroting of platitudes about 'a few bad apples' in response to the torture of Iraqis by British troops was entirely in character. They supported the Iraq war once it started and offer little more than the same neoliberal policies as the Tories and Labour.

In a number of constituencies New Labour MPs can expect a challenge from those who have taken a principled line on the war and have been in the forefront of resisting their attacks. The Respect Coalition has taken the bold decision to stand a number of candidates at the next election and will put forward a radically different agenda from the other parties. Fundamentally, Respect will ask why it is that this government has spent billions on an illegal war at the same time as cutting pensions, health and education.

Just as importantly, all Respect candidates will support and build the 18 February pension protest to ensure it is successful and as militant as possible. The larger the protest, the less prepared the movement is to hold its tongue to secure Labour's third term, the more difficult it will be for New Labour to get away with its latest public sector attacks. On top of this it will give greater confidence to ensure the 19 March anti-war demonstration will be the mass protest it promises to be.

The combination of an ideological assault on the policies of New Labour and the organised working class mobilising on the streets can place Blair in a position of real weakness and lay the foundation for a further revival of the left.