The threat of a good example
On a night where Labour were deservedly massacred across the whole country, how were a bunch of lacklustre candidates able to win two out of three against the IWCA in Oxford?
In the local elections on 1 May, the IWCA lost two of its four councillors on Oxford City Council. In Churchill ward, Claire Kent’s vote from 2004 –where she won by 10 votes from a standing start- stood up, but Labour were able to add on over 200 to theirs. In Blackbird Leys, Labour were able to turn Lee Cole’s 80 vote majority from 2004 into a 230 vote deficit. These results were greeted with unrestrained glee and relish by Labour at the count. In Northfield Brook, IWCA group leader Stuart Craft held on, though his majority was reduced from 116 to 66.
Elsewhere, the BNP officially took 5.3% in the London Assembly elections and now have one of the 25 Assembly members. They also added a dozen or so councillors and now have over 100 elected representatives at various local levels. In the individual London Assembly constituencies, the National Front took 5.7% in Greenwich and Lewisham, 5.6% in Bexley and Bromley and 4.5% in Ealing and Hillingdon. Respect and the BNP only faced each other in one constituency, City and East, where they finished third and fourth respectively with 14.3% and 9.6% (City and East is made up of the Respect/Galloway fiefdoms of Newham and Tower Hamlets, and the BNP stronghold of Barking and Dagenham). The Left List stood a candidate in every constituency, and the best they could manage was 3.56% in Enfield and Haringey. The Left List’s Mayoral candidate, Lindsey German, pulled in just under 52,000 votes, compared to over 120,000 that she got running under the Respect banner last time. By way of comparison, the IWCA’s Lorna Reid pulled in just under 50,000 votes in 2004 on a significantly lower turn-out (37% to 45%).
On a night where Labour were deservedly massacred across the whole country and posted their worst electoral results for forty years—the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley wrote: “The genius of New Labour was to create an election-winning alliance of both traditional supporters and converts, of Labour heartlands and new territories. Labour was not hammered in one or the other – it was slaughtered in both”—in Oxford they were able to successfully unseat two dedicated, born-and-bred independent working class representatives. How?
The Labour candidates that were stood against the IWCA were in themselves hardly A-grade material: in Churchill Labour stood Mark Lygo, a man relatively new to the area with no track record of community work or local activism, and who himself said he was “surprised by the margin of victory”. In Blackbird Leys Labour stood Val Smith, an incumbent county councillor and wife of the sitting Oxford East MP Andrew Smith. The Smiths are New Labour personified, and Andrew Smith is holding onto his Parliamentary seat by his fingertips: his majority in the last general election was cut from over 10,000 to less than 1,000. Labour’s candidate in Northfield Brook was a corporate lawyer from wealthy North Oxford. So how were this shower able to win two out of three against the IWCA?
In January an Oxford Green councillor, Matt Sellwood, predicted precisely this very outcome. His reasoning?: “part of their [the IWCA’s] problem is that they’ve made such an impact that they’ve scared Labour half to death, and so Labour are going to do everything they can to defeat them … even more so than against the Lib Dems, and much more than against the Greens (Labour have pretty much abandoned most of our wards these days, and given up trying to get them back). So basically their seats are Labours #1, #2 and #3 targets, and that is hard to resist in a city that still has a lot of Labour funding and volunteers. Not impossible, but very difficult.”
The Smiths are the biggest political fish in Oxford and they have taken personal charge of the campaign to defeat the IWCA. In September 2004, soon after the IWCA increased its number of councillors in Oxford from one to three, Andrew Smith suddenly and mysteriously resigned from his post as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions “to devote more time to the responsibilities I enjoy in my constituency and to my family.” And in their efforts to stop the IWCA the Smiths are not averse to bringing in outside reinforcements: in this local election campaign no less than Gordon Brown himself paid a visit to Oxford, where he made three stops: Blackbird Leys, Churchill, and Stuart Craft’s workplace (‘Brown backs slur-hit city estate’, Oxford Mail, 8 April 2008). Brown never visited Bury, a key swing battleground where Labour eventually lost the council to the Tories.
So Labour pulled out all the stops and threw everything they had at us, up to and including the Prime Minister. Does that explain everything, particularly the large, and unforeseen, swing towards Labour away from Lee Cole? Perhaps not. This is not the first time that Labour, increasingly nationally unpopular and devoid of decent personnel, have been able to produce a large vote against the IWCA seemingly from nowhere: the same thing happened in Islington in 2006.
The day after this years elections, the Guardian reported on comments made by members of the Labour controlled Public Administration Select Committee on postal ballot fraud. Labour MP Gordon Prentice said: “Our elections are wide open to fraud. We have judges that have said in recent months and years that the UK is like a banana republic when it comes to an election.” Tory MP Charles Walker said: “In many parts of this country, it is one man, one woman, three or four hundred votes.” Labour’s Kelvin Hopkins has argued for the introduction of individual voter registration to clamp down on fraud, while adding with admirable candour: “I hesitate to say this, but one of the reasons our party is reluctant to do this, is because it might actually dent our support in certain areas” (‘Election fraud: Labour failed to act, say MPs’, The Guardian, 2 May 2008).
The Lib Dem MP John Hemming has written: “Labour’s strategy (called the L Vote) in recent years has been to identify where their own supporters are, and address the campaign to them. This may result in lower turnouts, although having postal votes where individuals fill in a few hundred votes each has helped increase the Labour vote. Happily the more recent changes to election law will reduce the amount of electoral fraud”. An undercover investigation by the Sunday Times into the Labour party in Leeds showed the ‘L Vote’ strategy in action, with canvassers ‘chasing’ postal votes by going door-to-door prior to election day collecting postal ballots from voters, and filling them out on their behalf if need be. When one of the group suggested that the practice was illegal, the team leader responded with: “Yes it is. But we’ve done 25% already, so …” ( ‘Get the votes and we can win, but don’t get caught with them’, (The Sunday Times, 29 April 2008 ). A report by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust published in April found: i) ‘Greater use of postal voting has made UK elections far more vulnerable to fraud and resulted in several instances of large-scale fraud’; ii) ‘There is widespread, and justifiable, concern about both the comprehensiveness and the accuracy of the UK’s electoral registers – the poor state of the registers potentially compromises the integrity of the ballot’; iii) ‘There is a genuine risk of electoral integrity being threatened by previously robust systems of electoral administration having reached ‘breaking point’ as a result of pressures imposed in recent years’.
But far less important than the ‘how’ of Labour’s victory is the ‘why’. Why would Labour—the Prime Minister included—go to all this trouble to try and knock out three councillors on the eastern edge of Oxford? Because of the threat of a good example: if working class people—with virtually no resources—can get organised, sling out Labour and demonstrably start to take back control on the eastern edge of Oxford then they can do it elsewhere (when Gordon Brown visited Blackbird Leys he remarked that the estate had ‘made a huge step forward’ and that ‘there is so much improvement taking place on Blackbird Leys’, forgetting to mention who was the source of this improvement or who was responsible for the previous neglect). Will Hutton wrote in the Observer on 4 May: ‘There has not been a gap between the rich and poor on the current scale ever in history. It is unstable. Sooner or later, there will be popular outrage and a political response… Who isn’t spooked by the renaissance of Italian fascism? Challenging times require courageous responses. None is in prospect’ (‘Feeble government lets the superclass soar over the rest of us’, The Observer). As we have seen above, the renaissance of Italian fascism is being mirrored by the far right’s greatest ever electoral success in the UK. Neo-liberalism is becoming increasingly unstable, yet only fascism is positioning itself as a viable alternative. Meanwhile, the middle class left, in the shape of the Left List, with sufficient resources to make an impact, continue only to provide further proof of Peter Wright’s claim that the British left “are about as dangerous as a pondful of ducks.”
The IWCA is not: the BNP’s current success is largely based on the same analysis of New Labour that led to the formation of the IWCA in the first place. In 1997 the BNP’s Tony Lecomber said: “The people who have been abandoned by Labour and have never been represented by the Tories will, in their desperation, turn to us. This is unlikely to happen next May, since people will still be giving Tony Blair’s Labour Party the chance to show what they can do. After that, though, disappointment will set in”.
One of the IWCA’s early breakthroughs came in the London borough of Havering, where we took 25% of the vote the first time out in the wards of Gooshays and Heaton in 2002. Since then, unfortunately, the IWCA branch there has had to cease activity due to pressures of work and time on the key activists. However, this gave the BNP the chance to move in, winning Gooshays marginally in 2006 and then decisively in 2008.
This, in microcosm, is the choice we face. The IWCA analysis, applied from the left rather than the right, calls into question the very legitimacy of the Labour Party, of it’s alleged reason for being as the party of the working class. More than that, pound for pound the IWCA strategy works and has been proven to work where we’ve been able to apply it, and so the Labour party –‘scared half to death’- has had no choice other than to try and stop it at source. We now know how hard and how dirty Labour will fight in order to safeguard their position and prevent a progressive, working class alternative to the barbarism of neo-liberalism, and the greater barbarism of fascism, from emerging. We now know that the working class will have to fight all the more effectively in terms of organisation, numbers, tactics, resources and ideas if that alternative is to be made a reality. We will.