BY MARGARET ALLUM
Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is smug in the knowledge that his government is almost certain of victory in the June 7 British general election. Blair knows that the continuing political impotence of the Tory opposition will ensure the return of New Labour despite the many crises riddling British society.
Blair's is the most conservative British Labour government to date. The Observer's Nick Cohen points out that Blair's government has spent a smaller proportion of gross domestic product on hospitals and schools than John Major's 1992 Conservative Party government.
Blair has made it clear that if re-elected, Labour will extend privatisation to clinical health services, school management and most aspects of local government. A recent poll found that four out of five voters oppose New Labour's plans to introduce private companies into the National Health System and other public services.
Without a viable alternative, voters have little choice but to vote for more of the same from Labour. The Tories are correctly perceived as being worse for working people and the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, offer positions on many issues that are far from clear.
Ironically, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party William Hague stands to the left of New Labour on several social issues. According to the May 29 Washington Post, Hague supports the right to abortion on demand, a monthly handout to every family with children, education subsidies that pay about 95% of every college student's tuition fees and free cradle-to-grave health care for all.
But that will not be enough to derail the Blair machine, which has bounced back from national crises such as its handling of the foot and mouth disease debacle, a wave of strikes against its privatisation measure, and a scandal involving meat unfit even for pet food being served to children at government schools.
Resistance to racism
The issue causing most uproar in Britain at the moment is the continuing racial violence. Racial hatred is rife in many areas, fuelled most recently over comments made by politicians.
While Hague may sound liberal on some issues, he has been one of the leaders of the anti-immigrant chorus, claiming that Britain has become a "soft touch" for illegal immigrants. Hague has proposed the creation of detention centres for asylum applicants, a system only used in a few countries, most notably in Australia.
Simmering racial tensions have been fuelled by the capitalist media and the police. Racial unrest in Oldham erupted into riots on May 26 and 27 after election-related activity by the far-right British National Party (BNP). White fascist youths attacked a local shop run by Asians and the community fought back. Police intervention was designed to protect the right-wing provocateurs and restrict the movement of the Asian community. Oldham residents were warned to stay out of the centre of town during neo-Nazi National Front and BNP marches that involved hundreds of fascists being bussed in.
After weeks of harassment by the police and the right-wing parties, the local Asian community had had enough. The last incident of right-wing thuggery was the spark. Barricades went up. The offices of the Oldham Chronicle, the racist local paper, were targeted.
Police in full riot gear used capsicum spray and dogs to try the contain the resistance. Police vans drove into crowds on the streets and helicopters hovered above. The community responded with petrol bombs, bricks and fireworks.
The only group standing in the election that has given unconditional support for the rights of asylum seekers and those of immigrant descent has been the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party. These groups are standing in nearly 170 constituencies, and will challenge nearly 20 ministers.
A Socialist Alliance press release condemned the police crackdown on Asian youths and called for the immediate sacking of the police chief superintendent Eric Hewitt. "Judging by Hewitt's performance and public statements", said Ateeq Siddique, a Socialist Alliance candidate in Bradford, "the Macpherson report [that made recommendations in 1999 to eliminate institutionalised racism] may well never have been published." Siddique said that what was happening in Oldham "isn't about so-called 'racial tensions' — it's about the racism of the far-right and the racism institutionalised within the police force.
"It's also crucially, about the racism whipped up by both main parties through incessant and dishonest attacks on asylum seekers ... The climate created by the main parties' refugee-bashing has encouraged fascists to creep out of the woodwork."
The Socialist Alliance election manifesto says that it supports a major shift in wealth and power from the big companies and millionaires that support New Labour and the Conservatives to working people.
Not surprisingly, much of the financial support for Blair has come from big businesses that have bought privatised assets. Big donations to New Labour have come from British Gas, British Telecom, Connex Rail and Freightliner Ltd (both previously part of British Rail), Eastern Group (the privatised Eastern Electricity), Scottish Power, Northumbrian Water, and Railtrack, the privatised railway infrastructure operator widely blamed for the Hatfeld rail disaster.
The usual trade union leadership support for Labour is starting to unravel as the traditional alliances are being questioned. Pam Currie reports in the May 25 Scottish Socialist Voice that in a historic decision, the Fire Brigades Union at its recent national conference voted to take the first steps in breaking with New Labour by allowing local branches to back local candidates who support the "principles and policies of the union" — and many union activists have made it clear that this won't include many Blairites.
The presence of a large well-organised socialist opposition has attracted some high-profile support. The Socialist Alliance has won support from Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper, Independent columnist Mark Steel, radical journalists John Pilger and Paul Foot, prominent leftist Tariq Ali, filmmaker Ken Loach and Julie Hesmondhalgh, a star of the long-running, much-loved TV soapie, Coronation Street.
Hesmondhalgh said she had put her support behind the Socialist Alliance because she found Blair "pseudo-presidential, egomaniacal and quite flippin' scary." Hesmondhalgh said that politicians are clamouring to be associated with Coronation Street. "It's the common touch thing ... It's also a nice distraction method, [so that] they'll all be more interested in what's going on in Weatherfield [where the serial is set] rather than what's going on in Westminster — or Iraq."