6 May, the day of the General Election results, was another day for the sober maxim of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci: “The emancipation of the proletariat is not a labour of small account and of little people: only they who can keep their heart strong and their will as sharp as a sword when the general disillusionment is at its worst can be regarded as fighters for the working class or called revolutionaries.”
For those who do keep their hearts strong, there are new possibilities for action. By electoral chance rather than by any advance for the left, the election results create a possible opening for some of the huge working-class discontent with Tony Blair’s New Labour to gain a positive political expression.
The years when Tony Blair — landslided into the Labour leadership in 1994 and into 10 Downing Street in 1997 — was almost a dictator in British politics, are over. He is discredited.
Blair’s third election victory has been followed not by congratulations, but by calls from Labour MPs for him to resign. One MP, John Austin, has promised to force a leadership contest if only he can get the 72 MPs necessary to sign up for it.
The cut in Labour’s majority means that 30-odd Labour MPs who voted very often against the government in 2001-5 have the power — if they dare use it — to block Blair on many issues.
Even limited moves by them, if they seem to open up a prospect of ending Blairism, might revive the moribund local Labour Parties.
The key force that will decide whether the MPs’ revolt is a small spat before acquiescence, or the start of something serious, is the trade unions.
MPs or no MPs, the Labour-affiliated unions still have the constitutional power, at the Labour Party conference this September, to force a Labour leadership election. They have the power to create for themselves an opportunity to put forward a candidate for leader who will stand by union policies on union rights, privatisation, and Iraq, and who will restore some democratic accountability in the Labour Party.
So far no union leader has backed the MPs’ calls for a challenge to Blair. The union leaders do not much like Blair; but their hope is to see him replaced quietly and smoothly by Gordon Brown.
Desperate to believe in soft options, they tell themselves that Brown will be more responsive than Blair. He may dress things up better in traditional Labour verbage, but in fact Brown has been four-square with Blair on basic policies and on the “project” to “modernise” the Labour Party, i.e. to establish the domination within it of a gang of parliamentarians, advisers, researchers, spin-doctors, and quango-folk contemptuous of the labour movement.
Brown is personally the main driver of two of New Labour’s main current attacks on the working class, pension cutbacks and public service job cuts.
The measure of progress will be whether we can mobilise the unions to put a real force behind the rebel MPs and to reassert an independent working-class voice in politics.
It will not be easy. Success depends on the number of activists who draw from the miserable election results not demoralisation but a hardened determination to reverse the trends.
The old political structures are rotting. The gap between ordinary working-class opinion and the “official” world of politics grows ever wider. The most striking fact about the election, more striking than any of the results from the count, was how low key it was: very few canvassers, very few window-posters, very few campaigners at polling stations.
A great swirl of social discontent slops quietly in the depths, unable to find channels. Progress depends on those who will dive down to the depths to chisel out the necessary channels.