Dead Men Left

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Modern myths: "the war only matters to the middle class"

Treasured especially on the pro-war "left", the Nick Cohens and Johann Haris of this world, is the belief that opposition to the invasion of Iraq is confined to the diletante and skittish middle classes. Horny-handed sons of toil such as these two know that when the balloon went up, stout-hearted British workers rallied round the flag of, erm, freedom and democracy (and no WMDs).

Naturally, this was and is utter rot, as the roll-call of trade unions opposing the war and the polls have always revealed. The unprecedented appearance of Military Families Against the War is hard to account for without recognising strong working-class oppposition to to the invasion. That the myth of a pro-war working class has persisted and allowed blossom amongst the opinion pages perhaps reveals something of the contempt with which the supposed liberal-left holds working people: that workers are essentially incapable of independent thought and would fall for the mish-mash of lies, bluster and manipulation that constituted the case for war.

The political effects of the invasion on the British working class appear to run deeper than this, however:

A YouGov online poll of nearly 22,000 people since the beginning of the year suggests that the Conservatives have so far failed to capitalise on dissatisfaction with the Government.

It puts Labour on 36 (down six points from the 2001 election), the Conservatives on 33 (no change) and the Liberal Democrats on 22 (up three).

The conventional Tory/Labour swing does not appear to be operating. Looking more closely at the poll (PDF file) suggests that the biggest defection from Labour has been amongst manual workers, 52% of whom voted Labour in 2001. Four weeks before the election, only 37% say they will be voting Labour. But they are not switching to the Tories.

Their votes are deserting to the Liberal Democrats, the party most closely (if incorrectly) identified with opposition to the war and a mild left opposition to New Labour, reflecting a wider pattern amongst Labour supporters. John Curtice, writing in the Independent:

For every person who voted Conservative in 2001 but has now switched to the Liberal Democrats there are no less than three who have made the equivalent switch from Labour. This suggests that any further increase in Liberal Democrat support over the next four weeks is likely to come more at Labour's than the Conservatives' expense. Rather than persuading voters not to take a step backwards by voting Conservative, Mr Blair's real task may be to persuade voters not to take a step sideways into the arms of Charles Kennedy.

The invasion of Iraq is not an issue by itself. It never has been. It is impossible to understand the extent of the opposition without placing it in the context of six year's worth of continuous disappointment from New Labour. "Beds not bombs," as the home-made placards on February 15 said: a blunt rejection of neoliberalism, New Labour-style.

It was a mistake to treat Iraq as a single issue back then, and it remains a mistake to date. The disastrous invasion acted as the solvent on long-held bonds with the Labour Party. By concentrating everything that was wrong with New Labour into a single, identifiable problem, the war has caused many hundreds of thousands, already profoundly disillusioned with the Party, to break.

The critical question for the left is whether that break is permanent. The Iraq war was declared won nearly two years ago. Its domestic effects have been extraordinarily long-lasting; a continued and substantial military presence in Iraq has ensured it never moves too far from the headlines. All the indications are, not least from the extraordinarily volatile opinion polls, that a great transition is occurring in English politics. It is not happening at the same pace everywhere, and many of those caught on the wrong side of this shift will find themselves denied any effective expression in the May 5 general election.

But the greatest tragedy of the election will be that so many of those left-leaning, anti-war former Labour voters will feel they have little choice, this time, but to vote for a right-leaning, pro-war party - the Liberal Democrats. The need to construct an alternative to New Labour is pressing; prospects for a renewal of the Labour left look increasingly unlikely; the case for a new party of the left is overwhelming.