One recent poll (Ipsos/ MORI, 30 May) gives only 26% satisfied with Tony Blair as prime minister, and 67% dissatisfied. His negative ratings are much worse than even at the height of the big demonstrations against him taking Britain into the US-organised invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Labour's poll ratings are now around 31% or 32%, the lowest since June 1987. In the Ipsos/ MORI poll, the Tories had a 10% lead over Labour, better than they have had since 1992.
The Labour Party's remaining members (fewer than 200,000 — half the 400,000 of 1997) don't like Blair either.
Thirty seven per cent of them want him to resign before Labour Party conference this September. The YouGov poll (1 to 6 June) also finds that 50% of current Labour Party members say that the Labour government has not “stayed faithful to the fundamental values and aspirations of the party”. They believe (75% of them) that wealthy donors have influence in government policy, and (also 75%) that local party members have no or little influence.
When they are asked to name six “worst mistakes” by the government, Labour Party members assert broadly left-wing priorities: they object to Blair’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, his subservience to Bush, his privatisations, his failure to tax the rich, his tuition fees, and his curbs on civil liberties.
Lapsed members name exactly the same “top six” as current members. And much of general public hostility to Blair has the same roughly “left-wing” colour.
But Britain is a democracy, isn’t it? Shouldn’t this level of sustained public hostility mean Blair being voted out promptly — either by Labour Party members, or by the general electorate — and replaced by a political leader who will break with Bush, reverse privatisations, tax the rich, scrap tuition fees, and restore civil liberties?
It does not mean that at all. At most it means that Blair will be replaced a bit earlier by someone standing for exactly the same basic policies — Gordon Brown — and that New Labour may be replaced in 2009 by a Tory party which, whatever Cameron’s current gestures, everyone knows and expects to be as right-wing as New Labour or more so.
In any large human society, democracy has to work through representation. In principle, the interaction between party leaders, party members, and the broader electorate in a representative system is an engine of political education, an enhancement of real democracy far above the level of a “direct democracy” via snap plebiscites of an ill-informed and atomised mass electorate. Certainly representative democracy can and does serve the wealthy classes pretty well.
In a class-divided society, however, how it serves the working class is another matter. To vote to break with Bush, reverse privatisations, and so on, workers need to have available a party which they know and trust which stands for those policies. And the wealthy classes will not provide it for us. It has to be built by workers, through workers’ organisations. Once built, unless there is sufficient active democratic pressure from below, it can be deflected or annexed by the connections of its top leaders with the wealthy classes. That is what has happened with New Labour.
To regenerate representative democracy, we must regenerate a workers’ party which fights for a workers’ government.