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Voting anti-war

Milan Rai says the anti-war movement must resist Labour scaremongering


The British anti-war movement currently has three broad options in relation to the British General Election: vote anti-Tory (as Tony Blair is urging us); vote anti-Labour (as Michael Howard and the more punitive elements of the movement are urging us); or to vote anti-war. (There is also the option of not voting, discussed below.)

The vote is indeed a blunt instrument, but the danger of a 100-seat Labour Government majority is greater than that of a Conservative victory. We must vote anti-war.

Apart from voting, there is also the question of who you campaign for, if anyone. It has been suggested by
Labour Against The War, that anti-war activists who support the Labour Party should campaign for any nearby anti-war Labour candidates, for example, whatever they do with their vote in their own constituency. This tactic might sometimes also apply to supporters of other parties.

Returning to the question of how to use your vote, what does 'voting anti-war' mean? For JNV, it is an approach rather than a definite prescription, an approach that attempts to respect the differing political loyalties and commitments activists hold within the anti-war movement.


The big question for the anti-war movement is what lesson the British political establishment is going to draw from this election regarding the war on Iraq. Is the election going to show that you can't get away with a major war which is clearly illegal and massively unpopular, even if you are 'the most gifted political communicator' of your age? Or is the election going to show that, in the end, the voters will forgive you such misdemeanours if you can present yourself as the lesser of two evils?

How will the political establishment judge the election? One indicator will definitely be the number of seats Labour loses in the election. Another will be the share of votes going to 'anti-war' parties. I put 'anti-war' in quotation marks because what matters, from the Establishment point of view, is how the parties are perceived.

The Liberal Democrats, for example, opposed the war on Iraq before it started, then supported it as soon as the bombs started falling. They've supported the occupation of Iraq, but they've also called for the end of the occupation in December of this year. These are not the positions of a principled anti-war party. However, the Liberal Democrats are *perceived* as an anti-war party, and, yes, they are the only mainstream party setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

A vote for the Liberal Democrats will be *seen* as an anti-war vote.

As will a vote for the Green Party, for the independent anti-war candidates who are springing up around the country, for the Scottish Nationalist Party, for Plaid Cymru, for Respect, and for the Scottish Socialist Party and for a host of other socialist parties.

The proportion of votes going to such parties - particularly the parties which have the highest profile and are most clearly identified as 'anti-war', such as the Lib Dems, the Greens, the independent anti-war candidates, and Respect - will be part of the foreign policy establishment's assessment of the political cost of war on Iraq.

The logic of this analysis, then, is that anti-war activists should vote for 'anti-war' parties, even people who have formerly voted for the Labour Party. The beauty is that no vote is wasted. Even in a 'safe' Labour or Tory seat, votes for anti-war parties will count towards the national total of 'anti-war' votes.


A complication is that there are also 'anti-war' Labour MPs and candidates, some of whom are fighting in marginal seats. Should traditionally-Labour-voting anti-war activists support such candidates? The argument against is that returning a Labour MP, even an anti-war one, helps to re-elect Tony Blair. On the other hand, there are two strong arguments in favour of supporting such candidates (if you are inclined to vote Labour at all).

Firstly, if anti-war Labour MPs do better than pro-war Labour MPs (holding their majorities or increasing them, when pro-war MPs lose votes and seats), this will sharpen the lesson of the war. Secondly, if Labour is returned to power, it is important to the movement to have as large a proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party composed of anti-war MPs as possible.


In general, then, voting anti-war means voting for anti-war candidates. But the Labour Party high command are trying to get *anti-war* voters to vote *anti-Tory* instead of anti-war. The Robin Cook line is that you can't vote for an anti-war government. You can only vote for a chastened Labour government, which has learned its lesson, or for an enthusiastically pro-war Conservative government.

Labour loyalist Polly Toynbee argues that you should 'Hold your nose, vote Blair and Brown will be the victor'. (Guardian, Wednesday 6 April, p. 22) (This is Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who financed the invasion of Iraq, and who funds the continuing occupation without demur.) In the Independent, Johann Hari surveys the quiet redistribution policies of the Blair government, and quotes Ken Livingstone: 'If we experience a disastrous result on election night, it will not be Tony Blair who is punished. It will be the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.' (6 April, p. 35)


Polly Toynbee writes: 'forget retribution and look to the future... Revenge for a war that will never be repeated is a poor excuse' for voting against Labour. What matters is the future, and especially the future of those who would suffer under a Conservative government which would reverse the social welfare programmes put into place by the Blair administration.

But the purpose of an anti-war protest vote is not simply backward-looking revenge. We're interested in the future. In the future, what kind of government is most likely to bring British participation in the ongoing occupation of Iraq to an early end? In the future, what kind of government in Westminster is most likely to be an obstacle for future US warmongering? In the future, what lessons will British political parties and British governments draw from the Iraq experience?

The election can influence the make-up of the next Government, can place limits on its foreign policy ambitions, and can have a lasting impact on British politics - if and only if an unpopular war of aggression results in enormous political damage.

The anti-war movement is concerned for the future of the Iraqi people, and the future of other peoples under threat from President Bush's so-called "war on terrorism". We are far from convinced that Iraq was 'a war that will never be repeated'. The only way to reduce the chances of it being repeated is to deal a punishing blow to Tony Blair and his government.


Jonathan Freedland (and others) notes that many of 'those people who usually put a cross by the word "Labour".... would like to vote for an option marked "Return a Labour government, but with a sharply reduced majority so that Tony Blair learns the lesson of the Iraq war." ' He points out that these and other desirable options are not on the ballot paper.

Freedland points out that when you vote, you can only vote for a Labour candidate or for the candidate of another party -- you can't vote for a 'reduced-majority Labour government'. Key sentence: 'If everyone who wanted that outcome withheld their vote, the result would be a Tory victory.' For the vote is 'a blunt instrument.' (Guardian, 6 April, p. 21)

What Jonathan Freedland, Robin Cook and all the other nose-holders fail to point out is that the reverse is also true.

If everyone who wants to prevent a Tory victory turns out and votes for Labour, then the government will be returned with a majority of over 100 parliamentary seats.

This will be seen as vindicating Tony Blair. It will be seen as rewarding the invasion of Iraq. It will help to clear the way for future wars of aggression.

If left-wing and liberal voters put the defeat of the Conservatives as an overriding political priority, and vote Labour, they will hand Tony Blair a mandate for future wars, and signal that the war on Iraq was an acceptable foreign policy option.


What is the worst-case scenario for the anti-war movement? Is it a Conservative victory? Or is it the vindication of Tony Blair and his decision to launch the invasion of Iraq? In my own view, the worst-case scenario would be a Labour victory of over 100 seats.

Yes, the Conservatives are a pro-war party, but their victory would not be interpreted as an endorsement of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The defeat of the Labour Party would be a severe lesson to the British Establishment.

At the time of writing, the balance of probabilities is very much in Labour's favour. The question is how large Labour's majority is going to be. It is said that Michael Howard's goal is actually to reduce the Labour majority; he does not hope to actually win the election.

Even when the polls give them a level pegging, Labour is ahead because of the distribution of its voters across constituencies. The Conservative Party 'needs a 10.8 per cent swing from Labour to gain a majority of one.' (Ben Hall, FT, 6 April 2005, p. 3) The Tories need to be over 10 per cent ahead in the opinion polls to win the General Election (if the swing is uniform throughout the country and counting only those who are actually going to vote).

Given the polls as they stand at the moment (15 April) the chances of ending up with a Conservative government are remote, to say the least. The question of the day is how large the Labour majority is going to be.

Conservative strategy is apparently to appeal to its core voters and to motivate them to turn out, while turning off everyone else so that overall turnout is low.

At the beginning of the campaign, 'On a 78 per cent turnout, Labour would have a majority of 128 in the Commons. On a 56 per cent turnout, that majority falls to about 50.' (Financial Times/MORI, 1 April, p. 4) 'On a 55 per cent turnout, however, if the Conservative five-point lead were to be replicated, Labour would still be in power - just - but in a hung parliament and at the mercy of the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government.'

Robert Worcester, head of MORI, comments: 'The "project" - the proposed pact between Labour and the Lib Dems - would be back on.' (FT/MORI, 5 April, p. 3).

The Sunday Times reported two weeks ago that, 'Early indications show that Labour is likely to lose more than 68 of its 408 seats and that its majority will be cut from 161 to less than 60 seats... Professor Paul Whiteley, one of the authors of the 2005 British Election Study, said there was evidence that the turnout could slide even further, to as little as 53% this time, and that such a turnout could seriously undermine Labour's prospects.' (3 April, p. 10) That sounds like we could have a hung parliament.

But then Michael Howard's racist rhetoric about immigration spurred more people to support Labour.

The FT noted early on that 'a prediction based on an average of polls taken in the past month by Electoral Calculus, the online election predictor, gives Labour a four-point poll lead, which would produce a majority of 106.' On the other hand, punters on the internet 'are betting that Labour's election majority will be slashed to about 60 seats, a much smaller margin of victory than most polls suggest.' ('Punters bet on Labour majority shrinking to about 60 seats', 1 April, p. 4).

According to James Blitz of the Financial Times, reporting the consensus view, a majority of 70 is the minimum needed to provide the Prime Minister with a comfortable working majority. 'A margin of 100 would be a solid win that went a long way to wiping clean the Iraq problem in politics'.

A widely-held judgement of overwhelming significance to the anti-war movement.

Blitz notes that, 'Anything fewer than 40 - a big haemorrhage of Labour seats - would raise serious questions about how long Mr Blair could stay in office.' (FT, 6 April 2005, p. 3) Blair might be forced to resign immediately as Labour leader and as Prime Minister. Alternatively, such a disastrous result might 'encourage Gordon Brown to challenge him for the leadership.'


This election is going to be decided in marginal constituencies. If Labour loses 76 of its most marginal seats, it will lose its majority in the House of Commons. (For an explanation of the mathematics, see Alan Watkins, 'Unglaze your eyes: the magic number is 76', Independent on Sunday, 10 April 2005, p. 27).

A full list of Labour marginals is here.

In those 76 constituencies (from Dorset South down to Watford), activists should have no hesitation in voting for anti-war parties (unless there is an anti-war Labour MP standing for re-election) even if this is likely to let in Conservatives. If Conservatives get in to these seats, it will erode Tony Blair's majority. That is entirely acceptable from an anti-war point of view.

In particular, Liberal Democrat supporters who have voted Labour in the past (following an anti-Tory strategy) should have no hesitation in voting for their beliefs in those constituencies, stopping their tactical voting, and voting 'anti-war' instead.

At the constituency level the highest priority is probably to vote (or campaign for) for anti-war MPs, people who voted against the war and who oppose the occupation of Iraq - if you can stand voting for their party. As pointed out above, maintaining or increasing the proportion of anti-war Labour MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party would be a valuable achievement for those parts of the anti-war movement who are at all willing to vote Labour. Rewarding anti-war Labour MPs for their courage would contrast with, and deepen, the punishment handed out to pro-war Labour MPs for their dishonesty and cowardice.

In marginal constituencies, it is clear, many former Labour voters are defecting to the Liberal Democrats in order to register their disgust with the behaviour of the Blair government, over Iraq, and over many other issues also. There is certainly an argument for this defection. The argument is particularly strong when, as in my own constituency of Hastings & Rye (62 in the list of Labour marginals), the Liberal Democrat candidate is strongly anti-war (he is actually a former Labour Party mayor and councillor who defected in disgust over the war in Iraq).


It is difficult not to sympathise with the voices calling for abstention, spoiled ballots and so on. Neither of the two potential governments-in-waiting is enormously attractive. On the other hand, for the anti-war movement this is a historic opportunity to demonstrate to the British political establishment that blatantly illegal and deeply unpopular wars of aggression carry real costs.

Spoiled ballots and abstentions by anti-war activists cannot be distinguished from the general and growing disillusionment of the electorate at the empty convergence of the major parties.


Given (a) the serious risk that the anti-war movement voting (and/or campaigning) for Labour candidates will mean victory for Blair on a scale that grants him vindication,; and (b) the remote possibility that voting (and/or campaigning) for non-Labour candidates will lead to a Conservative victory, the anti-war movement must set a clear overall priority.

In general terms, it is more important for the anti-war movement to prevent a (quite possible) 100-seat-plus victory for Labour than to prevent a (quite unlikely) victory for the Conservatives.


April 2005


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