General election 2001

The left - in the shape of the Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and Welsh Socialist Alliance - have, in the coming general election, the biggest opportunity for decades to make headway.

The left - in the shape of the Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and Welsh Socialist Alliance - have, in the coming general election, the biggest opportunity for decades to make headway.

Tony Blair?s well rehearsed, carefully leaked and scrupulously choreographed launch of the campaign went ahead on May 8, as universally predicted. Equally predictable were William Hague?s forlorn attempts to dredge up a degree of enthusiasm for the Tories.

Short of some unforeseen catastrophe for Blair - or a miracle - he will remain the occupant of No10 after the votes have been counted. Indeed, with opinion polls showing one of the biggest leads ever for a governing party going into a general election, many pundits are expecting an increase in the size of New Labour?s parliamentary landslide compared to May 1 1997. Ladbrokes are quoting odds of 200-1 on for a Labour victory.

The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom. Firstly, Blair has enjoyed remarkable good fortune as far as the economy is concerned. Unemployment has dropped steadily, income from taxation has risen along with growth, and Gordon Brown has been able to increase spending on health and education while at the same time offering some sweeteners in his pre-election budget.

Secondly, the Tories themselves remain in disarray. Since the demise of Thatcher not only have they been lacking anything approaching a ?big idea?, but they have been hit by sleaze and riven with deep and fundamental divisions, which, it seems, can only be resolved at the expense of the Conservatives? electability. Labour was able to enjoy Hague?s discomfiture over John Townend?s absurd ?mongrel race? speech, but the Tory leader?s inability to quash the episode firmly and rapidly was only a symptom of a more serious rift. That a minority of unreconstructed Tories like Townend have been left far behind by the official anti-racist consensus is an embarrassment for Hague, but it is as nothing compared to the chasm that divides the Conservative Party from the mainstream over the central strategic issue for British capital - the European Union and the euro.

The Clarke-Heseltine wing has for the moment been marginalised and as a result the Tories have been able to put on a show of unity behind a post-Major, unequivocal ?keep the pound? line. But Hague?s bowing to the most reactionary elements on this issue has made his party next to useless as far as the most dynamic, forward-looking sections of British capital are concerned.

The only party able to deliver the closer European integration and eventual entry into the European Monetary Union craved by those sections is - obviously - New Labour. Furthermore, Blair?s talk of ?social peace? - ie, a subdued working class, thanks to Labour?s continuing relationship with, and willingness to throw a few crumbs to, the trade union tops - strikes the right note with capital as a whole at this time. Thatcherite privatisation and anti-union laws remain in force, but reforms like the minimum wage, however pitiful and inadequate, are seen by important elements of the bourgeoisie as tolerable burdens in this period.

So the Tories cannot, in their present state, fulfil their traditional role as the natural party of the ruling class. Furthermore, Labour may not be regarded with enthusiasm by the majority of the electorate, but, when it comes to a choice between Blair?s party and the Tories, there is no contest. Sufficient voters, while disappointed and more than a little disillusioned with the first four years, will still prefer Labour. The memory of Tory cuts and corruption is still too fresh.

Of course very, very few still believe that Labour will serve the interests of the working class. That was the case in 1997 too, when the most workers hoped for was that Labour would be better than the Tories. Surely they could not be worse. There were no great expectations and certainly no ?crisis of expectations? as a result of Blair ?failing to deliver? - he deliberately declined to make socialistic promises.

Then, as now, there was a small section of our class looking for a left alternative. Today, driven by New Labour?s continuing drift to the right, the numbers are growing and, just as important, workers have much less reason to give their reluctant vote to New Labour as the lesser evil. They know that the election result is a foregone conclusion - there is no danger of letting the Tories in. Added to that is the anti-capitalist sentiment taking hold of sections of youth.

Already both the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party have made an impact. There will be around 100 SA candidates in England and Wales, while the SSP is committed to contesting all 72 seats in Scotland. Up and down the country SAs have been continuously feeding statements and stories to the local press. And the press team in London around Anna Chen and Mike Marqusee have done a good job with their comments on national issues. The SA has featured on national radio - for example, Louise Christian appeared on last week?s Any questions? And comrade Chen herself was the main guest on Nicky Campbell?s Radio Five Live phone-in earlier this week. As a result, millions at least know of the SA and SSP.

Of course there are the spoilers. Arthur Scargill is funding over 100 candidates for his Socialist Labour Party and has irresponsibly ignored all approaches calling for negotiations to avoid a clash. The SLP will take many votes off the main left force, perhaps preventing SA or SSP candidates gaining five percent, thus saving their deposits. The Morning Star?s Communist Party of Britain is standing in half a dozen constituencies, while advising a Labour vote elsewhere.

But, despite the sectarians, the left has a tremendous opportunity to make real progress on June 7. The winning of 250,000 votes, with a dozen or more reaching the five percent threshold, is well within our grasp. That would be extremely modest by comparison to the mainstream parties, but no-one should underestimate the significance of such an advance. It would clearly demonstrate that unity works. Indeed it would lay the basis for a higher unity - a single democratic and centralised, all-Britain party.

We have four weeks left to make our mark. There is no time to waste.

Peter Manson