Newspapers and polls all tell their own stories about what “issues” dominate the elections to the British parliament due on May 5th. This week’s Sunday Times says Tony Blair’s Labour party has collapsed to a mere one-point lead because of concerns about asylum seekers; the same day’s Sunday Telegraph, armed with a different poll, says Labour has surged to a 10-point lead because of voter confidence in Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and his handling of the economy.
None of the journals digress much into consideration of “margin of error”, because that would make it harder to sell newspapers on the basis of tiny shifts and statistically insignificant differences in poll figures. And few are prepared to contemplate how central the Iraq war is to this election, partly because its consequences for voters are so confusing. Omar Waraich has already written in CounterPunch about how hard it is to cast an anti-war vote. As one pundit said over the weekend, a significant number of voters are willing to do anything to punish Tony Blair except to vote for the Conservatives, which is the only vote likely to toss him out of office.
The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, ensures Labour voters’ loyalty to Blair by running an unspeakably reactionary, demagogic campaign, in which vilifying asylum-seekers is only the tip of the racist iceberg. Forget the British version of the melting pot: Howard launched the election in the House of Commons by denouncing Blair’s alleged record of perfidy: “Taxes, up! Crime, up! Immigration, up!” Even the closure of the huge MG Rover auto plant near Birmingham, with the loss of more than 5,000 jobs courtesy of rapaciously Blairite “venture capitalists”, is unlikely to shift voters toward the Tories. On Iraq, Blair earnestly claims to prefer his principled opponents on the left to the opportunistic nitpicking of the pro-war Conservatives.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland (which elects its own MPs from a completely separate set of parties), Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein face the uncertain consequences of the apparently permanent end to that other war, the one fought by the military wing of their movement, the Provisional IRA. The speech to the IRA Adams gave earlier this month (also featured on Counterpunch) was, by any fair reading, a historic renunciation of the right to armed struggle under current political conditions in Ireland i.e. with Sinn Fein making electoral gains. When Adams said he had “in the past” defended the IRA’s right to use force, it was clear he meant he could no longer do so.
Getting a fair reading for his speech has, however, proved difficult enough for Adams. With the Irish media on an anti-republican role in recent months, and continuing pressure from the McCartney sisters (who now claim they’re being harassed by republican supporters), it sometimes seems as though the longstanding peace process never happened. Sinn Fein’s main opposition among nationalist voters, the SDLP, is in disarray. But the Southern media, in particular, and politicians in the Republic have been lending a hand to the “moderate nationalist” party, with e.g. the Republic’s foreign minister, Dermot Ahern visiting the constituency of South Down, where Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane, the human-rights campaigner who has been fighting for the Colombia Three for several years, is challenging the SDLP’s old stager, Eddie McGrady.
Despite the pressure, Sinn Fein’s vote is likely to rise again: over the last decade, the party’s unique positioning as both the (potentially) militant defender of nationalist communities and the party of peace has seen it make steady gains. It appears to be voluntarily withdrawing the first status, and its peace credentials have been challenged this year by the McCartneys and the fallout from the Northern Bank robbery. But it remains the obvious party to vote for either in support of the IRA and/or if you’d like to see its military role eclipsed by a non-violent political approach. The delicate balancing act was further displayed when Adams said the other day that the IRA would probably not respond in detail to his speech until after the election. (Some pretty good jokes have been made about Adams’s extended conversation with himself, but they’re not entirely fair: while he is almost certainly an IRA insider, and wouldn’t have addressed the IRA as he has without some confidence in its response, the IRA won’t stand down simply because he wishes it were so.)
In Britain, Tony Blair will benefit from the lack of a credible anti-war alternative. Among nationalist voters in Northern Ireland, Gerry Adams benefits from the lack of either an anti-war or pro-war alternative.
There’s a big difference, however. In Britain, the Conservatives had to drop their plans to run an ad campaign highlighting Blair’s likely resignation in the next term: the focus groups who saw the “Vote Blair, Get Brown?” posters were too enamoured of the prospect, which would make them more rather than less likely to vote Labour. In Ireland, even among those who don’t entirely trust Adams, a change in leadership of the republican movement is a much more worrying proposition.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. He can be contacted at email@example.com.