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Gary Younge
From the margins

Penny Ellis has been ejected from the Big Brother household. With 624,786 calls, three times as many votes were cast in last week's eviction for Big Brother on Friday than for the entire Labour cabinet the day before. And with 42% of the vote, Helen has as much of a mandate to stay in the House as Blair does to lead government.

Labour's huge landslide on such a low turnout leaves us with the worst of all worlds. On the one hand we have a party which has pitched its ideological tent over such a large terrain that there are few in any of the three parties who could not find a place in it. It is not so much a Labour government as a government of national unity. On the other, there are the 40% who fell out of the political system altogether.

Over-represented among them are the young, the black and the poor - the kind who rioted in Oldham and Leeds in recent weeks without having any impact on the campaigns of the main three parties; those who are not happy with their lot (contented people do not fight each other or the police, burn cars or follow rightwing extremists), but do not see voting as a route to put that right. There is a growing and strengthening of the centre-right consensus in Westminster and a growing fragmentation coupled with indifference, apathy and antipathy outside it. A growing fissure between the margins and the mainstream.

With an imploding Tory party which is more of a danger to itself than the government, the opposition will not come from parliament. Charles Kennedy will undoubtedly do his best. But when the euphoria over his recent performance subsides, we will be left with the reality that he remains the leader of a small third party with only 52 MPs. Efforts to focus some of the frustration during the election produced a mixture of weak and frightening results.

The showing for the hard left was disappointing. Despite an array of strong candidates, the Socialist Alliance gained an average of less than 2% of the votes in the constituencies where its candidates stood. Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour party did even worse. The Greens fared considerably better, almost doubling their vote to around 3% and saving 10 deposits, but still far short of establishing themselves as a fourth force in British party politics. The fact that they all stood against each other in many places, often sharing only a handful of votes between them, suggests that lessons about the perils of factionalism and the need for alliance-building across progressive cultures have yet to be learned.

The understanding that the differences between them are minimal and arcane compared to the clear and fundamental differences they have with the government, and that it is better to be part of something big than control something small, is obvious to all, it seems, but those involved.

Scotland was more heartening. Standing in every constituency in what was already a crowded, four-horse race, the Scottish Socialist party performed well. Even though they fell short of their own target, they none the less saved 10 deposits, took 3% of the vote and are well placed to up their numbers in Holyrood in a few years' time. Thanks to the devolved parliament, the Scottish Socialist party already has representation in the form of Tommy Sheridan. But it was thanks also to the Scottish parliament that many voters decided a United Kingdom-wide election was not the place to score points that would not resonate beyond Holyrood.

The Socialist Alliance is putting a brave face on it. But its claim to have performed better than the Communist party did in 1950 rings hollow. First, travelling more than half a century back in time in search of electoral sustenance indicates desperation. Second, the two scenarios couldn't be more different. In 1950 communists were standing against a Labour government that had just introduced the National Health Service in an election in which, at 84%, the turnout was the highest of the last century.

The truth is that last Thursday, given the choice between voting for New Labour and a hard-left alternative, many disillusioned Labour voters decided either to stay at home, held their noses and voted Labour, or went for the Liberal Democrats. There appears to be room for only one political party to the left of Labour at present. In England and Wales, that is most likely to be Green; in Scotland, it will be red. In both cases the space they occupy is unlikely to grow much beyond 5%.

That may change, for while the electoral constituency to the left of Labour might be small, the political space Blair has vacated is huge. Opposition to the part privatisation of public services - particularly education and health - and support for higher pensions is widespread. That does not denote a huge surge for socialism, or even anything remotely like it. One of the principal beneficiaries of it on Thursday was Dr Richard Taylor, who took Wyre Forest with a campaign to save the local hospital. An unlikely maverick, Dr Taylor is against a ban on hunting, is anti-Europe and believes people should have the right to receive private healthcare or send their children to private school.

So since it cannot be defeated, and will only rarely be challenged in the House, pockets of resistance are likely to grow elsewhere. The unions have already made it clear that they have no intention of being as accommodating in this parliament as they were in the last. Yesterday Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, wrote: "I for one reject the notion that efficient public services can only be provided in partnership with the private sector."

In a speech today Dave Prentis, the Unison leader, is set to call on Blair to drop his push for private sector involvement in public services. "If Labour thinks that they have been given a mandate to go ahead with further privatisation of public services, then it had better think again," he will say.

There will be opposition too from the devolved bodies. Ken Livingstone has, predictably, already joined the fray. "We have to repudiate the dogma that the private sector has all the answers," he says. But as the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly continue to chart their own paths, be it on tuition fees, care for the elderly or prescription charges, so the scope to undermine the insistence that there is no alternative to new Labour will grow.

But so too will the rage that swept through the streets of Oldham, delivering sobering results from the far right British National Party. For if the landscape holds some hope to the left it brings with it threats from the right. In Oldham's two constituencies alone, the BNP received a fifth of the votes that the Socialist Alliance mustered in around 100. In the 17 seats where the BNP or the National Front stood, against either the Greens or the hard left, the BNP was more likely to win.

A Labour victory has provided the opportunity for progressive politics to flourish; but the low turnout and low expectations with which it captured it may also have paved the way for reactionary movements to fester.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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