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Gary Younge
We cannot vote Labour

From Tony Blair, however, one might have expected something different. As the political representative of a movement founded on the principles of international solidarity and equality, a Labour leader might have chosen a different path. Sadly, Blair's political calculus was faulty long before the first shot was fired. He decided that since the US was hellbent on having a fight and would undoubtedly win, the best thing Britain could do was not try to stop it but offer to hold its coat. He calculated that the security council would authorise the invasion; that the invaders would be greeted warmly; that they would find weapons of mass destruction; that all military opposition would be crushed quickly; and that he would emerge unambiguously victorious.

In whatever mathematical model employed, he forgot one crucial component - principle. With hindsight we can see just how much each bad decision would amplify that basic error. In crude, strategic terms he might have been proven right at any stage. But, in moral terms, he was simply crude. Sadly, not least for tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, Blair got his sums wrong.

As the election approaches it is time for those of us who identify with Labour but find ourselves somewhere between disillusionment and disgust with the party to weigh strategy and morality and hopefully get our sums right. If the polls are right, the Labour party's numbers in parliament are set to be depleted considerably in May. As progressive, left-leaning voters we need to decide what role we want to play in that, if any, and be clear about why.

Those progressives who have always and will always vote Labour, regardless of what it does or to whom, please turn the page. There is a word that covers uncritical support, non-negotiable loyalty and blind faith. It is called fundamentalism. The rest of us have some hard thinking to do. The next few months will find us regaled by friends and foes at work and play, in print and on screen. They will threaten us with life under Michael Howard. Like a Soviet commissar without a clipboard, they will parrot the achievements of the past eight years in facts and figures by rote.

Those who unleashed mayhem in the Gulf, degraded the racial discourse in Britain and wilfully alienated their most loyal supporters will lecture us on responsibility. They will tell us to be realistic. They will warn us there is no alternative. The best place to start is to admit that, on some points, they are right. The left comes at this election from a position of political strength and electoral weakness. We have managed to galvanise mass opposition to the war in particular but, with the exception of Scotland, not to New Labour in general - and so have failed to lend this disaffection an electoral expression. As a result, there is no national force to the left of Labour capable of replacing it or of posing an effective challenge to it under a first-past-the-post system. The Liberal Democrats, with their support for the occupation in Iraq and for freemarket domestic policies, simply do not cut it. So the immediate, strategic consequence of not voting Labour will be a shift to the right in parliament.

The Labour party has done some good things. Investment in health and education, lowering the age of consent for gay men, the Macpherson report, the minimum wage, devolution in Scotland and Wales, and reducing child poverty are all achievements we would be calling for if they hadn't happened already. The case for voting Labour is, and always has been, persuasive. But while it is strategically compelling, in the short run it is less morally convincing now than at any time since the party took office. For all its accomplishments are dwarfed by its failings: from persecuting asylum seekers to overseeing growing economic inequality. In the words of the late African-American writer James Baldwin: "What it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other."

Depressed turnout and the rise in support for the British National party suggest an even greater risk of a far more dramatic lurch to the right if we maintain our current course and ignore the despondency it is creating. To blame this on Blair and the New Labour project, as though they are in some way separate and distinct from the rest of Labour, no longer washes. True, they have dismantled almost every lever of democracy within the party. But, with a few notable exceptions, at crucial moments the backbenchers and trade union movement have chosen to side with the leadership.

This has transformed Labour from an imperfect conduit of progressive change to an active obstacle to it. To vote for it is to abandon any hope that such change will ever come. It is to hand over responsibility for a leftwing agenda to those who have shown nothing but contempt for liberal-left policies and for the people who hold them dear. Nowhere is this more evident than on Iraq. The case against the war has been made often and eloquently, not least in these pages.

The Labour leadership would dearly like people to stop making that case and move on. They start their sentences with "Iraq aside...", as though reducing child poverty at home cancels out killing kids abroad and putting more police on the streets negates violating international law. While British troops are stuck in a sordid quagmire, those who decide to move on must first step over the corpses and ignore the stench. Blair's disregard for the anti-war movement was not aberrant but emblematic of a leader unencumbered by party, cabinet, movement or ideological principle. It is the same disrespect he has shown for pensioners, immigrants, council-house tenants and students.

This progressive antipathy to Labour will most likely be shaped by local factors. Labour candidates who opposed the war should not be punished; otherwise, where candidates for the Greens and Respect are standing they should be supported. In some places, the Liberal Democrats may be the only viable opposition to the Tories. There are tens of thousands of reasons in Iraq why we should not vote Labour. By election time, there will be many more.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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