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After the 'New Labour' landslide... What next?

WHERE DO WE ALL STAND now after the electoral revolution of May 1st 1997? Everyone expected the Tories to get a hammering but not to this extent. Astute tactical voting in Great Britain has led to a new parliament of 418 Labour members, 165 Tories and 46 Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair's massive majority of 179 seats ought to give him the power to make unchallengeable sweeping changes to society in both Great Britain and Ulster. It is interesting to note, however, that in the percentage of votes cast, Labour have the support of only 44% of the voters – 1% more than the Tories got in 1992. The Labour landslide was a result of a collapse in the Tory vote. Only 31% of voters came out for the Tories this time around. The intervention of the Referendum Party also helped to see off some particularly obnoxious Tories, most notably David Mellor. Unfortunately it also squeezed support for the two Third Way candidates who stood in Broxbourne and Hornchurch.

One important factor which has largely been ignored in the press has been the massive growth in those who abstained from voting at all. Some 2996 of the registered electorate did not vote at all. This means that Tony Blair has in fact only the support of less that a third of the British electorate and the Tory party under John Major represented less than a quarter of the same electorate. Clearly something has to be done about so-called 'representative democracy' to make it more accountable to the people. The people of these islands need a real say in their own affairs - through regular referenda and direct democracy - which cannot be realised under the parliamentary system.

In Ulster, the election was fought against the background of what appears to be a gradually increasing return to war on the part of the loyalist paramilitary organisations. As we feared, it has been impossible for the CLMC to hold the line in the face of an escalation of the IRA's war of aggression against the Ulster people. At present there appears to be an unclaimed 'measured' response to particular PIRA actions. There has also been an increase in communal tensions in which isolated churches, chapels and Orange halls have fallen prey to arsonists.

Other factors which suggest an increase in tension in the coming months are the emergence of the Loyalist Volunteer Force - a hard-line breakaway loyalist faction with no connection to the CLMC - in mid-Ulster and parts of Belfast; a threat from the 'Continuity IRA' to intensify their campaign which began last year and the re-emergence of the INLA after its recent bout of internal bloodletting.

There was little change for Ulster in the election which as usual were largely competitions within each community for the greater share of the vote. The DUP lost one seat to Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party gained the new seat in West Tyrone. Gerry Adams regained West Belfast from the SDLP. Overall, the DUP lost ground to the UUP and the SDLP has found that its marriage to Sinn Féin in recent years has cost it a lot of support. One of the most interesting factors was the growth in support for the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party. David Ervine, the PUP's candidate in South Belfast gained a surprising 14.4% of the vote. This suggests that the PUP could erode the DUP vote and win some extra seats on the Belfast City Council.

It remains to be seen how the new NIO team under Dr Mo Mowlam will govern Ulster. The full impact will not probably emerge until the end of the general election in the Irish Republic on June 6th. Bertie Ahern, the Fianna Fail leader and likely winner of the forthcoming Éire election, seems keen to bring Sinn Fein into talks despite the ongoing IRA military campaign. Prime Minster Blair has visited Ulster with a soothing speech full of smooth talking and soft soap although he intends to keep to the terms of the Hillsborough Pact, the Downing Street Declaration and the green-tinted 'framework' documents of 1995. The pressure will be on him to concede to the demands of a re-invigorated pan-Irish national-chauvinist front if Ahem wins his election in June. Can Blair and Mowlam handle it? Time will tell.

David Kerr
Autumn 1997.

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