GLASGOW — The red shirts worn by activists with the Scottish Socialist Party featured the phrase “Axis of Evil,” a reference to President Bush’s identification of nations that were on the wrong side of his “with-us-or-against-us” equation. In parentheses next to the phrase was the word “revised” and beneath it were outlines of Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the Glasgow Kelvin parliamentary constituency.
“We did not want any confusion. We’re not with Bush. We’re not with Blair. And we were not for their war,” said Andy McPake, a Glasgow University student who wore the red shirt and a yellow “Vote SSP — Stop the War” sticker on the night of May 1, as he watched votes being counted in elections for the Scottish Parliament.
Though the elections for the separate parliament that serves Scotland were about more than just the war that played out during the course of this year’s campaign, a good many Scots shared McPake’s view that the balloting offered an opportunity to send Blair and Bush a message. Polling before the election suggested that a substantial number of traditional Labour Party voters would bolt because of their anger over Blair’s prowar stance, and that appears to be precisely what happened. The militantly antiwar SSP, whose leader Tommy Sheridan appeared frequently at antiwar rallies throughout the campaign and continued to wear a “No More Wars” pin even after the fighting in Iraq slackened, had held a single seat in the previous parliament. On May 1, the SSP won six seats. The Greens, who shared the antiwar stance if not the radical passions of the SSP activists, won seven seats. And independents who expressed anti-war sentiments took several more positions.
Blair’s Labour Party, which has long been the dominant political force in Scotland, retained the largest bloc of parliamentary seats. But the party’s majority was significantly reduced in what newspaper headlines described as “A shock to the system” and “People Power on the March.” Far from gaining a “war bounce” as a result of Blair’s lonely alliance with Bush, Labour suffered a setback in Scotland. And many local observers were blunt about the role that the support that Blair and other Labour Party leaders gave to Bush’s war. “The public has expressed its verdict on a failed party (Labour) that was willing to find billions to fight an illegal war in Iraq while failing to find funding that would ensure that old people won’t have to choose between heating their home or eating this winter.”
The parliamentary elections in Scotland formed one part of the first political test for a member of Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” Blair’s Labour party also battled on May 1 to maintain its control over local governments across Britain. There too, Labour suffered serious setbacks. The party’s percentage of the vote fell from 41 percent in the 2001 general election to just 30 percent in the May 1 voting. Labour lost more than 800 seats on the local councils that govern British cities and regions. Most of those seats went to the traditional opposition party, the Conservatives, but a substantial number went to the Liberal Democrats, a third party that was highly critical of Blair’s alliance with Bush before the war.
Across Britain, the Liberal Democrats had their best performance in decades — tying Labour’s 30 percent of the vote. And in cities such as Birmingham and Leicester, which are home to large Muslim populations, the Liberal Democrats swept past Labour. Mohammad Naseem, the chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque explained the dramatic shift of Muslim voters away from Labour by saying simply, “They were against the Labour Party policies over the war.” The Greens also won a number of seats that had been held by Labour.
As in Scotland, the local government elections in Britain revolved around many issues. But Britain’s Independent newspaper noted in a weekend editorial that, “Labour’s performance, picking up 30 percent of the vote, seemed to suffer from an anti-war backlash. It did badly in areas with large numbers of Muslim voters, notably losing control of Birmingham. In years to come we may look back on the war as a turning point in Labour’s relations with Muslim Britons.” Though somewhat less easily measured, the newspaper argued that the May 1 vote also pointed to another hard break for Labour: “the loss of votes among the liberal middle classes and the effects of the demoralization of party activists by the war in Iraq.”