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The Swindon experience

Andy Newman


The first thing to remark about Swindon, is that the Tories won control of
the council for the first time in 25 years, taking three seats from Labour
and one from the Lib Dems. Three socialists contested seats in Swindon. An
interesting tactical question is raised by the Socialist party's choice of
seat, contesting Moreden where Labour only had a majority of 28 votes over
the Tories. What is more the Labour candidate, Jim d'Avila is Old Labour -
certainly no firebrand and weak on most issues, but had been one of the few
councillors to speak up in defence of asylum seekers.
Swindon Socialist Alliance had no say on this obviously but my view is that
we shouldn't have contested a Tory/Labour marginal while there was a real
danger of the Tories stealing the council.
Although we may make populist statements during elections about Labour being
the Tories Mark II, that is still not really the case while they have
structural links to the unions (d'Avila is an Amicus official) and the
loyalty of most working class voters. There are also important policy
differences, where mostly Labour are still more in the interests of working
people.

In the event, the SP carried out a good campaign including door to door
canvassing, and the Tories won the seat by a bigger margin than the SP vote.
Anyway, it would not have been the SP's fault that people no longer want to
vote Labour, and those who voted SP may well otherwise have abstained.


Standing three candidates - and the fact that we are well established in the
town - gave us some reasonable press coverage in the local paper

Our campaign in Gorse Hill and Pinehurst was more low key than we have done
in the past. Partly because some comrades were campaigning for RESPECT, and
partly because there is a lot of other stuff happening at the moment - Unite
Against Fascism leafleting, and various environmental campaigns, alongside
comrades' commitments to Stop the War and their trade unions work.
Nevertheless - we probably involved 11 people at one stage or another in
leafleting.

But all we did this time was leaflet the ward twice, and then leaflet one of
the three polling stations on the day. The candidate also went around the
estate in his car a couple of times with a megaphone.

The ward is mixed, half of it a council estate, and the other half small
terraced housing. It is a solidly white, working class area, and although
this is a crude index, newsagents sell a lot more copies of the Sun than
they do the Guardian! We do well there because we feel at home in that
environment and link the local issues to socialist politics. We have also
built up personal respect by not giving an inch over the issue of
immigration, but at the same time bring prepared to have long conversations
with people explaining while their racist explanations of very real social
problems are not as valid as class based explanations.

To be honest the last year has been so busy that we have really neglected
work on this estate, and deserved to be punished at the polls - the fact
that we weren't proves that we have a firm base of support to build on. One
interesting observation is that the candidate, Roy North, reported that a
number of people say they voted for both the Socialist Alliance in the
locals and UKIP in the Euros.

The most interesting experience was the ward we got the worst result,
Central, we had modest success in a by-election in January getting 9%, but
less than 4% this time.

We made an enormous effort for the by-elections in an attempt to recreate
the Lavallette experience. All the elements seemed to be there - we had
support from the Mosque committee, and there were announcements in the
Mosque to vote for us. As candidate I had led and won an anti-deportation
case for a local Pakistani grandmother a while ago, and was leading another
anti-deportation case during the campaign (that we also won). Members of the
Mosque committee went out canvassing with me. Our leaflets also made it
clear that we were backed by the former Labour leader of the council and the
officers of the local RMT branch.

We put out three election leaflets plus a 4 page newsletter, and canvassed
half the ward face to face, but still only got 9% - beating the Green who
got 3%.

This time round we did much less work - leafleting most of the ward just
once, due to financial and fatigue issues. Although on election day I did
distribute 1000 copies of a second SA leaflet along with a RESPECT leaflet
around the area with the biggest immigrant and Moslem populations.

The Greens did much better than us (10.2%), but this is party because they
do not take up the issue of race and immigration in a ward where this is the
number one issue on the doorstep, and where most of Swindon's non-white
population lives. It is also a reflection of the Greens' high profile Euro
campaign, which also benefited the UKIP local candidate in Swindon, who
jumped from  2% or so in January to 16% in June.

Possibly therefore we may had got more votes if we had stood as RESPECT in
this ward, but this would have split the local SA group. Certainly the base
we had as Socialist Alliance in Gorse Hill and Pinehurst would have been
lost if we had stood a new candidate under a different banner, and we were
not prepared to walk away from such a strong electoral base.

In Central ward, Labour put up a spirited campaign, but could not have been
more right wing. For the second time this year the only issue they raised in
their leaflets was crime, and they showed a cartoon of a policeman arresting
two drug dealers, one of whom seemed to be black. 

Some interesting observations. I had a chat with a man who said he would
vote for me in the local elections, but BNP in the Euros. I also spoke to an
Asian shop keeper who had both a respect and a Tory poster in his window. He
said he was voting Tory locally, and RESPECT for Europe. All this means that
any analysis of the vote is very complex: the SA is a much more edgy
organisation that comes over (in Swindon at least) with more attitude than
RESPECT, which I think means we can sometimes compete for votes with the BNP
as a protest vote. Similarly some of the Moslem support for RESPECT is
clearly based on a single issue.

Another thing that occurs to me is that in January support from the Mosque
didn't really translate into votes on the day, but this time around I had
almost no support from Moslems. I had a couple of conversations where people
had told me they had changed their minds because they realised I couldn't
win. Unless RESPECT does significantly better in the Euro and GLA elections
than early indications suggest then this may be a problem for RESPECT over
the next few months.

At the count I had a chat with two Labour councillors who used to be in the
WRP years ago. They are in a very uncomfortable position because they admit
they have no strategy locally or nationally to move the left forward, and as
one of them said they are just "hanging on in there". One of them remarked
that what we need is a "Socialist Alliance" that includes socialists still
in the Labour party - but of course that requires action from them - not
just us! It also raises the question of how we can tell they are socialists
when they didn't speak up over the war, and vote for every Blairite policy
in the council chamber. Nevertheless if we can continue a dialogue that will
be a step forward, and Stop the War have Alan Simpson MP visiting on 12th
July, so hopefully that will be a good occasion to debate.

They admitted that without a strategy from the Labour left they are not
going to turn the tide against Blair. What is more there seems no reason for
other lefties to join them, and one of them admitted we probably wouldn't be
allowed to join anyway. So however difficult it may seem to build a left
alternative to Labour - we are the only show in town.

 

June 2004

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