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The first socialist elected since 1945?



One of the most illuminating reads on the left is the SWP’s internal mailing, “Party Notes”. Fortunately you don’t need to join the SWP to read it, due to their lax internal security – presumably (courtesy of Manchester SWP) even BNP Fuehrer Nick Griffin has been a regular reader!


Tragically, since Chris Bambury left the position of National Secretary the prose has been a lot less entertaining. Bambury has made a significant contribution to the Marxist method by synthesising poor judgement, stream of consciousness and breathless enthusiasm. The new National Secretary, Martin Smith, unfortunately does not have the same poetic gift. However there are still some remarkable judgements in Party Notes. For example only this week he wrote:


“On Sunday SWP delegates from around the country attended Party Council. I'm

sure everyone would agree that it was a great success. Delegates described how we face a historic opportunity in the coming months. … …  on the 5 May (the most probable date for the general election) we have a real chance since 1945 of getting a socialist elected to parliament”


This is a remarkable claim. It is of course true that in 1945 a large number of socialist MPs were returned to Westminster. For example the hard left group of MPs including Tom Braddock, Ronald Chamberlain, Harold Davies, H.L. Austin, Stephen Swingler and Bessie Braddock (unrelated to Tom), started collaborating in 1948 with the Trotskyists Gerry Healy and John Lawrence to produce the paper “Socialist Outlook”, and were instrumental in setting up in 1949 the Socialist Fellowship, a vibrant grass-roots socialist organisation within the party. Socialist planning was also at the centre of the demands made in Keep Left, the manifesto signed by fifteen MPs led by Richard Crossman, Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo. At the same time Nye Bevan and the Marxist, Harold Laski were on the NEC; and indeed Laski was party chairman until his premature death in 1950.


It is also true that two members of the Communist Party were elected in 1945, Willie Gallagher and Phil Piratin.


However, since 1945 there have been dozens of other socialists elected to Westminster. Not only the Militant MPs, Terry Fields, Dave Nellist and Pat Wall, but also countless others, such as Ernie Roberts, Eric Heffer, Bernie Grant, Audrey Wise and Tony Benn. In a situation much more incendiary than today Bernadette Devlin MacAliskey, a well known revolutioanry socialist, was elected as MP for Mid-Ulster in 1969 on a radical civil rights program. Indeed within months of being elected she was serving 6 months in Armagh Prison following conviction for incitement to riot!


We may also point out that even in today’s parliament there are socialist MPs, such as Alan Simpson, John McDonald, Jeremy Corbyn and Dennis Skinner. What is more if we consider the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly we must include the six SSP members and John Marek who sits for Forward Wales – the Welsh Socialist party.


So what is happening that the SWP praises as so unique? Presumably they are referring to the possibility that George Galloway has a chance of winning a seat in Tower Hamlets for Respect. Will this make him the first socialist elected since 1945? Well hang on, isn’t George Galloway already an MP? So when he was elected last time weren’t the constituents of Glasgow Kelvin voting for a socialist MP, or has Galloway only become a socialist since then?


Or has Galloway become a socialist MP because he might win as a Respect candidate? But although Respect presents a left-wing manifesto, it is surely not a socialist party because it has also selected Yvonne Ridley as both a parliamentary candidate and onto its national executive. Isn’t the whole point of Respect that it believes it can reach out to a wider constituency than was achievable by an explicitly socialist party? (This is itself a useful comparison with 1945, George Galloway is standing for Respect, and the word has no obvious left wing connotations, Phil Piratin won in Stepney in 1945 standing for the rather more up front Communist Party!)


In fairness, I must concede that Respect may have made remarkable progress in East London. Socialists who are active in Tower Hamlets, such as Glyn Robbins who has sound judgement, have described how Respect has genuine resonance among both working class activists and the immigrant communities; after all success does breed success. If George Galloway does win, it will be brilliant.


But the SWP are clearly making an hysterical comparison with 1945. During the 1940s the Labour party was a mass party, and the Labour government nationalised the rail, steel, coal and road haulage industries and introduced the NHS. Even so, Labour Party conferences in the 1940s were bitterly acrimonious affairs as the membership demanded more. At the same time the Communist Party claimed a membership in excess of 30000, and had deep influence in the trade unions. Today the left in England is marginal, divided and lacking a clear strategy for advance.


So however well Respect does in the general election, the triumphalist rhetoric is unjustified. It is also dangerous because the SWP’s constant exaggeration of its influence and success breeds a corrosive cynicism. As one former member explains why he and his group of friends left the party:

“We'd all joined when we were really quite young. It was our first taste of political activity in a radical party. We had no real concept of the divisions and sectarianism within the left, and since the SWP was the largest leftist party we saw it as the place to be to make a difference. When, after a few months, we saw the rather evident democratic deficit within the party we left. I also objected particularly to the notion that selling the paper every Saturday, building the party, and turning up to Marxist forums was going to make a revolution happen tomorrow. The ever optimistic tone of party notes and the socialist worker clashed quite blatantly with reality  (as did SWP lies over the size of the anti-war demos, tagging on an extra 100,000 to the StWC estimate, which pissed me off as much as the police estimates). The result of which left me quite depressed about the entire situation of leftist politics in general, and it took a lot of conviction to keep me in the movement at all after leaving the SWP. I still think we need to work with them, and I'm committed to staying in Respect, at least to help provide a counter-balance to SWP hegemony. Not to sound too harsh, but people who tow the line to the letter remind me daily why I'm never going to be suckered into joining them again. I'd much rather be an individual with a voice, than an automaton.”



March 2005


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism