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Respect got a good vote in Hartlepool 

This is the staggering claim in the SWP's party notes. The quote reads in full:

"Respect got a good vote in Hartlepool coming 5th in a field of 14 candidates. This is the first by-election where Respect has stood as well as the Greens and the SLP. At the beginning of the campaign Respect had 3 or 4 supporters in Hartlepool now there are 30-40 Respect activists in the town."

The same optimistic tone was adopted on Respect's web site, commenting on the vote:
From a standing start in a crowded field of 14 candidates and massive and unprecedented resources poured into the constituency by the major parties, Respect and its candidate John Bloom did exceptionally well. We gained a clear fifth place and established Respect as the largest and best organised left challenge to the establishment, gaining well over twice the vote for the Green candidate."

Now honesty is important in politics. Part of the cynicism we all feel about the establishment parties is the way they spin to pretend disastrous results are really god ones. This is really part of a moral corruption where we are all so habituated to politicians lying that we don't even think it is odd any more.

One of the encouraging aspects of the Socialist Alliance was the way there was a serious and honest attempt to analyse the bad results as well as the good ones.. So although the SA vote was often disappointing, that wasn't fundamental to the project - it was another opportunity to learn and develop. The long term project was to start to change the established political terrain to reflect the widespread mood of radicalization that had no expression within the existing party structures and voting patterns.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion about Respect seems to be based upon the belief that there is a pre-existing opposition to be "hoovered up" into almost inevitable electoral success. Of course ideological opposition exists. But it does so in a fragmented and contradictory way - it doesn't yet exist in any form coherent enough to support a major reconfiguration of voting patterns.

This over optimism about the electoral prospects in Hartlepool can be clearly seen from the local Respect web page, that wrote (before the poll):

"HARTLEPOOL: Victory in sight? - It's now up to us!  Could Hartlepool-Respect Register another victory. To win in Hartlepool would be a truly magnificent coup, and shake the foundations of parliament to the core as well as capturing public imagination all across the country. This is the greatest opportunity yet to bury New Labour's shameful policies, and to silence Lib Dems' insincere posturings."

And even more confidently on eve of poll:
Latest unauthorised statistics show that Respect is just about leading the popularity stakes. By registering your vote for Respect in the up-coming by-election, local campaigner John Bloom can ensure an amazing win for all, and finally ensure that Hartlepool gets the MP, town and environment it truly deserves."

Not everyone was expecting a breakthrough, but many people were expecting a better result than John Bloom actually achieved. This is well summed up by one Socialist Resistance supporter, who wrote: "I didn't think we would get as high a percentage of the vote as Birmingham or Leicester but I was hoping Respect would pick up near 5%."

A more sober assessment of the prospects was given on the Socialist Unity web-page back in July: "The difficult challenge for Respect is that this is both a very unfavourable contest, and one that is hard to avoid. In the 2001 general election Arthur Scargill stood against Mandelson and scored a creditable 2.4%, getting over 900 votes. At the time most of us were a bit disappointed by this performance, but in hindsight it was quite good. Hartlepool is a small working class town (population 88000, electorate 67000). According to the 2001 census 98.8% of Hartlepool's population describe themselves as white and only 0.4% are Moslem. Undoubtedly left organisation in the town is relatively weak, although this is one of the few towns where Respect stood candidates for the local elections. This is the sort of town where Respect polled very badly in the Euro elections on June 10th right across the country, and in Hartlepool they polled only 1.0%. Remember, in many parts of the country Respect polled no better in the Euro elections than Scargill's Socialist Labour Party (SLP) did in 1999. However, the 2.4% vote for the SLP in 2001 shows that there is an audience for a socialist alternative in Hartlepool. What is more, the fact that Mandelson personifies the New Labour ethos means that there is a crying need for a left challenge in the by-election. The difficulty for Respect is that if it doesn't contest this election then many on the left will accuse them of walking away from white working class constituencies. But if Respect does contest the election and performs worse than 2.4% then this will be a very sobering reality check."

 A sobering reality check is indeed what Hartlepool represents. But a reality check requires there to be some analysis, and a discussion about what the result means for the future. Unfortunately there was no discussion in the following week's Socialist Worker, and the SWP's internal party notes said it was a good result! In fact I couldn't find any mention of the Hartlepool result at all in the following week's Socialist Worker:

Nor is the failure to face facts limited to the SWP. Another Respect supporter wrote: "I'm not looking at it through rose tinted glasses or making excuses but I think there are some positive things to say about it ( and I am just talking locally here ). We got a lot less than the Tories in fourth place but it is significant that we came fifth. I think the top five here were perceived as being the serious parties and the others as being the  marginal and mad ones."

So RESPECT are left with two consolations. that they came fifth, and that they have recruited 30 or 40 new members.
But someone had to come fifth, and the spread of votes shows that there were just four serious contenders, who got thousands of votes, 9% or more. And then there was a spread of disastrous votes for all the other 10 candidates - who got just a few hundred votes, all below 2%.

Face facts, given that relatively large campaigning resources were put into this election by Respect then voters were aware of them and made a conscious choice to vote for someone else. That does not mean the result is a disaster, 1.8% is not much worse than the early results gained by the Scottish Socialist party, or the Portuguese Left Block: we can build on 1.8%. However, Hartlepool suggests that in traditional working class towns it is going to be a long haul to build an alternative to New Labour. The triumphalism of Respect gets in the way of the serious work that needs to be done.

It is of course good that  a reported 30 or 40 people (by which we can understand les than 30) have joined Respect. But if they joined on an understanding that John Bloom would get a good vote surely many of them may be demoralized?

It is worth quoting from Tony Cliff's biography concerning the disastrous Grimsby by-election in 1977: "The euphoria among our members, both new and old, was astonishing. It was natural. Paul Foot was interviewed on the BBC ... The SWP public meeting attracted a larger audience than the Labour Party meeting addressed by Michael Foot. After the pathetic vote we won was announced the demoralization was extreme. Of the 50 new members we recruited during the campaign not one turned up to the branch meeting a couple of days after the election. Of the original 5 members , two left immediately and soon afterwards the branch collapsed."

Perhaps where the SWP went wrong in 1977 was by not declaring: "The SWP got a good vote in Grimsby coming 4th in a field of 6 candidates. This is the first by-election where the SWP has stood as well as the Sunshine Party and the Malcolm Muggeridge Fan Club. At the beginning of the campaign the SWP had 4 or 5 supporters in Grimsby now there are 40 to 50 SWP activists in the town.""


January 2005


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