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What would be a good result for the left?

Andy Newman


This year's general election certainly finds the British left - particularly in England and Wales - in a confusing and contradictory position.

This article will not discuss Scotland much, except to say that the Scottish Socialist Party are contesting every constituency, except one where they have stood down in favour of Rose Gentle (the bereaved mother of a soldier killed in Iraq) who is standing on an anti-war ticket. The SSP has established itself electorally, and the test for them will be to see whether the handling of the crisis around Tommy Sheridan's resignation as convenor has affected their support. They will also be relatively disadvantaged in this election by the first past the post system - and because these elections are for a Westminster government, not for Holyrood - the lack of an equivalently strong left challenge in England may also make them appear less credible with some voters. If the SSP vote improves at all on its 2001 level then they are doing well. (In 2001 they got an average of 3.3%, saving their deposit in 10 constituencies - which requires more than 5% of votes cast)

The most remarkable feature of this election is that despite the fact that the government has convincingly lost the argument about the Iraq war, and despite its neo-liberal agenda, it is the right who are making all the running, on issues like crime and immigration. Anyone following just the mainstream media coverage would think that the main left challenge to Labour comes from the obnoxious Liberal Democrats.

So can the Tories win? This seems unlikely given the geographical bias of the Conservative vote to the South East, and the fact that there are about 100 Lib Dem / Tory marginals, so the Tories may actually lose seats in some areas. However in order to motivate their core voters both Labour and the Conservatives have an interest in talking up the prospects of a Tory victory.

The left within the Labour Party make very little impact. Just 31 Labour candidates have signed up to Labour Against the War, and not all of them are from the left on other issues. What is more, now that Tony Benn has retired, and Eric Heffer is long dead, the Labour left no longer has a spokesperson with a national profile. Voters have heard of Homer, but not Alan Simpson. The Warwick agreement between the big unions and the Labour Party to win specific policy commitments was too much, too little, too late. But whereas Johnny Mathis knew this meant it had to end, the union leaders still come up with most of the cash and many of the foot soldiers for Labour's campaign. It is revealing that one television series with a cheeky celebrity chef had more effect on Labour's policy than the TUC seem to have managed in 8 years. Outside of the Morning Star the union leaderships seem to have no impact on the national political debate.

As left wing member of Labour's NEC Mark Seddon has written, the "prime minister can tell the Times, as he did on 5 November 2004, that 'the US neo-conservatives are not a world away from the progressive left', secure in the knowledge that the only response will be a shrugging of shoulders and a shuffling of feet. New Labour's command of the political void is so total, the opposition, from right and left, so feeble, that all of us are becoming helpless spectators"

As Labour's formal membership tumbles to less than 200000, its lowest since 1928, it is more and more the case that ordinary trade union activists are hostile to the Labour party. This has found its most vivid expression in the expulsion of the RMT and resignation of the FBU from the party. Most traditional Labour voters respond by simply abstaining. Some 20% less people in absolute terms voted Labour in 2001 than in 1997, and the landslide for Labour was produced only because the Lib Dem and Tory vote fell as well. So while a Labour victory is still preferable to the nightmare of a Howard government (just ask the Australians how bad that can be), there will be absolutely no celebration in any progressive circles in seeing Tony Blair's smirking self-congratulation when he wins.

The nature of the challenge from the left to Labour is significantly different from in 2001. At that time the Socialist Alliance stood 98 candidates, and the Socialist Party stood a further two candidates - who because they were challenging left labour MPs did not get the backing of the SA. Scargill's SLP also stood 114 candidates, 12 of them against the Scottish Socialist Party, and there were a handful of other candidates from the CPB, WRP and others.

There were of course also a significant number of candidates from the Green Party in 2001 as there are today.

Arguably the high number of socialist candidates in 2001 was due to an immature assessment of the situation, and many of the campaigns were relatively poorly resourced with candidates who were not sufficiently well known in their constituencies in electoral terms. This was reflected in the fairly poor average vote of just 1.69% for the Socialist Alliance, only two candidates retaining their deposit.

Nevertheless, 1.7% represents a base line of comparison. Given the squeezing effect of the first past the post system on minor parties, and their virtual exclusion from the media, anything over 1% can be seen as something to build upon. But in order to build, you need to patiently keep standing with the same candidates and under the same party banner, this is a lesson that some parts of the left seem very slow to learn.

The actual number of votes received is only part of the story, and the virtues of the election campaign on building socialist organisation are well described by Matthew Caygill in an as yet unpublished account of his experience in Leeds. At the time of its dissolution the Socialist Alliance was beginning to seriously if modestly involve itself in the debate in the unions over the political fund. That work has benefited Pete Radcliffe, the Socialist Unity candidate, in Nottingham East who is backed by three union branches.

The most direct continuation of the Socialist Alliance legacy, both in political and electoral terms is the Socialist Green Unity Coalition. This is a loose framework of cooperation between the 16 candidates of the Socialist Party, two Socialist Unity candidates, 5 candidates from the Alliance for Green Socialism, and one or two candidates standing for the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform. Interestingly the candidates standing for the SGUC include 3 out of the top 6 top performing Socialist Alliance candidates from 2001.

The largest challenge to the left of Labour is from the Green Party, standing around 200 candidates. What is more, in the Euro elections last June the Green party polled first in Brighton pavilion, where they are hoping to win their first ever Westminster seat. The Green Party has continued to evolve to the left in recent years, and at the same time environmental issues such as transport and pollution related asthma are getting a stronger hearing in the workers' movement. Their election manifesto for the general election is unambiguously left wing. Nevertheless, the Green Party, still has a brown rice and sandals image that it must overcome if it is to win a base from Labour's traditional voters. At the same time the Green party still has a very heterogeneous membership, and they have gone into coalition with the Lib Dems in Oxford, and the Tories in Leeds.

Although leading left members of the Green Party such as Derek Wall will emphasise that it is a party with strong policy in favour of the trade unions, a rummage around its web-site finds it reasonably quiet on workplace issues. This is in contrast to the Australian Greens - who seem to much more strongly associate themselves with the labour movement. The Greens have taken a very firm and principled stand on the Iraq war - helped by their capable spokesperson Caroline Lucas MEP. It is clear that the programme of the Green party would be a very significant challenge to British capitalism.

The most controversial of the challenges to Labour comes from Respect - the Unity Coalition. Nominally a political descendant of the Socialist Alliance, it also embraces George Galloway MP and several prominent Moslem leaders, as well as notables such as Ken Loach and Mike Rosen.

There seem to be two different objections to Respect, one a very negative one, is dismissal of it for allegedly appealing to Moslem voters on a communal basis. This view is entirely mistaken, as the support that Respect has gained amongst Moslem and other immigrant communities is a product of its very firm position on Iraq and civil liberties: issues with which George Galloway has become internationally identified as a brilliant opponent of imperialism. Naturally those parts of the electorate who regard Iraq as the most important issue - whether due to their political understanding, religion, or their family's country of origin - find Respect's clear message appealing.

Quite remarkably Respect does have a chance of winning a seat in East London, both helped by the large concentration of Moslems in its target constituencies, and also by concentrating its campaigning resources on just a few seats.

The other objection to Respect is not its political content, but its internal culture and lack of democracy. This is a serious obstacle to socialists - other than the SWP - being involved in Respect. The party had a very enthusiastic election launch meeting in London with 700 people there, but there was no major trade union speaker.

Forward Wales - the Welsh Socialist Party - are standing a small number of extremely capable and well rooted community activists as candidates, and may do very well In Wrexham.

The possibility of either the Green Party or Respect winning a seat in Westminster, or even coming close, is very exciting. It will be seen not only by professional commentators, but by working class activists, as a significant milestone in the disintegration of the Labour Party's traditional hegemony. It will reopen the discussion in very practical terms in the unions about what to do with the political funds, and it will weaken the authority of Tony Blair in the Labour party, in Britain and in the world.

Nevertheless, neither the Green Party nor Respect, as they are presently constituted, are likely to become a serious alternative to the Labour Party in the longer term. Electoral success for them in May will therefore have the contradictory effect of strengthening the conditions under which an alternative to New Labour can be built, while at the same time further strengthening an organisational obstacle to that outcome being achieved.

Outside of these headline grabbing seats, the Greens are likely to do reasonably well, retaining their deposit in a number of seats. As much as anything this is the reward for decades of patient and consistent campaigning. Many SGUC and Respect candidates are likely to do no better than the Socialist Alliance did in 2001. Were this to happen then it should be a cause of some reflection, given the momentous events that have happened since then.


Some results to watch:

Bethnal Green:  Will it be George or Oona? Will the much higher national profile of the Liberal Democrats be more significant than Respect's local campaigning in attracting the anti-war vote?

Birmingham Perry Bar and Birmingham Sparkbrook:  Respect candidates Dr Naseem and Salama Yacoob may do well with Moslem voters, and the scandal over labour's electoral fraud there last year will help them. But how credible will their response be to the Longbridge crisis be - as neither of them are Labour Movement activists?

Bradford North: There is a big Moslem community but Respect's candidate selection and campaigning started very late.

Brighton Pavilion: Can the Greens win?

Coventry North East: Former Labour MP, and socialist party councillor, Dave Nellist received an excellent result in 2001, 2638 votes (7.08%). The Socialist party have a long term commitment to electoral politics, and have worked very hard in this constituency.

Lewisham Deptford: Well established Socialist party councillor Ian Page got 1260 votes in 2001, (4.33%), but his vote was one of the only votes in London last June where Respect (he stood as a joint Respect/ Socialist Alternative candidate) got less votes than the SA did in the previous GLA elections. Ian page is standing against Darren Johnson for the Green Party, who is a member of the London Assembly and was the Green's mayoral candidate, and is expected to do well.

Neath: where the SA received 483 votes in 2001 (1.38%) - this is an important comparator because Respect are standing there this time, and gained 28% in one council ward there last June. (It is also worth recalling that Jock Haston got 1781 votes (4.6% ) here for the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1945!

Nottingham East:  Pete Radcliife got 1117 votes (3.76%) in 2001 for the Socialist Alliance - this time he is conducting a very similar campaign under the banner Socialist Unity, but the Green Party have decided to stand against him.

Plymouth Devonport: where Tony Staunton got 334 votes ( 0.80%) last time for the Socialist Alliance. this is significant because the same candidate is standing there again in the same seat for but now for Respect - how far have they progressed?

Preston: Respect candidate Michael Lavellete was elected as a Socilaist Alliance councillor in 2003. He has been a very high profile local councillor, now for Respect, and will have widespread backing from Preston's Moslem community, not only becasue of his anti-war stance, but also his hard work on anti-racist and social justice issues. In 2000 the Socialist Alliance candidate Councillor Terry Cartwright gained 1210 votes (5.6%).

Wrexham:  Forward Wales candidate, Janet Williams's life story reads a bit like a plot synopsis of Erin Brockovich. A very successful environmental campaigner standing in the seat that John Marek AM won for the Welsh assembly, and where FW won a council seat last year. This is one of the left's hottest prospects.


April 2005


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