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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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?
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?
There is a big Moslem community but Respect's candidate selection and
campaigning started very late.
Pavilion: Can the Greens win?
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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%).
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.