The Socialist Unity Network

Pre-predictions for the election

John Nicholson, RESPECT executive (personal capacity)


Rather than wait for the actual election results, this is a kind of before-the-event anti-prediction.


Simply considering the prospects of the left in this country in elections, any analysis of the progress (or otherwise) since the Westminster General Election of 2001 is affected by three underlying issues:

  1. What to do about 2 million people on the streets?
  2. All analyses of the 2004 elections are going to be generalisations, exaggerating one or more numerically small trend.
  3. The electoral systems in this country are not of our choosing and does not work to our advantage.
Let's look at this in more detail. First, the SWP were right to form the Stop the War Coalition as soon as possible after 9/11. Leave aside that they did it badly (in London at least). They could have gone through the Socialist Alliance and still arrived at the construction of the same umbrella organisation (and still have had the same influence within it). We did this in Manchester and it wasn't difficult. Initially a tripartite agreement between the SWP, the Socialist Alliance and Greater Manchester CND ensured an initial demonstration followed by a formal meeting at which we adopted the name "Greater Manchester Against the War" (again). Admittedly this transformed into a more routine STW structure and earlier this year restricted its internal organisation in such a way as to deter many of the non-SWP activists from participating. It was notable that the Stop the War election hustings held in May 2004 did not attract more than 20 people (including Peter Tatchell?), suggesting that this is not the vehicle through which current organisation is prioritised, even when it could have been supportive of Respect. (Only Respect and the Greens sent candidates - and both backed each other up on most questions.) The event was in strong contrast to the STW's packed "Trial of Blair" protest during the Labour Conference weekend held in Manchester in March.


But the main point is still valid. The formation and resourcing of the STW Coalition has been to the credit of the SWP and this should be stated clearly. The number of demonstrations and events would not have taken place without the SWP leadership and input. The monolithic approach has of course made it harder for other activities to take place at the same time, such as industrial direct action or anti-troop-recruitment protests, or even some Palestinian solidarity actions. A thousand flowers could have bloomed without detriment to the overall effect. But undoubtedly it was the organisation of STW that enabled two million people to be put on the streets.


And there came the problem. Out of such a mass protest - by its very nature uncontrollable and undirectable - what could the left do to take it forward? The SWP are not to be criticised for failing to come up with a definitive solution. The very success of the movement was arguably always going to present a difficulty for future activity. By definition future demonstrations were going to be smaller (though it is again a tribute to the SWP - and to the scale of anti-war feeling - that the demonstrations have continued and in terms of pre-2001 numbers have not been that small at all). But the idea of turning the anti-war movement into an electoral coalition was not out of keeping with the Socialist Alliance's own drive towards increasing its scope and effect, and was not in itself a bad idea.


The fact that the SWP's answer was, in the end, the wrong one, is therefore to some extent forgivable. Of course it could have been predicted that George Monbiot (and any Greens) would not last the course, and of course it could have been predicted that only one section of the "Muslim community" would jump in Respect's direction (it was always tokenist to generalise about the "Muslims" in this way - and both anachronistic and patronising to assume that the whole of this population would follow the lead of any one of its "leaders" - a mistake old Labour has been learning for over 20 years). And it was no real surprise that the CPB/Morning Star would (through its mass meeting in double figures) argue for "voting labour with no illusions". And clutching at the straw of George Galloway was really the very tail-end of the SWP's 15 year long drive to recruit dissident Labour Party members. And so on. But still, the SWP can be forgiven for trying (wishfully) to construct something electoral out of the anti-war coalition.


Whether any of the post-election analysis will admit that the SWP answer was wrong is another matter.


Which leads to the second point. There are just too many factors, mostly untestable, to make any generalisation out of these election results. There is a system of voting that the public is still generally unfamiliar with. It is proportional representation but not a single transferable vote (as in the six counties in the north of Ireland) and with an arithmetical calculation that most activists still don't actually know, let alone understand. There are two elections (or more) taking place on the same day. These are different in London than in the rest of the country. As always, a London-based generalisation will be tempting, especially to the Wapping media, and yet it will not tell us anything about anywhere else. The Livingstone effect (whatever that may turn out to be) is one out on its own. And there are two different voting systems, north and south. The postal vote fiasco is worth a book to itself.


Most of all, there is going to be such a low turnout (can you call a postal vote a turnout?) that it will be simply statistically impossible to generalise. It will not be safe to say why people havent voted, who they would have voted for if they had, who they might have voted for if there had been another option in front of them, and which sections of the population had which reasons for voting if they did.


This operates at several levels. First there is political preference. There are both anti-Labour and anti-Tory preferences at work here. An anti-Labour intention could lead to staying at home (and /or leaving the ballot papers on the mantelpiece), or to voting for the most anti-Labour alternative (anti-war, green, or anti-Europe, depending), or to voting tactically for whoever is perceived to be most likely to be successful (itself an exercise in wishful thinking, with neither media, Election Commission or government/Labour politicians being able to say with certainty what is likely to happen). Similarly, there is no easy way to assess what effect the plethora of right-wing parties will have. Perhaps the UKIP will take votes from the BNP. Perhaps from the Tories. Perhaps from anti-European natural old Labour supporters. Worst, the fact is that there have been several reactionary and racist leaflets through everyone's letterboxes when one such leaflet was more than enough.


In all this, it is not clear what a genuine but non-organised socialist preference might lead to, in the current circumstances.


Second there is the practicality. Does the absence of clarity increase or decrease the likelihood of voting at all? Does the postal ballot increase the turnout? The early suggestions by state sources are that some more middle class areas may have voted by post (quicker and more efficiently) while some old Labour northern cities have voted even less than expected (and the point of the postal vote was to encourage exactly this latter electorate to vote). No-one is talking about increasing the 1999 turnout (of about 25%?) by much more than about 5%. Was it worth it? What did it cost? (If you live in Stockport, that will be a real issue!) And that 5% is probably broken down into a decrease, even below the local election reduced levels, in the city areas, but masked by a slight increase in some of the leafier suburbs.


As for tactics, there are several socialists who have already reported agonising about what to do, ending up just about voting Green (where there is no alternative) in the local elections and voting Respect (without much enthusiasm) in the European.


Then there is the sheer issue of complication. It is very likely that many people will not have filled in their forms correctly. Those without witnesses will be discarded. Those placed in the wrong envelopes may be discounted. Those for the wrong election .... who knows? The forms were not that simple to understand and the witness requirement (without explanation that anyone would do) will have acted prohibitively. In addition, people have not been told that they could vote in one election but not the other. So anyone wanting to vote just in the local elections may not be confident to return one ballot paper only (or one completed paper only).


All this is technicality. The political issue - the mantra that postal voting increases participation - should be challenged in its own right. It doesn't increase participation. Just turnout (if that is the right word). And actually it may not even do that in any way that is of advantage to the left.


The point is that there is no way to generalise out of all these trends and technicalities, let alone across different regions and different level elections. So all post-election rationalisations are likely to be flawed. That includes all the over-hyped excitements about any even halfway decent results that may by accident occur - and which will no doubt be talked up as fantastic victories justifying all the rest of the exercise. But my prediction is that there will be a lot of generalisations and it will be important to say they are all likely to be wrong.


Finally it is well-known but worth re-stating that the election system is not one that favours the left. This does not mean that we should not fight elections. The evidence of 2001 was that we could mobilise and could begin to build up support, starting in local constituencies and targeting our resources, much as the Scottish Socialist Party have done (though they did initially benefit from a form of proportional representation in Glasgow that kick-started the electoral success). The fact is that we have lost some of the momentum since the build-up to 2001 (and this will come back to the argument about the development and demise of the Socialist Alliance since then), but it does not mean that we cannot get it back. What we do need to do is re-emphasise what we might be fighting elections for. This is something that Respect has not done, other than Galloway's own personal approach - tactically perhaps correct, for him at least - which is to say "It's the War, Stupid" and to treat these elections as a simple protest against Blair and Iraq which may get him personally elected to the European Parliament. Worse still, the development of Respect as an organisation appears to have been based on the motive of fighting elections in order to dis-unite the left.


Re-emphasising our reasons for fighting elections means saying that we want to do the opposite to this - we want to unite the left in order to fight elections. We want to fight elections to use the platform afforded to put across our point of view and that we want the platform to be a socialist one in order to say that there is an alternative to Bush and Blair. In other words, we are for people not profit. And we want to be socialists working together in unity to put across the maximum that we believe in common, not arguing about the minimum that divides us.  


What I fear to be the worst outcome of 2004 - fighting elections in order to dis-unite the left - must not be allowed to dictate the course of the build-up to the next Westminster elections. We can do better.  


June 2004


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