Same old failings
With the Tory-Lib Dem coalition on the ropes and Labour proposing no positive alternative, the left seems incapable of taking advantage. Peter Manson reports
Dave Nellist: down and out
After George Galloway’s stunning by-election victory on March 29 in Bradford West, I admitted I had been taken by surprise - like just about everyone else, of course. However, the left results for the May 3 local and Greater London elections more or less matched my expectations.
In a previous article I made clear my disagreement with Mark Krantz of the Socialist Workers Party, who, a couple of weeks before the elections, wrote in the SWP’s internal Party Notes: “Galloway has shifted the ground for us all … You can feel the qualitative shift, compared to all previous election campaigns”. But it was not to be. Comrade Krantz picked up a respectable 368 votes (8.7%) in Manchester Chorlton, but I do not think this, compared to the usual 3%-4%, can honestly be described as a “qualitative shift”. However, revealing his own modest hopes, as opposed to his public ‘official optimism’ before the election, he tweeted in the early hours of May 4 that this was “a great result”.
It was always going to be unlikely that there would be a series of mini-Galloways last week - there were just a handful of seats where the left had a chance of winning - four of them where the candidate was attempting to hold on to, or recapture, their seat. I thought St Michael’s in Coventry, where long-time councillor Dave Nellist was attempting to keep his place in the council chamber for the Socialist Party in England and Wales, would be a good indicator: “St Michael’s may be regarded as the seat where we will be able to judge most accurately the extent to which the left has benefited from the ‘Galloway effect’.”
Unfortunately though, comrade Nellist just lost out to Labour. He picked up 1,429 votes (43.4%) against the successful candidate’s 1,673, thus depriving SPEW of its last remaining councillor. However, there was better news in Preston, Walsall and West Dunbartonshire for the left candidates. In the latter case sitting councillor Jim Bollan was re-elected for the Scottish Socialist Party in Leven ward, while in Preston Town Centre Michael Lavalette won back the seat he had previously held for seven years until 2011 - first for the Socialist Alliance, then Respect and finally as an “independent socialist”. This time he was standing under the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition umbrella, but his official description was “independent”. Comrade Lavalette polled 967 votes (48.5%), as against Labour’s 872. Finally Peter Smith of the Democratic Labour Party in Walsall recaptured Blakenall, also under the Tusc umbrella.
The one city where it would have been a shock if the left had not won seats was, of course, Bradford itself. Five out of the 11 candidates standing for Galloway’s Respect Party were elected. But Respect stood only three other candidates in the whole country. In Oldham Werneth and Tower Hamlets Weavers (the latter a by-election), both wards where it previously enjoyed support from the largely Muslim patriarchal networks, it came second to Labour; but in Manchester Gorton South, the territory of Respect national secretary Clive Searle, it was nowhere.
What about the rest of Tusc’s candidates? There were 134 of them altogether, so was there a marked increase in support over 2011, for example? The Tusc website carries a useful article, written in the style of comrade Nick Wrack, which compares results in the 73 seats where Tusc contested in both 2011 and 2012. Last year the coalition won 13,493 votes in those 73 wards, whereas this year the figure was slightly down, at 13,071. However, because in 2012 the turnout was rather lower, the author can claim a higher proportion of support - 6.7%, up from 5.4% last year. Expressed as an average of all 133 seats contested this year, support was also up (from 5.2% to 6.2%), but once again the small matter of reduced turnout means that this ‘increase’ translates into fewer votes by and large. I think it is safe to say that Tusc has more or less stood still.
There were, however, some satisfactory results. Altogether 14 candidates scored over 10% (although only the three mentioned above got more than 20%), while 53 picked up more than 5%. As Socialist Worker points out, the better results usually came where “candidates had roots and a record”. So, for example, “there were good results for Tom Woodcock in Cambridge (19%), George Tapp in Salford (19%) and Maxine Bowler in Sheffield (14%)”.
However, Socialist Worker’s headline, “Tusc: roots are the key to success”, is actually wrong, especially when it refers to the work of individuals, as here. True, it is pretty obvious that someone who is known for campaigning consistently in the locality is likely to win some support over time. But that is hardly the “key to success” if we are talking about organising a political fightback. What is required is a permanent national organisation fighting for a principled socialist programme. Tusc, like the Socialist Alliance before it, literally disappears between elections and mostly stands as “Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts”.
Over and over again the Weekly Worker has pointed out that is counterproductive to water down our Marxism when we stand in elections. If SPEW, the SWP and the rest of the left actually united around what they profess to believe in, rather than around a set of basically trade union-type, defensive demands, that would begin to make real “success” a possibility. We would begin to be seen as credible and, what is more, as viable - Marxism is, after all, the only viable alternative to crisis-ridden capitalism. I am not saying that this would immediately transform our election results. But it would start to make a difference over a relatively short period.
But at least the SWP does not make excuses for Tusc’s overall disappointing showing, particularly in the London assembly elections, where it won just 0.8% support (17,686 votes) for its all-London list. According to SPEW, this “in no way reflects the response campaigners received from workplaces all over London during the campaign. Socialist Party members visited hospitals, council workplaces, job centres, fire stations, tube stations, talking to workers about Tusc and the need for political representation for working class people. Overwhelmingly we received a positive response: ‘They’re all the same, we can’t trust Labour any more, it’s about time trade unionists stood in elections.’ Everywhere we went, workers took piles of the Tusc postcards to distribute themselves.”
Blaming the Beeb
So what happened to this “overwhelmingly positive response” when it came to actual voting? SPEW has its answer: “… how scandalous it was that there was a complete blackout of the campaign in the mainstream press. We received a derisory two-second flash on BBC London news. In our view, this was quite deliberate. Bob Crow is one of the most well known political figures in London after Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. It is not a mistake to overlook a political initiative promoted by him. It is a conscious decision by big business representatives and their media cronies to squash the voice of working class people. They want to eliminate the voice that clearly and persistently says, ‘There is an alternative; ordinary working class people should not have to pay for this crisis.’
“What it did mean, however, was that we were likely to get a low vote. All the work we did could only scratch the surface in a city the size of London.”
Has SPEW only just discovered media bias? Surely the way to combat it is not by demanding, as it does, nationalisation of the press (the BBC, whose coverage SPEW complains of so bitterly, is already nationalised, I seem to recall), but by organising our own, alternative media - media that would, of course, exert influence only to the extent we succeeded in becoming viable.
But the SPEW comrades were are in good company when it comes to blaming the media for our own failings. On May 4 the following appeared on the website of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party: “The continuing censorship of the SLP by all the mass media, including the BBC, The Guardian, Sky, ITV, Telegraph, etc, continued after yesterday’s local elections around Britain. The BBC could not even bring themselves (again) to list the SLP as a political party.”
It is hardly surprising that the BBC failed to mention its handful of candidates, as the SLP itself could not provide a definitive list of its own contests. In an April 11 press release it had stated: “Our candidates that have been notified to date include the following”; and listed 18 standing in England, Scotland and Wales. The wording seemed to be suggesting that there would be more; and the word “include” implied that this was not even a comprehensive list of those that had been “notified”.
But under ‘Latest news and comment’ posted almost a week ago, the comment continues: “Early results to hand of SLP candidates include [note that word again] Jennifer Cooper in Wolverhampton with over 10%, Terry Robinson in Barnsley, who beat the Tory, gaining over 5%, and John Tyrrell in Birmingham with over 6%. Simon Parsons in Cardiff beat the results of Tusc and two of the three Lib Dems.”
The SLP candidate did indeed poll 106 votes in Cardiff’s Canton ward, as against 118, 98 and 84 for the three Lib Dems and 90 for Tusc. Labour’s three candidates received well over 2,000 votes each. Not that much to boast about, is it?
Another feature of the left’s campaign was the further evidence of the absolutely dismal state of the left in Scotland. In my pre-election article I wrote: “Glasgow will also be a reasonable test of the ‘Galloway effect’, I suppose.” That was because Tusc’s sister organisation north of the border had come to an electoral arrangement with the SSP, whereby there would be a single left candidate contesting each council seat in the city. But the results were dire - especially those for the Scottish Anti-Cuts Coalition. Some SACC candidates could only muster 20 or 30 votes.
As I write, SACC has not updated its website since before the elections, but the Socialist Party Scotland reports that SACC’s 38 candidates received 3,200 first-preference votes under the proportional representation system operating in Scotland. I make that an average of 84 each. But not to worry: there were also 4,500 second preferences and 10,000 third preferences to brag about, the SPS points out.
The only half-decent vote in Glasgow was for Gail Sheridan, the partner of the disgraced former convenor of the SSP and leader of the Solidarity split, Tommy Sheridan. Standing for Solidarity under the SACC umbrella, Gail managed 5.8% (472 votes). It seems there is something to be said for the cult of personality after all.
1. Party Notes April 16
3. ‘Like looking for a needle in a haystack’ Weekly Worker April 26.
5. Socialist Worker May 12.