No way to build a fightback
Peter Manson comments on the left’s results and its delusional self-justification
Whatever conclusions are drawn about the 2015 general election, one thing you can say is that it did not take us forward in terms of building working class combativity and effective organisation.
Let us look first of all at the support demonstrated for the left, beginning with the Labour left. Of the 38 Labour candidates for whom we urged support, 15 were elected or re-elected, including John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Michael Meacher, Diane Abbott, Ann Clwyd, Kelvin Hopkins and Ian Lavery. Unfortunately, however, four supportable Labour candidates, including Katy Clark in Ayrshire North and Arran, were among those swept away in the Scottish National Party landslide north of the border. Another sitting left MP, Chris Williamson, lost his marginal seat to the Tories in Derby North. In other words, the number of Labour MPs who can be said to represent, however partially and imperfectly, the working class pole within the bourgeois workers’ party has been reduced even further.
What about the extra-Labour left? Well, the organisation standing the highest number of candidates was, of course, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - an electoral alliance between the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party that is sponsored by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union. Tusc made great play of the fact that it was the “sixth largest party” contesting the general election - by which it meant that it had the sixth largest number of candidates: 138. That supposedly makes it ‘larger’ than the SNP and Plaid Cymru. However, its total vote was a mere 36,904 - that may sound a lot, but, when you consider that the national turnout was just under 30.7 million, it represents a tiny proportion: not much more than one in every thousand. And it goes without saying that under ‘first past the post’ you need concentrated support - if your tally does not reach five percent of the turnout in a given constituency, you lose your £500 deposit.
And all 138 Tusc candidates lost their deposit, just like all the other extra-Labour lefts apart from George Galloway (see below). The best Tusc result was that of SPEW’s Dave Nellist, a former Labour MP for the now abolished Coventry South East constituency, who managed 3.9% (1,769 votes) in Coventry North West. Not far behind was the SWP’s Jenny Sutton, who picked up 3.1% (1,324 votes) in Tottenham, but nobody else reached two percent and only 15 other Tusc candidates won more than one percent support, the overall average being 0.6%.
Even under the most proportional of all possible electoral systems the Tusc vote would not have been enough to guarantee it parliamentary representation. If you divide the total turnout by the number of parliamentary seats (650) you arrive at a figure of 47,227 needed to elect a single MP. In other words, if members of parliament were elected totally proportionately using a party list system with no minimum threshold, then every 0.15% of the total vote would produce one of the 650 MPs. Well, the total vote for all left-of-Labour, working class candidates was 58,506 - more than one 650th, it is true, but in reality less than two votes for every 1,000 cast: hardly the basis of a mass working class party.
Seven of the 10 Left Unity candidates contesting stood under the Tusc banner and all of them - whether part of Tusc or not - scored similar votes. The best result was for Glyn Robbins, who picked up 949 votes (1.8%) in Bethnal Green and Bow. And it was a similar sad story for the rest of the left - Socialist Labour Party, Workers Revolutionary Party, Socialist Equality Party, Socialist Party of Great Britain, Class War ... Each of them, apart from the SLP (whose eight candidates in Wales all scored between one and two percent) averaged less than one percent.
The other exception was Respect, whose average for the four candidates it stood was disproportionately boosted by the 8,557 votes (21.2%) for George Galloway in Bradford West. But that was nothing to cheer about, because, of course, comrade Galloway was the sitting MP, having won a by-election in March 2012, but was this time easily defeated by Labour’s Naseem Shah, who picked up more than twice his tally.
The results for every left candidate are available on the CPGB website.1
So how has the left reacted to these results? Let us begin with Tusc itself. As you might expect from a purely electoral coalition, it has already started to wind down and, as I write, its website still does not carry its complete results. On May 9, with a few local election counts still to be announced (there were several hundred Tusc candidates for council elections), the website proudly announced that the coalition’s total vote - combining all general election and local council results - had exceeded 100,000.2
However, for some kind of commentary and assessment it is necessary to refer to the two main supporting organisations, and both SPEW and the SWP have been rather more forthcoming than Tusc itself. The SPEW website features an article by general secretary Peter Taaffe, which, after dealing with the new political situation following the re-election of the Tories, turns to Tusc. He begins: “Let the sceptics and the fainthearts dismiss our election results!”
Those who do so are ignoring the fact that “Tusc managed to assemble a serious national challenge with a splendid election broadcast, which attracted the attention and support of broad layers of workers ...” However, there then follow the usual excuses: not only did the mass media ignore Tusc, but it was “squeezed by the acceptance of ‘lesser evilism’ by many workers”. In other words, lots of them would really have liked to vote Tusc, but they were more concerned with trying to keep out the Tories. Nevertheless, “Tusc has now ‘arrived’ as a recognised factor on the labour movement’s national and local electoral map” (note the word “electoral”).
Looking ahead, comrade Taaffe continues:
What conclusions will trade unionists and particularly the leadership of the unions draw from this? No doubt some on the right will seek to undermine Tusc, to play down the achievement of putting together a coalition of trade unionists and socialists to fight the election. Some national trade unions may seek to distance themselves from Tusc. But how much more powerful and attractive to voters would an alternative have been if the trade union leaders, particularly those on the left with their huge potential strength, had come behind an electoral alternative, modelled on Tusc?3
There is a further article from John McInally, who comments, in similar vein:
No doubt the sneering and snarling toward Tusc from within the labour and trade union movement will continue, but it is beginning to sound increasingly unconvincing and reminiscent of those who urged workers to stick with the Liberals when the emerging Labour Party sought their support.4
So, while Tusc is just an “electoral alternative”, it is also an example that the “trade union leaders, particularly those on the left”, ought to follow in order to create a Labour Party mark II. How can they be so blind as to continue supporting the genuine article?! But for now, it is back to business as usual - don’t forget the really important National Shop Stewards Network conference on July 4!
Similarly, in its post-election coverage the SWP is keen to stress its own role in assessing the new situation and building a fightback:
The Marxism 2015 event will be the place to thrash out debates about class, nationalism and the role of Labour ... The People’s Assembly demonstration on June 20 is a chance for everyone appalled by the prospect of five more Tory years to get out onto the streets.5
Then there is Stand Up to Ukip - plenty to get excited about. Socialist Worker does, however, admit that Tusc’s results were disappointing - indeed some of them were “poor”. Despite that there are many positives to be taken from the Tusc campaign - or at least the SWP role within it. For example, “Jon Woods, Tusc candidate for Portsmouth North, increased the share of his vote since he last stood in 2010, despite an overall swing from Labour to the Tories.” Comrade Woods is quoted as saying: “To increase the vote for Tusc amongst a big swing to the right is a real achievement.” Understandably perhaps, Socialist Worker does not go into detail. After all, the 231 votes he won represented just 0.5%.
But the central point to grasp is that “Tusc used their campaigns to lay the groundwork for the fight against austerity after the election” and “The task now is to build on the networks established through the campaigning.” To do what exactly? Once again we have the usual vague platitudes about left unity: “And the result of the election shows the need to fight for a more united leftwing alternative.”
Everybody knows that neither the SWP nor SPEW will lift a finger to promote the “leftwing alternative” we really need - a single, united Marxist party. Instead they will continue plugging their own organisation as the party-in-waiting - in between resuscitating Tusc every year, come election time.
Let me finish with a brief comment on the reaction to the general election north of the border, in the shape of Colin Fox, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, which stood four candidates, with equally dismal results.
In his online article, Fox saluted the SNP-led “political revolution” that has just taken place in Scotland: “Like the 1989 fall of Ceausescu in Romania, a socially conservative and politically corrupt regime was swept away by an unprecedented and widespread demand for change.” Admittedly, Fox and the SSP “remain unconvinced by the SNP’s programme or its leadership’s commitment to liberate working class people from the yoke of neoliberal free-market capitalism”. In fact, “despite the May 7 revolution we are set to endure further austerity, privatisation, poverty wages, zero-hour contracts, a chronic shortage of affordable housing, appalling inequality, food banks, child poverty, people freezing to death in winter and the privatisation of public services.”
Nevertheless, “The Scottish Socialist Party congratulates the SNP on their stunning victory on May 7. Nigh on eradicating Labour in Scotland in this way was no mean feat ... It is a remarkable and welcome achievement in any socialist’s book.”6
In our pre-election recommendations we commented: “No support for nationalists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Nowadays the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity are merely external factions of the SNP.”7 Say no more.
5. Socialist Worker May 12.
7. ‘Gambling on a government - or bidding for an opposition’ Weekly Worker April 30 2015.