First get one or two MPs ... then

How we should contest

While Corbynism has produced little more than demoralisation, Tusc’s approach to elections has been a complete failure. Edmund Griffiths offers a contribution aimed at leaving behind puny goals and statistically irrelevant votes

A general election is coming, and it is far from clear that the far left is ready for it. Dissatisfaction with the Labour Party’s hard-right turn may create space for a left challenge to gain support, but it certainly does not mobilise that support automatically.

In the 2021 election for Liverpool mayor, Tusc - the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - got 2,912 votes (2.9%). This represents a drop from the 4,950 votes (5.1%) the same Tusc candidate had recorded in 2016, when Labour was led by Jeremy Corbyn. The detailed picture varies, but local and devolved elections since Corbyn stepped down do not show any unambiguous signs that Tusc, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, or other left organisations are making electoral advances. We should not assume the general election will be any different: I think it still can be, but getting there will involve some serious decisions about how the far left approaches electoral work. This article is offered not as a definitive answer, but as one (hopefully constructive) contribution.

Obviously, if we had a party with 100,000 members, we could do more than we can today; if we had no organisations at all, we could do less. But the general election will presumably happen before we have had time to build the big party (or to dwindle away to nothing). I therefore want to consider what kind of electoral intervention might be possible for the far left as it exists today, without requiring new mass organisations to be conjured out of the air - and, as far as possible, without requiring the existing not-quite-mass organisations to give up fundamental programmatic commitments.

Debates about organisation and programme will and should continue long after this election; but we cannot very well ask the government to postpone polling day until those debates are resolved. A far left strategy for a general election in 2024 (or January 2025) needs to be a strategy that the existing far left is capable of implementing.

Many people’s hopes have been attached to the idea of Corbyn walking away from Labour and founding his own party. I suppose he may yet have a go, although he is cutting it fine. (He probably deserves some criticism for leaving his potential supporters dangling all this time, instead of explaining his intentions clearly and allowing them to make other plans, if it turns out they do want to break from Labour and he does not.)

But a Corbyn party was not necessarily the right approach anyway. We have already tried building a new party around an ex-Labour big name twice, in the form of the Socialist Labour Party and then Respect. Neither achieved durable success. And the likelihood of a Corbyn party developing as anything other than a personality vehicle was always slim. The left is still terribly receptive to personal loyalties and the incorruptible individual; even in the absence of Corbyn himself, there seems to be a degree of interest in the notion of independent candidates standing on a broadly left platform, but accountable only to their own political intuitions.

It is understandable that experiences with Labour have taught some people to mistrust the idea of political parties in general; and the British-backed atrocities in Gaza add moral urgency to the appeal of candidates who demand a ceasefire. But the problem in Labour surely was not that the MPs were not independent enough from the democratic decisions of the membership; and independent campaigns, even when they perform strongly (Reg Keys, a founder member of Military Families Against the War, took 4,252 votes - 10.3% - in Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency in 2005), do not tend to build into anything sustainable. Independent candidacies will presumably occur whether or not the far left recommends them; but we should not be too hopeful about them as a general way forward.

The same applies in spades to George Galloway and the Workers Party of Britain. Quite a few on the left have recently been saluting his indefatigability in connection with the Rochdale by-election. That may be wise, or it may not; but any suggestion that patriotic Keynesian social conservatism, fronted by a climate change sceptic who voted Tory only three years ago, represents the future (or even, let’s be honest, a part) of the British far left is for the birds.

In sharp contrast, the absence of any cult of personality around Dave Nellist is uncomplicatedly to the credit of Nellist himself, of Tusc and of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. I would use the word, ‘exemplary’, except that holding him up as a model to emulate might itself start looking a bit like a personality cult. (‘Comrades, let us promote workers’ leaders of the Dave Nellist type!’)

Unfortunately, Tusc’s actual election results so far have been weak. It did not contest the 2017 or 2019 general elections, but in 2015 it stood 135 candidates and received 36,490 votes in total: an average of 270 votes per constituency (well under one percent). Only a few months later, Corbyn - standing for Labour leader on a rather similar anti-austerity platform - got 251,417 votes. He almost certainly received more votes in an internal party election, in the constituencies Tusc had contested, than Tusc had managed in a public election. The Tusc campaign was therefore a failure: not only did it elect no MPs and keep no deposits, but the result grossly understated the support that actually existed for the kind of politics Tusc was putting forward.


We should accept that for any candidate (let alone the average candidate) to get less than one percent is not just a defeat, but a humiliation. One percent - typically four or five hundred votes - is not good; but it does not have to actively demoralise the people who did vote for you, and it does not have to actively put off people who might consider it next time. Anything less really does. That does not mean one percent should be the target. A more sensible target for far-left candidates in this election would be at least five percent - the cut-off for keeping the deposit. So what kind of electoral strategy could make that realistic?

One thing Galloway gets dead right (it is not one of his opinions) is that when he stands in a constituency he habitually campaigns on a big scale. He goes into it expecting to mobilise hundreds of volunteers, spend thousands of pounds, leaflet every house, canvass every voter. He prints up posters, banners and placards of different shapes and sizes, in colour, and gets them displayed wherever he can. He rents or borrows a campaign headquarters. He has been known to tour round the constituency in an open-topped campaign bus.

None of this is a special Galloway invention: politicians of all parties - including far-left parties - were campaigning more or less like that, at least in target seats, before Galloway was born. It is not really a surprise if they have often ended up with more votes than a campaign consisting of a dozen (or half a dozen) activists and a collapsible table.

The average constituency contains roughly 40,000 households. Let us say it takes five minutes to canvass one household - that is a bit of a guess, and it may be a low estimate, but I am only really interested in getting the order of magnitude right. 40,000 households at five minutes per household comes to about 3,300 person-hours (assuming you go round in ones; double it if you are canvassing in pairs). Over a six-week election campaign, that makes 550 person-hours per week to cover the constituency.

Is it plausible that 10 activists could do it, by each putting in 50 or 60 hours a week (crammed into evenings and weekends, when voters are likely to be in)? I would say it is not close to plausible. Is it plausible that a hundred activists could do it? I would say: getting there. Maybe you would not manage quite the whole constituency. Two hundred would certainly be better. But these are back-of-the-envelope calculations anyway: I think it is reasonable to conclude that if you have a hundred activists you can start thinking about running something like a proper election campaign in a constituency, and if you do not then you probably cannot. You will only ever reach a fraction of your potential supporters.

This may be especially true today, when the typical constituency is contested by a comparatively large number of candidates. In the ‘snap’ elections of 2017 and 2019, the average was more than five candidates per constituency; in 2010 and 2015, it was more than six. This contrasts with the situation in previous decades, when it was common for only two candidates to stand (generally Conservative and Labour). In the 1964 general election, for example, voters in Huyton - the constituency of Harold Wilson, who went into the election as leader of the opposition and came out of it as prime minister - only had three candidates to choose from. They could vote for Wilson; or they could vote Conservative; or, if neither of those appealed, they could vote for the candidate of the Committee to Defeat Revisionism, for Communist Unity. It would be unimaginable today for the ballot paper in Sir Keir Starmer’s constituency to look like that.

In the event, the CDRCU’s first and only electoral outing ended with a somewhat respectable 899 votes (1.4%). Some of those 899 people may have genuinely wanted to register a protest against the 20th Congress; others, perhaps, would have been equally happy voting for any flavour of the far left. But I expect some of them just did not much like the Tories or Labour and decided to show it by turning out and ‘voting third party’ (as it is called in the US). If the Liberals had put up a candidate they might have voted Liberal.

Today, when every constituency is likely to have at least Lib Dem, Green and Reform UK candidates as well as the big two, that kind of support is going to be thin on the ground. Worse than that: voters who know they have half a dozen or more candidates - most of them with no realistic chance of winning and some from parties that receive little or no media coverage - may well not bother even trying to find out who all the no-hopers actually are. Only a big, energetic, visible campaign can cut through that.

The suggestion is occasionally put forward that in this day and age you do not really need to canvass door to door - it can all be done online, by going viral on social media. Is this plausible? No. We can see that from the example of the Northern Independence Party - an organisation of disappointed former Corbyn supporters that emerged in late 2020.

The people behind the NIP showed an unusual talent for social media promotion. Their material was arresting, visually distinctive, and made fluent use of the ‘joking ... or are we?’ register that often plays well on the internet; for a time NIP agitprop - all whippets and anti-austerity economic demands and maps of the Tripartite Indenture - achieved considerable traction. The party and its prospects were written up at least partly seriously in The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, and The New Statesman. For its first foray - the Hartlepool by-election of 2021 - it secured Thelma Walker (Labour MP for Colne Valley 2017-19) as a candidate, although Electoral Commission delays meant she appeared on the ballot as an independent. She received 250 votes (0.8%). By the following year’s by-election in Wakefield, the NIP was fully registered and could stand Christopher Jones as its first official parliamentary candidate. He got 84 votes (0.3%).

I do not think far-left organisations are very likely to do social media systematically better than the NIP. Even if they did, there is no guarantee it would pay off any better at the ballot box. This does not mean online campaigning is useless. Aside from anything else, political journalists are nearly all on social media: the NIP experience shows how apt they are to assume that anything a lot of people are talking about online must also command widespread interest generally. That is why they paid the NIP so much more attention than they usually do to minor parties. Unaffiliated leftwing activists (or potential activists) may be another overrepresented group among social media users. Good online work is therefore a worthwhile auxiliary: it can help gain publicity, and it may be able to help drum up volunteers. But on its own it cannot get through to the average voter.

The old Communist Party used to stand very roughly one parliamentary candidate for every thousand members. Sometimes the ratio was more like one per few hundred, sometimes one per few thousand - but one per thousand was typical. (Some left groups today get closer to one per ten.) This obviously does not mean the CPGB had a thousand people out on the doorstep in each constituency. In 1935, for example, there were only two CPGB candidates: Willie Gallacher in West Fife (who was elected) and Harry Pollitt in Rhondda East (who got 38.2%, but lost to Labour). No CPGB member anywhere in England had a candidate to campaign for. But it probably does mean the CPGB often had the capacity to campaign seriously in the seats it chose to contest.

The same is broadly true of its predecessor organisations and of the earlier British far left in general. The Social Democratic Federation never stood more than nine candidates in any general election; the British Socialist Party, in 1918, only stood three. That election also saw another three far-left candidates, representing the De Leonite Socialist Labour Party: the BSP averaged 2,800 votes per constituency (15.0%) and the SLP averaged 2,500 (12.1%). It is only gradually that left organisations have come to regard standing large numbers of candidates - without having the activists to campaign for them - as a normal and acceptable strategy; the approach was pioneered by the Workers Revolutionary Party (whose 60 candidates in 1979 averaged 211 votes), but it has continued to be pursued despite the lack of any obvious evidence it can work.

Take London in 2015. Tusc, which then included the Socialist Workers Party as well as SPEW, stood 26 candidates there. Only two got above the one percent barrier. I do not have access to those parties’ membership lists, but the idea they could mobilise enough activists across London to canvass 26 constituencies - about one million households - strikes me as fanciful. In a single city, with usable public transport, there is no excuse for spreading activists’ time and money that thin. Instead, I imagine each of those parties - and the CPB too - easily has enough members in London to run a real campaign in one constituency. Ideally, the three organisations could put out an appeal to the rest of the London left - unaffiliated individuals as well as smaller groups - urging them to volunteer for whichever of the three campaigns was closest to them (whether geographically or politically).


Would that kind of cooperation - more than a non-aggression pact, less than a formal named alliance - actually materialise? It probably depends on whether the campaigns were visibly picking up momentum. The British far left is disunited in organisational terms, but it shows quite a high degree of practical willingness to row in behind any electoral project that seems to be getting anywhere.

Much of the left, rightly or wrongly, supported Corbyn’s Labour in 2017 and 2019. Much of the left, again rightly or wrongly, supported George Galloway in Rochdale; in particular, SPEW and the CPB both had their activists out campaigning for him. Now if they will do that for the WPB - whose politics might charitably be described as eclectic - then there can be no reason of principle why they would not do it for one another. If in practice they seem a touch less enthusiastic, the reason may be simply that ‘help us get from 0.5% to 0.7%’ is less compelling than ‘help us win’. Winning seats is probably not an attainable goal this time around; but perhaps the prospect of saving deposits, and maybe saving them convincingly, might be attractive enough to do the job.

If cooperation is desirable in London, it becomes much more important elsewhere. There are probably several cities and regions where a decent vote could in principle be obtained in one selected constituency, but where no single left group has enough members to make a proper go of it. The left groups between them, however, often will - especially if unaffiliated individuals are also sufficiently enthused that they decide to join in. Without some cooperation, on the other hand, the number of seats where a serious left challenge can be mounted is likely to be very limited.

It will anyway need to be places where the group standing has a large and active branch. The main canvassing push during the actual campaign can and should draw in activists from a wide area: no British left group is currently big enough to treat an election contest primarily as branch business. A lot of the planning and mobilisation will need to be done regionally or nationally. But the day-to-day preparatory work during the build-up (leafleting, stalls, public meetings, attending demos and picket lines, etc) requires a strong nucleus on the ground. In any case, the constituencies should be identified and prospective candidates selected as soon as possible - partly because the election could be called at any time, but chiefly so that this preparatory work can begin. Each prospective candidate should be writing letters to the local papers, ringing phone-in programmes on the local radio, offering to speak at local May Day events, and doing a thousand other things that can help build awareness before the campaign officially starts.

Beyond that, the only real criterion for where to stand should be where there seems to be the best chance of getting a big vote. People sometimes suggest that far-left organisations should only stand in safe Labour seats, so as to avoid the accusation (or the reality) of helping the Conservatives; or only in marginals, so as to force Labour to take leftwing opinion seriously; or where the Labour incumbent is especially noxious, so as to ‘decapitate’ the worst of the Labour right. None of these strategies should in general be adopted. All three are ‘ginger group’ strategies, aiming more at influencing Labour than at building up an independent base of support.

Deciding to contest only a few seats would understandably be a wrench for Tusc in particular. Compared to the 100 candidates they have recently been talking about, it would look like a retreat. But I hope it would only look like that until the results came in. Back in 1992, Scottish Militant Labour stood one general election candidate: Tommy Sheridan, in Glasgow Pollok. He won 19.3% of the vote and second place. A couple like that would be worth a lot more than a hundred paper candidates.

It is curious, incidentally: if you asked members of the general public to name a far-left organisation in Britain from the last 50 years, I expect most people would say either ‘Militant’ or ‘the SWP’ - but 1992 in Glasgow is the only time the name ‘Militant’ has appeared on a general election ballot paper, while the name ‘Socialist Workers Party’ has never appeared (although in by-elections it occasionally has). Gaining name recognition as a minor party is difficult, and it seems a shame not to make use of it if you have it; I can imagine that even now some people who are not too aware of Tusc might (if given the chance) think, ‘Yes, bloody hell, this time I’m voting Militant’.

More broadly, the left’s habit of standing under ad hoc front names is probably ill-advised. It stops voters associating the candidates with any grassroots campaigning or agitation the party has been doing under its own name (or other front names); and it makes it too easy to change the name on the ballot paper from one election to the next, meaning voters are repeatedly faced with parties they have never heard of even if they have actually voted for the same left group before. There are constituencies where the same candidate has fought general elections in the 21st century under three different labels (eg, Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alternative, Tusc), even though their views and organisational affiliation have not changed.

This may not be the easiest way to build up a solid electoral base. As a general rule it is probably best if organisations stand under their real names (or as close as the Electoral Commission will allow). Where several groups are working together in a genuine alliance, both names - the alliance and the particular group - can appear on the ballot paper, just like ‘Labour and Cooperative’: Tusc and Left Unity did this in seven constituencies in 2015.

But this is a detail. We should not rely on voters being able to guess from the ballot paper description what it is we are asking them to vote for: we should canvass them door to door and explain it.

Stated aims

And what explanation should we give? When left groups stand candidates, they usually - and quite correctly - issue a manifesto. In many cases that manifesto turns out to consist mostly of policies (often fairly modest left-Keynesian ones); but it is not at all clear what we are inviting voters to believe this list of policies is. Is it ‘This is what we will do if we win the election and form a government’? The largest slate of candidates any far-left organisation has ever stood at a general election is Tusc’s ill-fated 135. You need 326 seats for a majority. If there are any voters who do cast their ballots for a far-left group because they hope it will win and implement its policies, then they are comically ill-informed - and the left is playing a stupid trick on them. But I do not think there can be many.

So, is it ‘This is what we would ideally want’? No: that one is not true either. The actual goal of the far left is not a wealth tax and a higher minimum wage: it is a society where wealth belongs to everybody and wages no longer exist.

Well, then, is it ‘These are things a Labour government could do if it chose’? No doubt it could; and a Conservative government could too. If it chose. But the prospect of the next Labour government choosing to do anything of the sort is exceedingly remote and, if a left manifesto is based on encouraging people to take that scenario seriously, then I think it risks depressing their political consciousness instead of raising it. I very much fear the real meaning of those policy lists is: ‘These are the sorts of things that we imagine you, the voter, regard as both desirable and realistic’ - a terrible basis for a manifesto.

Instead, voters who are being asked to support a far-left party (or in fact any party) deserve clear answers to three basic questions:

(1) What do you think is wrong in society, and what could be done to put it right?

(2) What are you proposing to do over the next four or five years to try and move things in the direction you want?

(3) How does me voting for you help any of that come about?

Different organisations will naturally frame their answers somewhat differently, but I do not think it is very convincing (or very democratic) if they do not have clear and honest answers. If you cannot tell me what the problems are, and you cannot explain how voting for you might make any contribution to starting to solve them, then why should I vote for you? Because I like your tie?

The answer to question number 1 will obviously, for a socialist or communist party, be an account of capitalism and of the need to abolish it. The answers to the other two can perhaps be summed up by saying that we are not standing to be the government: we are standing to be an opposition. There are lots of things that one or two opposition MPs can do. They can use parliament as a platform. They can ask ministers questions. At a time when democratic rights, including the right to protest, are under attack, they can put themselves in the front rank of any progressive demonstration that the police might try to break up. Make them arrest a member of parliament.

I think it is perfectly possible to explain to people why having one or two MPs is better than having none; and I do not think it is impossible to explain why getting 20% moves you closer to that than getting five percent, and getting five percent moves you closer than getting one percent. On the other hand, there is not really an intelligible explanation of why getting 0.5% is any better than getting 0.1%. That is one of the reasons why standing when you anticipate that kind of result is a bad idea.

In areas where local elections will be held in May, those - on the assumption the general election will be later - would provide the opportunity for a trial run. Organisations could select one ward in each potential target constituency and flood it with campaigners from far and wide, on a ‘standing to be an opposition’ basis. The aim would be to canvass every home in the ward, to offer window posters, to meet every voter, to do multiple door-to-door leafleting runs, etc, alongside the usual street stalls; and to emphasise what could be gained by electing one councillor - as a tribune and a voice - instead of offering hypothetical plans for how we would run the council.

If it worked, it would provide a strong foundation for a general election campaign: we got 15% here in the locals, or 20%, or 25%, or we won; and now we are standing for parliament. If it did not work - if all the extra effort turned out not to push the vote appreciably higher than far-left council candidates usually get - then we would at least have learnt something: we would have learnt that the electoral approach I have outlined here is actually mistaken or unviable.

But I hope that is not the outcome. I think this approach (no personality vehicles; maximum canvassing effort focused on a minimal number of constituencies; cooperation where possible, including appealing to unaffiliated far-left activists; standing to be an opposition) has the potential to be a realistic electoral way forward for the far left as it exists today.

It does not offer too much chance of actually winning parliamentary seats at the first time of asking; but it just might establish enough of a base that the prospects after four or five years of a grimly reactionary Labour government look very different.