Our party and elections
Simon Harvey of the SLP
This coming Thursday sees the first electoral test for Tony Blair’s new Labour government. The death of Sir Michael Shersby a few days after May 1 left the north-west London constituency of Uxbridge vacant. The Conservative MP held the seat by just 724 votes.
Given the relatively high profile of the first by-election after a general election, I am surprised, and a bit disappointed, that Socialist Labour will not be contesting the seat, especially as we seem able to mobilise for the Churchdown ward by-election in the London borough of Lewisham. I am however pleased that the Socialist Party’s intervention will ensure that a working class alternative will be posed.
The first by-election after the 1992 Conservative victory was held in Newbury. Though the Uxbridge poll will lack the same impact, Newbury ’92 still points to a general importance of such parliamentary contests. Unlike Blair, Major lacked any real honeymoon period after April 1992: there was no change of government, no new administration being put to the test. If anything, the massive local shift from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats pointed to an electorate tired of the government, even in Tory heartland. The Lib-Dems won the seat although I recall the CPGB contested there too - the only working class voice in the campaign.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the Uxbridge poll will be important. This is not just any old by-election. If the Tories manage to defend their paltry majority, it could be seen as marking the end of Blair’s honeymoon. If, as is most likely, the imposed Labour candidate, Andrew Slaughter, defeats local Tory businessman John Randall, it will be seen as a continuing endorsement of the Blair/Mandelson juggernaut. Caesar will have won a plebiscite.
As well as their obvious significance for bourgeois politics, by-elections also provide opportunities for the socialist politicians of the working class to take our message to a wide layer of people. Importantly, for new and still relatively small political forces such as our own SLP, it provides the opportunity to force our way onto the broader political map.
As well as the national political character, there are important local factors in the Uxbridge poll. Hillingdon hospital, famous for the long and bitter dispute, is located in the area; Uxbridge’s proximity to Heathrow Airport accentuates the struggles against the Blairite BA boss, Bob Ayling; and, given the role of CPSA members in London in the SLP, the possibility of that union taking industrial action over plans to close Uxbridge benefits agency should increase the importance of the poll for socialists.
All this has not been lost on the Socialist Party. Its general election candidate, Julie Leonard, is standing once more. Comrade Leonard won 398 votes (one percent) on May 1. Three - yes, three - fascist groups will also contest the election.
However, the question remains: why no SLP candidate? Scargill’s Future strategy for the left of November 1995 made it clear that ‘his’ SLP would “commit itself to fight every parliamentary seat” (page 8).
There was much wrangling in our party to get even as many as 64 candidates on May 1. Scargill used his own document, subtitled ‘a discussion paper’ by the author, to justify a bureaucratic method to achieve a goal which I for one supported, but argued should be achieved by different means.
For example Harpal Brar, editor of the Indian Workers Association’s Lalkar, was effectively imposed as an SLP candidate on the local Ealing Southgate CSLP without having to dissolve his organisation to join our party. Katrina Howe, who maintains a vigil at Greenham Common despite the fact that the missiles have long moved elsewhere, became the Newbury candidate against the wishes of local members.
Comrades in the south-west of England, particularly those around Swindon branch, justifiably argued that our entire electoral strategy had been imposed on the party without a full and proper discussion.
Given Scargill’s general election strategy of going for 100 candidates, getting a TV broadcast, positioning the party for potential state funding and aiming for the big time, I am surprised that, in the absence of local members nominating a candidate, one was not imposed.
It is unfortunate that SLP members, such as myself, are left to rely on informed speculation and rumour to work out why our party is not standing. My feeling is that, given a certain denouement, local dispersion and general inactivity after the election, Scargill and central office will be concentrating on maintaining a party centre, getting the next congress (whenever that is) stitched up and other central technical details (like paying our Socialist News bill). The delicate task of expelling members, branches and banning internal debate must also take up some time. Now that there is a London Regional Committee, it may be seen to fall to that body - with that visionary, Tony Goss, as election agent - to coordinate electoral work within Greater London.
The London Regional Committee is an odd agglomeration of Third Period Stalinists around Lalkar and the Stalin Society (not a joke), with those from the thuggish end of Labourism and assorted left Labourites under the presidency of Brian Heron, someone who considers himself a Trotskyist and supporter of the Mandelite Fourth International.
If you will remember, those in the party around the Fourth Internationalist Supporters Caucus had argued against standing 100 candidates. Pat Sikorski proposed instead around six high-profile candidates, combined with a critical vote for Blair everywhere else. They have tended to argue for a build-up to standing in constituencies based on what I consider to be localism. This approach has led to the idea of ‘advice surgeries’ being put forward by the (bureaucratically constructed) majority at the London Regional Conference.
That such political forces are running the London committee with Scargill’s blessing makes sense of the concentration on the Churchdown by-election in Lewisham in preference to the Uxbridge by-election. Although there is a local SLP branch in Hillingdon in theory, it was constructed more as an escape pod for Hillingdon SLP councillor Terry Donlevy, ostensibly from the “crazy” West London branch, but now seemingly more from SLP activity itself.
Another possible explanation is a behind-the-scenes deal between the SLP and the Socialist Party. Such de facto socialist alliances existed in various parts of Britain during the general election, and some have developed, to a greater or lesser degree of success, for local government by-elections.
However, this does not appear to be the case. SP comrades campaigning in Uxbridge have told me they were biting their nails, wondering if an SLP candidate would be “parachuted in” at the last minute.
In terms of organising for elections, the SP is displaying its experience and organisational superiority in stealing a march on the SLP. We must make the unity of our forces the conscious task of the rank and file of both organisations.
It is excellent that there is only one candidate standing on a socialist platform in Uxbridge - in sharp contrast to the disunity displayed by the fascists. However, rather than leaving the question of working class unity to the vagaries of sectarian manoeuvre and behind-the-door dealing, such socialist alliances during elections (as a minimum) must become open, organised and accountable to the membership - and of course, in the long run, the working class.
I reported last week that the congress was again being put back. Well, from what I hear, odds are firming up for the weekend of December 13/14.
I also hear that the NEC is toying with the idea of pre-empting any discussion of party democracy, expulsions, constitutional change or an appeals procedure by placing consideration of a disciplinary procedure as first item on the agenda. Of course it will be narrowly defined in order to allow any witch hunt to continue. By putting such an item at the front of the agenda, the NEC aims to remain in firm control. We must make sure this is not the case and that congress - though its composition will be bureaucratically determined - takes all action necessary to put the constitution up for debate.
Comrades who were at the first conference on May 4 last year will remember that the minority voting against the platform increased as the day went on. The first amendment on economic policy, which argued a more revolutionary and internationalist line, received around 10% support, as did Steve Freeman’s attempt to have the debate on the UK constitution moved up the agenda.
By the end of the day, with debate developing around Ireland and immigration, the left vote on the floor increased, with the amendment calling for abolition of all immigration controls gaining around 40% support.
Speaking to a Fiscite ally at a urinal at the Calthorpe Arms after the conference, Pat Sikorski was heard to express relief, not just at his task in hand, but at having ‘got away with it’.
With the forthcoming congress being a two-day affair, the last thing those chosen to shepherd the congress towards Arthur’s desired result will want is the rank and file defining the debate around constitutional change and appeals procedure. Much easier to get it out of the way, under the leadership’s terms, and let the left vent its spleen on other issues.
We must struggle to ensure that the congress really does act as the highest political body of our party and our membership.
It is possible that issue 7 of Socialist News could be delayed. Comrades may know that the company which prints our paper is East End Offset, the printing ‘arm’ of the Socialist Workers Party.
I hear that the manager of East End has put a notice up in the office stating that the next issue of Socialist News is not to be printed until we pay for the last edition. Gee, those Trotskyite wreckers are everywhere!