Socialist Unity in action

Whatever the outcome of the by-election in the North Defoe ward of Hackney, London, it marked a significant turning point in the conduct of leftwing politics. Under the banner of Socialist Unity, comrades from the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party and from Turkish and Kurdish organisations joined forces to support Anne Murphy, a communist and a leading figure in the London Socialist Alliances, in the January 21 contest.

This campaign taught us some valuable lessons. In the first place, it is possible for socialist forces to hammer out a common platform on which to fight. This does not mean submerging programmatic differences - some of them profound. But North Defoe proved that, given sufficient political maturity and goodwill, we can unite in struggle against the common enemy. Secondly, the experience of serious and disciplined practical action undertaken side by side with comrades from different organisations did more than anything to dispel the mistrust and misgivings that bedevil our relations.

It must be said however that there was some unevenness in performance: while one SWP branch was exemplary in its commitment, the other was rather less so; Socialist Party comrades came very late into the field, but were no less welcome for that. The main thing is that reserves were mobilised and the gaps were filled. By the end of the campaign every household had been leafleted and canvassed efficiently.

The main political issue in this election was the determination of the local Labour Party to make Hackney into a ‘beacon’ council, to do for Blair what Wandsworth memorably did for Thatcher by cutting expenditure to the bone. Central to this strategy is a plan to sell off practically the whole of the housing stock to capitalist landlords. In order to make this deal as palatable as possible for the parasites, Hackney is busy evicting anybody who is in arrears on their rent. Eleven whole estates have already been privatised without even a word of consultation either in the council chamber or in any public forum - which highlights the other issue at the heart of our campaign: the total absence of democracy and transparency in local politics. Small wonder that the expected turnout in North Defoe was in the region of 20%, so great is the cynicism and disillusionment engendered by this model New Labour authority.

These and other pressing issues were raised by Anne Murphy at a public meeting on January 18, a meeting to which the other candidates were invited. Not one of them turned up. Was this because they believe that the socialist agenda can simply be consigned to the history books? Maybe so, but, building on these first steps towards unity, we can show them how wrong they are. Certainly, to judge by their campaigning efforts, none of the candidates from the mainstream parties was remotely able or willing to tackle the real problems of North Defoe.

The Labour candidate, Jamie Carswell, was trying to be everything that Millbank expects of a ‘modern Labour councillor’. The Liberal Democrat, Sarah Prattent, confined her election platform to bleating about the threat posed to Church Street’s chi-chi restaurants and boutiques by a planned commercial and housing development.

While she focused on this terrible threat to the middle classes, some of her supporters were busy spreading malicious gossip about the alleged character defects of North Defoe’s former Green Party councillor. As for the Greens themselves, what have they to boast about in Hackney, apart from planting a few trees? Last and definitely least was the Tory candidate, whose campaign was so low-key that even a council colleague, when challenged, could not even tell us the person’s name.

From a personal point of view, the most valuable aspect of this election battle was the opportunity it gave me to talk to the working class of Hackney on the doorstep. In the current period of reaction it has become customary for us to describe the working class as atomised, mere voting fodder, essentially divorced from and apathetic towards politics. There is truth in this, of course, but it is by no means the whole truth.

What looks on the surface like simple apathy is often a complex amalgam of bewilderment, hurt and a sense of betrayal. One example will suffice: I spoke to a council tenant who had lived and worked in the borough for more than 30 years. He described his disillusionment with Blair and everything that New Labour stands for. Every day he walks past the newly gentrified Victorian and Edwardian terraces of North Defoe. He sees how many of them are now sporting Labour posters, and understands that Labour is now the party of the well-off, that it has nothing to offer the working class except deceit and oppression. This man’s socialism and his passion for social justice were originally rooted in his religious convictions, but he is waking up to the political realities of class society under capitalism. He promised us his vote and I am sure he delivered it.

The point is that there are thousands like him - disillusioned and wary of politics, yes, but still hungry for socialism.

We fought North Defoe to win it, but in all probability the new councillor will be Labour or Green. No matter. Victory comes in many guises, and it is no exaggeration to say that the creation of Socialist Unity was a victory in itself.

Michael Malkin