After Super Thursday ... Communist Euro challenge to Blair
The left is weak, but Scargill is no answer
Last week’s elections for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and local councils throughout Britain must surely have laid to rest once and for all the insistence by sections of the left that Tony Blair is unpopular and a working class fightback is gathering pace.
Although New Labour lost ground to the nationalists, it remains easily the largest party in both Scotland and Wales, and in local elections it polled around 36% of the total vote, as against 33% for the Tories. Despite losing 1,145 seats and relinquishing control of 32 councils, Labour’s mid-term showing - at a time when governments are normally at their lowest ebb - must be pleasing for Blair. The fact that he did not achieve the 50%-plus of recent opinion polls can be partially explained by the turnout of around 29%.
In general the left’s vote was no better - often worse - than in recent years. Again this gives the lie to assertions - most notably by the likes of the Socialist Workers Party - that there has “never been a better time to be a socialist” and we are on the verge of some spontaneous upsurge in workers’ anger. If that were the case, surely we could have expected this to be reflected in an increase in support.
It is true that the Scottish Socialist Party achieved some good results in the first-past-the-post ballots - but only in Glasgow, where Tommy Sheridan was elected on the back of a city-wide showing of over seven percent. Comrade Sheridan and three other SSP candidates saved their deposits. But the fact is that the SSP’s Glasgow vote made up 40% of its total. It gained 46,635 (1.99%) in the second ballot (party lists) across Scotland. Outside the proletarian capital it received well under two percent everywhere. In Glasgow the SSP is still riding on the wave of comrade Sheridan’s popularity as leader of the anti-poll tax revolt - and is no doubt gaining to some degree also from its openly nationalist politics.
The Socialist Labour Party has no more than a couple of dozen members in Scotland, and managed to stand a candidate in just five constituencies, as compared to the SSP’s 17. John Milligan won 6.39% in Motherwell and Wishaw, and former leader of the Labour council Raymond Stead just failed to save Socialist Labour’s deposit in Falkirk East. But in Glasgow the SLP result was poor, despite its TV party political broadcast. Remarkably however, outside Glasgow the SLP easily surpassed the SSP, gaining 55,232 votes (2.36% of the total vote) throughout Scotland in the second ballot. Thousands of workers were voting for a party without any organisation, structure or real membership, just on the basis of Arthur Scargill’s reputation. In Scotland South the SLP polled 4.36% - not too far from winning a top-up seat - despite being unable to stand a single individual candidate in the region.
In Wales the SLP is in an even more parlous state and could not find the resources in terms of either members or cash to contest any of the constituency seats. But Scargill managed to rustle up the £500 deposit in three out of the five Welsh regions, ensuring the SLP was an option on the second ballot. He received 10,720 votes - over one percent of the total for the whole of Wales.
By contrast the United Socialists could only manage a total of 3,590 votes in the second ballot, despite contesting in four regions - one more than the SLP. The United Socialists - an alliance of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the SWP and the left nationalist Cymru Goch - stood in nine constituencies. The best result was the 508 votes (2.33%) achieved by Cymru Goch’s Maurice Jones in Clwyd South, and the worst was the 263 (1.11%) won by SPEW’s Alec Thraves in Swansea West.
The SWP’s first electoral sortie for two decades was not a happy one. Its four candidates in Wales polled less than 2,000 votes in total, with only Huw Pudner in Aberavon breaking the two percent barrier. In Scotland its five candidates gained around 2,700 votes, with results varying from Roddy Slorach’s 3.41% in Glasgow Cathcart to Scott Sutherland’s 0.59% in Aberdeen South. These are certainly no worse than the left has been receiving throughout the 90s, yet for the SWP they are sure to bring its contradictions to the surface.
Flying in the face of reality, its ‘crisis of expectations’ theory proclaimed that a real breakthrough was in the offing. Thousands of workers, disappointed and dismayed by New Labour’s failure to deliver genuine change, were supposedly looking for the ‘socialist alternative’. The split at the top of the SWP is between those who actually believe this fantasy (or claim to) and those who realise that to test it out would precipitate a crisis in its own ranks. Last month, after more than three weeks of paralysis - when the political committee was split between staying in and pulling out of the Socialist Alliance EU electoral bloc - a compromise was reached: auto-Labourism would go, the limited interventions in Scotland and Wales would proceed (it was in any case too late to step back), but the SWP would withdraw from the real test of its ‘theory’ that a nationwide contest on June 10 would provide.
Because of the SLP - or so the excuse ran - a left intervention was no longer ‘viable’, especially after Scargill announced that he was to head his list in London. How does this retreat square with the SWP’s constant propaganda, that workers are about to turn to the left in their millions? The results in Scotland and Wales will surely have strengthened the hand of the conservative wing, who have resisted the electoral turn all along the line.
Yet what other approach to elections can the organisation take? The SWP’s break from auto-Labourism has gone too far to be reversed, as has New Labour’s rightward march. The only way out is for an open, honest reappraisal of its entire strategy - something the SWP is hardly renowned for. Much more likely is the announcement of some new opportunistic twist, leading to yet more internal divisions. Try as it may to keep the lid on this bubbling cauldron, the SWP will sooner or later see it blown off, as one leadership group or another will feel impelled to go public to ‘save’ the party. It is no exaggeration to say that such a development could shatter the organisation WRP-style.
In the local elections the indications are that the left’s showing was varied. SPEW’s results were generally low and the breakaway Merseyside Socialists also did poorly in the four council seats it contested. For example, Lesley Mahmood won just 52 votes (1.87%) for the Socialist Alliance in Liverpool’s County ward. Comrade Mahmood won 6.5% for Militant Labour in the July 1991 Walton by-election for ‘Real Labour’. Since then of course the fortunes of Peter Taaffe’s organisation have sharply declined. Last week SPEW was unable to stand anywhere in its former bastion of Merseyside.
The SLP’s scattered forces contested in some areas, but the organisation’s disarray means that Scargill will not be able to piece together the full picture easily. Its results were also mixed. Scargill’s prize recruit, paraded at the November 1998 special congress, Liverpool councillor Jimmy Rutledge, was turfed out of his Everton seat, winning just 44 votes (3.91%), way behind both the victorious rebel Ward Labour and the official Blairite candidates. By contrast the SLP’s Dave Flynn won 242 votes (14.13%) in Litherland.
While some SLP candidates are clearly able to muster a personal following, overwhelmingly the reason why Socialist Labour does better than the rest of the left is because of the Scargill name. Its real membership is now down to around 200, yet it can easily get bigger votes than much larger organisations (the SWP claims 8,000 members). Where others lack self-belief, Scargill’s egoistic ambition drives him on.
Because class conscious workers feel weak, they can easily turn to what appears strong. They will not follow groups like the SWP or SPEW, who do not even believe in themselves. A would-be labour dictator like Scargill can attract them - even though his organisation has crumbled to virtually nothing. Those who are prepared to give him a clear run on June 10 are conniving at his misleadership. If Scargill gains a foothold, he will lead our class not to self-liberation, but to a national socialist disaster. The left must act to challenge not only the warmongering bourgeois parties, but also the SLP red-brown dead end.
That is why the Communist Party will stand in the June 10 EU elections. Although we have been banned from standing under our own name, our ‘Weekly Worker’ list will contest where our Socialist Alliance allies have deserted the field. But we need every bit of help that comrades are prepared to give - not least the money to fund a successful campaign in both London and the North West England regions.
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