LSA jolts Labour in Lewisham
London Socialist Alliance finished second in the council by-election in Marlowe ward, Lewisham, on February 8, achieving a very creditable 17.7% of the vote.
Our candidate, Bob Gardiner, a tenants' and pensioners' activist and former trade union militant, won 174 votes, taking advantage of the desperately low 11.7% turnout. The result came despite dubious tactics employed by both New Labour and the Liberal Democrats to discredit the LSA. The Labour Party, clearly rattled by the impact comrade Gardiner was making, especially on his own Kender estate, issued a press release condemning the Socialist Alliance for putting up posters.
Labour wheeled out its 'deputy for the environment', Paul Fallon, who feigned horror at what he implied was nothing short of criminal vandalism: "I have never come across a case where any political party has fly-posted for a local election. I am shocked that the cross-party consensus on enviro-crime has been shattered by the irresponsible actions of the Socialist Party [sic]" (South London Press February 1). In fact, as the Labour council was subsequently forced to admit, its own officers had given the SA permission to put up posters.
Lewisham, of course, is one of the areas in Britain where Labour feels under threat from the left. This, in no small measure, is due to the Socialist Party's success in Pepys ward, where two of the three councillors, Ian Page and Sam Dias, are SP members who stood as Socialist Alternative. This has led council bosses to begin to target 'disloyal' leftwing supporters they employ, threatening them with disciplinary action on the most spurious of grounds.
The Liberal Democrats had another line of attack, distributing a leaflet which falsely declared comrade Gardiner to be "a member of the rightwing UK Independence Party". According to the Lib Dems, supporters of the SA were horrified when they 'discovered' this and "many" were said to be switching to the Liberals as the only 'radical' alternative.
The statement was untrue, but was not totally without foundation. Comrade Gardiner had actually resigned from the UKIP in December, and the SA had been completely aware of his former connection. He had joined the UKIP purely because of its anti-European Union, anti-euro line. Opposition to the EU from a nationalist, pro-Britain perspective is unfortunately not restricted to the extreme right - look at Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, for example.
CPGB supporters, while we realised that Bob Gardiner's UKIP membership had been based on naivety rather than any affinity with the right, had expressed our doubts about the advisability of his candidature. Activism is one thing, but in our view the politics of SA candidates must be firmly based on the working class. However, for the Socialist Workers Party in particular, activism is the main criterion. Indeed, since the SWP believes Labourites will be attracted to the alliance only if they mistake us for old Labour, the absence of revolutionary politics in candidates like comrade Gardiner is considered a positive virtue.
The Socialist Party had a different reason for backing Bob. In fact SP comrades originally hoped he would stick to his intention of contesting the seat as an independent tenants' candidate, which would in SP eyes have had the added advantage of lowering the profile of the SA. Kender estate, comrade Gardiner's base, is to be transferred to neighbouring Pepys ward under forthcoming boundary changes and a good vote in Kender will be essential if comrades Page and Dias are to be re-elected next year.
So Marlowe saw the unusual spectacle of SP comrades throwing themselves into a Socialist Alliance campaign. But, despite the fact that the SA had rejected the suggestion that each political group should be allocated sole responsibility for one electoral division, they restricted all their canvassing to Kender - one of five divisions in the ward. The combination of SP saturation and comrade Gardiner's personal popularity resulted in a return of around 100 on this one estate, almost two-thirds of our total vote.
Obviously we want to see the SP retain its councillors - not to mention the possibility of winning the third seat in the ward - but as part of the drive to build a single, united socialist alternative. However, for the SP holding on to Pepys is an aim in and of itself - that would, it hopes, shore up its declining prestige and influence. Seldom can the use of the adjective 'sectarian' have been more apt than in the case of Peter Taaffe's exclusively self-serving organisation.
With the SP virtually boycotting the campaign outside Kender, it was down to comrades from the SWP, CPGB and Alliance for Workers' Liberty, together with a handful of unattached individuals, to leaflet and canvass elsewhere. Unfortunately the SWP, still the largest force on the left, does not yet seem to be able to motivate its members for broad electoral work to the same extent as the SP does in its own narrow interests. This disappointing SWP turnout meant that canvassing was inadequate and some streets were not visited at all after delivery of the election address.
It seems that not a few SWP comrades, unconvinced by their organisation's untheorised turn from auto-Labourism to fully fledged 'electoralism', consciously decided not to prioritise the campaign.
Labour 600 (61.1%)
Socialist Alliance 174 (17.7%)
Conservative 110 (11.2%)
Liberal Democrat 98 (10.0%)
Raise our sights
The February 13 meeting of the Cambridgeshire Socialist Alliance illustrated how much progress we still have to make to be in a position to launch an effective campaign at the forthcoming general election.
Though we have a selection meeting in just two weeks time, candidates for the Cambridge seat considered 'viable' (by the Socialist Workers Party at least) are still thin on the ground. A couple of regularly attending unattached comrades, deemed suitable by the SWP, have been approached, but have felt unable to take on the role.
Yet again the Socialist Party boycotted the meeting, which proceeded in a businesslike manner. The main controversy arose with a proposal from comrade Stan of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, that all members of the Cambridgeshire SA "should be members of their relevant trade union".
The comrade claimed that union membership was a condition for membership of the Labour Party and felt that this should apply to us too. The SWP proposed that this be amended to "encouraged to be members of the relevant trade union".
Unsurprisingly, the only vote cast for the AWL proposal was that of comrade Stan himself, with the rest voting for the amendment. Why draw up rules to exclude people, given the fact that the clear majority of the working class is not organised in trade unions at the present time? We should seek to draw comrades won to join us into the unions, but on the basis of politically intervening under the alliance banner.
While the CPGB, along with other alliance components, favours the setting up of SA union fractions, we would not want these to be restricted to members of the different left groups. We are also in favour of the coordination of SA union comrades across union lines, particularly within the same industry.
The meeting was presented with a draft programme prepared by an ad-hoc group. This will be pared down and considered in detail at our next meeting. The proposals at present amount to no more than a minimalist shopping list: they need to be included in their proper place within a national political manifesto.
The CPGB will be pushing for the inclusion in the final document of key democratic demands - e.g., around the federal republic and the abolition of the monarchy - at the Birmingham conference on March 10. We must raise our sights to encompass not only local and trade union-type questions, but address the wider political issues concerning the nature of the state and how we are ruled.