Election sees left advance

The results of the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party may have been disappointing, argues Peter Manson, but the campaign represented a real gain

The left undoubtedly made a quantitative leap forward in the general election. The gain did not lie in the number of votes obtained by individual candidates - by and large, these were disappointing - but in the scale of the contest, the advance in organisation and the steps taken towards unity.

The very fact that we contested so widely meant that a greatly increased total number of votes for the left was won, compared to the 1997 general election. In 1997 the left, standing in just over 100 constituencies, received 75,683 altogether. Last week non-Labour Party candidates claiming to stand for some kind of socialism gained 194,654 votes - over two and a half times more. Of those, a highly creditable 72,528 were won by the Scottish Socialist Party?s 72 candidates, while the Socialist Alliance (98 contests in England and Wales) notched up 57,553. The third electoral force was Arthur Scargill?s Socialist Labour Party, whose 114 candidates polled 57,288 votes.

However, the SSP had publicly stated its aim of 100,000 votes, while the Weekly Worker had declared that ?the left has a tremendous opportunity to make real progress on June 7. The winning of 250,000 votes, with a dozen or more reaching the five percent threshold, is well within our grasp? (May 10).

Well, neither the SSP?s target for itself or our own for the left as a whole was met (although at least we had the satisfaction of seeing ?a dozen or more? candidates saving their deposits - there were 13 in all). But that does not mean we were wrong to set any public target, as the SA?s press officers, Mike Marqusee and Anna Chen, insisted (SA press e-mail list, May 14). The 250,000 figure - for the entire left, not just the SA, as the comrades erroneously believed - was intended as an encouragement, a means of inspiring comrades with a realistic vision of what could be achieved. It is not the end of the world that we failed. There was no ?hostage to fortune?. The figure was ?well within our grasp?, despite the left?s continued marginalisation.

Despite the increased willingness to contest, Scargill?s stubborn refusal to cooperate undoubtedly cost the left many votes in total. He opposed the SA or SLP in no fewer than 47 constituencies. In England there were 35 examples of two left candidates fighting the same seat while in all of them suitable neighbouring constituencies went uncontested. A hundred or more solidly working class areas were denied the opportunity of voting for a left candidate.

So the figure of 250,000 is an indication of what we could attain right now. In reality, however, there are millions who could be won to a viable left alternative in the short term. For that to happen though the SA would need a carefully thought out strategy for the Labour Party and winning over its working class base - something distinctly lacking at the moment.

But let us examine the actual achievement. First the Socialist Alliance. The average return for our candidates was 1.69%. Dave Nellist won 2,638 votes (7.08%), despite switching from Coventry South to Coventry North East. His Socialist Party comrade, Rob Windsor, won 1,475 votes (3.68%) in comrade Nellist?s former constituency. Neil Thompson, the Fire Brigades Union militant and defector from New Labour, was the other SA candidate to save his deposit, winning 2,325 votes in St Helens South. Comrade Thompson was able to take advantage of the disgust of traditional Labour supporters at Blair?s parachuting into St Helens of the ex-Tory millionaire, Shaun Woodward.

Another SP councillor, Ian Page, gained 1,260 votes (4.33%) in Lewisham Deptford, while Cecilia Prosper did even better, picking up 4.62% of the poll (1,401 votes) in Hackney South and Shoreditch. Comrade Prosper, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, would almost certainly have saved her deposit but for the decision of the Communist Party of Britain to shun unity and stand Ivan Beavis against her. Comrade Beavis?s 259 votes represented 0.85%, while a candidate from the Workers Revolutionary Party took another 143 votes (0.47%) in the same seat.

A further five SA comrades won more than three percent and 14 more gained over two percent. But the bulk of our candidates were hovering on or around the one percent mark - definitely a disappointment in view of the amount of energy that was put into the campaign. Unfortunately, however, much of this was not employed to best effect. Many local alliances spent an inordinate amount of time leafleting door to door - two or three flyers were distributed to many areas in addition to the election address delivered by Royal Mail. Those SAs who contented themselves with the election address alone (or perhaps one other leaflet too) and decided to target particular areas for canvassing were rewarded with greater returns. More importantly, they now have a larger list of contacts and a bigger base for future work.

The futility of the ?leaflet, leaflet, leaflet? approach promoted by the SWP was shown up by comparing our results with those of the SLP. Scargill?s sect is now a shell of the organisation it was four years ago, its membership having shrunk from well over 2,000 in 1997 to around 400 today. SA and SSP comrades all over the country report that there was no sign of SLP campaigning almost anywhere, yet Socialist Labour?s returns were not that much below the SA?s.

In 1997 the SLP stood 64 candidates, mounted reasonable campaigns in many places and won 52,110 votes. Despite the mass exodus of all the best SLP activists in the intervening years, Scargill somehow came up with the cash to stand almost twice as many candidates in 2001. But the 114 SLPers could only manage 57,288, averaging 1.42% each. Nevertheless the SLP?s performance was only marginally worse than the alliance?s. To compare like with like, the SLP had 102 candidates in England and Wales (four more than the SA) with a total vote of 54,104 (within 3,500 of the SA?s total). Excluding Scotland, where SLP candidates did very badly, Scargill?s average percentage goes up to 1.49% (within spitting distance of the SA?s 1.69%).

The SLP total was boosted by a handful of candidates who were well known locally. Harbhajan Dardi is hardly a household name outside Warley, but he picked up 1,936 votes from his own community (6.16%). Similarly Avtar Jouhl, former general secretary of the Indian Workers Association, won 1,544 votes (4.13%) in Birmingham Perry Barr, while his IWA comrade, Hardev Dhillon, received 1,180 (3.54%) in Erith and Thamesmead. On Merseyside, where the SLP once boasted a layer of committed members and still has some reality, Dave Flynn got 3.53% in Bootle and Alan Fogg gained 2.92% in Knowsley South. In St Helens South the SLP?s Mike Perry was another beneficiary of the anti-Woodward protest, gaining 1,504 votes (4.45%) in addition to comrade Thompson?s excellent 2,638.

Elsewhere though, SLP results were generally mediocre. Scargill would not permit his members to even respond to SA and SSP approaches seeking an agreement for the left not to stand against each other, and of course completely rules out a united campaign. On the contrary his aim was to thwart any moves to unity and sabotage the SA?s campaign, which he views as a threat to his party and to his personal ambition to lead British workers as a labour dictator. In this he is backed up by the likes of London regional president Harpal Brar, a leading light in the Stalin Society, who presumably believes that an ice pick through the skull is too good for the Socialist Alliance ?Trotskyites?.

But the mass of militant workers know nothing of Arthur Scargill, the sectarian wrecker. They remember only the intransigent and militant leader of the miners? Great Strike of 1984-85. That is the image of Arthur Scargill that the SLP doggedly pushes in its own publicity. So, despite having perhaps 10 times as many activists as the SLP available for its election campaign, the SA could not gain much of an advantage in a leaflet war. Faced with having to choose between the SA and the SLP, standing apparently on very similar platforms, many amongst our target groups plumped for the name or face they recognised on the election address - that of the SLP?s general secretary.

As I say, the SLP spoilers ignored all SA attempts to avoid clashes with the main left force and, as a result, opposed the alliance in no fewer than 35 seats. In 25 of them Scargill?s party came off second best, but the SLP polled more than the SA in the remaining 10. The demoralisation of some SA activists was understandable, given the fact that they had worked so hard while Socialist Labour comrades were nowhere to be seen. Yet over and over again, where canvassing did take place, voters wanted to know the difference between the SA and SLP. Why were there two socialists standing in the same seat?

It was the same story when callers rang in to our national office. Why were there two competing left campaigns? Yet comrades Marqusee and Chen, in the same e-list statement, wrote this advice to candidates and agents: ?In general, it is our policy to refrain from any attacks on the Greens or the SLP is this election campaign; they are a distraction from our main message. The media are very keen to promote squabbles between us and the SLP in particular, and we should not oblige them. Stick to the positive points about the SA and the need for the broadest and most effective alternative to New Labour. If pressed, be polite and friendly about Arthur Scargill, but indicate that the SA is a much bigger and broader electoral force, with a much fresher political agenda and more opportunities for ordinary people to participate.?

It obviously has not yet sunk in that Scargill is out to scuttle the SA and we must stop him by exposing both his ultra-Stalinite acolytes and his own go-it-alone sectarianism. There is a world of difference between ?squabbles? and defeating dangerous ideas and spoiling actions. Scargill himself has no such compunction - just look at his own crowing press statement (see p3), where he makes it more than clear that his principal aim in the 2001 general election was simply to wreck the project of left unity. To do so he has to resort to outright falsification - ?finding? an extra few hundred votes for the SLP and ?losing? almost 2,000 SA votes. And he chooses to keep quiet altogether about the SSP.

Hardly surprising. In Scotland Socialist Labour was eclipsed, thanks to the dramatic increase in influence of the SSP. While the SLP?s 12 candidates polled only 3,184 votes, the SSP on average won around four times as many per candidate. There is no doubting that, despite the failure of the main left force north of the border to reach its target, the average return of 3.36%, standing in every constituency over the whole of Scotland, was no mean feat. Nine out of 10 candidates in Glasgow saved their deposits, as did Lynne Sheridan in Coatbridge and Chryston. Even in Orkney and Shetland the party won 4.64%.

Should 72,528 be considered a ?failure?? Well, it was far short of 100,000, but just compare that to the performance of what was then the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1997: its 16 candidates won a total of 9,740 votes - but 3,639 of those were cast for Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow Pollok. Last week Pollok was again the SSP?s best constituency (2,522 votes - 9.98% - for Keith Baldassara), but the other Glasgow seats were not far behind.

Of course the election of comrade Sheridan to the Edinburgh parliament marked a watershed in the fortunes of the SSP, but there can be no doubt that the decision to transform the SSA into a party open to the whole left was also highly significant. While the SSP?s open embrace of nationalism, epitomised by its call for an ?independent socialist Scotland?, may well also have played a role in its growth, there is surely a lesson here for the Socialist Alliance.

That lesson ought also to be taken on board by the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Its reluctant, grudging participation in the alliance and the running of separate, exclusively Socialist Party campaigns where it had claimed the right to stand its own members as SA candidates stood in stark contrast to the constructive and enthusiastic participation of its most well known member, SA chair Dave Nellist.

As for the SP?s results, they were indistinguishable from those of the alliance as a whole. Comrades Nellist, Page and Windsor might have been well above average, but Andy Pryor (Bristol East), Clive Walder (Birmingham Northfield) and Gavin Marsh (Southampton Itchen) languished near the bottom of the results list. Yes, the SP has four councillors in England, but it has no special formula for electoral success. Outside Coventry and Lewisham its candidates actually did worse than those standing on the official SA platform.

The SP occupies leadership positions within the Welsh Socialist Alliance and as a result SA work in Wales has been far behind the levels achieved in England. The general election WSA effort was very much a last-minute affair. This was exemplified by the result in Cardiff Central. In 1997 Terry Burns, standing for the SLP, won 5.28% of the poll (2,230 votes). In 2001 Julian Goss, the only left candidate in the constituency, managed just 0.81% (283 votes). Surely the militant minority in Cardiff cannot have changed so much in four years.