Lambeth SA Great start?

Document distributed within Lambeth Socialist Alliance

On the day after the general election, a statement from comrades Hoveman, Marqusee and Rees appeared on the Socialist Alliance website suggesting that we had ?made a great start in building a nationwide socialist alternative to New Labour?.

The main justification for this assertion was that our performance bore favourable comparison to that of the Communist Party in 1950. (Why 1950 was chosen as a benchmark rather than 1945 remains something of a mystery to me. Perhaps it was because the CP managed to get two candidates elected to the House of Commons in 1945!) The comrades also suggested that the SA might follow a similar trajectory to the Greens who, despite the fact that they were unable to save a deposit in the 1997 general election, can now boast several MEPs (1999) and GLA councillors (2000).

Despite the favourable spin that is now being put on our election campaign, I feel that our results in England and Wales were extremely disappointing. Only Neil Thompson (St Helens South) and Dave Nellist (Coventry North East) actually saved their deposits and, in both cases, favourable local factors can partly explain their results. In London we were not able to really capitalise on the work we had done around the GLA elections about a year ago and only Cecilia Prosper (Hackney South) came close to saving her deposit. Locally, our candidates did very poorly. John Mulrenan (Camberwell and Peckham) polled 478 votes (1.9%), Brian Kelly (Dulwich) got 838 votes (2.2%) and Greg Tucker achieved 906 votes (2.4%). In my own constituency, Theresa Bennett (Vauxhall) polled only 853 votes (2.6%), which does not bear favourable comparison at all with the Socialist Labour Party?s effort here in 1997, when they polled over 900 votes (2.5%).

To add insult to injury, the British National Party had a reasonably good election campaign, polling heavily in Oldham and Burnley and saving several deposits in east London (Poplar and Canning Town, Barking and Dagenham). In south London they were less successful, although their candidates still polled 3.3% in Lewisham East and 3.5% in Bexley and Crayford. Even the ramshackle National Front (NF) managed to get 1.7% in Southwark North and Bermondsey.

So why were our results so disappointing this time?

1. The objective circumstances were not particularly favourable to us. The economy has been fairly steady over the last four years and unemployment has continued to fall even though the official figures grossly underestimate the real level of joblessness. Although certain groups of public sector workers (tube and postal workers) are facing the threat of privatisation, most workers remain, as yet, untouched by these developments.

2. We did not have a ?Livingstone effect? working in our favour this time.

3. The Socialist Alliance did not campaign after the GLA elections. The main reason for this disastrous error was that the largest group within the alliance, the Socialist Workers Party, argued that the Socialist Alliance should limit itself to electoral activities only (a position quite recently articulated as a ?united front of a particular kind applied to the electoral field? by John Rees in International Socialism 90, spring 2001, p32).

As a result of this approach, attempts by some comrades to initiate campaigning activities before Christmas - for example, around the post office and council housing - were blocked by the local SWP leadership of the SA in Lambeth. We wasted a golden opportunity to develop our roots in the locality by building a layer of activists around us both on the housing estates and in local workplaces.

In my opinion, this is the most important reason for our poor performance on June 7. Consequently, when the election campaign began we were only able to attract around 20 people to our weekly meetings in Vauxhall and these numbers did not increase appreciably during the course of the campaign itself. In the end, we were just not able to mobilise enough people to build a really effective campaign.

Although Lindsey German?s article in Socialist Worker (May 5), signalled a long overdue change in the SWP?s attitude to the SA, the damage had already been done. Although she argued coherently that the SA should now become a campaigning organisation that also participated in elections, this shift came much too late for us to develop local roots in Vauxhall in time for the general election campaign.

4. We made some serious mistakes during the campaign. Particularly damaging was the decision to totally concentrate on leafleting at the expense of canvassing. In my opinion, this had much more to do with allowing the SWP to control the campaign (and to get hold of the contacts?) and rather less to do with fighting an effective campaign.

5. Our politics were also too soft (eg, Ken Loach?s election broadcast). We should have identified our class enemies more openly and argued more forcefully for an immediate redistribution of wealth through changes in the taxation system.

So what conclusions should we draw from this campaign? The first error we must avoid is to fall into despondency and abandon the Socialist Alliance project altogether.

A second mistake would be to postpone any decision about the future of the alliance until the autumn. We need to immediately reconstitute ourselves as Lambeth Socialist Alliance, elect a local committee and decide our immediate campaigning priorities (stopping the privatisation of council housing and the tube, anti-fascist activity, etc). We absolutely must not repeat the mistake we made after the GLA elections and allow ourselves to drift off into passivity.

Finally, the most important thing for all of us to realise is that the disappointing vote we received really reflects on the earlier SWP position associated with John Rees rather than the Socialist Alliance project itself. While the new perspectives have yet to be tested in practice, I feel that they definitely offer us a better opportunity to build the Socialist Alliance in the period leading up to the local elections in London in May 2002.

Pete Weller