Hackney: building a base

There were two results in the May 2002 local elections in Hackney. First there was a 'landslide' victory for Hackney New Labour. Second, by 60% to 40%, the voters decided that they wanted an elected mayor. All on a turnout of just over 30%. The vote on the mayor was required by local government legislation. None of the main parties campaigned for it, but clearly there were enough people in the borough who think that an elected mayor might be able to sort Hackney out in a way that none of the traditional politicians had not been able to in the past. Thus, a mass 'common sense' vote, produced by popular frustration at any party's ability to deliver, may have opened the door to a social catastrophe for many of the poorest people in the borough. As for the 'landslide', it was not quite as it seemed. As was noted by an unsuccessful challenger to eventual Labour candidate Jules Pipe, Labour's percentage of the vote edged up only by a few percentage points in a context where the Liberal Democrats had more or less abandoned the borough to successfully defend their fortress Islington. The Liberals lost 12 of their 15 seats (the three seats remaining in just one ward) in Hackney, and the Greens - who ran a very leftist campaign - lost their two councillors. The Tories won nine seats (down three), with Labour taking the other 45. The fact is that Labour in Hackney is no more popular than it was a year ago, but the opposition has become more fragmented. The Socialist Alliance has played a key role in this fragmentation. Neither the Greens nor the Liberal Democrats can now expect to be the repository for left working class votes that are opposed to Labour. The signal for this was the October 2000 Wick by-election, where the Liberal Democrats lost a seat to Labour they expected to win and where the SA candidate, Diana Swingler, gained 12.7%. The decision by the Liberals to decamp to Islington in May and the Greens to run a mayoral candidate who is clearly from the right of their party (both to hold on to the Liberal voters they won over in May and to distinguish themselves from the SA) is indicative of the political space that the SA has carved out since the 2000 Greater London Authority elections. The Greens, who understand that they cannot deliver a knockout blow to the organisation that is challenging its left flank, has opted to attempt to replace the organisation to its immediate right - the Liberal Democrats. Crispin Truman, the Green Party candidate, wants everyone to think of Hackney as a nice place and believes that his management skills, honed at a small NGO that recently won the best charity of the year contest, will resolve problems on a 'common sense' basis. Mayoral elections are notoriously difficult to predict - Hangus the Monkey and Robocop are evidence of that - so I hope that readers will understand that a week before the close of polls it would be unwise to make any kind of prediction in print about the vote the Socialist Alliance's candidate, Paul Foot, might achieve. What I can do is set out some of the parameters of the possible. The election will be held over two rounds. After the first round of voting if no candidate gets more than 50% then the top two go into a run-off decided by all the second-preference votes of the other candidates. If, for example, Labour get 40% in the first round, then Tories, Liberals, Socialist Alliance, Greens and three independent candidates will be dividing the remaining 60% between them. A vote of 15% may well be enough to assure a place in a second-round run-off. Hackney SA's lowest vote in May was seven percent. Its highest was that of Paul Foot himself - over 20%. These votes were gained when voters could vote for three candidates and in a system they had used before and understood. This time they have two votes. During the election campaign 85% of houses have had both a leaflet and a tabloid from the Socialist Alliance; Paul Foot has spent every evening and many days in meetings with subjects ranging from local transport policy to the war on Iraq, and from a street meeting to get-togethers with the Turkish and Kurdish communities. He has fought an excellent election and will have a personal vote resulting from his many years of campaigning and writing for The Mirror and The Guardian. Of all the parties only the SA has been fighting New Labour ward by ward across the borough in a campaign that has involved over 100 people and has garnered support from local alliances across London and some from further afield. The Socialist Alliance has played a key role in many of the campaigns to defend local services that has seen those who have voted Labour fight their own council for resources. New Labour in Hackney has been engaged in a massive cuts and closure programme for the last two years. After the votes have been counted and the result dissected there is one fact that can be stated in advance of election day - Hackney Socialist Alliance is slowly but surely building a base for socialism in this borough and it is here to stay. Will McMahon chair, Hackney SA