Dismal results of non-Respect left
While Respect achieved some impressive votes, writes Peter Manson, the general election clearly demonstrated the continuing decline of the rest of the left
Whether you measure it by the number of candidates or votes gained, it is clear that the non-Respect left now finds itself marginalised as never before. Yet just two years ago literally millions of people took to the streets in anger at Blair’s war on Iraq and were open to all sorts of radical ideas, not least those of socialism.
One way of gauging the degree of marginalisation is by simply comparing the number of non-Labour leftwing candidates putting themselves forward in the 2001 elections (303) with the number that stood last week (187). Of course, to some extent the large drop resulted from a conscious decision by the Socialist Workers Party, along with the Respect leadership, to go for a very limited challenge - as compared to 2001, when the SWP was won to the idea that the Socialist Alliance should contest as widely as possible. Thus, four years ago, there were 98 SA candidates, whereas in 2005 Respect stood just 26.
We can also note the reduction in the number of constituencies in Scotland, which meant that the Scottish Socialist Party stood in only 58 seats, as opposed to 72 in 2001. Nevertheless, what is striking is the decrease in support for the left in terms of both the average number of votes gained and, perhaps more revealingly, the percentage share. If we exclude areas where a substantial muslim vote was mobilised, we can discern the same trend, albeit less marked, in Respect’s returns (see pp4-5). Colin Fox is no Tommy Sheridan
Scottish Socialist Party
As in 2001, the SSP contested every Scottish seat (except for East Kilbride, where it stood down this time in favour of anti-war campaigner Rose Gentle). In 2001, it polled 72,528 votes - well over three percent of those cast in Scotland. On May 5 there was a dramatic loss of support: the SSP vote was down to 43,516 - fractionally under two percent of the total. Four years ago 10 SSP candidates saved their deposits, including nine out of 10 in Glasgow, but this time only Keith Baldassara, standing in Glasgow South West, and John Aberdein in Orkney and Shetland got past the five percent barrier.
Why such a change in fortunes? Well, the most obvious explanation is the fallout surrounding Tommy Sheridan’s forced resignation as national convenor late last year. The SSP was known in many working class areas as ‘Tommy’s party’, and there is no doubt that his departure cost the SSP dear. Looking at the reasons for the poor result, SSP press and policy coordinator Alan McCombes (who was beaten in the contest to replace comrade Sheridan by MSP Colin Fox) writes: “Following the resignation of Tommy Sheridan, we were subjected to a sustained media onslaught, mainly based on ignorance and misinformation. Nor has the party had time to fully establish the public profile of the new convenor, Colin Fox (‘General election analysis’, May 9). This is one-sided. It was the SSP executive that added fuel to the fire by demanding comrade Sheridan’s resignation following allegations about his private life. However, as comrade McCombes points out, there were other factors.
The SSP has done best not in Westminster-type first-past-the-post elections, but in those based on proportional representation. In the 2003 Holyrood poll the SSP picked up 7.68% of the vote on regional lists across Scotland (in Glasgow it won a tremendous 15.2%). Comrade McCombes comments: “In the Scottish elections of 2003, and in the European election of 2004, every vote potentially counted towards the election of a Scottish Socialist MSP or MEP. But in this election we had no possibility of winning any seats - and made that clear to our supporters from day one.”
An SSP vote was therefore more likely to be regarded as a wasted vote. In fact by last year’s EU elections the SSP vote had dipped to 5.21% despite PR, so this falling off in support compared to the 2003 peak could be seen as a process which started before the Sheridan fiasco. And the absence of PR does not explain the slippage compared to 2001, which, as comrade McCombes notes, was “disappointing”. He remarks that “Westminster elections have become increasingly hostile terrain for the three Scottish-based parties - the SNP, the Greens and the SSP.” This is because the electorate is not voting specifically on Scottish questions. He goes on: “In 2001, that was partly disguised by the fact that the general election was a foregone conclusion from day one, with Labour’s eventual landslide victory never in any serious doubt. In this election, Labour were able to whip up fear among working class voters of a Michael Howard victory.”
Does this mean, then, that an independent Scotland is not so high up their agenda as McCombes himself has stated? After all, if voters are more concerned about keeping the Tories out than striking a blow for a separate Scotland, that ought to tell you something. And what about the small matter of the loss of support for all three “Scottish-based parties” which campaign for independence, not least the Scottish National Party?
Comrade McCombes states: “It would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that this represents a weakening of support for independence, any more than the losses suffered by the SSP signifies a backlash against the idea of socialism and wealth redistribution.” His evidence for this is the fact that during the campaign four polls showed “support for independence running far higher than during the 2001 general election (ICM: 29%; BBC: 33%; YouGov: 34%; System Three/TNS: 46%). These figures underline the paradox that sympathy for independence is running way ahead of the combined support for Scotland’s three pro-independence political parties. But for all except the hard-core pro-independence voters, this was not seen as an election that could strike a blow at the future of the United Kingdom. Nor was it seen as an election that could deliver socialist change. Instead, most Scottish voters saw this as an election in which the main priority was to stop the Tories by voting Labour.”
This is less than convincing. Firstly, in the words of Anne Robinson, “it’s votes that count”, not the vague and volatile “sentiment” expressed in the opinion polls he quotes. Secondly, since in most Scottish constituencies it was well known that the Tories had no chance whatsoever of winning (in Glasgow, for instance, the Conservatives got well under 10% in all but one seat and ended up with just one Scottish MP), why should working class voters worry about letting them in? The truth is, comrade McCombes’s version of opinion poll politics has proved disastrous - following the latest twist in ‘public opinion’ hardly provides a sound basis for the drawing up of socialist policy.
Workers will, it is true - especially in the absence of any viable class-based solutions - spontaneously turn to forms of sectionalism, including nationalism, as an apparent way out. It is the job of revolutionary socialists to combat such divisive panaceas, not encourage and reinforce them. It may well be true that “the 2007 elections will be fought on far more favourable terrain”. But I would not count on the SSP regaining much lost ground if it continues in its current direction. The ongoing stress on separatism is likely to play into the hands of the SNP in the long run. If the immediate and most pressing need is independence, then why not vote for the party more likely to be able to deliver it?
Comrade McCombes also lays part of the blame for the poor SSP result on what he calls “differential turnout” based on class: “While middle class constituencies such as East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire had turnouts of over 72%, the turnout in some working class seats in Glasgow slumped well below 50%. Within these seats, some wards had turnouts no higher than 25%.” Why should that adversely affect the SSP in a first-past-the-post election? Surely those class-conscious workers from amongst whom the SSP gains its support would be more likely to vote than those inclined to back Labour or the Liberal Democrats?
Looking south of the border to Bethnal Green and Bow, McCombes wonders whether there is not “an argument for at least discussing a more focused, targeted approach in future first-past-the-post elections, including the constituency elections for Holyrood”. In other words, a big retreat is on the cards in 2007, especially given the SSP’s financial as well as political difficulties. In fact the next Holyrood elections will be much more difficult, with fewer top-up seats up for grabs because of the redrawing of boundaries. This will act against the smaller parties and there is a distinct possibility that only Tommy Sheridan would survive. The implications of this could tear the SSP apart and George Galloway and the SWP could once more start eyeing Scotland with a view to a Respect electoral intervention north of the border.
Arthur Scargill's SLP: as insignificant as it deserves to be
Socialist Labour Party
The SLP has long since ceased to be a serious force on the left even potentially. With the large-scale haemorrhaging of membership that has taken place since the height of its fortunes in 1997, it is actually a minor miracle that the SLP managed to cobble together 50 candidates (approximately one for every five members), compared to the 114 it stood in 2001. Seeing that almost everywhere Socialist Labour stood paper candidates who were incapable of anything that could remotely be described as a ‘campaign’ apart from issuing an election manifesto (distributed by Royal Mail and paid for I know not how), at first sight a total of 20,027 votes with an average return of 1.14% does not seem too bad, compared to the 1.42% achieved in 2001.
But when you look more closely, one particular result jumps out: that of Doris Kelly in Glasgow North East, who single-handedly pulled in 4,036 votes - no less than 14.20% - and finished third. Look even more closely at the Glasgow North East result, however, and you will see that there were no candidates for Labour, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. That is because the outgoing MP was Michael Martin, who described himself not as the candidate of the Labour Party for which he was first elected, but as “Speaker, seeking re-election”. Convention dictates that the ‘neutral’ speaker of the Commons is not opposed by mainstream parties. It seems pretty clear that the best part of 4,000 voters scanned down the ballot paper looking in vain for ‘Scottish Labour Party’ and mistakenly put their cross against ‘Socialist Labour Party’ - the only description that was remotely similar. And so it came to pass that comrade Kelly - who lives in Bolton, Lancashire, and in all likelihood has never set foot in the constituency - saved her deposit and won almost three times more votes than the SSP candidate. If you take this freak result out of the equation, the average return of the SLP dips well below one percent.
No other candidate came near to saving their deposit and only three got more than two percent. Thirty-two out of the 50 candidates failed to register one percent. As we go to press, almost a week after the election, the SLP has not yet managed to summon up the energy to issue a statement commenting on its election campaign - although I expect that general secretary Arthur Scargill will proclaim it as another groundbreaking success when he eventually gets round to having the SLP website updated.
Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in England and Wales is not so shy. Its website was soon hailing “some creditable results”. In fact, “For Socialist Party members up and down the country, this was the best election campaign we have ever been involved in.” How so? Well, “In four weeks we raised over £11,000 for our fighting fund … We sold record numbers of The Socialist in many parts of the country. Most importantly of all, our raised profile meant that more people found out about socialist ideas - our leaflets reached more than 700,000 households - and many people - especially young people - have joined us in the struggle for socialism as a result.”
Making propaganda, recruiting and building “the struggle for socialism” are, of course, major aims of the election campaign of any genuine revolutionary socialist organisation (which the SP is not). But we do not understate the importance of winning votes or even getting elected - and we certainly do not attempt to put a favourable gloss on poor results. And the SP results were every bit as bad as those of the SSP and SLP.
Despite standing four more candidates that in 2001, the SP gained a thousand fewer votes. Four years ago the 14 SP candidates (12 of whom stood under the SA umbrella) won 10,368 votes, which worked out as 2.11% each on average. This time the 17 candidates, all standing as ‘Socialist Alternative’, picked up 9,398 votes (average: 1.57%). This decline took place despite the fact that 11 of the contests took place in the same constituency as in 2001, often with the same candidate. Of these 11, eight got smaller votes and a (usually considerably) lower percentage return. Dave Nellist (Coventry North East) dropped more than two percentage points and only just saved his deposit with 5.04%. It was the same story with Rob Windsor (Coventry South; down from 3.68% to 2.70%) and Ian Page (Lewisham Deptford; 4.33% in 2001, compared to 2.44% in 2005).
The SP commentary says nothing of this loss of votes. After noting the “creditable results” of comrades Nellist, Windsor and Page, amongst others, it goes on: “But our vote in no way reflected the support we found for our ideas” (the “but” is the only hint that the returns are not as positive as they might have been). The commentary continues: “Anxious to give Blair a bloody nose, people who would have liked to vote for us instead looked for a party that they felt could inflict damage on New Labour nationally. The Liberal Democrats - as one of the three mainstream parties (and in some areas the Greens) - were seen as the most viable means to do so by many. Other workers voted Labour out of fear of a Tory victory, despite agreeing 100% with our description of New Labour as a party of the fat cats.”
In this way, the SP manages to square the “two main factors” it says “drove the election process” - “a burning desire to punish New Labour and Tony Blair in particular” with “a horror of Howard winning the election”. And of course it explains away the SP’s own (unspoken) poor showing - although you might have thought that this overwhelming aversion to both the Tories and Labour would have led to a Lib Dem majority, or at least to a greater willingness to vote for the smaller groups whose “ideas” people liked so much.
However, the SP claims that, “where people felt free to vote on the basis of whose ideas they liked best, we came out extremely well”. This does not refer to the election itself, where voters obviously do not feel “free” to support whomever they like, but to “a number of debates in schools” and to a Newsnight item where an SP candidate apparently “came second out of 15” in a poll.
Communist Party of Britain
As in 2001, the CPB stood six candidates. According to the Morning Star, these were all “in constituencies with a large Labour majority - it was not the party’s intention to aim for a win in any of its target seats” (May 7). That must have come as a relief to the Labour candidates. However, the anonymous writer is pleased to report that “the CPB did pick up a few more votes in the seats where it stood”. In 2001 it won only 1,003, while this time it gained a hugely encouraging 1,124. Unfortunately, though, this represents an identical return in percentage terms (0.55%) compared to four years ago.
Ironically the writer, earlier in the article, had referred to the “pretty derisory results” polled by “the majority of Respect candidates”, even though only one of them failed to beat the CPB’s 0.55% average. It may be that this particular Star reporter is not in the pro-Respect ‘innovator’ wing of the CPB (unlike editor John Haylett), but one thing is certain: the far from “derisory” results earned by Respect in east London in particular is going to increase the pressure on the CPB old guard, which sees left advance as coming only through a Labour government and regards standing anything other than token no-hopers against Labour as treason.
Odds and sods
The Socialist Party was part of the non-aggression pact known as the Socialist Green Unity Coalition. The other SGUC components were the Alliance for Green Socialism (five candidates), two comrades using ‘Democratic Socialist Alliance’ as a name of convenience, two others standing under the ‘Socialist Unity’ banner and a single candidate representing the Walsall Democratic Labour Party. Three of the AGS five attained truly ‘dismal’ results, but their average was given a degree of respectability by the 1,038 votes (2.50%) picked up by Celia Foote in Leeds North East.
The two DSA comrades - both members of the Liverpool-based United Socialist Party, which declined to officially contest the election - both won just over half a percent of the vote. Pete Radcliff of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, standing in Nottingham East, saw his vote halved by comparison with 2001, when he contested the same seat on behalf of the Socialist Alliance. But his 1.55% was still more than three times better than his Socialist Unity comrade, Andy Newman, who won 0.46% in Swindon North. Peter Smith of the DLP won 2.30% in Walsall North.
The ultra-sectarian Workers Revolutionary Party was one grouping that seemed unaffected by the general decline in left support. Not only did the WRP increase the number of its candidates to 10, but actually maintained its core vote - a magnificent 1,241 all told, which represents an average of 124 per candidate, or 0.35%.
The CPGB, as part of our tactic of critically supporting anti-war working class candidates, backed all SP, SSP and even some SLP and WRP candidates. We also supported all SGUC comrades apart from Pete Radcliff, who favours the continuation of the imperialist occupation of Iraq for the time being. By contrast four Labour candidates came out for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of UK forces. We are pleased to report that three of them were elected.
Unfortunately Yasmin Qureshi was unable to win back Brent East from the Liberal Democrats, who were mistakenly regarded as anti-war by many voters. Comrade Qureshi increased the Labour share of the vote (12,052; 38.79%), compared to the September 2003 by-election, but so too did Sarah Teather for the Lib Dems, further marginalising the Tories.
In Halifax Linda Riordan held on despite seeing the Labour vote eaten into by the Liberal Democrats, who finished third. She polled 16,579 votes (41.80%). Comrade Riordan had taken over the seat from fellow Labour left Alice Mahon, who has retired.
In Hayes and Harlington it was the same story, with John McDonnell’s winning 19,009 for Labour representing a reduced percentage (58.69%) - again largely as a result of Lib Dem inroads.
Harry Cohen’s majority in Leyton and Wanstead was also slashed and he lost over 12 percentage points, compared to 2001. But he easily held the seat with 15,234 votes (45.78%), while the Liberal Democrats picked up nine points and overtook the Tories for second place.