May 3 and the CPGB

The forthcoming elections will feature a number of left Labour and socialist candidates and slates, writes Peter Manson. On what basis should we decide who deserves our support?

As we reported last week, the February 25 aggregate of CPGB members voted overwhelmingly to continue to apply our tactic of offering critical support to "working class anti-war candidates" in the May 3 local council, Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly elections ('Left decline and May 3 elections', March 1).

This tactic was adopted at the 2005 general election, when the critical factor in British politics - as it remains today - was the occupation of Iraq and the US-UK imperialist 'war on terror' of which it is a part. This issue not only continues to cause difficulties and divisions amongst the ruling class, but it can also be used as an acid test to determine whether politicians claiming to be of and for the working class are what they say they are.

Those who are held up or pose as workers' representatives, yet cannot bring themselves to clearly and unequivocally oppose the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan - as well as every belligerent threat or act against Iran, right down to sanctions - demonstrate that in reality they are on the side of the existing state and the existing bourgeois order. Since all kinds of politicians on the soft left claim to be anti-war, but qualify their support for the ending of the occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan with such phrases as 'when the Iraqis/Afghans are ready to take over' or 'as soon as possible', we insist that opposition to the imperialist occupation can only mean openly demanding immediate and unconditional withdrawal.

This first condition for our support was in 2005 aimed mainly at Labour candidates, many of whom tried to pick up votes from the left by displaying their alleged 'anti-war' credentials. For example, Labour Against the War recommended particular support for a number of candidates who not only voted for the invasion of Iraq, but actually continued to play up or justify the role of British troops.

The second condition - that candidates must also be "working class" - is not a sociological point, but a reference to political tradition. Unlike the Socialist Party in England and Wales, we still characterise Labour as a bourgeois workers' party - a contradictory category, recognising both its (increasingly dominant) bourgeois leadership and official policies, but also its working class membership and organisational structure: in particular the affiliated trade unions.

So much of the revolutionary left has over the last decade switched completely from its previous auto-Labourism (ie, automatically calling for a Labour vote come election time) to auto-anti?Labourism (ie, refusing to contemplate a Labour vote). Both are equally wrong. The key strategic barrier to be overcome remains the continued attachment of most class-conscious workers to Labourism, which means actively engaging with the Labour Party, its members and representatives, and elaborating demands that seek to expose and exacerbate the party's class contradictions.

That is why during the general election we invested time and effort into approaching those Labour candidates with an anti-war reputation to see if they would meet our criterion for support. If a Labour candidate was genuinely for immediate and unconditional withdrawal, they should be given support, (although not uncritical), and there ought in general to have been no question of any revolutionary standing against them.

We were astonished that only four Labour parliamentary candidates (including John McDonnell) actually accepted our first condition - many refused to respond to our approaches, despite persistent attempts on our part, rather than give a straight answer to our question. But even this failure had its positive side - it helped dash the illusions of some in the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott and showed how far we had to go in winning even a small section of the party to take a direct stand against their 'own' state.

However, this second condition - that to qualify for support candidates must not only be anti-war, but of the working class tradition - was directed not primarily at Labour candidates, but at those of Respect. Every Respect candidate was standing on an anti-war, anti-occupation platform, but not every Respect candidate by any means could be described as politically working class. Respect is, in the words of the Socialist Workers Party's Alex Callinicos, an alliance between "secular socialists" (ie, the SWP itself) and "muslim activists", whose main allegiance is to another tradition, alien to that of the working class.

We would not vote for 'muslim elders' or 'representatives of the mosque' - who should, of course, be regarded in an entirely different manner to candidates from the working class tradition who happen to be muslim, and we were happy to recommend a vote for Respect's union and socialist activists who are also religious.

However, a recent example of a candidate who should not expect CPGB support is Yasir Idris, who defeated the SWP nominee to contest the council seat in Birmingham's Moseley and King's Heath ward. Idris is clearly a petty bourgeois with virtually no politics - except a vague desire to advance the interests of the local 'community' thanks to his family business "connections" (see interview Weekly Worker February 8).

Left decline

We in the CPGB are not sectarians. We put the interests of our class first and foremost in everything we do. We will therefore urge support for any working class candidate who passes the key anti-war test in the May 3 elections, irrespective of their party or organisation. Anyone prepared to oppose the imperialist agenda from the point of view of the working class qualifies for our support.

However, we are offering that support extremely critically. Since 2001 the left has undergone a steady, but qualitative, political decline. Each group retains its anti-capitalist instincts and distinctive (albeit grossly defective) politics, but almost completely absent is any tendency, any hint, of the desire and vision to forge a revolutionary working class alternative uniting all the advanced sections of the class.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the left, shaken by the reality of Blairism in office, was left floundering and virtually forced into the search for electoral realignment. Automatically voting Labour was now highly problematic except for the most dogmatic. This produced a number of 'left unity' initiatives, whose objective logic, if not subjective leadership, pointed to the kind of party that was needed. The Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party were the main examples of this highly contradictory step in the direction of a united Communist Party.

Today, however, the SA is no more - liquidated into the cross-class formation known as Respect; while the SSP has split apart - divided into two feuding left nationalist sects. Respect and the Socialist Party's Campaign for a New Workers' Party are nothing other than cynical attempts to provide a conduit for recruits into their main component: the SWP and SP respectively.

In this situation, where the organised left is much more part of the problem - a barrier - than the solution, we have no reason to favour one sect over and above any other. We will side with all of them - SWP/Respect, SP, SSP, Solidarity and even Arthur Scargill's rump Socialist Labour Party - inasmuch as they oppose the system of capital and its imperialist warmongering, and, in however distorted a way, champion the working class. But we will step up our intransigent struggle against each one's pathetic economistic, anti-democratic, nationalistic and bureaucratic failings.

Choose your sect?

In a small number of contests, such is the state of disunity, there will be two or more anti-war working class candidates, or anti-war working class slates, contesting the same constituency or group of seats. In such cases, rather than straining to decide which is the more principled (or the least unprincipled, more like), we will recommend a vote for the sitting or leading candidate(s).

As in the general election, we ought to prioritise supporting the tiny number of genuine anti-war, anti-occupation Labour candidates, who will generally be the leading candidate if they are opposed by the left in local council wards or Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly constituencies. Just occasionally the sitting candidate will be left of Labour, whose local leaders may possibly see fit to stand someone with a leftwing, anti-imperialist reputation in an attempt to win back the seat to the mainstream. This will be the only occasion when we would prefer a candidate from the organised left rather than a Labour candidate who calls for immediate withdrawal of troops.

When it comes to the council elections in England, it is, of course, impossible for us to look at every ward and try to come up with a recommendation as to who is supportable. We can only state our criteria and leave it to our readers and supporters to use their own judgement. But, certainly there will only be a handful of wards contested by two or more supportable candidates.

In relation to the Welsh assembly and both the regional and local elections in Scotland, however, it is likely that voters will be faced with a choice of left candidates. In some Welsh regions there could be an array of left sects contesting the 'additional member' seats - Respect, SPEW, SLP, the Communist Party of Britain and Forward Wales are all in the shake-up.

But it is impossible to speculate as to which of these could be considered the 'leading' candidates in a given region (none of them will be 'sitting', of course) - even assuming that each of them would meet our criteria for support (to what extent the CPB - pulled between loyalty to the collaborationist Iraqi Communist Party and the prominent role of comrades like Andrew Murray in the Stop the War Coalition - would qualify is a moot point). In such a scenario it is likely we will make no recommendation as to which of these sects is marginally preferable.

SSP v Solidarity

In Scotland the situation is further complicated by the fact that, for both the SSP and Solidarity, polling more votes than their left nationalist twin is one of the most important aims - if not the most important - of their respective campaigns. The futility of two rival groups standing on virtually identical platforms is lost not only on the Solidarity splitters, but on many in the SSP as well. Not even a short-term electoral arrangement, let alone principled unity, registers on the radar of either of these sects.

Again there is no real basis for choosing one over and above the other - the split was based on the view taken of Tommy Sheridan's personal actions, not any real political differences between the two sides. While to walk out and form a new party over such a question was completely unprincipled, this should not lead us to prefer the SSP across the board. After all, the reaction of its leadership to the departure of comrade Sheridan and his supporters has been to intensify the reactionary 'nationalisation' of the SSP - pushing the question of independence even more to the fore.

Both parties will contest every region and, again, it is very difficult to say which is better placed. Opinion polls continue to show the SSP ahead, but how much this is distorted by confusion on the part of voters is uncertain. In Glasgow both parties have a sitting MSP and, while the SSP is much stronger numerically on the ground, the Sheridan name could swing it for Solidarity. In other words, neither the Solidarity list headed by comrade Sheridan nor the SSP list headed by Rosie Kane is clearly the 'leading' slate. In truth the most likely outcome is that neither will be re-elected.

It might be some comfort for activists in Scotland to know that, when it comes to the council elections, it will be possible to vote for both parties in many cases. It seems certain that both will contest every Glasgow seat, for example, but for the first time proportional representation will be implemented for local authorities.

The new, enlarged voting areas consist of three of four old wards brought together under a common electoral roll, and the elections will be conducted under the single transferable vote system, whereby voters express support in order of preference and three or four candidates are elected (the system chosen, with a maximum of four councillors elected in each voting area, will tend to favour the parties with medium support - the threshold for success will mostly be too high for the smaller parties).

The reorganisation means that sitting councillors - the SSP's Keith Baldassara in Glasgow Pollok, for instance - will now be standing in a different, larger voting area if they are re-nominated. It is not, therefore, a simple question of recommending support for a sitting candidate whose ward has been abolished. But we can recommend a critical vote for both the SSP and Solidarity in council wards where both are contesting and there is no Labour anti-war candidate - choose your own order of preference.