Crisis of programme

Peter Manson comments on the poor results obtained by the left in the May 1 elections

Amongst the plethora of poor left results on May 1, there is one that stands out for me - and that is the 22,583 votes (0.92%) obtained by the Socialist Workers Party’s Left List in the poll for London-wide members of the capital’s assembly. This is notable not so much because it compares so very badly with the 87,533 votes (4.57%) won by Respect in 2004, but because it is also far worse than the 27,073 showing (1.63%) of the London Socialist Alliance four years earlier.

The LSA result in 2000 was hardly a brilliant success and neither were those achieved by the 98 Socialist Alliance candidates in the 2001 general election. But since then the SWP has lost a good deal of ground, not only in terms of votes, but in terms of members and allies too. When it closed down the SA in favour of Respect, it did so in the name of “making a difference”, of getting elected. It was hoping for the big time - irrespective of the cost in terms of political principle. No wonder the SWP says the Left List results were “disappointing” (Socialist Worker May 10).

The SA had contested elections on what the SWP called its “priority pledges” - a set of old Labour-type, economistic policies. It did, however, accept into its programme People before profit a range of more far-reaching and principled policies proposed by the SA left, not least the CPGB. Not that open borders, republicanism and the recallability of workers’ representatives were being shouted from the rooftops, but at least they were all official alliance policy.

Such demands were openly rejected by the SWP in Respect. John Rees, Lindsey German, Chris Bambery and Alex Callinicos mobilised their members to vote against not only open borders, republicanism and recallability, but against a woman’s right to choose an abortion, secularism and even working class socialism itself.

Comrade Rees explained why this was necessary at Respect’s launch conference in January 2004: “We … voted against the things we believed in, because, while the people here are important, they are not as important as the millions out there. We are reaching to the people locked out of politics. We voted for what they want.”

Unfortunately those millions have yet to show much enthusiasm for the SWP’s brand of left populism - whether under the ‘Respect’ or ‘Left List’ rubric (although the Lib Dem mayor hopeful, Brian Paddick, was clearly impressed: embarrassingly for the SWP, he told BBC London that his second preference vote had gone to the Left List). And if anyone had been in any doubt as to the reason for Respect’s previous good votes in east London and Birmingham, it screams out from these results.

Take the London assembly constituency of City and East, which includes the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham - where Respect’s mainly Bengali muslim support is concentrated. In 2004 the pre-split Respect won just over 15%, while last week the combined share for ‘Respect (George Galloway)’ and the Left List was … just over 15%. Of which 14% went to the Galloway wing.

The thousands of muslims who voted Respect were never won over to socialist politics. Neither Galloway nor the SWP even attempted to win them on the basis of class loyalty. Instead they got votes delivered by appealing to ‘community leaders’, to the patriarchal networks, to the mosque to deliver them. Unsurprisingly, when Rees and co realised that it was the ‘community leaders’ (ie, Respect’s businessmen’s wing), not the SWP, who were reaping the benefit they decided to provoke the split which was finalised late last year with two rival conferences. May 1 showed that Galloway still has the ear of the ‘community leaders’.

Remarkably, in view of the SWP’s own dismal returns, the post-election commentary from Respect-SWP/Left List gloats over Galloway’s poor showing: his “vote is below that in 2004 - and too little to win him a career-saving place on the GLA” (statement, May 3). As for the Left List, “it was too recent an invention to make its full [!] mark on the electoral process. In addition, the Respect name had been established over four years and many people who voted for Respect did so in error, believing that it was the old Respect.”

Clutching at straws or what? Of course, the Weekly Worker had pointed out from the beginning that all the talk about building on the 2004 result to elect Lindsey German - despite the split, the loss of thousands of muslim votes and the ban on using the Respect name - had been cynicism of the worst kind. The SWP spent thousands of pounds pushing the same left populism when it knew it was on a hiding to nothing.

Apparently, however, the Left List, unlike Respect-Galloway, “does have serious trade union support and a nationwide presence”. Respect-Galloway “in contrast has reduced itself to a local party in a couple of areas without even the pretence of being a national organisation. Galloway will not be able to win a seat in the general election if he cannot win more than 11.3% in east London. And, although Salma Yaqoob’s Sparkbrook ward returned another councillor, the vote went down in the neighbouring Sparkhill and Kings Heath wards, both of which would need to see increased votes for her to win the whole parliamentary constituency of which they are a part.”

OK, so they say neither Galloway nor Yaqoob will be returned as MPs (despite polling a vote the SWP can only dream about). How does that help build a working class fightback? It is true that the Left List did somewhat better in a few places outside the capital (in others it did even worse), including 37% in Preston Town Centre, where it finished second, 23% in Sheffield Burngreave (also second) and around 15% in Bolton Rumworth and Cambridge Romsey. But the winning of reasonable votes in a handful of council wards does not constitute a “nationwide presence”, I’m afraid.

The Left List states: “What is necessary now is … a left that stands by working class people and struggles alongside them. This will not necessarily be a primarily electoral struggle. It will be an industrial struggle, an anti-war struggle, an anti-fascist struggle and a struggle on many other fronts that we cannot foresee.” This seems to be paving the way for a possible SWP shift away from its recent electoralism. A return to rank and filism is certainly one possibility.

As for the Socialist Party, it stood 15 comrades under its electoral name of Socialist Alternative, as well as Ian Slattery for Huddersfield Save Our NHS. Dave Nellist was re-elected once again in Coventry St Michaels, and three other candidates polled reasonably well in wards where they have campaigned for years.

But can anyone really claim that either these results or those for the Left List provide a basis for starting to rebuild a working class fightback? Of course not. More than anything else they speak volumes about the left’s sectarianism - the two groups stood against each other in both south London (Greenwich and Lewisham) and Swansea Castle ward. Neither they nor any of the other left groups have any conception of principled Marxist unity. There is a catastrophic failure of programme.

The Left List statement concludes: “… what we need now is an honest debate about how we can create an alternative for ordinary people.” Absolutely. But do not expect either the SWP or Socialist Party to provide one.