Battle of the Ballot Box

John Masters looks at the previous performance of left candidates and discusses the attitude communists should take in the 2010 general election

The past decade has seen left electoral alliances/unity projects and some of the biggest electoral interventions since 1979. The purpose of this article is to look at how well the left has done, could have done and potentially could do in the electoral field.

Average votes per candidate

1935 was a high point for the left of Labour. The Independent Labour Party had disaffiliated and stood the majority of left candidates that year. It was a point of focus for those in the Trotskyist camp, as well as those sympathetic to the Communist Party within its ranks. The ILP vote, added to that of the two CPGB candidates, totalled 163,385 across 19 constituencies - an average of 8,599 each. One CPGB and four ILP MPs were elected.

The next election would not be until 1945 due to the war, and on this occasion the CPGB stood 21 candidates and the ILP five. The combined vote, which includes that for two other left candidates, was 145,486. Two communists were elected, and three out of the five ILP candidates won their seats. The average vote per candidate was down to 5,196 - clearly a reflection of the lower proportion of ILPers. Since then the average votes per left candidate has continued to decline and the last time the left achieved more than 1,000 votes per candidate was in 1966.

Elections from 1950 to 1970 showed fairly consistent support for the CPGB, the only party of the left which stood any number of candidates. However, there was a sharp downturn in the 1970s and 1980s despite the marked increase in labour unrest and trade union militancy. You might think that this would translate into increased left votes, but the plain fact is that the willingness of workers to strike for their economic interests does not automatically mean they are willing to vote for left candidates.

In 1979, immediately after the ‘winter of discontent’, the left mustered 120 candidates, half of them from the Workers Revolutionary Party. But the average return per candidate was an all-time low at just 384. This followed on from 1974, when for the first time the average fell below 500. However, 1979 should not be seen as simply a rejection of a Trotskyist sect: it was also a rejection of the ‘official’ CPGB, by now on a Eurocommunist trajectory. It was a ditching of class politics at just the point when class was re-emerging as an obvious determining factor following the post-war social democratic consensus. But workers were clearly not identifying with the left groups willing to contest elections.

In the 1980s there was a slight recovery in the average vote. But neither 1983 nor 1987 saw large numbers of workers looking to the left. Who could blame them? The ‘official’ CPGB was hurtling towards liquidation, while groups like the WRP had none of the CPGB’s roots in the class. The main enemy was clearly the Thatcherite Conservative Party and voting Labour was perceived by workers and most of the left as the way to defeat the Tories. There is an evident lack of willingness to stray from the Labour Party at the polls when there is a Conservative government - especially in the absence of any articulation by revolutionaries of a clear programme that distinguishes them from Labourism.

The record for the highest number of total votes for leftwing candidates occurred more recently. In 2001 193,451 people voted left. A victory? A sign of our strength? Not at all. There were 305 left candidates averaging just 634 votes each, and, of course, no-one was elected. A 1935 return per candidate would have seen a total of 2,622,695 votes! But in 2001 the divided left stood candidates against each other, with Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party opposing both the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party.

2001 then should not be regarded as some great achievement. It saw a lower vote per candidate than even 1992, when the left recorded the previous lowest total vote since 1918. In 1997 and 2001 the average vote per candidate continued to decline. However, in 2005 the figure went up to 862 per candidate - the highest since 1966, even if you exclude the vote for George Galloway MP, who was elected for Respect.

This increase in the average vote might be regarded as encouraging, but it has to be remembered that it was entirely due to backing for Respect from constituencies with large Muslim populations. The problem with this is that Muslims were urged to vote Respect by ‘community leaders’ and sometimes the mosque. Respect may have stood on a left reformist platform, but its support mostly did not come from class-conscious workers. In other words, 2005 does not buck the whole post-war trend.

Labour and the left

What is the relationship between the left vote and the Labour vote over the years? Does an increase in the Labour vote signify a move to the left in society as a whole?

1935, 1979 and 1997 are the only elections when both the left vote and the Labour vote registered an increase compared to the previous result. During the biggest shift to the left in recent history - the 1945 Labour landslide - the left-of-Labour vote declined. There is then little evidence that increased votes for Labour coincide with a leftward shift in society at large that would benefit the left as well. 1935 resulted in the election of the rightwing national government, 1979 the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour.

The left vote went up under a Conservative government only in 1955; all other increases in the left vote occurred under a Labour government: 1964, 1966 and 2001. On all three occasions it was expected that Labour would win a new term of office.

From this we can perhaps conclude that there are many who, although they identify with the left, routinely vote Labour unless they feel that a Labour victory is not in doubt. With Labour now under threat of defeat, we should expect many of those who might have been prepared to vote for a left candidate in other circumstances to be drawn back to Labour in 2010. All the more so when it seems most unlikely that any leftwing electoral alliance will be distinctly lacking in credibility. The general election is only months away, but no concrete steps have yet been taken to form such an alliance.

What is more, as in the past, working class electors will be well aware that left candidates will not be asking for support for a party or even proto-party. The story of both the Socialist Alliance and Respect is largely one of the organisation disappearing from sight in between elections.


The decline in voter turnout in the 21st century is worthy of comment. In the 2001 general election it sank to an incredibly low 59% - 2005 was slightly better at 61%. Given that all previous turnouts had been between 70% and 84%, there is clearly something new going on.

How should a non-vote be interpreted? As a sign of contentment or an act of dissent? The convergence of the main parties towards the ‘centre ground’ has undoubtedly led to a situation where, we can safely suggest, many of the most alienated workers feel there is little point even in voting for the lesser evil.

The Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, run by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, has propagated the notion that Labour and Tory have become like Coke and Pepsi. Closer examination, however, reveals that the recipe for Coca Cola is slightly different from that for Pepsi - a small amount of sugar and a few more bubbles separate the two. Move to the diet and sugar-free varieties and the differences become more pronounced. Without the sugar of economic stability, so too will, I expect, the differences between Labour and Tory become more apparent to even the comrades in SPEW.

The re-election of Labour in 2010 holds out the only realistic hope, such as it is, for many people - the hope that Labour will not be as savage in making cuts and muddling through the recession as the Conservative Party. Hope is not enough, though, for us communists to call for a general, unconditional Labour vote. We need concrete reasons.

Therefore the question of how we engage during the election is one we should be contemplating and preparing for, sooner rather than later. The evidence of recent election results does not suggest that 2010 will be a good year for left intervention and, as I have pointed out, no electoral alliance lashed together in the short space of time remaining can realistically be expected to win over more than a tiny percentage of workers, still less start to break the masses from Labourism. That requires a long-term, patient strategy.

It goes without saying that even a last-minute electoral alliance would be a tremendous step forward if it was viewed as part of such a strategy to replace Labour with a Communist Party. Nevertheless, if, as expected, it is generally viewed as the latest move in the direction of a halfway house Labour Party mark two, then it would in all likelihood still be deserving of critical support - particularly if we communists are able to stand candidates on our own platform as part of such an alliance.

Neither should we forget that there is still a job to be done in relation to the Labour Party, particularly its class-conscious membership and support, not to mention its left wing. Therefore we should argue for any left alliance to offer to step down in favour of the Labour candidate if they are prepared to publicly accept a raft of pro-working class conditions.


We have seen that the left has been getting a smaller return for its electoral interventions, and that results are often better for it when a Labour victory looks assured. With Labour staring at defeat, we should not expect any left alliance to do well - which in turn means that any short-term cooperation will soon dissipate after the election.

The focus of our tactics must therefore be to get our programme out as widely as possible, with the rest of the left also firmly within our sights. To come out of the election having advanced the minimum demands of our programme would be more valuable than the small number of Xs on the ballot paper we would be likely to win.