Help not required?
Peter Manson reports on the welcome he received from Tusc campaigners in south London
Two weeks ago, as a supporter of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party I received an email from Dave Nellist, in his capacity as CNWP national chair, urging me to “get actively involved” in the general election campaign of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (circular, April 13). A couple of days later I received the same message by post.
Of course, it came as no surprise to hear that the CNWP is supporting Tusc, since the rank and file and much of the leadership of both organisations are made up of the same people - ie, comrades from the Socialist Party in England and Wales. But it did come as a surprise to discover just how difficult it is to “get actively involved” in the Tusc campaign.
Take a look at the website and you will see what I mean. You will try in vain to find contact details for any of the 41 campaigns - apart from four, for whom there is a link to a local website (although only one of those is for a candidate who is a SPEW member). As for the rest, the only means of contact on offer is via email or telephone to Tusc’s national office in the East End of London. Perhaps because this number frequently gives you a recorded message, some SPEW-led Tusc campaigns are giving the Socialist Party HQ phone number for enquiries.
I was very keen to help the Tusc general election drive and fortunately I already had the private numbers for two of the candidates in my area in south-east London - Onay Kasab (Greenwich and Woolwich) and Ian Page (Lewisham Deptford). I have known both comrades for many years and taken part in local campaigns alongside them, not least during the period of the Socialist Alliance.
First, on Friday April 16 I rang comrade Kasab (known by friends and comrades as ‘Kas’), but his mobile was permanently set to voicemail. I left a message, but he did not get back to me. Greenwich and Bexley Socialist Party is one of the few SPEW branches with its own website, so I emailed the comrades, hoping they would be able to tell me where I could help. No response.
The following morning (Saturday April 17), unable to contact Greenwich and Woolwich Tusc comrades, I tried my luck with comrade Page. He answered straightaway and the conversation went along these lines:
PM: Ian? It’s Peter Manson from the CPGB. How are you?
PM: I’m hoping to get involved in campaigning for you today - leafleting or whatever.
IP: I’m having my breakfast at the moment.
PM: Sorry about that. Can you tell me where I’ll be able to help out?
IP: Well, I know they’re out campaigning, but I’ll be away at a meeting. The best thing is to contact centre.
PM: Isn’t there someone local I could speak to?
IP: I know Chris Newby is organising something, but I don’t have his number ...
Not very successful then. There was nothing for it but to leave a message on the national Tusc answerphone (for good measure I left the same message on the mobile number for press enquiries). It was not until the Sunday afternoon that I was called by Clive Heemskerk, SPEW’s leading representative on the Tusc steering committee and - by coincidence - comrade Page’s election agent. Obviously he would be able to point me to where I could join in the work. Wouldn’t he?
Although he did not say so in as many words, comrade Heemskerk was not exactly keen for me to help in Lewisham. He pointed out that comrade Page is not actually standing as Tusc. The party name on his election material and on the ballot paper is ‘Socialist Alternative’ - SPEW’s official electoral description (it is barred from using ‘Socialist Party’ by decree of the electoral commission, using its powers under the undemocratic provisions of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998).
While comrade Page’s material mentions that he is standing as part of Tusc, it is Socialist Alternative that is vigorously promoted. The reason for this is that comrade Page, alongside Chris Flood, is also standing for re-election as Lewisham councillor for Telegraph Hill ward on May 6, together with Jess Leech, who is attempting to win back from Labour the third seat in the ward for SPEW. Comrades Page and co have been contesting the council seat as Socialist Alternative for a decade and, understandably, want to stick to this now familiar name rather than jeopardise a proportion of their vote by campaigning under a title that will almost certainly be forgotten by the time the next local elections come round.
It is also understandable that SPEW’s campaigning, including for the parliamentary seat, is largely restricted to Telegraph Hill. Comrade Heemskerk told me that canvassers in the ward have been told not to get into “long arguments” about who to vote for in the general election. Instead they should stress that, by electing three Socialist Alternative councillors, voters can do “something concrete” to stop the cuts.
In other words, Lewisham Deptford is not really a Tusc campaign at all and it is not just CPGB comrades who may be considered off message should they turn up to help out. I said I would still be prepared to assist the comrades, but I would also like to help in Greenwich and Woolwich. Comrade Heemskerk promised to call me back with contact details.
Of course, I had by now given up any hope of joining in campaigning over that weekend, but I was hopeful of being able to sort something out for the following one. However, comrade Heemskerk did not get back to me, so, a week after I first tried to get involved, I rang him myself on Friday April 23. Once more the comrade tried to put me off Lewisham, this time telling me that the work over the weekend would involve the boring task of chasing up postal votes.
But he gave me Kas’s home number. Unfortunately, this one just rang and rang, no matter when I called, and there was no answerphone. Once more I emailed Greenwich and Bexley SPEW and once more received no reply.
There was only one thing for it. I would have to guess where the SPEW comrades would be. So on Saturday morning at around 11.30 I wandered down to the Powis Street pedestrian precinct in Woolwich and - hey presto - there was their stall. They were certainly campaigning for Kas and Tusc, but they had not bothered to change the presentation much - their stall had more SPEW papers, leaflets and posters than Tusc material. And you would not have thought the three comrades present were electioneering - there were no rosettes, balloons, loudhailers; just the attempted sale of The Socialist and the rather desultory handing out of the Tusc leaflet.
But the comrades seemed pleased (as well as surprised, obviously) to see me. One of them said he was responsible for updating the local SPEW website and checking for email, and apologised for not having done so for a couple of weeks. The presence of someone new actually seemed to give the comrades a boost and they followed my lead in shouting, “Vote against cuts. Vote for a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage”, as we gave out the flyers. They were now being taken up more rapidly and it was soon necessary for one comrade to go off for some more.
The reception we received was mixed. Some people were pleased to hear our message and a couple I spoke to said they would definitely vote for Kas. Other passers-by were less pleased: one elderly woman’s main concern was immigration; she said Woolwich had changed beyond recognition and was now more like Africa. A young woman said (without malice), “BNP forever”, as she passed. The fact that we were sandwiched between two groups of Christians did not help. One of them was about 30-strong and they were belting out hymns and preaching via an amplifier.
Of course, as this is the only experience of local Tusc work I have succeeded in joining so far, I cannot say much about the overall penetration of the campaign in either Greenwich and Woolwich or Lewisham. But it does seem to me that we are not at present heading for a huge general election vote.