British general election sees left advance

David Welch welch at
Sat Jun 16 18:18:56 MDT 2001

Weekly Worker 388 Thursday June 14 2001

Election sees left advance

The results of the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party may have
been disappointing, argues Peter Manson, but the campaign represented a real

The left undoubtedly made a quantitative leap forward in the general
election. The gain did not lie in the number of votes obtained by
individual candidates - by and large, these were disappointing - but
in the scale of the contest, the advance in organisation and the steps
taken towards unity.

The very fact that we contested so widely meant that a greatly
increased total number of votes for the left was won, compared to the
1997 general election. In 1997 the left, standing in just over 100
constituencies, received 75,683 altogether. Last week non-Labour Party
candidates claiming to stand for some kind of socialism gained 194,654
votes - over two and a half times more. Of those, a highly creditable
72,528 were won by the Scottish Socialist Partys 72 candidates, while
the Socialist Alliance (98 contests in England and Wales) notched up
57,553. The third electoral force was Arthur Scargills Socialist
Labour Party, whose 114 candidates polled 57,288 votes.

However, the SSP had publicly stated its aim of 100,000 votes, while
the Weekly Worker had declared that the left has a tremendous
opportunity to make real progress on June 7. The winning of 250,000
votes, with a dozen or more reaching the five percent threshold, is
well within our grasp (May 10).

Well, neither the SSPs target for itself or our own for the left as a
whole was met (although at least we had the satisfaction of seeing a
dozen or more candidates saving their deposits - there were 13 in
all). But that does not mean we were wrong to set any public target,
as the SAs press officers, Mike Marqusee and Anna Chen, insisted (SA
press e-mail list, May 14). The 250,000 figure - for the entire left,
not just the SA, as the comrades erroneously believed - was intended
as an encouragement, a means of inspiring comrades with a realistic
vision of what could be achieved. It is not the end of the world that
we failed. There was no hostage to fortune. The figure was well within
our grasp, despite the lefts continued marginalisation.

Despite the increased willingness to contest, Scargills stubborn
refusal to cooperate undoubtedly cost the left many votes in total. He
opposed the SA or SLP in no fewer than 47 constituencies. In England
there were 35 examples of two left candidates fighting the same seat
while in all of them suitable neighbouring constituencies went
uncontested. A hundred or more solidly working class areas were denied
the opportunity of voting for a left candidate.

So the figure of 250,000 is an indication of what we could attain
right now. In reality, however, there are millions who could be won to
a viable left alternative in the short term. For that to happen though
the SA would need a carefully thought out strategy for the Labour
Party and winning over its working class base - something distinctly
lacking at the moment.

But let us examine the actual achievement. First the Socialist
Alliance. The average return for our candidates was 1.69%. Dave
Nellist won 2,638 votes (7.08%), despite switching from Coventry South
to Coventry North East. His Socialist Party comrade, Rob Windsor, won
1,475 votes (3.68%) in comrade Nellists former constituency. Neil
Thompson, the Fire Brigades Union militant and defector from New
Labour, was the other SA candidate to save his deposit, winning 2,325
votes in St Helens South. Comrade Thompson was able to take advantage
of the disgust of traditional Labour supporters at Blairs parachuting
into St Helens of the ex-Tory millionaire, Shaun Woodward.

Another SP councillor, Ian Page, gained 1,260 votes (4.33%) in
Lewisham Deptford, while Cecilia Prosper did even better, picking up
4.62% of the poll (1,401 votes) in Hackney South and Shoreditch.
Comrade Prosper, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, would almost
certainly have saved her deposit but for the decision of the Communist
Party of Britain to shun unity and stand Ivan Beavis against her.
Comrade Beaviss 259 votes represented 0.85%, while a candidate from
the Workers Revolutionary Party took another 143 votes (0.47%) in the
same seat.

A further five SA comrades won more than three percent and 14 more
gained over two percent. But the bulk of our candidates were hovering
on or around the one percent mark - definitely a disappointment in
view of the amount of energy that was put into the campaign.
Unfortunately, however, much of this was not employed to best effect.
Many local alliances spent an inordinate amount of time leafleting
door to door - two or three flyers were distributed to many areas in
addition to the election address delivered by Royal Mail. Those SAs
who contented themselves with the election address alone (or perhaps
one other leaflet too) and decided to target particular areas for
canvassing were rewarded with greater returns. More importantly, they
now have a larger list of contacts and a bigger base for future work.

The futility of the leaflet, leaflet, leaflet approach promoted by the
SWP was shown up by comparing our results with those of the SLP.
Scargill's sect is now a shell of the organisation it was four years
ago, its membership having shrunk from well over 2,000 in 1997 to
around 400 today. SA and SSP comrades all over the country report that
there was no sign of SLP campaigning almost anywhere, yet Socialist
Labour's returns were not that much below the SAs.

In 1997 the SLP stood 64 candidates, mounted reasonable campaigns in
many places and won 52,110 votes. Despite the mass exodus of all the
best SLP activists in the intervening years, Scargill somehow came up
with the cash to stand almost twice as many candidates in 2001. But
the 114 SLPers could only manage 57,288, averaging 1.42% each.
Nevertheless the SLP's performance was only marginally worse than the
alliances. To compare like with like, the SLP had 102 candidates in
England and Wales (four more than the SA) with a total vote of 54,104
(within 3,500 of the SAs total). Excluding Scotland, where SLP
candidates did very badly, Scargill's average percentage goes up to
1.49% (within spitting distance of the SAs 1.69%).

The SLP total was boosted by a handful of candidates who were well
known locally. Harbhajan Dardi is hardly a household name outside
Warley, but he picked up 1,936 votes from his own community (6.16%).
Similarly Avtar Jouhl, former general secretary of the Indian Workers
Association, won 1,544 votes (4.13%) in Birmingham Perry Barr, while
his IWA comrade, Hardev Dhillon, received 1,180 (3.54%) in Erith and
Thamesmead. On Merseyside, where the SLP once boasted a layer of
committed members and still has some reality, Dave Flynn got 3.53% in
Bootle and Alan Fogg gained 2.92% in Knowsley South. In St Helens
South the SLP's Mike Perry was another beneficiary of the anti-Woodward
protest, gaining 1,504 votes (4.45%) in addition to comrade Thompsons
excellent 2,638.

Elsewhere though, SLP results were generally mediocre. Scargill would
not permit his members to even respond to SA and SSP approaches
seeking an agreement for the left not to stand against each other, and
of course completely rules out a united campaign. On the contrary his
aim was to thwart any moves to unity and sabotage the SAs campaign,
which he views as a threat to his party and to his personal ambition
to lead British workers as a labour dictator. In this he is backed up
by the likes of London regional president Harpal Brar, a leading light
in the Stalin Society, who presumably believes that an ice pick
through the skull is too good for the Socialist Alliance Trotskyites.

But the mass of militant workers know nothing of Arthur Scargill, the
sectarian wrecker. They remember only the intransigent and militant
leader of the miners Great Strike of 1984-85. That is the image of
Arthur Scargill that the SLP doggedly pushes in its own publicity. So,
despite having perhaps 10 times as many activists as the SLP available
for its election campaign, the SA could not gain much of an advantage
in a leaflet war. Faced with having to choose between the SA and the
SLP, standing apparently on very similar platforms, many amongst our
target groups plumped for the name or face they recognised on the
election address - that of the SLPs general secretary.

As I say, the SLP spoilers ignored all SA attempts to avoid clashes
with the main left force and, as a result, opposed the alliance in no
fewer than 35 seats. In 25 of them Scargills party came off second
best, but the SLP polled more than the SA in the remaining 10. The
demoralisation of some SA activists was understandable, given the fact
that they had worked so hard while Socialist Labour comrades were
nowhere to be seen. Yet over and over again, where canvassing did take
place, voters wanted to know the difference between the SA and SLP.
Why were there two socialists standing in the same seat?

It was the same story when callers rang in to our national office. Why
were there two competing left campaigns? Yet comrades Marqusee and
Chen, in the same e-list statement, wrote this advice to candidates
and agents: In general, it is our policy to refrain from any attacks
on the Greens or the SLP is this election campaign; they are a
distraction from our main message. The media are very keen to promote
squabbles between us and the SLP in particular, and we should not
oblige them. Stick to the positive points about the SA and the need
for the broadest and most effective alternative to New Labour. If
pressed, be polite and friendly about Arthur Scargill, but indicate
that the SA is a much bigger and broader electoral force, with a much
fresher political agenda and more opportunities for ordinary people to

It obviously has not yet sunk in that Scargill is out to scuttle the
SA and we must stop him by exposing both his ultra-Stalinite acolytes
and his own go-it-alone sectarianism. There is a world of difference
between squabbles and defeating dangerous ideas and spoiling actions.
Scargill himself has no such compunction - just look at his own
crowing press statement (see p3), where he makes it more than clear
that his principal aim in the 2001 general election was simply to
wreck the project of left unity. To do so he has to resort to outright
falsification - finding an extra few hundred votes for the SLP and
losing almost 2,000 SA votes. And he chooses to keep quiet altogether
about the SSP.

Hardly surprising. In Scotland Socialist Labour was eclipsed, thanks
to the dramatic increase in influence of the SSP. While the SLPs 12
candidates polled only 3,184 votes, the SSP on average won around four
times as many per candidate. There is no doubting that, despite the
failure of the main left force north of the border to reach its
target, the average return of 3.36%, standing in every constituency
over the whole of Scotland, was no mean feat. Nine out of 10
candidates in Glasgow saved their deposits, as did Lynne Sheridan in
Coatbridge and Chryston. Even in Orkney and Shetland the party won

Should 72,528 be considered a failure? Well, it was far short of
100,000, but just compare that to the performance of what was then the
Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1997: its 16 candidates won a total of
9,740 votes - but 3,639 of those were cast for Tommy Sheridan in
Glasgow Pollok. Last week Pollok was again the SSPs best constituency
(2,522 votes - 9.98% - for Keith Baldassara), but the other Glasgow
seats were not far behind.

Of course the election of comrade Sheridan to the Edinburgh parliament
marked a watershed in the fortunes of the SSP, but there can be no
doubt that the decision to transform the SSA into a party open to the
whole left was also highly significant. While the SSP's open embrace of
nationalism, epitomised by its call for an independent socialist
Scotland, may well also have played a role in its growth, there is
surely a lesson here for the Socialist Alliance.

That lesson ought also to be taken on board by the Socialist Party in
England and Wales. Its reluctant, grudging participation in the
alliance and the running of separate, exclusively Socialist Party
campaigns where it had claimed the right to stand its own members as
SA candidates stood in stark contrast to the constructive and
enthusiastic participation of its most well known member, SA chair
Dave Nellist.

As for the SPs results, they were indistinguishable from those of the
alliance as a whole. Comrades Nellist, Page and Windsor might have
been well above average, but Andy Pryor (Bristol East), Clive Walder
(Birmingham Northfield) and Gavin Marsh (Southampton Itchen)
languished near the bottom of the results list. Yes, the SP has four
councillors in England, but it has no special formula for electoral
success. Outside Coventry and Lewisham its candidates actually did
worse than those standing on the official SA platform.

The SP occupies leadership positions within the Welsh Socialist
Alliance and as a result SA work in Wales has been far behind the
levels achieved in England. The general election WSA effort was very
much a last-minute affair. This was exemplified by the result in
Cardiff Central. In 1997 Terry Burns, standing for the SLP, won 5.28%
of the poll (2,230 votes). In 2001 Julian Goss, the only left
candidate in the constituency, managed just 0.81% (283 votes). Surely the
militant minority in Cardiff cannot have changed so much in four years.

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