Preliminary Reflections on the Socialist Alliance Results
This piece was originally circulated by the author as an e-mail to other Socialist Alliance supporters in the immediate aftermath of the general election, and was not intended for publication. However, in keeping with this journal's proud tradition of nicking other people's material and reproducing it without permission, we are publishing it as an illustration of the political lessons drawn from the election results by a leading member of the Alliance.
Looking for meaningful historical benchmarks here is next to impossible. For what it's worth, the Socialist Labour Party in 1997 secured 52,000 votes in 64 constituencies – average vote 1.7%. Five left candidates saved deposits – three of them SLP.
This year, at last count, 13 left candidates saved deposits – 10 SSP, 2 SA and one SLP. I don’t have the total SLP vote in this election, but they got 7,244 in London and another 3,184 in Scotland. In London the SA received 15,940 votes. My estimate is that the total vote for left of Labour candidates in this election is three times what it was in 1997.
Is this a poor start or a good start? It depends where you’re starting from.
I left the Labour Party because I had concluded that it was utterly useless as a vehicle to advance any of the things I believed in. Everything that happened during the election confirmed this analysis.
I didn’t join the Socialist Alliance because I thought it was a ready-made alternative with any hope of making a real electoral dent in the short term, but because I thought it was necessary to work with like-minded people to construct one – and the SA seemed by far the best platform for that effort to have emerged in many years. Everything that happened during the election confirmed that analysis.I always thought – and I put it in writing several times – that the general election would be the most difficult terrain for any new, small party to contest and that it would be wrong to expect any significant gains from contesting it. This was something we had to do to lay the basis for the future (council, European, by-elections, etc). In this overall aim I think we have succeeded – certainly beyond my expectations.
Having started the campaign with low expectations, I admit that over the last fortnight I did begin to wonder if I had been too pessimistic. The progress made on the ground, the dynamism of the campaign, the staggering volume of work put in by comrades all over the country, the response on the streets – so in the end we did fall slightly short of what I had come to expect in the last few days of the campaign.
All the available data should be analysed, but we should remember we’re dealing with fractions of percentage points here, and it's risky to draw conclusions from them. However, it seems fair to see in the good result for the SSP the potential of the SA.
In any case, in considering the left's impact and results we should bear in mind that in the overall scheme of things they are of little consequence compared to the three salient facts about the election results:
1. There was little shift in support among the major parties in comparison to 1997.
2. The fall in the turnout is shocking – and it is overwhelmingly class-based. It is our people who are not voting – in greater numbers than ever.
3. The nightmare vote for the far right in Oldham, east London, Birmingham and elsewhere.
These are the realities and the challenges we face. We can either run away – back to the Labour Party, back to small group politics, or into non-activty – or we can face up to them together.
What was the bottom line for socialists in this election? For me, it has to have been: (1) to expose and oppose New Labour's privatisation agenda, and (2) to expose and oppose the racist tide in all its manifestations. Sadly, the remaining socialists in the Labour Party failed on both counts. The Socialist Alliance campaigned relentlessly on these issues. In doing so, we communicated with far more people than actually voted for us. Across the country, we have acquired thousands of new contacts, invaluable practical and political experience, and multiplied our name recognition many times over.
We also made inroads in the trade unions – the debate and votes at FBU and CWU conferences were affected by our election initiative. And we drew in a steady stream of ex-Labour Party and unaffiliated activists. And on balance I do think that's a good start.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t need to look critically at all aspects of our campaign, locally and nationally. What impressed me during the campaign was the steep learning curve we all underwent. Let's keep that up after the election.