This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

The Blackwall and Cubitt Town By-Election: A Comment

Bob Pitt

ON 13 JUNE the Socialist Alliance stood in a council by-election in Luton and got 18 votes, as against 814 for the successful Labour candidate. The SA probably consoled themselves with the thought that at least things couldn’t get any worse. But they could. Two weeks later, in the Blackwall and Cubitt Town by-election in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, the SA won precisely 9 votes (yes, comrades, that’s nine votes).

This was quite an achievement, bearing in mind that to stand as a candidate you need ten local residents to nominate you, plus you can usually rely on a few confused electors putting their cross against your name by mistake. It would be tempting for a Labour Party member like myself, who has opposed the SA from the outset, to adopt a mocking, contemptuous attitude towards those fellow socialists in the Alliance who worked so hard, and to so little avail, in Blackwall and Cubitt Town. And, hey, why resist temptation?

My first response is amusement that such a minuscule vote should be subjected to such a lengthy and detailed analysis by the SA. As someone remarked to me, the number of words per vote in Kambiz Boomla and Paul McGarr’s document must set a new record in the history of psephology. But despite this they studiously avoid drawing any of the necessary political conclusions.

The first and most elementary point is that a large section – the most politically advanced section – of working people in Blackwall and Cubitt Town cast a class vote to keep out the Tories. You might have thought that socialists would see this as a positive outcome and welcome the (very narrow) defeat of the Conservative candidate. You might even have supposed that socialists would accept, at least with the benefit of hindsight, that they shouldn’t have stood against Labour in a ward which by Boomla and McGarr’s own admission "effectively became a Labour-Tory marginal". After all, if the SA had persuaded a mere 11 Labour voters to transfer their support to the Alliance, the Tory candidate would have won.

But Boomla and McGarr express no remorse for an intervention that so nearly played into the hands of the Tories. They see it all in terms of the SA’s own electoral fortunes, complaining bitterly that "we were squeezed very badly indeed" – by working class hatred of the Tory Party! If Boomla and McGarr have any cause for regret, it is evidently that the SA candidate didn’t draw sufficient votes from Labour to lead to a Tory victory.

But this is par for the course with the SA. In the May local elections their blind hostility to Labour led them to stand a candidate in Burnley in another heavily marginal ward, with the result that they let a BNP candidate in. Not a single prominent SA supporter, to my knowledge, has publicly stated that this was a mistake or apologised for the SA’s disgraceful behaviour. On the contrary, when Ken Livingstone rightly condemned the Alliance’s action in his Tribune column, Keith Flett of Haringey SA wrote in blithely defending his organisation’s role in Burnley.

Not only does the SA see no difference between Labour and the Tories, therefore; they even see it as no particular loss that a Labour candidate should be defeated by a fascist. The parallel with Third Period Stalinism scarcely needs pointing out.

It is also interesting to read Boomla and McGarr’s response to the Labour Party’s campaign in Blackwall and Cubitt Town. They wax indignant at the fact that the Labour candidate, Brian Son, expressed support for the rights of local Muslims and organised a protest "over a threatened new luxury housing development, with supporters pictured in the local paper holding placards and demanding an end to these developments and for affordable housing to be built instead".

How could any socialist oppose this? The more sceptical of us might suggest that we cannot rely on election promises, and that the labour movement in Tower Hamlets will have to act to ensure that the policies on which Labour won the by-election are implemented. But Boomla and McGarr’s response is just one of angry resentment. For, according to the warped logic of the SA’s anti-Labour sectarianism, it would be better if the Labour candidate had fought on an openly Blairite programme, as this might have won a few extra votes for the Alliance.

At the conclusion to their analysis, our authors boast that the SA is "initiating a campaign in the ward over a threatened new luxury development". And who will be invited to participate in the campaign? Well, apart from the SA itself it will include supporters of the independent candidate Terry Johns (who according to Boomla and McGarr campaigned on a racist programme), non-voters and "people who voted Labour". But not, apparently, members of the Labour Party or the newly elected Labour councillor who fought the by-election on the basis of opposition to such developments.

Again, this is what we have come to expect from the Socialist Alliance. They are not interested in building the sort of broad campaigns that actually stand a chance of winning their stated objectives. Instead, they prefer to set up narrow bodies dominated by themselves, the purpose of which is to raise the Alliance’s political profile in the (no doubt vain) hope that they will secure slightly less derisory votes in future elections.

Finally, it is worth noting that results such as that in Blackwall and Cubitt Town, and in the earlier by-election in Luton, underline the point made by FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist in the Morning Star recently, that it would make little sense for the trade unions to consider financing an organisation like the Socialist Alliance, which hasn’t a hope of getting a single candidate elected. Certainly, the far left’s campaign to "democratise" union funds appears increasingly absurd in the face of such an obvious gulf between the SA’s bombastic claim that it represents a serious alternative to the Labour Party … and the reality of the Alliance’s complete irrelevance to mass politics.