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Reflections of a Socialist Alliance Candidate

Alan Woodward

HAVING RECENTLY stood as a Socialist Alliance candidate in the municipal elections in Haringey, I am recording some thoughts on the subject.

My first point concerns the attitude revolutionary socialists should adopt towards standing in elections. In my case I take the same view as the Council Communists who, while rejecting participation in parliament in a revolutionary crisis, were prepared for it when "the revolution is far off", to quote Herman Gorter. Any means by which we can talk directly to people about politics should be used, even on the unpromising ground of municipal electoral activity. We cannot advocate abstentionism, unlike some anarchists who reject voting along with the internal combustion engine, union activity and other advances made over the last century or two.

Yet a contrary view to mine seems to be held by many revolutionary socialists. For, during our campaign, there was a remarkable lack of actual support from some members of the Socialist Workers Party and other revolutionary groups for the routine tasks of leaflet distribution or canvassing.

While dissenting comrades may say they have a full agenda elsewhere, it does not seem feasible that they are so busy they cannot undertake any electoral work at all. A slightly more valid basis for passive opposition is that people think that the SA will only be used when necessary, for purely tactical reasons, and then popped back in the box until next time. There seems to be some truth in this and it is a point I will return to below.

If, however, the reluctance to take action stems from a more general mood of passivity, after decades of being urged on to do just one more paper sale, such an attitude though understandable is misplaced.

The contempt for politicians expressed by many people on receiving an election leaflet is quite widespread. This feeling, largely fuelled by Blairism, does create a chance to re-state the case for the type of policies the SA is advocating. An engagement with the politics of rejection could win people to an acceptance of revolutionary politics.

Another gain from participation in electoral work is that it establishes some community of interest between revolutionaries of different political groups, at a practical if not theoretical level. The joint action, through what is effectively a united front, should comprise a start to broader unity. The importance of using the experience of an election campaign to build a network of socialists who would cooperate in a range of political work in between elections should really outweigh any reluctance comrades feel towards electoral work as such.

My second general comment concerns the levels of cohesion among those involved in electoral action. It has to be said that this was the first attempt by Haringey SA to stand a large number of candidates, and that things went remarkably well in the circumstances. The key jobs were carried out with exemplary efficiency. But I must record that there were numerous examples of a breakdown in communications between the SA, the candidates, election agents and newly recruited supporters.

Experience can correct this – running an election campaign is hardly rocket science – but one suggestion may help. This is that the ward secretaries or organisers report in by phone to the agent during the election period so that successes can be passed on and failures at least noted, if not rectified. For example, Tottenham Green ward did a very successful ballot of leisure centre users to identify and record opposition to privatisation. This took only an hour or so, and the results were excellent. Nearly 200 votes were recorded with only a handful backing the council. Such ballots should be used more widely.

In our ward we campaigned successfully at local primary schools, when parents were dropping off their children, emphasising the SA’s opposition to the privatisation of education. We parked the campaign table, and used strong plastic placards attached with string for hanging up on school railings. They could be seen from across the road and I think their use outside schools in the twenty-minute period as parents arrive was especially effective.

I must now record some serious omissions in the campaign in my own ward and, I suspect, elsewhere. Most important was the complete neglect of workplaces. Of course, a concentration on peoples’ places of residence has to be a chief priority in this type of activity and building a network across the area has to be the number one objective, but to turn the SA into a copy of the reformists’ structures is incompatible with revolutionary traditions.

We have always emphasised the significance of struggle at the point of production and defined ourselves in terms of building an organisation there. Consequently I think that we should adjust our electoral tactics to incorporate the workplace. At its lowest level, this means producing leaflets oriented to trade unionists. The Labour government’s appalling performance over the minimum wage, privatisation, employment law etc provides plenty of ammunition.

There is ample evidence that activity in the workplace is expanding rapidly. The union leadership, spurned by Blair, is being forced to use strike action to show that it still has some power, after years of apparently giving up the ghost. The election of several "left" leaders to the position of general secretary is further proof of the changing situation. Finally, the moves to democratise union political funds demonstrate the potential for the SA in this field.

We should be flooding workplaces with leaflets about Blair’s treachery. Yet there was practically no plan for this in our local election strategy. In my ward, we gave out the "all SA candidates" leaflet, plus the Turkish translation where appropriate, at a bus garage, tube depot and textile factories. ("We" meant in practice myself plus a small number of other dedicated supporters.) But there was no serious attempt to do "factory gate" meetings, despite the favourable weather. Overall, regarding workplaces, I think the SA missed a real opportunity and must not repeat this mistake.

A second area where we fell down was the Tottenham mosque. Every Friday lunchtime this is very busy, and I think that our emphasis on supporting refugees and opposing racism and privatisation could have won us much support. Our anti-war politics would have emerged from discussions and provided further attraction. This would have strengthened our refugee support work after the election as well. Alas, we didn’t go there.

A last comment concerns the local press, in which we managed to place many stories due to the skilful efforts of Keith Flett. Titbits from the Haringey Trades Union Council newsletter, the Haringey Herald, were published in the local papers as well as letters sent in by the SA during the election. On the debit side, I think we did not appreciate how far the newspapers would back the Labour Party in the last week. At least two letters from SA candidates were blanked in this final period of the campaign.

So how did it go on the day? The good news is that Labour lost control of several wards and the services of some of its most bureaucratic bureaucrats. The really good news is the Tories were smashed, losing their two seats as the Lib Dems made advances.

For the SA, the results were quite impressive. All Haringey SA candidates got over 5% of the vote, equivalent to more than 10% of the Labour vote. Interestingly, despite a big variation in local SA organisation and the amount of canvassing and leafleting – ranging from practically zero to almost daily action – the majority of our votes fell within the 5% to 7% range. The best results came where candidates had been identified with local campaigns or had established a reputation over a period of years. The candidate in St Ann’s Ward was the best performer overall and he was well known for his role in the campaign against Car Parking Zone fees.

So what positive conclusions can be drawn? These all centre on the need to make the SA a positive and active body, which functions in between elections and consolidates its local support. Otherwise we shall be asking people to vote next time for an organisation that they last heard of some years ago. "Where have you been?" they will say.

A second aspect concerns the key activity of building a network of socialists whose enthusiasm for activity does need a focus. That after all was the object of the exercise.

There is currently plenty to be going on with. The mini strike wave on low pay, which also extends into anti-privatisation, practically calls out for SA leaflets. Anti-war work and solidarity with the Palestinians, plus refugee support campaigns, are all winning support as even the media admit.

Locally the long-running anti-privatisation struggle, in which Haringey Against Privatisation has played an active part, shows no signs of declining. Jarvis, of Potters Bar and Hatfield notoriety, is the company which won the Private Finance Initiative contract to modernise local secondary schools. Predictably, this has recently shown several costly omissions, all to the detriment of local schools of course. Other privatisation schemes are running into unexpected difficulties and our activity against the one covering swimming pools showed the degree of public resistance.

Haringey Defend Council Housing has won two of its battles against the plans to turn Council properties over to capitalist-style housing associations. Though this has temporarily halted the privateers, the Labour Council is now considering the government fallback position of privatising its housing management. This halfway house is as unpopular as the original plans and like them can be beaten if we are vigorous enough.

It would be easy to devise an action programme based on the points above, but blueprints without activity are meaningless. The choice is clear. The Socialist Alliance could be put back in the box by the SWP, to be retrieved and dusted down when the next election occurs – or it could seize the opportunity and build the resistance.