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

The Socialist Workers Party and Elections

Martin Sullivan

ONE MINOR consequence of next year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament is that they have caused the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to change its electoral policy and announce that it intends to stand candidates.

Lindsey German has been given the job of explaining the new line to the ranks – no easy task, as SWP members have for years been given to understand that electoral work is a defining feature of bourgeois politics. While leafleting on the high street for the Labour Party during the last general election, for example, I was berated by a passing group of SWPers for spreading parliamentary illusions among the masses. The proper area of work for revolutionaries, they insisted, was not elections but strikes, demonstrations and other forms of direct action – an argument which owed more to anarcho-syndicalism than to Marxism, but typified the attitude prevailing among the SWP membership.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in principle with a revolutionary organisation participating in elections. On the contrary: if, as the SWP claims, it is indeed a party (rather than merely a large propaganda group), then standing in elections could be said to be obligatory. At the time of the 1932 presidential election in Germany, opposing the view that the Communist Party should withdraw in favour of a joint candidate of all the workers’ parties, Trotsky argued: "The party has no right to sacrifice during elections the mobilisation of its supporters and the census of its strength."

Yet, for over two decades, this is precisely what the SWP did sacrifice. According to Lindsey German: "During the 1980s the SWP did not stand in elections. Workers’ overriding feeling was that in elections they had to vote Labour to get rid of the Tories." Now, comrade German argues, with a right-wing Labour government in office, the situation is different.

Maybe that explains the SWP’s position in the 1980s, and the 1990-97 period for that matter, but what about the late 1970s? There was then a Labour government in office whose attacks on the living standards of the working class had made it deeply unpopular. In fact this formed the background to the decision in September 1976 to transform the International Socialists (IS) into the SWP, accompanied by the announcement that the organisation would be contesting parliamentary by-elections in Walsall and Newcastle in November, and perhaps as many as 50-60 seats in the next general election. The assumption was that resentment of the government’s right-wing policies would open up a political space to the left of Labour which a revolutionary party could occupy. Or so SWP guru Tony Cliff reasoned.

Alas, it was not to be. In neither the Walsall nor the Newcastle by-elections did the party’s candidates achieve even 2% of the vote, and the experience was repeated when the SWP stood in further by-elections at Stechford, Grimsby and Ashfield in early 1977. Socialist Worker rationalised the results by referring to the dozens of recruits and large paper sales registered during the election campaigns. But this couldn’t hide the fact that the organisation’s foray into electoral work had resulted in complete humiliation. Not only did the SWP’s candidates fail to dent Labour’s support, but they even did significantly worse that those of the rival far-left formation Socialist Unity, the main component of which was much smaller International Marxist Group.

A politically responsible leadership, having taken "the census of its strength" within the working class, would have concluded that the allegiance of workers to the Labour Party was still firmly entrenched, that disillusionment with the Labour government did not translate into support for a new socialist party, and that the duty of Marxists was therefore to carry out at least some serious fraction work in the existing mass-based workers’ party.

Not Tony Cliff. He simply ditched the electoral turn and directed the SWP into other forms of activity where recruitment and paper sales could be achieved without the disadvantage of revealing the derisory level of popular support for the "party". The SWP’s subsequent interventions have been directed almost exclusively at building its own organisation; advancing the interests of the class has come a poor second. The SWP thus lapsed into the sort of sectarian relationship with the broad workers’ movement which had long characterised the Healyite tendency, and which the IS in its earlier healthier period had rightly criticised.

Today, although Lindsey German raises the possibility of running in "other elections" beside those to the Scottish parliament, the reality is that in England and Wales the prospects for socialists standing against Labour are no better than they were in 1976-7. Not only would SWP candidates suffer a repeat of the humiliation they suffered then, but, more seriously, such antics would pose not the slightest threat to the Labour leadership. The task of Marxists is still to intervene against the right wing inside the Labour Party.

In Scotland, on the other hand, the national question has to an extent undermined traditional working class loyalty to Labour, and the proposal to stand socialist candidates for the Scottish parliament has some basis to it. But the only organisation with the forces to conduct a meaningful campaign will be the Scottish Socialist Party, which the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) plans to launch this year. The SWP, however, in line with its party-building fetish, has rejected participation in the SSA and presumably will refuse to join the new Scottish Socialist Party too. It will probably end up standing independently in the election and splitting the socialist vote.

It is certainly true, as Ian Birchall argued in the last issue of What Next?, that the SWP does a useful job in disseminating basic socialist ideas. The problem is that, having convinced its recruits of the necessity of socialism, the SWP leadership trains them in a sectarian conception of political work which results in the organisation playing an essentially negative and disruptive role within the actual labour movement. The new electoral "turn" of the SWP will be no exception.