Britain’s Socialist Left in the Election

Against the Current, No. 94, September/October 2001

B. Skanthakumar

WITH NEW LABOUR’S victory in the British general elections ordained in the opinion polls, the challenges on its left and a new realignment on part of the Left was most of interest at home and abroad.

Collectively the left vote across England, Scotland and Wales was 2.4%, while the Greens scored 2.85% in an election where the working class and poor abstained in record numbers.

Despite this low average, there were particularly good results for the Scottish Socialist Party in Glasgow (9.8%), the Socialist Alliance in Coventry and St. Helens (7%), and the Greens in Brighton (9.3%), Leeds, Bradford (7-8%) and London (5-6%).

The Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, a once moribund formation, was revitalized in the run-up to the general election as fresh forces from the breadth of the left, ranging from so-called reformists to self-defined revolutionaries, united under its banner.

While some small far left groups lobbied for an election manifesto reminiscent of a revolutionary party on the verge of seizing state power, the majority took a reality check and steered a different course.

Its aim, in the words of National Chair Dave Nellist, is to nurture “new mass movement of working people, a movement to build a rationally planned, publicly owned and democratically controlled socialist society.”

Tony Blair’s reinvention of the Labour Party appears to be irreversible, with the rout of its socialist left symbolized by Tony Benn’s decision not to run for Parliament in this election. Even the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, seduced by New Labour’s onward march, are ditching their social democratic policies.

Never has the need for a left-of-Labour alternative been more apparent. Never has the failure of all components of the Left to meet that need been starker. This bitter truth, far removed from beloved schemas and doctrinal verities, helps explain how former Labourites and present Leninists combined in the London Socialist Alliance during the capital’s first mayoral election last year.

Confounding the nay-sayers, this hybrid didn’t consume itself, instead stabilizing as a campaigning force against privatization and Bush’s Missile Defense, and for asylum seekers rights.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the twin fires of nationalism and social deprivation, and the Left’s better implantation accelerated its convergence.

Already in 1997 the Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA), bringing together Left Labourites, Communists, Trotskyists, Left Nationalists and independent socialists, had contested a general election.

Two years ago the SSA evolved from a loose coalition into a unitary political party, growing in numbers, influence, and authority in the process and gaining a Member of Scottish Parliament (Tommy Sheridan) in the first devolved election.

No argument now remained as to why the Left outside Scotland and London should not follow suit and launch a national political challenge to Blairism.

Recognizing this, the Socialist Workers Party (Britain’s largest far left force) began to participate in existing local Socialist Alliances and to collaborate with others in launching new ones. On May Day this year its members in Scotland joined the Scottish Socialist Party as a defined current.

Meanwhile the decision of former Labour National Executive Member Liz Davies to switch allegiance to the Socialist Alliance reflected the growing interest in a plural, socialist, combining electoral and extra-parliamentary organization among estranged Labour loyalists.

In the run-up to this year’s election the construction of the Alliance gained momentum. It stood in far more seats than resources had originally permitted, galvanized socialists who had been inactive, and convinced many unaffiliated social movement activists, campaigners, and trade unionists to join and even contest on its platform.

Spurred by the consolidation of the Socialist Alliance, the Fire Brigades Union recently voted to untie its political fund from the Labour Party. Similar resolutions received large support at conferences of communication, rail and public sector workers.

Meanwhile the Socialist Alliance has appealed to the Socialist Labour Party, led by Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill, to reconsider its disinterest in the new alignment, and is exploring co-operation with the Green Party.

The organized Left has deliberately under-represented itself on the leadership of the Alliance, taking on board the sensitivities of unaffiliated militants, realizing that the point is not to found a “small mass revolutionary party” but something nearer to the challenge of the times. The fortunes of the Alliance depend upon its success in drawing in former Labour supporters, the politically disenfranchised and youth mobilized on global justice issues, hopefully “swamping” the far left and transforming a culture and discourse still burdened by past traditions.

At its December 2001 conference, the options before the Socialist Alliance will be whether to continue as a network of Alliances, left groups and individuals, or to grasp the nettle as the Scottish comrades have, with its inherent peril and promise, and join the ranks of Europe’s new Left parties.

from ATC 94 (September/October 2001)