The recent election in the UK which saw the return of the Labour government with a much reduced majority didn’t give left parties much to celebrate. What the results show is that the British hard left has failed to capitalize on the massive anti-war feeling of recent years. The victory of Galloway standing for Respect did not change that. The main beneficiary of the anti-war vote seems to be the centrist Liberal Democrats whose position was the same as the NZ Labour Party – the UN should have decided whether or not to invade Iraq.
A Repectable result?
On the left voters were faced with a large array of socialist and Marxist candidates, maybe too many which may have led to many people opting not to vote at all. Given that the UK has a first past the post voting system it was always inevitable that the two main parties would be the winners, with the Liberal Democrats managing to win a few seats as well.
Some of the left (such as the Socialist Workers Party) hailed the results as a victory for the left, choosing to focus on one of the few seats where Respect did well. George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green and Bow was seen as a great victory for the left and the anti-war movement.
However, as the Weekly Worker pointed out, this was not so much a victory for the left but rather a victory for “the largely phantom right (Muslim) wing in Respect” which “sets the parameters.” Galloway is hardly progressive, having right wing views on issues such as abortion and immigration. The seat he won had a large Muslim population, which no doubt contributed to his result. Indeed, the other seats in which Respect did well all had high Muslim populations. The average vote for Respect of 6.97% went down to 2.7% when the top five (Muslim dominated) seats are taken out of the equation.
Galloway’s victory and the good results in those other four seats reflect the deep hostility to the UK/USA war of terror amongst the Muslim population rather than a turn to the left by voters. The vote for Galloway cannot be completely dismissed as a failure for the left. There is no doubt that it was a slap in the face for the Blair-led Labour government. They had kicked Galloway out of the party on ridiculous trumped up charges that he received money from Iraq. Clearly the voters didn’t buy a bar of this nonsense.
However, what Respect represents is a popular front and the danger of the left being captured by the right. The left should be seeking to win right wing Muslims to a socialist agenda, not forming a party with them and bowing and scraping to every reactionary principle put forward by them. The Socialist Workers Party showed by its actions in Respect how ideologically bankrupt and opportunist they are. As the main drivers behind the party they have been prepared to move any remaining principles they had out of sight in order to achieve a tiny bit of electoral success.
There is no future in this sort of popular frontism that obliges the left to bury its programme. The left must focus on a programme which they put to workers without trying to sanitise it for opportunist reasons.
If Respect didn’t do as well as the SWP like to think it did, the results for other parties on the left were even more dismal.
The Scottish Socialist Party dropped from just over 3% in the 2001 election to less than 2% in this one. This was partly to do with the divisions within the party over the forced resignation of Tommy Sheridan.
Scargill’s Socialist Labour party got an average return of 1.14% and Peter Taft’s Socialist Party dropped from an average of 2.11% in 2001 to 1.57% in the seats in which they stood this time.
All in all, not much comfort for the left which raises two major questions. Why can’t the left capitalize on worker disenchantment with Labour and score better results? Secondly, is it even worth putting up candidates if you are a Marxist or supposedly Marxist party?
Why don’t workers vote ‘socialist’?
One reason left parties do so badly is that Britain still has a first past the post system and a vote for a small party is seen as a “wasted” vote. However, even with a proportional system such as we have in New Zealand, it is doubtful that the parties would be able to muster enough votes to get more than 5%. The various small parties would probably cancel each other out, which would probably also contribute to electoral failure. In some situations, in-party fighting contributed to poor results (such as with the Scottish Socialist party).
Having said that, it is legitimate for the left to push for proportional representation as the current system is so manifestly undemocratic in the UK. Labour won a majority in the House of Commons with just 35.3% of the vote. The fact that people feel the system is a waste of time and doesn’t really change anything also contributes to a continuing decline in people bothering to vote - particularly young people.
Probably the main reason is that like Respect the ‘socialists’ all acted like they wanted to get voted into parliament to reform capitalism.
Because there was no chance of this and workers knew the election was going to be closer than the previous one, Blair managed to frighten them into voting Labour in case their vote for a left party bought about a Tory victory. This brings us to the second question. Is it worth left and pseudo left groups even bothering to put up candidates at all?
Watered down electoral ‘socialism’
For revolutionaries who know that parliament has to be overthrown it is still important to use elections to put your revolutionary agenda in front of people and try to convince them that there is an alternative to what passes for so-called democracy in countries like the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
The Weekly Worker reports that the Socialist Party claimed that their leaflets reached 700,000 households and their fighting fund was increased. However, revolutionaries must make it clear to voters that you have no faith in parliamentary democracy to delver the goods for workers.
But the Socialist Party doesn’t stand in the British election to put forward a genuine revolutionary platform. It stood as part of a Socialist Green Unity Coalition.What do we find in response to privatisation? Not a call on workers to occupy workplaces under workers control but a bland statement against privatisation. The public sector unions threat to strike on election day against Labour’s pension plans, or the Rolls Royce workers call to occupy and nationalise the plant facing closure, should have been turned into the key electoral planks.
What do we find on the Iraq war? No call for workers to mobilise to strike against the war, to appeal to the rank and file military to mutiny, but a bland appeal for “Troops Out Now”. How will the Troops be removed. Nor do we find any support expressed for the self-determination of Iraq, victory to the anti-imperialist forces, or defeat of the British Army!
What do we find on racism and the targetting of immigrants? This was the most salient issue during the election. It saw a section of Muslims back Respect, but it also saw more white workers back the proto fascist British National Party. We do not find any call for workers to mobilise in defence of migrants, or to strike against racism in the workplace.
Instead of ‘open borders’ or ‘smash immigration laws’ which are policies that organised labour can fight for, we have ‘recognition of migrant workers rights’. How might these rights be recognised? SGUC MPs will vote for legislative protection of migrants rights of course. Here we have the classic watering down of a socialist program to that acceptable to workers who still have illusions in parliament.
Tactical Support for bourgeois workers parties
There is always the temptation to water down the program because in putting up a revolutionary program workers might well say, “Why should I vote for you if you have no faith in the system and are unlikely to win in any case?” This is a valid question. At the moment most workers still harbour illusions in social democracy being able to deliver the goods. Labour Parties were set up to convince workers that they could get socialism via the parliamentary road. Despite decades of betrayals, the lack of any alternative road finds most unions and workers still desperately clinging on to these parties.
While that is the case revolutionaries must offer tactical support to get these ‘bourgeois workers’ parties elected so they can be further exposed as anti-worker. Lenin spoke of this ‘critical support’ tactic as supporting the British Labour Party like a “noose supports a hanged man”. By standing as revolutionaries and offering the support of a ‘noose’ to Labour parties, we can win workers to a revolutionary program.
This tactic has been turned into a long-term strategy in countries like the United Kingdom and New Zealand. The expectation is that as conditions change for the working class, splits in bourgeois workers parties (social democracy) will occur and revolutionaries may even be elected to parliament. Inside parliament their role is to stand on a revolutionary program as Liebknecht did in Germany in 1914 when he opposed the government voting for money to be spent on war.
However, though these bourgeois workers parties have moved a long way to the right, as yet no such revolutionary splits have led to the formation of mass revolutionary parties.
No tactical support for New Labour!
The left in Britain is divided over the question of tactical support for the British Labour Party. While we think that Blair’s “New Labour” is still a bourgeois workers party with links to the biggest unions, we think the expulsion of some unions and the virulent open attacks on workers doesn’t justify ‘critical support’.
New Labour has been a key US ally in the war of terror and the invasion of Iraq. It has passed draconian laws which attack civil liberties and fostered an anti-immigrant climate through laws which target immigrant groups. The list of anti-worker legislation could go on and on. Indeed every time you check the Guardian online or other liberal UK newspapers you learn of some new horror that Blair or his hatchet man Blunkett is dreaming up for workers.
One of the latest schemes is to get people to carry identity cards. This idea was dropped because it was so unpopular but has managed to make a come back with the Government trying to frighten people with the spectre of a terrorist and illegal immigrant behind every lamp post.
In summary, it is necessary to stand against such an openly anti-worker party, but only if it is on a genuine revolutionary platform and one which is honest. There is no future for workers if they enter into opportunist popular fronts with other candidates and other agendas which can in no way be seen as supporting a genuine left platform. Workers need a revolutionary workers party that fights to overthrow parliament and uses elections to expose the fraudulent claims of all parliamentary parties.
From Class Struggle 61 May-June 2005