Monday, May 05, 2008

Guest post - Following May Day debacle the coffee smells strong

A specially commissioned guest post for Stroppyblog from George Binette Peterson, variously known to some as the cleverest man on the left and the real gorgeous George ...

After weeks (in some cases months) of furious tapping at keyboards by the denizens of the blogosphere spewing vitriol and insight in unequal measures, the results of the English and Welsh local elections are finally in. At a general level it would be difficult to dissent from the mainstream media’s pundits: Thursday’s polls were an undeniable disaster for Gordon Brown and New Labour, while providing the strongest indication yet that David Cameron is the most likely occupant of 10 Downing Street in two years time.

I would, however, suggest two caveats: the Labour Party’s overall performance was only marginally worse than in 2004 (projected national share of the vote at 24% as opposed to 26% in 2004 when the Iraq war admittedly had far greater electoral salience) and in a number of London constituencies there was actually a substantial swing to Labour on an increased turnout that reached 45% London-wide. Still, Gordon Brown’s premiership is in deep trouble as his replacement of Tony Blair has done nothing to revive generally flagging fortunes and even in one-time Welsh fortresses Labour’s vote plummeted with the Tories making gains. Under Brown Labour’s malaise has worsened, as the new administration clings to its neo-liberal fundamentals, while general anxiety about the economy post-credit crunch, compounded by the reality of sharply rising costs for utilities and basic foodstuffs, has exacerbated the erosion of Labour’s electoral base. For some, the axing of the 10p tax rate was simply the final straw.

Of course, for most leftists and consistent social liberals, Friday night had an especially unhappy ending with Boris Johnson’s clear-cut victory in the London mayoral contest and the announcement of the BNP achieving long-standing aim of a seat on the Greater London Assembly (GLA). These developments warrant a separate analysis beyond the available space, but it is clearly the case that among white voters there is a substantial core vote for the fascist right in a ring that stretches from Havering & Redbridge in the north east through Barking & Dagenham, and southwards into Bexley & Bromley and even Greenwich & Lewisham. In the latter the candidate for the National Front (an organisation that today barely registers on the radar of those of us who aren’t deemed anti-fascist anoraks) garnered over 5% of the vote.

For those on the left waging electoral campaigns against Labour the results from Thursday offered a few crumbs of comfort (a council seat for Respect Renewal in Birmingham Sparkbrook, 37% of the vote in one Preston ward for a Left List candidate and 23% in Sheffield’s Burngreave), but it remains to be seen whether they also provide a remedy to self-delusion. The stark reality is that the elections signaled a rightward move within the electorate and a handful of mildly encouraging results cannot disguise this.

In London the fragments of the Respect project, the SWP-dominated Left List and the admittedly indefatigable George Galloway’s Respect Renewal managed a combined total of 3.35% of the list vote, notably below the Respect tally in 2004 and two percentage points behind the BNP’s tally. The Left List contested all 14 of the GLA constituency seats, gaining over 3% in just two of them – North East (3.04%) and Enfield & Haringey (3.48%). Elsewhere, the tallies were frequently below 1% of votes cast.

These Left List results were notably worse than what Respect scored in 2004, while in the one GLA seat where Respect Renewal stood (City & East, comprised of the borough of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking & Dagenham, as well as the sparsely populated City of London) it saw a slight increase in its share of the popular vote from last time to 14% and easily eclipsed the vote of Left List candidate, the victimised local trade unionist, Michael Gavan. While Respect Renewal supporters have evidently found solace in that result the organisation’s post-election statement peddled a very distorted picture of the situation in East London: “The local roots Respect has established in East London checked the forward march of the BNP. Without Respect East London could have begun to look like the 1970s with the BNP pushing into third place.Instead, Respect is one of the two major parties along with Labour inparts of Tower Hamlets and Newham, we beat the BNP on the list vote and pushed the Liberal Democrats into fifth place.”

Certainly, Respect Renewal’s Hanif Abdulmuhit did beat the BNP candidate by five percentage points, but this ignores the dramatic demographic changes that have taken place across the boroughs over the last three decades. The reality is that the Galloway-led version of Respect has established a foothold within the Bangladeshi and to a lesser degree other South Asian communities in Tower Hamlets and Newham. It has not progressed beyond those sections of the electorate. Meanwhile, the BNP garnered more than 9% of the vote in the same constituency and given the overall make-up of the electorate across the three boroughs it must have gained more than 20%-25% among white voters in a number of wards, mainly in Barking & Dagenham.Under the election label Socialist Alternative the Socialist Party retained a contested seat in St Michael’s ward in Coventry as voters returned Dave Nellist for still another term, but its lone GLA candidate barely exceeded 1% of the vote in Greenwich & Lewisham, finishing behind even the abysmal tally for the Left List candidate. Thus far, I have not been able to find any other results for Socialist Alternative candidates, but there is precious little evidence to suggest that the Socialist Party or the allied project of the Campaign for a New Workers Party is going from strength to strength.

To me these results demonstrate that a decade or more of attempts, both honest and disingenuous, to construct broad parties to Labour’s left, based on programmes of more or less radical reform, have yielded little or no fruit. Indeed, they have now reached an impasse. Surely, the dreadful drubbing of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy last month should at least give pause for reflection, given the fact it supposedly exemplified the broad party to which many claimed to aspire.

The abject failures in Britain have many causes, not least the frequent and seemingly incurable sectarianism of various tendencies, but more fundamentally there have been consistent underestimations of both the lingering impact on the structure and consciousness of the working class across Britain of nearly two decades of Thatcherism and the quiescent effect of a real if contradictory economic upswing, which has now come to an end. Leaving aside the tragicomedy of the history of the Scottish Socialist Party and then Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance (to me the most promising in England and Wales), Respect and now the divided halves of it have all shown that there is little to be gained, even in electoral terms, from diluting one’s politics and pretending to be a rebranded party of reform.

None of this is to deny the potential virtues of contesting elections against Labour, but to echo a letter from John Nicholson published in the “Morning Star” on Friday 2 May, there is a need for a new clarity about the purpose of any such candidacies. In the context of a first past the post system that still prevails in almost all English elections, the prospect for any kind of electoral breakthrough seems especially remote. But in the event of a surprise win at the polls what are the mechanisms for holding to account representatives in councils or parliament (the Galloway question, in short)? Alternatively, how important are candidacies in advancing an overarching political (dare I say revolutionary?) programme to a wider audience?

To state the obvious, there are no easy answers in the short term, but there is a need for a genuine honesty and humility that has also too often been absent in the posturing between tendencies and the unceasing promotion of wildly optimistic perspectives that cannot withstand exposure to objective realities. I hardly expect that many (any?) comrades are about to ditch their current project in the here and now, though reading between the lines of the Left List I drew the conclusion that the SWP leadership now sees its shelf-life as very limited.

Meanwhile, where does the Labour Representation Committee fit in following the disastrous results of 1 May? A number of more or less plausible scenarios emerge, including another leadership challenge by John McDonnell, but for the time being I think that unlikely along with the short-term prospect of the LRC leading a break from Labour itself. While it does have affiliations from a handful of important trade unions, it currently lacks the essential activist base in the unions and communities that the left organisations outside of Labour still possess to a greater or lesser extent.

Perhaps the Convention of the Left in Manchester, coinciding with the Labour Party conference in late September, will start providing some answers or will at least clarify where the “far left” can indeed work effectively together whether in the unions through the National Shop Stewards Network, combating state racism, defending abortion rights or developing serious and sustained initiatives against climate change.