Labour activists should not be complacent about Labour’s victory in the three by-elections on 29 November.
All three were in safe Labour seats. That Labour won when in opposition to a coalition government whose economic strategy is both hurting and not working in its own terms reflects no endorsement on the parachuting-in of candidates or on “one nation” blather.
The party with best cause to be pleased was UKIP: second in Rotherham, with 22%, and in Middlesborough, with 12%, and third in Croydon North with 6%. Probably few UKIP voters knew about or specifically voted for such UKIP policies as abolishing all higher rates of income tax and scrapping employers’ National Insurance and simultaneously raising military spending and doubling prisons (and what gets cut then?)
But UKIP’s headline policies of pulling Britain out of the EU and freezing immigration for five years got traction. In Rotherham the BNP came third with 9%, though it got only 2% in Middlesbrough and did not contest Croydon North.
Labour — or, to start with and more specifically, the Labour left and outside-Labour left — need to undercut this by developing a clear argument on how economic issues are now inextricably international, and for a socialist policy on a European scale.
In Solidarity 266, Dave Osler reported bookmakers offering shortened odds on the Respect candidates in Rotherham (Yvonne Ridley) and Croydon North (Lee Jasper). Ridley got 8% and Jasper 3%. That was better than might be expected when Respect is practically defunct as a party, and left groups like SWP and SP have stopped backing it; but it was far from reviving Respect.
As Osler predicted, TUSC (the electoral front run by the SP in harness with the leadership of the rail union RMT, with some token involvement by SWP) did poorly: 1.2% in Rotherham and 1.6% in Middlesbrough.
In October 1969, the revolutionary socialist left started contesting parliamentary elections for the first time since the Neath by-election of 15 May 1945. (Trotskyists contested Neath as a protest against the Labour-Tory political truce which then still continued from wartime but would be broken in June for the run-up to the July 1945 general election).
Frank Willis of the Socialist Labour League got 1.1% in the 1969 Swindon North by-election. The Communist Party, then still a force, got 1.3%. The SLL declared itself pleased, but obviously wasn’t (it ran no candidates in the 1970 general election). The rest of the left thought the result derisory.
TUSC’s score on 29 November was only marginally better than Willis’s — on a much weaker programme than the CP’s in 1969, and in an electorate much more volatile and open to voting for minority candidates than 1969’s.
For TUSC people to claim such results as other than a damning setback would be foolish.
At the demonstration outside Lewisham hospital on 31 January, following Jeremy Hunt's announcement, I had a discussion with an old Labour leftie who had spoken well to the crowd.
He said that he was sick of Labour being right-wing and was going to vote... UKIP.
My arguments about UKIP being a more right-wing version of the Tories didn't get anywhere. No wonder UKIP is third in the polls!
Fighting against nationalism in the working class is urgent. And that implies a fight against the soft nationalism of sections of the far left too.