In November 1976 the IS (which the next month would change its name to SWP) stood a candidate in the Walsall North by-election.
The article below, from Workers' Action no.29 of 9 September 1976, presents the reasons why the majority in the AWL (then called I-CL) advocated a Labour rather than an IS vote in that by-election, and our arguments against a minority in the I-CL who wanted to back IS.
IS/SWP had recently become the strongest grouping on the would-be revolutionary left. The "Healyite" WRP/ SLL had just switched to drawing money from Arab states and the PLO to sustain its daily paper, and was entering a spiral to final explosion and collapse in 1985. Although IS/SWP's agitation had been vehemently anti-Labour, in a syndicalistic sort of way, since the late 1960s, Walsall was the first time it had stood a candidate.
It would be the start of the most extensive essay in left-of-Labour electoralism until the Blair days. From November 1976 through to early 1978, either IS/SWP, or the "Mandelite" IMG (forerunner of today's Socialist Resistance, but then a buoyant group of maybe 700 members), or both, would contest almost every by-election.
A few of the IMG's by-election candidacies were relatively successful, at least by the standards of recent outside-Labour left candidacies. Raghib Ahsan won 3.5% in Birmingham Ladywood in August 1977. But the candidacies would peter out in early 1978. Talk, at one time excited, of a sizeable joint SWP-IMG slate in the next general election, came to nothing.
At general election time in 1979, the IMG, gathering a couple of small allies under the label "Socialist Unity", ran ten candidates and did poorly even on its own account (average of 283 votes per candidate). The SWP declared that they were "strong Labour supporters" for the few weeks of the election campaign, but really had more important things to bother themselves with than the election.
That was pretty much the end of outside-Labour left electoralism until the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) "discovered" in the early 1990s that its own ejection from the Labour Party (where it had previously been very cosily ensconced for decades) marked the conversion of Labour into a straight Tory Party Mark 2, and Arthur Scargill founded the Socialist Labour Party in 1995.
But in late 1976 it was not so clear that the conditions for effective outside-Labour left electoralism had not arrived.
The Labour government had been elected in February 1974 more on "anti-Toryism" than positive working-class enthusiasm for a Labour leadership which had sorely discredited itself with all left-thinking people in the later years of its 1964-70 period of office. In its first months of office it repealed many hated Tory measures. But by 1976, engulfed by economic crisis, it was imposing big public service cuts (faster in pace than Thatcher's later cuts) and legal limits on wage rises.
Labour prime minister James Callaghan had repudiated the "Keynesian" basis of Labour reformism: "We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists..." (September 1976).
Although Labour Party life had revived a bit since its drastic collapse in 1968-70, it was still modest. No large or coordinated left wing challenged Callaghan. Labour's parliamentary left was in collapse after its defeat in the 1975 referendum over Britain's membership of the European Union, and its capitulation to the government over cuts in March 1976.
We now know that the seeds were there of a large Labour left upheaval which would take place after Labour lost office in 1979. No-one knew it or expected it at the time. Certainly we, the forerunners of AWL, didn't.
In 1976 the outside-Labour left was buoyant. It had been growing fairly rapidly since the late 1960s. The 1970s' high level of rank-and-file trade-union militancy - though 1976 was a low year within that general pattern - emboldened it.
Another motive for electoral enterprise was the rise of the fascist National Front - the NF would get 7% in the Walsall by-election, for example - and the desire to counter the NF directly at the ballot box rather than be associated with Labour.
There had been sporadic outside-Labour left candidacies since the late 1960s, when the 1964-70 Labour government became very discredited, masses of Labour activists quit, and the outside-Labour left grew very rapidly; but this looked like a possible new start.
Bob Pitt's chronicle, The rise and fall of Gerry Healy, records:
The SLL’s 1968 conference... proposed to stand candidates in the next general election with the aim of ‘exposing and defeating the "parliamentary" leaderships of the working class’... The SLL’s 1969 conference proclaimed that ‘the desertion of the reformist party’ was ‘almost complete’, and stated unequivocally that ‘no section of the working class will ever again look to the Labour Party for leadership’...
[This line] was given a trial run in the Swindon by-election of October 1969. The Young Socialist [i.e. SLL] candidate, Frank Willis, was a well-known local trade unionist, and a six-month campaign was organised which brought in YS members from all over the country. Yet Willis received only 446 votes (1.1 per cent).
[By the 1970 general election] Healy’s plan to stand SLL candidates against Labour... had been quietly abandoned..."
But, with the outside-Labour left growing rapidly and the Labour Party discredited, it looked not implausible that the Swindon experiment had been only a bit too early.
In the February 1974 general election the SLL (now called WRP) had grown further, and it stood nine candidates. They got an average of 466 votes each. The IMG (the Mandelites, forerunners of today's Socialist Resistance) was much smaller but had grown faster. It ran three candidates, winning 239 votes each.
The WRP score was not far behind what the Socialist Alliance would get in 2001 (an average of 588 votes where it competed).
In 1974's second general election, in October, the IMG quietly eschewed standing. The WRP stood ten candidates, with an average now of only 340 votes each.
But in 1974 Labour had benefited from a flood of anti-Toryism. Now, in 1976, Labour was in office and making cuts in a way no Tory government had done since the 1930s or 1920s. Maybe things would be different for outside-Labour left electoralism.
Walsall North was an unusual by-election, and perhaps one where an outside-Labour left candidate could hope to do unusually well.
Although the Tories would win the 1976 by-election, it was an apparently safe Labour seat. Labour has won Walsall North in every other contest since the constituency was created, even in the low time of 1983.
The outgoing Labour MP, John Stonehouse, had been a minister in the 1964-70 Labour government. After 1970, still an MP, he went into business. By late 1974 he feared being found out for fraud. He faked suicide; disappeared; was discovered in Australia and brought back to be jailed in Britain.
The voters of Walsall now had no functioning MP, but Stonehouse refused to resign (and the Labour Party did not expel him). In 1976 he finally did resign, and went over to a far-right group, the English National Party. Thus the by-election.
In AWL, a sizeable chunk of our members were recent ex-IS, from a dissident grouping in IS which had finally been expelled by IS in late 1975. Some of those ex-IS members were now dissatisfied with us, too, and would soon split away to form their own little group, which, after many political mutations too bizarre to recount here, would produce today's Workers' Power and Permanent Revolution groups. They wanted to back IS in the by-election.
They made no great play of the by-election issue in their split statements. As far as I can recall, they never wrote anything about the by-election, but just argued a case by word of mouth. Almost certainly they were already set on a split before the by-election issue came up. However, the difference over the by-election, in which they advocated backing the IS candidate and our majority said vote Labour, was the nearest thing to a clear political dividing line at the time of the split. It is a dispute which should be part of the AWL's collective memory.
Of course, no conclusions for 2010 can be read off directly from 1976. The Labour Party in 1976 was by no means lively, but it was a lot livelier than the Labour Party of today. Working-class disillusion with it was less deeply ingrained than it is after thirteen years of Blair-Brown rule. There was an even bigger difference on "the other side", so to speak: the IS of 1976, despite all the criticisms of it made in the article, was much livelier and less unhealthy, much more plausible as a force to be supported in elections, than the SWP of 2010.
Some political shifts on the left are not so much a matter of explicit argument as of almost-unconscious "cultural" shifts in unstated assumptions. Looking back on 1976 brings out that point.
Although the left in the late 1960s and the 1970s was much more like a single "movement", with different factions sharing a common milieu, having dialogue between themselves, and collaborating on issues, than today's, there was very little then of the assumption quite common today that it is a "default" position, almost a moral imperative, for all revolutionaries to back any half-way plausible left candidate in competition with a right-wing Labour Party candidate.
For decades the "left" challenges to the Labour Party in elections were from the Communist Party, which until the late 1980s was a much bigger force than the Trotskisant left. But Trotskyists always backed Labour against the CP, even when, from the late 1960s, most Trotskyists had all or most of their activity outside the Labour Party.
When would-be Trotskyist groups started standing candidates, the other groups felt no compulsion to back them, any more than (say) group A would feel an automatic compulsion to go on a protest or picket called for its own reasons by group B on an issue where the groups broadly agreed but had important differences in programme or perspective. An election candidacy was a propaganda initiative to boost your group. Different groups existed because they had different politics and made different propaganda. You would back another group's propaganda initiative only if you had positive reasons for doing so.
Obviously things would be different if a possibility emerged for real left unity, or for solid left collaboration in a big political drive in the labour movement like the SDF's and ILP's at the end of the 19th century for independent labour representation, but until then... When the IMG backed the IS in Walsall, that was part of a deliberate "unity offensive" designed to win over chunks of IS membership to the IMG.
I think it was just a matter of the left being more confident then: you did things for positive, active, interventionist reasons (if sometimes miscalculatedly), not for weary clutching-at-straws motives.
Our tendency - the forerunners of AWL - was an exception here. It was one of the more foolish vagaries of our history. In February 1974, we endorsed the WRP and IMG candidates, though only with a tiny article in our paper. We had a vague idea that if "Trotskyists" of some, even poor, sort were standing, we should back them. We can't have felt much conviction about it: we did not criticise IS (forerunner of SWP) for not backing the WRP and IMG candidates, nor the WRP and IMG for not backing each other (which as far as I can remember they didn't). Although we came across the IMG in many areas of work (the very self-absorbed WRP was a different matter), I can't recall IMG people urging us to make our nominal support for their candidates an active matter.
By October 1974 we had, by common tacit consent, decided that the flaccid "ecumenism" of February 1974 had been foolish. We didn't back the WRP candidates.
I wince today at the style of the 1976 article, which seems to me formulaic, declamatory, and pretentious in a way typical of much left writing (or at least of mine) in the 1970s. But the mood of capitalist crisis and left-wing confidence which encouraged declamatory styles also, perhaps, made us see some things more clearly than they are seen in the demoralised culture widespread in the left today. I think the basic arguments were right.
References: the Stechford (Birmingham) by-election would follow in March 1977. Both IMG and SWP stood. Although the SWP had a very well-known candidate, Paul Foot, the IMG did markedly better (IMG 1.4%, SWP 1%). That worried the SWP a lot. The article's expectation that "IS's campaign will probably get enough support to make it worthwhile for them..." turned out to overstate IS/SWP's fortunes in the electoral experiments of 1976-8. McCallum got 1.5% of the vote in Walsall (a tad less than the Socialist Alliance's 1.6% average in 2001).
Socialist Charter was the forerunner of today's Labour Briefing. Eddie Milne was a leftish Labour MP who had been deselected as a candidate by his right-wing constituency Labour Party in 1974. He held his seat as an independent Labour candidate in February 1974, but lost it narrowly to an official Labour candidate in October 1974.
The term "centrist", in this context, means politically inconsistent, half-revolutionary, half-reformist.
Workers' Action 29, 9 September 1976
The International Socialists are standing Jimmy McCallum as a candidate in the Walsall by-election. Reportedly they will also stand a candidate in the Stechford by-election.
Many socialists and revolutionaries will instinctively want to vote for McCallum. He will campaign against racism, against unemployment, and against the cuts. His Labour opponent represents a party whose government maintains racist immigration controls, permits massive unemployment, and pushes through the cuts.
Workers' Action, however, believes that this instinctive reaction is wrong.
We are in favour of supporting any concrete class struggle action against racism, unemployment or the cuts any strike, any mobilisation against the fascists - even if the political leadership of that action is confused, and however much it annoys or embarrasses the Labour Party establishment. However, an election is not the same as a strike. Elections, for revolutionaries, are basically an opportunity to make propaganda. And that means propaganda for revolutionary ideas - not centrist ideas like IS ’s.
On unemployment, the cuts, and wages, IS counterposes its Right to Work Campaign, in a sectarian fashion, against the building of a working class united front. It substitutes agitation to ‘fight hard against the bosses’ for political demands - like the sliding scale of wages - that point the way to a socialist alternative. On racism, IS often evades the issues and calls instead for black-white unity around economic demands: "Black and White Unite and Fight for the Right to Work".
And even if IS had better positions on those particular issues, they would be within the political framework of sectarian self proclamation, opportunist adaptation and centrist flabbiness.
Often IS has ended up taking positions clearly on the wrong side of the class line - giving de facto support to British troops in Ireland in 1969; joining the bourgeois "anti-terrorist" chorus over the bombing of the Para officers’ mess at Aldershot; adopting the chauvinist ‘vote no’ position on the EEC [European Union]. It is not a matter of IS’s politics being in the right direction, but not going far enough. They go in the wrong direction - in the last analysis, in a petty-bourgeois direction. IS will not lead the working class to the overthrow of capitalism any more than the Labour Party will.
Normally a revolutionary tendency stands candidates in elections, wherever it can, to win support for its ideas and its organisation. In contrast to the attitude of groupings like Militant and the Socialist Charter, it would not be at all deterred by the fear of ‘splitting the vote' and perhaps losing a seat for the reformists to the right wing.
When Marxists are not strong enough to stand a candidate, normally we fight for our ideas through giving critical support to the mass party based on the working class - in Britain, the Labour Party.
We vote Labour not because of the official ideas of the Labour Party - we criticise those sharply and counterpose our own ideas.
Nor do we do so because it is a ‘lesser evil’ than the Tories. In fact it often wreaks greater havoc than the Tories can get away with. We advocate a Labour vote because Labour has a mass base, the allegiance of the mass of the organised workers of this country.
With Labour in power, this mass base can be mobilised behind demands on the party the working class has put into government - demands that it cease to operate capitalism, cease to act as the bosses’ broker. Such mobilisation is a key element in the development of the working class from Labourism and towards revolutionary politics.
This application of the tactic of the united front at the governmental level means calling on those parties which claim to base themselves on the working class to break with the bourgeoisie. It would be possible for revolutionaries to make propaganda for this while standing their own candidate (it would be one of the elements of that candidate’s platform) but not while supporting small centrist groups - even if the centrist platform is criticised.
IS obviously has no mass base. We could justify voting IS only on the basis of its programme.
And this is the worst time for Marxists to blur the difference between our ideas and the politically blind ‘more militancy’ notions of IS. Right now, the working class is paying (through the attacks of the Labour Government) the price for the failure to develop political ideas adequate to the potential of the great militant industrial struggles of 1972-1974.
Workers looking for ways to respond to the Government’s attacks will no doubt be attracted by McCallum’s Walsall campaign. It would be a disservice to them if revolutionaries were to endorse that campaign and the blind alley that IS represents. It is a case where any criticisms we were to make of IS would be outweighed by our endorsement.
In the February 1974 elections many revolutionaries supported the IMG and WRP candidates; but they were wrong, because all that support achieved was to give a little credit to the IMG and WRP’s political notions.
To pick and choose ‘lesser evils’ among non-revolutionary programmes is disorienting and unworthy of Marxists who seriously uphold the necessity of revolution and the necessity for absolute clarity of ideas to secure revolutionary victory. Marxists have the courage to counterpose their ideas both to the reformists and to all varieties of centrism.
Such was the attitude of Leon Trotsky. Arguing against Andres Nin in 1930, he wrote: "You speak of the backwardness of the Spanish workers and of the necessity of making them acquainted with the fundamental ideas of communism before posing the question of the Left Opposition...
"For myself I assert that I do not consider myself able to give a lecture on communism to the most backward workers without at the same time posing the questions of the Left Opposition... " And that was while the Trotskyists still considered themselves a faction of the Communist Parties.
In 1935 he argued for the Independent Labour Party in Britain to support Labour Party candidates against the Communist Party. "The ILP and the CP were propaganda organisations not mass organisations; united fronts between them were meaningless if each of them had the right to advance its own programme.
"Those programmes must have been different or there would have been no justification for separate parties... United fronts for certain specific actions could have been of some use, of course, but the only important united front for the ILP is with the Labour Party, the trade unions, the cooperatives. At the moment, the ILP is too weak to secure these; it must first conquer the right to a united front by winning the support of the masses. At this stage,united fronts with the CP will only compromise the ILP".
The next year, believing that the ILP had no further revolutionary possibilities, Trotsky argued for his co-thinkers in the. ILP to move into the Labour Party - in terms that made it clear that they should support Labour candidates against ILP candidates, even though the latter might be more left wing.
Thus Trotsky argued that in elections revolutionaries should not seek the ‘least evil' of the non-revolutionary programmes on offer, but on the contrary should seek the tactic which best allowed them to put over their own ideas.
Today’s would-be Trotskyists of the IMG have a contrary attitude: they support the IS candidate because, although they have criticisms of IS’s programme, they find it better than any other available! In fact the international current of which the IMG is part has for 25-30 years been seeking around for the best centrist current on offer to which to hitch their star. Recently in Italy, the IMG's sister group, the GCR, not only supported but participated in the centrist electoral bloc Democrazia Proletaria.
But doubtless the IMG and IS would reply that we are nitpicking about the IS candidature in order to cover a capitulation on our part to the Labour Party. Are we? When a clear class issue was posed with the vote of confidence in the Labour Government’s cuts programme on March 11th (the day after 37 Labour MPs abstained), Workers' Action took a clear line of saying Labour MPs should refuse that vote of confidence. IS and the IMG were evasive.
We do not need to vote for IS in order to prove that we are against racism, against unemployment, against the cuts. We will prove that by our fight for our politics on these questions in the trade unions and in the mass party based on the trade unions.
We see no reason to be diverted from that fight by IS’s party building exercises.
Marxists, of course, may sometimes support candidates who are neither equipped with clear revolutionary ideas nor are candidates of the mass party based on the working class.
In 1914, for example, Antonio Gramsci and the group around him in the Italian Socialist Party in Turin proposed that the Socialists adopt Gaetano Salvemini as election candidate. Salvemini was not a socialist. But he was generally recognised as the spokesman of the oppressed peasants of Southern Italy.
Gramsci wanted to propose Salvemini in order to assist in the task of making revolutionary propaganda on the southern question in the Turin working class.
"The workers of Turin want to elect a deputy for the Apulian peasants. The workers of Turin know that in the general elections of 1913 the overwhelming majority of the peasants of Molfetta and Bitonto supported Salvemini; the administrative pressure of the Giolitti government and the violence of the gangs and the police prevented the Apulian peasants expressing themselves.
"The workers of Turin do not ask for pledges from Salvemini, neither of Party programme nor of discipline within the Parliamentary group; once elected Salvemini will answer to the Apulian peasants, not to the workers of Turin, who will carry on their propaganda according .to their principles and will not be at all committed by the political activity of Salvemini."
Only recently we had the case of Eddie Milne in Blyth - who was standing clearly against corruption in the labour movement, with the support of several local trade union bodies.
IS’s campaign will probably get enough support to make it worthwhile for them. IS, from their point of view, are absolutely correct to put up a candidate. But that is not enough reason for us to hook our propaganda to IS’s campaign, rather than the campaign of the Labour Party.
As Trotsky argued: "The mass organisations have value precisely because they are mass organisations. Even when they are under patriotic reformist leadership one cannot discount them.
"One must win the masses who are in their clutches: whether from outside or from inside depends on the circumstances.
"Small organisations which regard themselves as selective, as pioneers, can only have value on the strength of their programme and of the schooling and steeling of their cadres. A small organisation which has no unified programme and no really revolutionary will is less than nothing, is a negative quantity." Such an organisation is IS.
Workers' Action advocates a Labour vote in the by-elections, while calling on all our supporters in the trade unions and the Labour Party to press home their criticism of the politics on which Labour fights these elections.