All comment on new possibilities after the election is mere wistfulness unless we also register just how bad the election was, and just how badly the left did.
Independent socialist candidates did worse than in 2001 almost everywhere. Within the Labour Party, the Campaign Group of left MPs claims that its people suffered a smaller swing against them than the general run of Labour candidates. However, the difference — 4.4% as against 5.1% — is not statistically significant. Jeremy Corbyn, the most rebellious of left Labour MPs, suffered a larger-than-average swing to the Lib Dems in his Islington North constituency.
The Lib Dems have moved to the right since 2001. Yet bizarrely they have established themselves as “the left-wing party”. For the first time ever, there were lots of voters who would describe themselves as socialists and yet voted Lib Dem, for preference and not for “anti-Tory” tactical reasons.
The Green Party gained only slightly, with an average of 1401 votes over 202 constituencies (3.4%) as against 1172 over 135 in 2001.
Many voters stayed with Labour as a “lesser evil”, slightly less nasty than the Tories in full “nasty party” mode against migrants, asylum-seekers, travellers, and unruly school kids. Doorstep conversations indicated little left of the old positive “class vote” for Labour. Other people told us on the doorsteps: “I’ve always voted Labour. But this time I don’t know — except that I won’t vote for Blair! And of course I’d never vote Tory”. Evidently most of them voted Lib-Dem or abstained.
The big anti-war mobilisations of 2003 have not strengthened the left. Probably they never could have done so on a mass scale. The thought that Blair is a liar, or more of a liar than other ruling-class politicians, is bland enough to be “appropriated” by the Lib Dems — who got most of the “anti-war” vote — by abstention, or even by the Tories.
Gains smaller-scale, but significant, in the strength of the left must have been possible if large enough left-wing forces had attempted to present and maintain a consistent working-class socialist argument. Instead they chose to court the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Association of Britain.
The dog that didn’t bark in the mainstream election campaign was what used to be called “the social question” — the question of rich and poor, bosses and workers, property and labour, unions and wages and jobs. New Labour claimed to be “competent” on the economy — on the basis, mainly, of having legislated removal of the Bank of England from elected control, i.e. ostentatiously letting someone else, unelected, control key economic levers. The “social question” was “de-politicised”, put “outside politics.”
In a Britain of increasing inequality, increasing inequality of opportunity too, working-class voters know that the “social question” has not gone away. It is not that people are lulled into conservative voting, or not bothering, by the feeling that things are good and continued improvement is assured.
On the contrary. Plenty of voters on the doorstep are receptive to socialist ideas. What puts them off voting socialist is not a confidence that capitalism will bring improvements — but a lack of confidence than anything will bring improvements. Social pessimism is the dark weed growing in the waters of social discontent, defeats, and disappointment.
How different the election would have been if the pensions strikes in March and April — due to be the biggest strikes in Britain since the General Strike of 1926 — had gone ahead, and been followed up by the unions with further industrial action calculated to win!
A renewal of the trade-union struggle for pensions is still possible. But, for the election, not only the main union leaders, but also much of the organised left — the SWP and the Socialist Party in the civil service union, PCS, for example — helped take the social issues off the agenda.
Result: in Glasgow, for example, where the Scottish Socialist Party has an established profile and a long record, its vote went down from 7 to 10% in most constituencies in 2001 to 3 to 5%.
In England and Wales, the Socialist Alliance, which contested 98 seats in 2001 — scoring mostly mediocre results, but nonetheless making some visible independent socialist challenge — had been forcibly liquidated by its majority faction, the SWP, as the SWP rallied to George Galloway and set up the Respect coalition.
The nearest approximation to a Socialist Alliance re-run we could assemble was the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, which contested 27 seats. It did poorly. Dave Nellist of the Socialist Party, a former Labour MP with an established electoral base in his area, saw his vote drop from 7% to below 5%. Aside from Nellist, only four socialist unity candidates got over 2.5% — Rob Windsor in Coventry, Pete Glover in Bootle, Celia Foote in Leeds, and Pete Smith in Walsall.
Our own Pete Radcliff, a member of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty standing as the Socialist Unity candidate in Nottingham East, suffered not only the general trend but also a special squeeze from leftish local Lib-Dem and Green candidates. He got 1.2%, a third of what he scored in 2001.
The victory for George Galloway and the relatively good results for the Galloway-SWP coalition Respect in one Birmingham constituency (Salma Yaqoob) and on Galloway’s coat-tails in some constituencies near his Bethnal Green and Bow, do not disprove the trend. They were not victories for the left. They were victories for a tactic whereby socialists turned themselves into leafleters and apologists for a demagogue capturing Muslim votes on a communalist basis.
George Galloway as the representative of the left in Parliament! The horror! It will soon be clear to any still undeceived that Galloway is — as he himself has bluntly told the press — “not as left-wing as you might think”.
Already he has pointedly “tested” his independence from the socialist foot-soldiers in Respect by making a public show of friendliness to the Bangladeshi bosses’ federation and stands against abortion rights, for immigration curbs, for freeing Saddam Hussein’s deputy Tariq Aziz, against the Lib-Dems as “soft on drugs”, and so on.
He must be satisfied that his captive socialists have dared no bleat of protest. He will become even bolder on the same lines. That may help the cause of socialism if it sobers up some Respect supporters and SWPers and pushes them back towards principled politics, but in no other way.
Where they could not capture a “Muslim vote”, Respect did poorly, often worse than the Socialist Alliance did in 2001. About the only exception, where the Respect vote could be reckoned to include a substantial “left” element, was Janet Alder’s 6.4% in Tottenham.
We have paid a heavy price for the left’s failures in the anti-war mobilisations and in the pensions battle. Those who think that left revival will be easy and smooth will collapse. Those who think the task impossible make themselves part of the problem. Those who know all the difficulties, and yet work at it without tiring, will shape the future.