Martin Thomas looks at the history of the Socialist Alliance and of far-left electoral campaigns
The Socialist Alliance in its present form emerged in the run-up to the May 2001 general election. It united almost all the activist left groups in England, and drew in some hundreds of unaffiliated socialists, to stand 98 candidates.
A small "Socialist Alliance" - mostly local groups of the Socialist Party and some unaffiliated activists - had existed since 1992, but the immediate jump-off point for 2001 was 1998.
In July 1994 Tony Blair had been elected leader of the Labour Party and quickly started radically de-labourising the party. In 1997 he became prime minister.
By 1998 a lot of socialists were looking anew at the question of running independent candidates against Labour.
In 1969 what was then the biggest of the activist left groups, the now-disappeared Socialist Labour League, got 446 votes in a by-election in Swindon. In 1974, the same organisation, renamed WRP and further on the way to craziness and collapse, got an average of 0.8% for ten candidates in the general election.
In 1976-7 the Socialist Workers' Party and the International Marxist Group (IMG: also now gone, though a fragment remains around the paper Resistance) experimented in by-elections. The SWP drew back after eight by-elections when, through political ineptitude, it got markedly poorer votes than the smaller and not-very-astute IMG. The IMG withdrew after it stood ten candidates in the 1979 general election. It got 477 votes for Tariq Ali in Southall as its best result, and less than 1% for eight of the ten.
In 1997, Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party got an average of 814 votes (1.8%) for 64 candidates, and the Socialist Party 521 (1.2%) for 19. Their campaigns were very "proprietorial" and they did not even have enough coordination to avoid running directly against each other in some constituencies.
So in practical calculation, most activist socialist groups had concluded that presenting their ideas in the form of an electoral contest against Labour brought them more difficulties than advantages.
Under Blair, were the old "vote Labour, but..." policies still workable? In early 1998 Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr, two Labour members of the European Parliament, openly denounced Blairism and got expelled from the Labour Party. Kerr joined the Scottish Socialist Party. In England Coates initiated an Independent Labour Network which proved short-lived but drew a few big meetings.
At the end of 1998, socialists in London, from Workers' Liberty, the Socialist Party, and the London group of the Independent Labour Network, met to discuss the possibility of a united left candidature for the London constituency in the Euro elections of May 1999.
After a while, the Socialist Workers' Party started coming along to meetings to observe, and eventually joined the alliance, initially called "United Socialists". It got as far as agreeing a political platform and holding a public launch meeting, then the SWP scuppered it by pulling out and instead supporting Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party.
The next stage was May 2000, and the elections for the Greater London Assembly. The London meetings were reassembled, with a few new elements. We took the name "London Socialist Alliance", to use the SA's electoral registration.
We got only 1.6% in the "list" section of the GLA poll. But there were enough compensations to maintain hopes. Cecilia Prosper got 7% of the constituency vote in North East London.
A lot of unaffiliated left activists had joined the Socialist Alliance's London campaign. These were often ex-members or ex-sympathisers of one or another of the activist groups who had remained active in their unions or particular campaigns. In the run-up to the general election of May 2001, that influx was repeated across England.
The numbers were hundreds rather than thousands, but the influx, and the degree of unity between rival activist-left groups, were new.
The SA's 98 candidates got an average of 1.6%, or 587 votes per candidate, less than the Scargill SLP's average in 1997.
Vast amounts of work needed to be done to rebuild political self-confidence in the working class. By weight of human and financial resources, the SWP now controlled the central machinery of the Alliance, and its vision of electoral work as just distributing as many leaflets as possible with an incoherent set of "bullet-point" policies thought to "fit the mood", also limited us. By steady effort, the SSP had increased its average vote from 1.8% in 1997 to 3.4% in 2001, while also increasing the number of seats it stood in from 24 to 72. It got over 5% in ten seats, which it had achieved in only one in 1997.
Still, the pleasure of unity, and a reasonable minority of decent results (ten above 3%), gave SA activists courage to continue.
The local groups withered in the months following the election, not because of the poor election results but because the SWP saw the SA as an "electoral united front" which outside elections would only tick over and support other "united fronts".
Instead of allowing an honest discussion on the lessons of our general election effort and turning the SA to systematic public non-electoral political campaigning, the SWP took the SA into a fractious (and unnecessary) constitutional conference in December 2001. The Alliance's second-largest component, the Socialist Party, decamped. To stay in a tightened-up Alliance would bring a risk of the SP's electoral profile (modest, but one of its bigger assets) being diluted.
However, some momentum continued.
There were over a thousand at a Socialist Alliance trade union conference in March 2002; fair-sized Alliance fringe meetings at some union conferences in 2001 and 2002; and some decent Alliance results in the May 2002 local elections, notably in Hackney, east London. The Alliance provided space for some genuine debates, on Israel-Palestine for example.
A debate initiated by the SWP on the euro gave life to many Alliance meetings in the autumn of 2002, but did not help turned the SA out to new recruits. Expecting a referendum on the euro, the SWP wanted to take the Alliance into a "Stop the Euro" coalition with the rump Communist Party of Britain. About a third of the Alliance, including most of the unaffiliated activists, dissented. There was no euro referendum.
From autumn 2002 the Alliance slumped, failing to do anything in the FBU's industrial battle, or the big anti-war demonstrations, beyond distributing a few placards and leaflets hastily drafted by the SWP.
By the conference of May 2003, local Alliance branches were almost all stale or defunct. The SWP wanted a way out. They wanted a "new coalition" where some of their "Stop The War" allies - notably, George Galloway MP - would take the seats alongside them previously occupied by the irksome "sectarians", i.e., the Marxist groups and activists in the Alliance.
Meanwhile, the SSP got six members in the Scottish Parliament, and the French Marxists of Lutte Ouvrière and the LCR were scoring 9% in opinion polls, thanks to steady effort along the same axis as we had proclaimed in England in 1998: the fight to restore independent working-class political representation, the need for open and democratic left unity, and an orientation to the steady work in workplaces and working-class neighbourhoods necessary to put those ideas into practice.
But the SWP had never taken that axis seriously, seeing electoral work only as a matter of getting the best score for any sort of "left alternative"; and a section of SA activists were dispirited enough to go for anything that promised to be "broader".
It remains now for a minority to carry forward the fight along that political axis.