"At Least We Didn't Get The Racist Vote"

On October 12, the London Socialist Alliance contested a by-election in Hackneys’ Wick ward. John Byrne looks at the result and what it means for the future prospects of the LSA in this east London borough.

The 2% of those eligible to vote who backed the LSA in October’s Hackney Wick Council by-election have, according to the LSA, made them the “third biggest party in Hackney.” This comes as something of a surprise, not only to the IWCA, who have an eighteen month head start of working in the area, but also undoubtedly to the Tories, who were under the impression, that with nine councillors, they were the third biggest party!

Equally the Greens, with two councillors, had thought that they were fourth but have seemingly been overtaken by the 171 votes the LSA have amassed so far in Hackney.

If we go back 18 months we can look at the progress the LSA has made. Standing as “Socialist Unity” but including all the major players in the LSA plus the SLP, their candidate gained 37 votes with a leaflet that had a dense block of text calling for “the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords,” and stating that “the peoples of Scotland and Wales must have self-determination.” They felt that they needed to qualify this last point, by stating “We need the voluntary unity of the working people of England, Scotland and Wales against our common enemies" In case anyone was unsure, the international section of their leaflet stated “Saddam and his like are no friends of working people" And about the council by-election there was very little. Compared with this effort. The LSA has clearly made progress. Their leaflets in the recent by-election avoided the worst excesses of Leftie language, kept mainly to the issues relevant to a council by-election, and brought up class as an issue more regularly than socialism. They used bullet points to call for things like “affordable homes for working class people - not luxury developments for the few.” As a direct result of this improvement, they trebled their vote from 37 to 134, even though it was a bigger ward.

In addition, the LSA held a stall every Saturday on a pitch in the ward that was abandoned by the SWP two years ago. They were seen to have fought a good campaign on the doorsteps, but in fact only ran the kind of campaign that Labour ran in the ward up until the early 90’s.They put out two leaflets and claim to have carried out a 100% canvas, but this probably only means knocking on every door once.

A week before the by-election the LSA held a public meeting. The meeting was chaired by an SWP member and with the candidate and main speaker Mark Steel both being SWP, along with most of the contributors from the floor, it was obvious who was calling the shots in the LSA. Mark Steel spelled out who had suffered under three years of New Labour; “teachers, asylum seekers and students.” The candidate, Diana Swingler, spent five minutes on the subject of pensions, but chose to concentrate not on the effect of poverty on local pensioners and on the pensioners’ campaigns, but on how it was “splitting the Labour Party apart.” The tone of those invited to speak from the floor was set by one SWP member who described the LSA candidate as being “a tribune for the oppressed.”

Whilst the LSA claims publicly that their stance on asylum seekers is a “vote winner”, they are not quite so sure about it privately. In fact a briefing paper given out to canvassers stated that their support for asylum seekers was unpopular and suggesting ways around this. A reality underlined through the problems being experienced by the Lib Dems, who were standing the only black candidate. The response of the LSA candidate to this, was that as they had put support for asylum seekers on all their leaflets “at least we won’t get the racist vote” (the failure of the racist vote to turnout certainly cost the Lib Dem’s the seat they had taken from Labour with a 500, strong margin last time!). So while the LSA is happy to chase the Green vote, the ‘racist’ element in the working class is written off and left for the Lib Dems or the BNP to pick up. Isn’t the whole idea of the LSA contesting elections to get the ‘racist vote’ to think in terms of class instead?

As bad as the confusion, the LSA’s campaign was dishonest from start to finish. Not minor things like claiming their candidate was a “local resident” when she doesn’t live in the ward, but writing a leaflet before the campaign began which stated the “campaign has already attracted enthusiastic support from local nurses, firefighters and council tenants.” Despite the fact that the majority of council flats in the Ward have already been sold-off, Mike Marqusee’s article in Weekly Worker (14.9.00) stated that “local council tenants” would speak at the LSA public meeting. Of course this didn’t happen and was never going to.

Mike Marqusee also claimed that “we’re the only party saying scrap the ITNet (private housing benefit contractor) contract now” but the LSA weren’t embarrassed when the ruling Labour/Tory alliance voted to do exactly that. In fact the LSA then claimed ‘it was them that won it’! Ignoring the broad based campaign made up of council tenants and advice centres, in which the IWCA was the only political player, an LSA press release stated “they have sacked ITNet because of mass anger on the doorsteps of Hackney Wick and growing support for the LSA.”

In gaining 134 votes the LSA avoided humiliation, but the real issue is the 81.6% of potential voters who did not vote at all. The LSA did not cover this in their analysis. Of the result “an elated Diana Swingler”, the LSA candidate, said. “our vote is a positive vote for socialist politics.” Presumably the other 98% were not so positive about socialism.

If the result of the by-election were such a success, surely the LSA would want to build on it. However on the Saturday following the by-election the stall was back up in the same place, but was now fatally selling Socialist Worker and Socialist Review instead. At least some of the 134 voters who backed them would have felt conned. Rather than trying to build the LSA by showing that they would carry on with community politics after the election, the SWP instinct is to mop up any support for themselves.

The LSA improved on the “Socialist Unity” result only because they fought a better campaign and managed to focus on some local issues. In other words only because they changed. If progress is to continue, if the vainglorious boast of being Hackney’s “third biggest party” is ever to be realised, the scale of change will need to be root and branch. and not just electorally.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 9, November/December '00