Countdown To May 2002

If it is to credibly survive the council elections in less than eleven months time, the general election results 'ought to scotch once and for all the notion' that the LSA is set for some kind of 'breakthrough'.What is needed now, says G. O'Halloran, is a period of sober, comprehensive and more than anything honest re-assessment.

All too typically, Paul Foot, who on the run up to the election on more than one occasion outlined precisely why he would be 'backing the Socialist Alliance (SA)', devoted his entire Guardian column the week after to other issues, with not a mention of the supposedly 'good start' his SWP chums insisted, the 550 votes the SA received per candidate represented.

His Guardian colleague, Gary Younge was more forthcoming. Younge, a former WRP activist, nonetheless described the official SA explanation for the desperately poor showing as 'smacking of desperation'.

Less than two years ago,in October 1999, Gary Younge took part in a public debate organised by Anti-Fascist Action. Then, along with SWP member and SA candidate Weyman Bennet, who famously claimed that 'the war is over and we ('we' meaning the ANL) won it'. On the day, Gary Younge too confidently insisted 'anti-racism was working'.An AFA prediction that in all probability 'we are approaching signal 109', in reference to the Paddington rail crash, was greeted with bemusement at the time. Unsurprisingly, in light of events in Oldham, Burnley and elsewhere,Younge at least, would seem to have revised his opinions.

On the SA claim that its general election result is vindicated by history, he comments: "The Socialist Alliance is putting a brave face on it. But its claim to have performed better than the Communist party did in 1950 rings hollow. First, travelling more than half a century back in time in search of electoral sustenance smacks of desperation."

"Second, the two scenarios couldn't be more different. In 1950 Communists were standing against a Labour government that had just introduced the National Health Service." And as against the lowest turnout since1918 now, "at 84% the turnout [in 1950] was the highest of the century".

'Three' he could have added, the Labour party back then was an avowedly socialist party, with a mass working class base. And 'four', again unlike now, 1950 was around the time the spectre of Soviet aggression began haunting Europe, and cold war paranoia kicked in. And if he really wanted to put the boot in, he might have mentioned that the Communist Party of 1950, was, again unlike the SA, at least formally revolutionary. The 'Parliamentary Road to Socialism' thesis was still two decades distant.

So had it, put in such a pitiable performance, there were mitigating factors aplenty. For the SocialistAlliance to do so, is little short of fiasco.

By general consensus, the Scottish Socialist Party(SSP) withover 72,000 votes did more credibly. Particularly when you take into account the population of Scotland being only 5 million. Even so, the SSP overestimated its own appeal by a full third, insisting prior to the election that a 100,000 target was comfortably within its capacity. Meanwhile the only target forecast on behalf of the SA in England and Wales, came from its most enthusiastic backer Weekly Worker. '250,000' would be a credible return it felt. In the event, that prediction came in almost a full 200,000 short. As tends to be the way, Weekly Worker now protests that this figure was intended to cover the entire Left including the SSP and the SLP, and was anyway, "aspirational".

Whatever. A return of 57,553 still left the SA 15,000 short of the SSP total. Worse, according to an SSP spokesperson, the 70,000 was the 'political equivalent to 700,000 votes in England and Wales'. Thus, for the SA in England and Wales, to display proportionate ambition, the 'aspitational target' would have needed to be set - not at 250,000 - but nearer a cool million.

Even closer to home and even more painfully the 57,553accrued by the SA, only just surpassed the 54,104 achieved by the despised 'Stalinist crackpots in the Socialist Labour Party'. Woefully, the SA, with an extra 34 candidates could muster just 3,500 votes more than the 52,110 the SLP recieved in - in 1997! Taking into account the large scale working class abandonment of New Labour since, an advantage which averages out at a little over 100 votes per candidate, it is fairly damning. 'Good start' though containing just two words, is a statement that manages to be wrong on two counts. It was not 'good' and it was not 'a start'. But there are, as we will see, perfectly valid reasons why comparisons with the Greater London Assembly election only last year, are avoided in SA spin. Only last year,the London Socialist Alliance polled 46,530 votes, on remember, a mere 33% turnout.Throw on an extra 8,000 or so for June 7th, and you now have the additional support for the SA, from the 45 million people in the rest of England and Wales! Had the appeal of the SA simply stagnated, the GLA result would need, (even discounting the 60% turnout) to have more than quadrupled. No matter how you cut it, the entire Socialist Alliance project, a little more than a year after announcing itself as a mainstream player, looks terminal. In response to the official LSA explanation in 2000, that their low vote could be entirely attributed to being 'a new party' one senior Red Action member remarked at the time: 'On the contrary, it may turn out that their first result, proves to be their best result'. So far, he has been proved correct. And if the implications are not startling enough already, as Gary Younge points out, things can get worse, very much worse.

"In Oldham's two constituencies alone, the BNP received a fifth of the votes that the Socialist Alliance mustered in around 100." Moreover, "in the 17 seats where the BNP or National Front stood, against either the Greens or the hard left, the BNP" Younge reckons "was always more likely to win".

In addition, the three best individual results attained by fringe candidates anywhere, including Scotland, have the initials 'BNP' beside them.

Such stats are a reminder that these days, not only is the SA a fringe party, but socialism itself is very firmly a marginal ideology. Moreover, if judged alongside the current standing of more serious rivals like the UKIP and the Greens, the BNP can lay claim to the title 'radical alternative' in England and Wales - as of right.

Needless to say SWP/ANL spin doctors will have none of it. In a seemingly unhinged press release, ANL central office announced: "We've done it! The Nazis have been utterly defeated... They have been marginalized and rejected." Only after it is read a couple of times does it become clear that they are not talking about Oldham or Burnley - butThanet! And the 'Nazis' referred to are not the BNP - but the150 strong NF.

Only a little less dishonestly, the SWP/ANL along with The Guardian, also seeks succour in the fact that the BNP 'stood less candidates than in 1997'. But once again, the reality for anyone even vaguely interested, is that the BNP stated last year, and repeated a number of times since, that its focus would not be on the general election, but on the metropolitan council elections in 2002. For them this makes sense. As a small party the BNP are aware that the elusive electoral success, which it believes will catapult it into the political mainstream, is most likely to happen at a local council level. Long before the Oldham boost, it was already within touching distance, clocking up well over 20% in areas as diverse as Burnley, Tipton in the West Midlands; not forgetting the 27% it took when knocking the Tories into third place in Bexley south east London in June last year. (By contrast, the highest precentage the SA have accrued is less than half that.) The SA might have followed a similar strategy, had it ever sat down to consider strategy in the first place.

That said, there are rather curious statistics that might have prevented any SA strategist wholeheartedly recommending such an approach. Interestingly, unlike the BNP, the further LSA activists stay from its chosen constituency, the more attractive it appears, and the better it does at the polls.

For example, in the by-election caused by the death of Bernie Grant last year, the SA saved its deposit. Much capital was made of this at the time. However, when it returned to the Tottenham area a couple of months later to contest a council by-election, and incidentally, canvassed heavily, it got the same percentage of the vote, 5% it had taken in the parliamentary contest. Attracting a mere 60 votes is not heartening, but this is on average what SA candidates can expect to take, if past results are anything to go by, in council by- elections in the capital in the near future - if they're lucky.

No wonder the SWP were not keen to contest Beckton with the BNP. Fear of 'taking second prize', saw the SA in Southwark duck even the NF in Bermondsey. Exactly that rationale was offered for the failure to challenge the BNP in Oldham.

Prior to the suspension of the LSAexecutive in February Red Action delegate's sought, whenever the opportunity presented itself, to bring a modicum of reality to discussions. A number of policy documents were submitted. When not more or less openly accused of racism, 'refugees welcome here', was quite simply 'a vote winner' we were told. In our absence, the slogan has it appears, without explanation of course, been ditched.

In another staggering example of the bland leading the bland, Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson, following a poor showing from the BNP in a parliamentary by-election in Preston at the beginning of this year, (it transpired the candidate had fallen out with the leadership and was not even in the country in the run up to the election) more or less demanded any further discussion on the possibility of 'a BNP breakthrough be scotched - for once and for all'. Whether it was intended as a rebuke to AFA and RA or for internal consumption, or whether Manson was simply making editorial policy on the hoof, it does at least explain why Red Action letters to Weekly Worker are routinely cut, or simply not printed. Tellingly, despite the BNP making headlines in the national media, Weekly Worker found no room to allow even a passing comment the week after the election. When challenged,'a small staff' was offered by way of excuse.

Censorship or self-censorship apart, what is almost unnerving about discussions within Weekly Worker, on the Uk Left site or inside the LSA, is that regardless of what is really happening on the ground, soundbites inside and out, are relentlessly upbeat.(One unkind comparison would be with the Indian "ghost dance" movement of the late 19th century when, just as the Native American cause was hopelessly lost, prophets appeared, predicting the sudden disappearance of the white man.) There are naturally more prosaic explanations. First, the collection of sects that make up the SA do not really know what is going on. Second, such is the introspection they do not care what is going on.Third, and most cynically of all, the SWP leadership specifically, are all too aware, but will resist any comprehensive review, for fear of it, and indeed SWP morale generally, might not survive the analysis.Their fears are well grounded. Up to now, due mainly but not exclusively to, the SWP stranglehold there has been no mature analysis; no strategy grounded in objective reality. Result? 'Rubbish in, Rubbish out'. Unsurprisingly, SA method such as it is, is shambolic,and the tactics, when there is evidence of any (theSWP put a ban on canvassing for example) imbecilic.

If it is to even survive the council elections in nine months time, the general election results 'ought to scotch once and for all the notion' that the LSA is set for some kind of 'breakthrough'. What is needed now is a period of sober, comprehensive and more than anything honest re-assessment.

Ultimately, what the LSA needs to decide is whether it is going attempt to offer a real alternative to the BNP, or just lazily continue being (what it regards) as it's opposite? What at the end of the day it comes down to is whether the political will exists within, what is referred to as the far-Left, to seriously compete for working class hearts and minds with the far-right? What this means is perfectly straightforward. In light of the election results there needs to be a general acceptance that the fiction of 'socialism without the working class' (which invariably leads to an anti-fascism opposed to the working class) is no longer sustainable practice. Self-evidently, without at the very least, the tacit support of the bottom 40% of society 'radical change' is possible, but progressive social change is inconceivable. More listening and less lecturing would be the necessary start.

When, or as it increasingly looks like if, the London Socialist Alliance steering committee is reconvened, these two questions are the first items RA delegates will put on the agenda. If responses are at all reasonable, then perhaps we can all sit down and see how we might collectively 'remedy the situation'. Whatever the LSA decides, there is no escaping one salient fact: one way or the other, for all concerned May 2002 means - 'showtime'.

Reproduced from RA Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 12, July/Aug '01