News - January 2003


25th January '03

It was fairly predictable given the near hysteria surrounding the issue of asylum-seekers in the past weeks that BNP momentum would be maintained in the Halifax by-election on January 23. Screaming national headlines on a daily basis, which played to a core racist constituency nationally, could not fail to have an impact on the voters in Mixenden in Calderdale. And so it proved. But that is far from the full story. Whereas nationally the BNP challenge undoubtedly benefited from the witch-hunt conducted by the press, at a local level it was according to reports, the BNP that was demonized. Instructively, despite what was largely an anti-extremist campaign, the fascists narrowly beat the Lib-Democrats to take what had previously been regarded as a safe Labour seat.

Coming so soon after Burnley in May, and the 8000 strong BNP vote in Stoke in October not to mention the capturing of another seat by the BNP in Blackburn just before Christmas, the Halifax result has left liberalism reeling. For all that there is little mystery in the BNP success, for as militant anti-fascist warnings over the last decade demonstrate, it has been a long time coming. That is not to say that merely understanding what is going on is the same as coming up with a remedy. Here again the real problem is not that the remedy itself is elusive, but that as a bloc, the liberal left stubbornly refuses to turn over any rocks for fear of what it might reveal of itself.

Which is why in their review of the May elections the national secretary of the Socialist Alliance (SA) Rob Hoveman publicly warned delegates that there was 'nothing to learn from the IWCA'. 'Don't even go there' was the edict. So it follows that when on the night of yet another BNP triumph, an SA candidate, a local striking fireman to boot, gets 4.6% in a by-election in Tottenham in north London, it is instantly presented as 'not being a disaster'. Which tells you all you need to know about the current health of British Trotskyism. Indeed so low is the bar that what really causes the conservative left to cringe these days, is, when as happened on more than one occasion last year, their average haul of 50 to 60 votes comes in thirty or forty short. And if the SA and BNP results were a snapshot of their respective trajectories and indeed eventual destinations, then another by-election on the same evening also merits scrutiny.

In Bunhill in Islington the IWCA come within 15 votes of knocking Labour into third place, taking 22% of the vote. A return which was well within touching distance of the average 26% IWCA candidates received in May.

What was remarkable was that despite not standing in the ward previously the IWCA took such a sizeable chunk of the vote, but as well as this, the Lib-Dem incumbents who went into the election with a majority fractionally under a 1000, together with their nominal Labour challengers both centered their core propaganda on attempting to disable the IWCA campaign. Throughout, the Lib-Dem propaganda relentlessly underscored, to the exclusion of all else, the longstanding connections of their candidate to the area. As it was only the IWCA who of all the parties putting in a serious challenge stood a candidate from outside the ward, the target of such a disproportionate emphasis was manifest. Just as timorous and ridiculous was the essence of the Labour message to one of the most deprived areas in the country: 'voting IWCA was a wasted vote'. A strategy which in turn exposed their primary concern as a fear of coming third.

Together with this up-front negative campaigning there was frenetic door knocking, and extensive telephone canvassing behind the scenes, with word of mouth slanders against the IWCA being apparently commonplace. Given the antipathy of the leadership of the SA it is ironic that 'far-left' was one of the 'Lib-Lab' allegations.

In the final week, in scenes more reminiscent of a parliamentary by election, former Cabinet Minister Chris Smith as well as the other Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn, were both out on the knocker. Again consistent with who both parties saw as the political threat the final Lib Dem leaflet was dedicated to attacking, not Labour - but the IWCA. Indisputably this ganging up by the 'big two' affected the IWCA total. It would be unrealistic to pretend it did not, particularly as the IWCA having never contested an election in the ward previously, did not have a resilient voter base on which it could safely rely. Yet despite the turn out, (unusually for a by-election being up) the votes for all those who contested last May were either down or stagnant.

In contrast the IWCA, particularly when the Clerkenwell results last May are factored in, can be seen to have climbed from nowhere to being arguably the formal political opposition in what was previously the borough of Finsbury. Strategically not insignificant as the other parties are all too aware. And all in nine months.

Yet another area of concern for the established parties is that while the Lib-Dems retain the trust of 45% of those who voted, in real terms they represent less than one in ten of those entitled to vote. As in Halifax where by standing the BNP caused the turnout to increase, so in Bunhill, where had the IWCA not stood the turnout may arguably have reached a record low. Judging by the vote many who voted only did so because of the IWCA manifesto.

Here then is the establishment underbelly: the threat of radical parties reaching the seriously disaffected who number, at the last count, over 40% of the country and filling the political and indeed geographical space that New Labour theorists felt could be safely vacated. By contrast not only do both the IWCA and BNP champion the cause of the underdog, they are by and large represented by candidates who are underdogs themselves. This presents a natural advantage when standing in working class wards, a social factor the mainstream parties will, as time goes by, find it increasingly difficult to combat. Crucially where the BNP and IWCA differ is not so much in orientation and strategy but on core policy. Whereas the BNP priorities are defined in the main by race the IWCA manifesto is single-mindedly governed by the interests concerns and aspirations of class. Just how keen the differences are will only become apparent when they go head to head. When eventually it happens the New Labour mantra of us 'all being middle class now' will never have sounded more ridiculous.

In the meantime in terms of the strategies competing for 'working class hearts and minds', while it undoubtedly has the more sophisticated long term understanding, the IWCA has yet to develop the raw punching power of the BNP, who now have five councilors and on recent form garner in the region of 30% of the vote on average. But then as IWCA strategists readily acknowledge, in terms of national profile and infrastructure they are at least five years behind the BNP. And while it is true that victory is not always of course to the swift, to realistically keep within touching distance there are key issues, especially revolving around the raising of finance and membership that IWCA activists will nonetheless need to seriously address; probably before the next round of local elections in May.