34. Standing in elections


During the first New Labour government the Socialist Party managed to hold its own and even put on a bit of flesh. Indeed, after the 1997 general election Dave Griffiths, the party’s long-standing and intrepid Regional Secretary in the West Midlands, reported at a National Committee meeting that 500 people contacted Coventry Socialist Party during the election. Coventry has been the standard bearer of our election work outside the Labour Party. Three hundred attended a pre-election rally, which was addressed by socialist film director Ken Loach. Subsequently, over 90 people came to a members’ meeting in the area.

The feeling of disillusionment with Labour emerged very quickly after the general election, as Blair and Brown dressed themselves in the same political clothes as the Tories. This necessitated preparations to begin to present a real electoral alternative to New Labour for working class people. The Socialist Party put forward Julia Leonard, a local councillor, in a parliamentary byelection in Uxbridge, West London. She was squeezed by the polarisation between the two major parties, Labour and the Tories, but came fifth out of eleven candidates, beating the far-right and neo-Nazis. At the same time, many joined the Socialist Party from the local community. Significantly, the Tories won the seat, their first by-election victory since Labour came to power only a few months before.  In Rotherham, Yorkshire, the Socialist Party’s candidate in a council by-election, Paul Marshall, held onto the vote he received in the general election, capturing 7% of the poll. The turnout was low but when one worker was asked whether he voted Socialist Party, he replied: “What’s the colour of my door?… Labour is not red any more.”1 The reason for standing was to build a base for the future so that more serious challenges could be made.

This was typified by the experience in Lewisham, South London. In 1998 Ian Page challenged New Labour, achieving 13% of the vote. This was seen as a step forward by Socialist Party members in the area but, predictably, was met with derision from our opponents. Nevertheless, it was an important stepping stone for the eventual success for Ian and the Socialist Party later. In the following election he received 38%, coming second behind Labour. In the May 1999 local election he was victorious in the Pepys ward receiving 40% of the vote. His victory was all the sweeter given that he had been expelled from the Labour Party when he was a councillor for the crime of fighting against cuts in jobs and services. This was an important milestone in the electoral success of the Socialist Party at this stage, as well as being a measure of the discontent that was growing with New Labour.

In the initial period of the 1960s London was not the strongest area for us, but was where our national centre and leadership were located and based. Over time and through the considerable efforts of self-sacrificing comrades, particularly the full-time workers on our paper and later the party, we established a very strong base which endures to this day. Many comrades contributed to this but the work of Paula Mitchell, London Regional Secretary since 1998 – with a short break for domestic reasons – has been tireless and very effective in building our influence. Also, full-timers like Jim Horton and Chris Newby, part-timer Chris Moore and others have made considerable contributions to building our influence.

Ironically, the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown wrote in the Guardian, just one day after the election in Lewisham, that “socialism is dead”. This was a refrain that we had heard many times before and since. However, Samantha Dias became the second Socialist Party councillor in Lewisham shortly afterwards. This came after a very successful campaign effectively led by the Socialist Party against the handing over of council housing to housing associations.

There were also good results for the Lancashire Socialist Alliance candidate in Preston (over 5%), and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) candidate in Glasgow (over 7%). In the Euro-elections in the West Midlands, the Socialist Alliance stood with commendable results. This was despite the fact that there was a complete press blackout of the campaign. Even rallies involving Tommy Sheridan, MSp, alongside well-known comedians such as Mark Steel, Mark Thomas and Jeremy Hardy, received scant attention from the capitalist media outlets. Nevertheless, the Socialist Alliance candidates received more than the SLP which had the advantage of a national election broadcast.

In Coventry there was electoral success with Karen McKay (in 1999) and Rob Windsor (2000) joining Dave Nellist on the council – three Socialist Party representatives to fight for working people. This was reflected on the national plane with evidence that the establishment was becoming worried about the favourable electoral prospects for those challenging the deadening unanimity of the three major parties.

Labour introduced a Register of Political Parties which was used to try to prevent socialists standing in elections. The Socialist Party was told that its name would not be registered. The chairperson of the parliamentary advisory committee which took that decision was none other than Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody. She had been prominent on Labour’s NEC with others in expelling Militant supporters in Liverpool, including leading councillors. Now her committee sought to ban us from using our own name, even though we were the only political party using the word ‘socialist’ which was refused registration. We roundly condemned this: “New Labour are using dictatorial methods to prevent socialist views being heard.” We pointed out that the “majority of the [Labour] MPs on the  parliamentary committee that took this decision also voted to expel supporters of the Militant newspaper…”2

We had changed our name to the Socialist Party in 1996 after a yearlong debate. Since then, we have spent our time building our forces and, in the process, trying to popularise our name. The alleged reason for the introduction of the register had been to prevent parties from deliberately setting out to cause confusion. To give an example, a Home Office spokesman said: “There was confusion between the Literal Democrat and the Liberal Democrat.”3 We explained that such an accusation could not apply to the Socialist Party. Firstly, because we always try to avoid standing against other left-wing parties whatever their name. Secondly, the very fact that the three political parties represented on the committee for registration have the power to ban the use of a name freely chosen by other parties was inherently undemocratic. We would never set out deliberately to mimic the name of any other party so as not to cause confusion where it can be avoided. This ban remains to this day and has compelled us to stand as Socialist Alternative and other titles in elections, which could undermine our ‘brand’ in the perception of the electorate.

This betokened further incursions on democratic rights during the reign of New Labour which have been continued by the Tories. The revelations of mass surveillance by governments, even snooping on one another – like former US President Barack Obama listening into the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls – has outraged the world. There are enough restrictions on working class activity, such as the limitations on the right to strike and other undemocratic measures worthy of a police state. Indeed, if a dictatorship was to take power in Britain, it would not need to introduce many new laws but could use those which are already on the statute book!

All this did not deter the Socialist Party, however, which stood 48 candidates in the May 1999 elections. Only a few weeks previously the Socialist Party had been barred from using our own name and it was feared that the enforced change to Socialist Alternative might confuse voters. Yet, despite the ban, Karen McKay achieved an outstanding victory in Coventry, winning just under 50% of the vote. Karen’s victory was recognised by the Coventry Evening Telegraph: “Socialists in Coventry were celebrating today… supporters sang the revolutionary socialist hymn the ‘Internationale’ as Karen McKay won St Michael’s Ward for the new party… Mum of two and part-time librarian Karen… added: ‘Labour isn’t a socialist party anymore.’”4

The disillusionment with Blair’s government was Britain-wide. Voters saw little difference between the pro-big business, pro-capitalist market policies of the three larger parties and voted with their feet by not turning out. These elections and other developments marked the end of the extended honeymoon for Blair. There was a particularly low turnout of just 29% in England’s local elections and just over one third of those voted Labour. The Lib Dems took some key urban councils. This was in marked contrast to the success of the SSP and left candidates in Scotland, which threatened to make the Tories an exclusively English national party. Other socialists consistently saw results around 3% to as high as 20%. This would have been higher had it been possible to reach an agreement with Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP). Unfortunately, the SLP once more decided to go it alone. One of the key distinguishing features of these elections, however, was the refusal to vote by a significant number of the electorate. This highlighted the crucial task undertaken by the Socialist Alliances, which were united in one national organisation at this stage, to create the basis of a bigger force.