50. Opposition on all fronts



Candidates standing on a socialist basis received significant support in England, for instance in Coventry, where there were three councillors at one stage, and in Lewisham, South London. They exercised a significant effect by opposing cuts and privatisation which were introduced in the main by New Labour. Karen McKay, who stood for re-election in 2003, spoke about what it meant to be a Socialist Party councillor: “In the council meetings we are mainly a voice of opposition to the coalition of Labour and Tory councillors who vote the same way on all major policy. We are the only ones who consistently oppose their privatisation and cuts in services. We’ve opposed the sell-off of the council housing, Private Finance deals for our hospital and schools, school closures, tuition fees and attacks on the pay and conditions of council workers.”1 This could almost be written today, with the difference that it is not New Labour which presides over this but the present Tory government. The pro-capitalist parties are head and tail of the same capitalist coin.

Making the breakthrough on the electoral plane is extremely difficult for a new, as yet untested force or party. “We’re out six nights a week now canvassing for Dave Nellist,” wrote Martin Reynolds, sales organiser for the Socialist in Coventry before the 2002 elections. “We visit people who… voted Labour – and now buy the Socialist, or want more information on what we are about.”2 This indicates the tenacity of Socialist Party members fighting to lay the basis for a new mass formation. A measure of the respect which the Socialist Party has built up in areas like Coventry is shown by the comments of a spokesperson for the homeless: “On behalf of the residents of the Manor Guild House, Bell Green [Coventry], we would like to express our thanks for the extreme effort displayed by Councillor Rob Windsor and Socialist Party candidate Martin Reynolds in our fight to keep our hostel for the homeless open. We couldn’t have done it without their total support and it has been a great morale boost”, said Derek Shaw, residents’ chairperson.3

Ian Page and Sam Dias stood for the Socialist Party in Lewisham: “Everywhere we go, people say how they know Ian and Sam”.4 Ian Page was re-elected but unfortunately Sam just missed out by 43 votes. Overall, as the Socialist commented, “The Socialist Party scored two brilliant victories in the local elections in England. Dave Nellist and Ian Page were both re-elected as councillors, Dave in Coventry and Ian in Lewisham.”5 In Coventry, the party had contested eight out of eighteen wards and received 14.9% of the votes cast in those wards. There were also remarkable achievements for other candidates who were not elected but got significant results. Eighteen months later, Chris Flood was elected in a by-election in Telegraph Hill Ward in Lewisham, before which he had declared: “There’s a lot of disillusionment amongst Labour’s former voters, over the war with Iraq and the occupation that has followed it, and on subjects such as education and housing.”6 Additionally, Karen McKay scored an excellent victory in St Michaels Ward in 2003, and it was telling given the fact that Labour lost five seats, despite the big teams they had out in an attempt to stop her election!

Labour increasingly at local level resorted to the same lying methods as the bourgeois parties in election campaigns. If you embrace capitalist politics, then you then adopt the same campaigning methods of lies and deception that goes with them, summed up by New Labour’s use of ‘spin doctors’ – a fancy name for gutter politics à la the Sun! In shameful leaflets, Labour claimed that the Socialist Party “supported terrorism”. This was because we were opposed to the curtailing of democratic rights under the draconian Terrorist Act and,  bizarrely, we supported the “evil regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe”, which we have always opposed!

While council elections are not usually history-making, the results in 2002, 2003 and particularly the by-election in which Chris Flood was elected, were pointers to what was possible. For the first time ever, no Labour representation existed in Telegraph Hill Ward. The opposition had gone to the left and not, for example, to the Lib Dems. Moreover, it was only by the Socialist Party immersing itself in local campaigns, particularly in relation to a new school, that it was possible to forge an alliance and therefore an electoral agreement with activists involved in this campaign. It would have been wrong for socialists to have stepped down but the leaders of the new school campaign turned down our offer of a joint candidate and, partially under the influence of local SWP members, argued that the socialist candidate was less likely to win. This left us with no alternative but to contest alone with a friendly approach to the campaign.

Chris Flood joined seven other elected SP councillors nationally. This showed that an election challenge by a new party in the ‘first past the post’ system could result in success, although subsequent events demonstrated that it was no easy task to put together an effective alliance of the left to contest elections. Individual and therefore isolated contests in general council elections were not sufficient. Based on these experiences, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), formed in 2010, concluded that it was necessary to seek to stand in most if not all of the wards in a local authority. This was put to the test in 2014 and 2015 local and general elections in England.

These successes stimulated the discussion and the search for how to begin to create the basis of a new party in the situation in which New Labour was becoming increasingly discredited on the Iraq war abroad and on the war at home by the Blair government against the working class and the poor. This was undoubtedly a major theme in and around the build-up to the historic 15 February march of the millions against the drumbeat of war. We commented at the time:

“February 15 was a day when the world was on the march, when it was turned upside down, when the ‘dissenting minority’ became the majority. The Bush junta, the Blair cabal, the crooked circle of Berlusconi, and the rotten court camarilla of Aznar, cowered in their bunkers… One thing is clear: such numbers could not come out onto the streets without the latent colossal support of the mass of the population behind them. Aznar’s argument that the ‘silent majority’ were opposed to the demonstrators is like a multi-storey building resting on flea’s legs!”

The demonstrations in Britain and worldwide indicated that the mass of the people believed that they must act themselves because bourgeois leaders and their parties in all their hues and disguises could not and would not prevent the world from sliding into war and the suffering, degradation and poverty that war brought, the consequences of which are with us today. It was clear to us that the mood behind the demonstration would not die down, but represented the political reawakening of a generation characterised by generosity, even the naivety, which characterises the ‘spring’ of all mass movements. The question was how could this be sustained? There was a huge vacuum to the left. The list of betrayals and broken pledges of New Labour was endless. On the issue of top-up student tuition fees, a ‘mainstream’ Labour MP Eric Guisley declared in the Commons: “This is a betrayal of working people in my constituency. It will be the equivalent of taking out an extra mortgage and it will mean university is not for people like my family.” We commented: “If the children of MPs are denied a chance at university, what hopes are there for the working class?”

Additionally, the vicious attitude adopted towards the firefighters at this stage was bringing to a head the discontent with the government. John Prescott’s threat to bring back the 1947 Fire Services Act earned him a stinging rebuke from the Daily Mirror, which characterised him as “a working-class zero”. Its political editor, Paul Routledge, who had sung his praises in the past, wrote bitterly: “John Prescott is a child of the unions. He was educated by his union; sent to Ruskin College, Oxford, by his union – the National Union of Seamen. He got to parliament as a union man. He lived in a union flat.” This sense of betrayal by Labour-inclined journalists was powerful, but it was nothing compared to how the working class as a whole felt. Routledge furiously added: “The Labour Party is finished.” We replied: “Not quite yet, Paul, we would add but the forces that could significantly break the influence of bourgeoisified New Labour over the British working class and the organised trade union movement are rapidly maturing.”

Labour Party membership was collapsing and, officially at 180,000, only half the number when Blair assumed the leadership. Labour was also at its lowest point in polls since the fuel protests of September 2000 and on a par with Labour support in the 1992 general election, which it lost. In reality, bitter anger existed in Britain and the world that could find no political expression. The anti-war movement provided such an outlet but this required a political alternative.

Even John Monks, the right-wing TUC general secretary, in the pocket of New Labour, warned: “It was virtually impossible for anyone [at that stage] to win a union contest standing on a Blairite ticket”. The election of the so-called ‘awkward squad’: Mick Rix and Bob Crow in the rail workers’ unions, Mark Serwotka in PCS, Andy Gilchrist in the Fire Brigades Union and Derek Simpson in Amicus all signified the rank-and-file revolt against New Labour stooges in the unions. We predicted that “the TGWU is likely to join the growing ‘awkward squad’ with the prospect of Tony Woodley winning the general secretary’s election to replace the discredited [Bill] Morris.” We nevertheless added: “General Secretaries (in the aforementioned unions) have raised the need for change, some of them suggesting or hinting at an alternative outside the Labour Party. However, their public statements have indicated a certain inconsistency.”7 In the FBU for instance, probably 80% had already contracted out of the political levy paid to the Labour Party or intended to.