Where Now For The Left?
by Solidarity National Secretary – Graeme McIver
If ever there was a wake up call for the left it came in the early hours of the morning on Monday 8th June when Nick Griffin mounted the podium at the North West regional count in Manchester City Hall. The BNP leader basked in the glory that had seen himself and fellow racist Andrew Brons elected to the European Parliament.
In the early 90’s the left and anti-fascists had mobilised to stop the growth of the BNP following the election of Derek Beacon as a councilor in the Isle of Dogs. Yet some 15 years later the BNP have 2 MEP’s, almost 1 million votes across the UK, as much publicity as they want and millions of pounds of resources at their disposal over the next 5 years. Whilst Labour may have faced electoral losses at the polls last week it is communities up and down the country where the BNP spread their poison that will be the real losers. Figures show that wherever they are successful you see a rise in racist attacks and in community tensions.
We on the left have to accept that we have lost a battle in our bid to halt the rise of the BNP and have to learn some important lessons (and quickly) if we are to avoid losing the war.
At the time of the activity to stop the BNP following Beacon’s election the Labour party was experiencing a rise in support and membership as it headed for success at the 1997 General Election. A campaign to urge voters to vote for anybody but the BNP would often logically lead to arguing for votes for New Labour who, despite their drift to the right were still seen as a party who broadly represented the needs and aspirations of working class communities. Yet in 2009 to go into places that historically were Labour heartlands like Barnsley, Burnley and Oldham and advocate a vote for Labour would be treated with derision by working class people who feel abandoned by Labour and the other parties. Channel 4 this week reported on the findings of a YouGov poll that interviewed over 1,000 BNP voters. They reported;
“Yet, depending on how the term “racist” is precisely defined, our survey suggests that the label applies to only around a half of BNP voters. On their own, these votes would not have been enough to give the BNP either of the seats they won last night. There are two telling pieces of evidence that suggest wider causes of disenchantment. Seven out of 10 BNP voters (and almost as many Green and Ukip voters) think that “there is no real difference these between Britain’s three main parties”.
But perhaps the most startling finding came when we tested anecdotal reports that many BNP voters were old Labour sympathisers who felt that the party no longer speaks up for them. It turns out to be true. As many as 59 per cent of BNP voters think that Labour “used to care about the concerns of people like me but doesn’t nowadays”.
What is more worrying for Labour is that this sentiment is shared by millions of voters, way beyond the ranks of BNP voters. Overall, 63 per cent of the British public think Labour used to care about their concerns – and only 19 per cent think it does today.”
The BNP has occupied ground abandoned by the New Labour project. It is their failure to properly represent the needs and aspirations of what used to be Labour’s core vote that has seen the far right elected and Labour’s national share of the vote fall to under 16%. This sense of abandonment, allied to the greed and corruption displayed by many politicians during the expenses scandal in particular has also seen a sharp rise in the numbers of people abstaining in this and all other elections.
Whilst this trend gives us much cause for concern it also gives an insight into why a united left challenge in elections, involving all the different sections of the left, trade unionists, greens, other environmentalists and progressives could be successful. It would also provide a concrete option to propose to voters who refuse to vote Labour as a viable alternative to the BNP.
It is right that we challenge the growth of the BNP but we should not be obsessive as seeing combating them as our only strategy in the period ahead. We can best undermine the politics of racism, division and hate by promoting a different kind of agenda by concentrating on economic issues and socialist policies that can rejuvenate communities and pose a real alternative to the failures of capitalism. We can prove in action and deed that socialists active in their communities, united with others can offer a solution to the hopelessness and betrayal that drives people to either vote BNP or not vote at all.
Here in Scotland we are not faced with an imminent far right threat. Whilst we must remain vigilant we also must keep the levels of support for the BNP in perspective. The real battles ahead will come when the governments at Westminster and Holyrood increase their attacks on the public sector, public services and working class people in order to pay for the crisis in capitalism. This will see sharp increases in unemployment, attacks on standards of living, on wages and conditions and on the trade union movement.
In order to best resist these attacks then the left has a duty to seek ways in which we can work together.
This does not mean that we must immediately all rush to join a new party of the left here in Scotland. It is clear that there are deep divisions that cannot be healed in the short term. Given that a court case has still to take place it is folly to suggest that at this time the SSP and Solidarity can set aside differences and once again unite into the one party. However, there is absolutely no reason that we cannot discuss, along with the SLP, environmentalists and other progressive forces ways in which we ensure we do not stand against each other in elections. There is no reason where good relations exist between socialist activists locally that they cannot work and campaign together whilst remaining members of their own organisation.
More than that we can examine the possibility of uniting behind candidates that may be acceptable to all the different groups on the left whether they be a trade unionist, a community activist or a well known local campaigner. There are initiatives like the various charters that have been pulled together that we could unite behind creating a minimal programme that we can all agree on and support whilst retaining our individual identities and groupings.
The last NSC Management Committee instructed me to write to some trade union leaders in Scotland asking them to broker a meeting where all the different groups could come together and at least discuss the possibility of unity behind a candidate at the Glasgow North East by-election caused by the resignation of Michael Martin.
In that e-mail I said;
“We (in Solidarity) believe that this by-election offers an unrivaled opportunity for the left to try and put aside differences and unify in a temporary electoral pact or coalition. This will not be an easy task. It will require negotiation and compromise by all involved. There are deep divisions amongst groups on the left that make this kind of joint working difficult. Never the less, we believe we have a duty to working class communities like Glasgow North East to put aside those differences.
If the call for such unity was to come from either ourselves or one of the various parties of the left in Scotland then there is the likelihood that it would be treated with suspicion and be rejected by the others.
If however the call came from respected trade unionist then there is a much greater chance of the initiative succeeding.”
Our NSC will have to discuss this issue as a matter or urgency.
At the forthcoming General Election it is unlikely that any group would be in a position to seriously hope to win a seat. Therefore it should be perfectly reasonable to assume that agreements could be reached to ensure that only one left wing/socialist or progressive candidate is standing in any one seat. At the Scottish Elections this may prove more problematic on the list system. However given that election is still a few years away then a lot can happen before then.
This approach requires cool heads and a willingness to compromise for the good of the class. If the different groups go off and reach the conclusion that their party or sect or organisation provides the one true way forward then any initiative is doomed to failure.
We must look seriously at the failures of the left, even in this time of economic crisis to make any kinds of inroads. We in Solidarity were genuinely hopeful that No2EU could provide a unified left challenge at the Euro elections however that was not the case and we have to learn lessons from that experience.
As outlined above No2EU polled less than 1% in Scotland. The SLP, polled only 2% technically making them the largest of the socialist parties. However, despite having a handful of no doubt dedicated individuals they have absolutely no activist base in Scotland. Any name that includes both the terms “Socialist” and “Labour” means that despite lack of members, no profile and virtually no activity they will always pick up a residual left wing vote. In previous elections that has been enough to deprive the then unified SSP seats in areas like Fife. (2003 Scottish Elections.)
It is to be hoped that the SLP leadership do not draw the wrong conclusions from the results either last week or at the previous election in the Glasgow North East constituency. In the absence of the Labour party name on the ballot paper (it was the “speakers” constituency) the SLP polled a large number of votes that clearly were mistakenly meant for New Labour. The SLP enjoyed no similare success anywhere else during that election and could not even find a candidate from the city of Glasgow.
Despite having at least some activist base, more media coverage than all of the other small parties and continuity of a name that previously had been successful, the SSP polled less that 1% of the vote last week. This is a poor result for the party that cannot be explained away by constantly and simply blaming Solidarity and the split for the position they find themselves in.
Yet there were signs of what could be achieved by the left during last weeks poll. In Ireland we saw the fantastic election of Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party who received 13% of first preference votes whilst the People Before Profit coalition was successful in getting 5 councillors elected in the same country. Joe Higgins has proved that by having an outstanding record of fighting on behalf of his class and concentrating on issues that are relevant to people and putting forward socialist arguments success can be achieved.
We owe it to the working class of Scotland to make sure that we are seen to be trying to work with others to provide a coherent and viable socialist alternative to the chaos caused by capitalism. A by-election in Glasgow North East constituency would provide a perfect platform for a united left candidate, backed by trade unionists, the SLP, the SSP, Solidarity, left Greens and other progressive forces to unite on a minimal broad left programme and present the electorate with a clear left choice.