For the May Day issue of The Project I was asked to write some reflections on the 2015 elections as the campaign unfolded in March and April. This, of course, implied an unspoken duty of some sort of prediction. At the end of April in conclusion to my piece I wrote:
“My instincts tell me that the neck and neck of the polls is hiding the shy Tory vote worth about two or three per cent. My real fear is that as the day draws near the shy and the soft UKIP, and most of the undecided, will find a home with Cameron and they and a reduced Liberal Democrats will govern for another five years. Bizarrely, the possibility of a Labour government now rests on UKIP doing well in all the right places.” As we know, UKIP did well, but in all the wrong places.
It may not feel like it, but the 2015 general election witnessed the continued decline in support for the Conservative Party. Cameron holds the prize for being the Conservative leader who won a majority of seats with the lowest share of the popular vote in British electoral history.
It continues a long decline in the Conservative Party from its peak of 55 per cent in 1931 to 36.9 per cent in 2015. It seems the truth of this election is that Cameron achieved what was beyond Miliband – he mobilised the Conservative core vote with a combination of tax breaks, nuanced Euroscepticism, an offer of another tax-payer funded social housing sell off and a sub-English nationalist resistance to Scottish irredentism. Their targeting of core sections of the vote combined with the constant reiteration of Labour’s economic incompetence got the Tories over the line.
Probably like everyone else who reads The Project I felt terrible on May 8th – as terrible as I felt on April 9th 1992 when Major won the last Tory majority, defeating a man who had hung the miners out to dry and shouted ‘Well alright!’ down a microphone at a rally in Sheffield. While Miliband was more carefully managed than Kinnock in 1992, no one could stop the trip off the stage after the final televised interrogation by an unsettled audience, nor the ever present sublimated feeling that Ed was simply not up to the job.
Labour’s loss was not about the failings of one person, his lack of presence and authority, underlined by his shuttle diplomacy to Russell Brand’s home for a job interview. It was resonant of a wider problem: Miliband epitomised the weakness of the post-Blairite Labour vision: fairness, niceness, let’s make things a bit better and construct ‘an offer’ that distinguishes us from the Conservatives – but not too radical. The idea that this approach had a hope of mobilising Labour’s core vote sufficiently to win a majority was almost delusional. As Blair himself would have surmised, no convincing narrative emerged from the Labour camp.
When Bob Crow died the quote that people most often remembered him by was “If you fight you may lose, if you don’t fight you will lose.” In the generation since 1997 Labour moved further and further to the right and lost four million voters on the way. Having failed to repair the damage done by Thatcher’s assault on its industrial heartlands, in the hope of winning the ‘centre ground’, Labour paid the ultimate price of seeing a chunk of its core vote hacked off by nationalists north and south of the border who had distinct messages for that section of the working class who knew that Labour had long since abandoned them.
The socialist left has been unable to occupy the space that Labour abandoned despite several different attempts at trying to configure electoral vehicles. Perhaps the most successful attempt, that of the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party in 2001, garnered over 130,000 votes. If one adds in the then still resonant ‘party of Arthur Scargill’, the Socialist Labour Party, to the total then the figure comes to over 187,000 from 284 candidates during the pomp of Blairism.
In 2015, TUSC, because it put up the biggest national challenge since the Second World War, won 36,327 votes; at the other end of the socialist electoral challenge, Left Unity, which could muster just three candidates under its own flag, scored 445 across the country. All told, across Britain in May 2015, discernibly socialist and communist candidates totalled 44,606 votes from 173 candidates.
It might have been imagined that after 2001, and following a period of illegal war and a capitalist crisis not seen since the 1920s, the socialist left might have made further inroads and built a movement or a party that could carve out a distinctive space for socialist ideas in national political life – instead we have spent a decade shooting each other in the foot, while the right has regrouped and almost cleared us from the field.
Once the shock of the election results had worn off some socialist publications engaged in the now ritual finger-pointing, others suggested there were some good votes in the circumstances, and some, clearly deflated, sounded almost defeated by the verdict of the working class. From whatever angle the election figures are analysed it is evident that socialists face not just a problem of the conjuncture but a crisis of historic proportions.
There is a long view that suggests that the decline of the Labour Party is simply being accompanied by the decline of socialist ideology and those organisations that claim to represent it. A five year period from the crushing of the miners’ strike in 1985, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the varied hopes and imaginations it embodied, and the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990 opened a period of disintegration that the socialists have yet to recover from.
Today, every socialist organisation in Britain is a shadow of its former self and the question has to be asked whether these forms of organisation are now acting as an effective barrier to the socialist recomposition that is needed if we are to marshal ourselves effectively and build a socialist intervention into society anew. The preservation of hard-fought for organisational gains by very small Marxist groups in the period of reaction the working class faces is a form of distant mimicry of 1917 that serves no purpose except to fritter scarce resources.
Elections, general or otherwise, are but moments in the class struggle. What the 2015 results reveal is the fundamental lack of organisation and embedding of socialist campaigns within working class communities and labour organisations – despite the calamity of austerity. Two decades of hoping that a combination of left trade unions, or trade union leaders, would form the basis of a new party, or that dressing in the clothes of the anti-war movement might do the trick, or even wishing that Arthur, or George or Ken might catalyse a regroupment have come to very little. Meanwhile the recognition of socialist ideas in working class communities has begun to slowly wither without a national presence to reflect it.
This is not to say that all is lost. The 81,000 plus votes that TUSC received in the local elections in May 2015 indicate that by standing widely it is possible to build a base of support, but crucially this can only be properly catalysed into a critical mass if consistent socialist campaigning by TUSC as a party takes places between elections and the coalition begins to take the necessary steps to transform itself into a party – either as TUSC or, in collaboration with others, some other broader socialist formation, that opens its doors to the tens of thousands of people who still recognise the ideas of socialism and will campaign for them.
Socialists have to fight for leadership both at the front line, against every library or swimming pool closure, every bedroom tax eviction, and in workplaces up and down the country, but it is also essential to develop a national project that the most militant sections of the working class can have confidence in and might in the end think ‘this is our home’. The presentation of multiple slates in the upcoming elections, particularly in the Greater London Assembly elections, will probably be treated by the working class with the contempt that it deserves. Who would blame the class for once again resorting to the now shredded shield of Labour?
There is no good argument for Left Unity and TUSC not forming a common electoral front. TUSC has indicated in the past that it is prepared to discuss coalition ideas from Left Unity that go beyond Left Unity simply becoming a federated organisation of TUSC (which is clearly not going to happen because of the distrust in which the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party are held by many following the debacles of the Socialist Alliance and Respect). Given that TUSC and Left Unity are socialist organisations that argue for a broad party that draws into its orbit others fighting the impact of capitalist austerity, it cannot be beyond the wit of both to come up with a common set of demands that reflect the essential interests of the working class; in addition, it is now clear that the complication of a European referendum will not be present in May 2016 to muddy the waters.
There is a common pool of activists and campaigns for socialists to form an alliance within London. The potential of a united socialist slate in coalition with, for example, anti-cuts campaigners, those defending migrant rights, those campaigning for the building of council housing, others defending the NHS and education from further privatisation, many who feel that Labour has given up the fight, presents a real possibility of announcing a socialist campaign that resonates with the many different hues of the working class interest in London. The necessity is to see and respond to the broader picture rather than simply to walk away from what is possible in the name of single party interest.