A week into the general elections with the none event head-to-head between Cameron and Miliband and the seven-way tag debate over, the whole thing was in full swing. Everybody agrees that the minor parties benefitted. My sister says she thought their appearance just made it more entertaining to watch.
I saw Miliband staring oddly into the camera, Cameron with a sweaty top lip trying to appear ‘above the fray’ but appearing shifty, Natalie Bennett stiffly reeling off statistics to show competence and the rat Nigel Farage wanting to ensure foreigners with HIV die. The nationalists, posing as left nationalists. The Daily Mail discussed Leanne Wood with reference to Gavin and Stacey and Michael Gove described the three women leaders as ‘debutantes’…
I am left wondering how many people are actually reached by the debates…7 million tuned in at some point to the leaders’ debate but how many of the unmoved 30 per cent who do not vote, many because they see no party to vote for, even knew the debate was on and if they did, cared about it? How many of Labour’s lost 3 million voters would have been moved to vote for Miliband on that showing?
The Labour Party’s immigration controls mug has had a mixed reception. I can feel another few thousand leaving in disgust and another few thousand joining in approval – this is how, slowly over time, the physiology of a mass party changes. In my constituency neither Labour nor Tories mention immigration in their first mail shot.
My personal final straw was the cuts to lone-parent benefit in 1997 – but others, for understandable reasons, had different ‘red lines’. The only question in my mind is whether the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition has the structure to gather some of them in – it has a certain reach.
For sure, Left Unity has the membership structure but having stood less than a dozen candidates and with no TV broadcast it has almost no reach – an opportunity missed – although the Ken Loach factor brings welcome TV coverage for the Left Unity election launch from a squat. The fact that so many Left Unity candidates are standing on a joint slate with TUSC is also a real step forward.
The election campaign grinds on, there is another TV debate sandwiched by a week of fake arguments over the economy with the three main parties are arguing over how much they will attack living standards and the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens avoiding mentioning they would do the same by claiming to be ‘anti-austerity’. The weird configuration of the argument leaves Labour attacking the Tories for cutting front line police numbers with the Tories offering to improve the lives of the working class by taking those on the minimum wage out of tax altogether. The Sunday Times editorial carries the headline ‘The Conservatives: the workers party’.
The week finishes with the TUSC party election broadcast, which does a good impression of a working class party wanting to speak to working class people by using numerous talking heads who are quite clearly people from working class backgrounds and represent the diversity of the working class in Britain.
Foreign policy briefly appears on the radar. Do we or do we not want to spend £100 billion on a replacement of the trident missile system? Are we or are we not going to spend two per cent on ‘defence’ (perhaps it is time to revert to the 19th century description ‘Ministry of War’?). There are oblique mentions of the wars that are currently raging across three continents but no real discussion. Labour backs the Trident replacement. Left Unity should be making some running here; its party leader, Kate Hudson, is the General Secretary of CND. A press release is issued but if you are only running a handful of candidates then the press will not take much notice.
In the second debate Miliband highlights the manifesto ‘offer’ of stopping migrants having access to welfare benefits for two years, then the Labour press office puts out an attack ad saying Cameron wont debate Miliband because he doesn’t want to discuss the number of ‘foreign criminals’ the Tories have let into Britain. What, with the mug and the attack ads the Labour campaign is now starting to make me feel queasy.
Whatever algebra is used to calibrate Labour’s relations to the trade unions and the working class it must be very difficult for the dwindling number of socialists in the Labour Party to go door to door with this stuff pouring out of headquarters…or perhaps they are getting a good reception and they are thinking once we are elected Len McCluskey from Unite will pull the party to the left – perhaps less of an illusion than thinking he might lead the formation of a new party.
I wake up to the news that at least 750 migrants have drowned in a capsized boat in the Med…now this should be an election issue; Labour, grimly battling with UKIP in constituencies it once took for granted, will not say anything too risky. So having committed itself to tougher immigration controls for those now at the bottom of the Med it attacks Cameron for a foreign policy failure in Libya.
So this election is different. Both Labour and Tories have to actively contend with challenges to both their left and right so it changes the shape of the debate. Yet apart from the minimal commitments on ‘exploitative’ zero hours contracts and a minimum wage of £8 to be delivered in five years, Labour does not have much to offer the poorest sections of the working class. There can be little wonder then at the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland – the SNP may be no different to Labour in quality but appears to too many workers to present a better dented shield with which to confront the next wave of austerity emanating from Westminster.
Up and down the country over 750 general and local election candidates registered for TUSC and the handful of Left Unity candidates are getting a clear socialist message out. TUSC in particular is getting mentions across a broad range of media outlets including The Guardian, the BBC, ITV, even the London Review of Books. As important, a search of a media database shows that TUSC candidates in particular are appearing in local papers up and down the country. My Twitter feed is stuffed full of pictures of street stalls covered in TUSC branding. This is beginning to look like a small national party on the move. It is easy to live in a bubble though. The only question is, once the vote is over how many new local TUSC branches will be built out of all this hard work?
The NHS comes into view as Labour tries to rework the ‘24 hours to save the NHS’ theme; it quickly drops out of view as the Tories wheel out soapbox Major to draw a nightmare picture of the SNP holding the country to ransom.
South and North of the border illusions in Sturgeon and the SNP grow. I have awkward Facebook exchanges with friends who want to get rid of Trident and would vote SNP if they could; I point out that the SNP is a pro-monarchy, corporation tax cutting party that has homophobe Brian Souter as one of its major funders, the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis explaining that the SNP will make cuts but it is hiding it from the voters, and that the SNP also wants Scotland in NATO but does not want NATO nuclear submarines in Scottish waters – they want to target but not be a target: not very Braveheart. While I can understand those who want progressive change and view parties through the prism of the media thinking the SNP is a good thing, I cannot fathom why some experienced campaigning socialists have joined this bandwagon.
With just over two weeks to go psephologists tell us that Labour and the Tories are neck and neck at 34 per cent, the SNP will virtually wipe-out Labour in Scotland and the Tories will annihilate the Lib Dems in the South West. The Greens bundle along on 5 per-cent-ish with UK at 13 per cent (down from 18 in October) but their vote is too spread and Farage may not get elected.
Despite cursing myself, the extra-Labour party socialist left and anyone else who comes to mind, about how was it that we have taken a generation since the emergence of new Labour to get this far, the hundreds of responses that have come in via e-mail to TUSC appearing on the media is encouraging. They are from all over the country. One says in the comment box ‘At last a party I can believe in’ another says ‘I was going to vote UKIP until I saw your broadcast – you really do speak for me’.
I start imagining what could be achieved if we could find a way to develop a united mass socialist party that expressed the breadth of interest of the working class…a broad socialist party…while I know this is possible I wonder at its probability. Both Left Unity and TUSC will have to show courage if we are to break through the log jam. So I am pleased the joint meeting in Edinburgh from the Scottish Socialist Party, Left Unity and TUSC candidates covering the three constituencies in the city.
Also encouraging is the appearance of TUSC on the BBC election website as one of the main parties that voters might be interested. Then Ed Potts, the Left Unity/TUSC candidate goes into the local newspaper hustings in Exeter with 6 out of 180 voting for him in a straw poll and comes out at the end with more than half of the votes after debating Ben Bradshaw. The idea of socialism is clearly not the problem.
Then the TUSC election broadcast appears on Gogglebox with a positive inflection. Pensioner Leon, the Old Labour Everton fan who hates Farage, thinks people might vote for an anti-establishment alternative; Sandy from Lambeth says TUSC is the party for her. Some people ask what is a worker’s wage?..good question, and Scarlett from the north-east, who can be very dim and very perceptive in equal measure, says TUSC sound like a load of moaners.
This is the power of television at work and shows what is possible if you take a chance. For me the broadcast reached the people TUSC wanted to reach this time round and the makers did a very good job, but Scarlett had a point…next time we need more of the vision thing.
With less than two weeks to go Labour starts building a big tent. On the one hand announcing that it will cap private rent rises to the inflation rate, a left slant, on the other, Labour rejects the idea of a confidence and supply deal with the union smashing SNP and Chuka Ummuna, the shadow business secretary, indicates a Labour government will invite Heseltine into the big tent because he is was an ‘inspirational’ figure. No Chuka, he is an enemy of working class people – have you forgotten the miners strike? Chuka probably does not even remember it as he was aged six when it began. What is clever camping in the middle ground for some is simply confusing and demotivating for others.
The second leaflet from Labour and the Tories come into my letter box today…no mention of immigration again but Miliband goes to Cardiff to hang tough on immigration – his use of Americanisms is beginning to grate, following the ‘hell yeah’ moment he is now talking about ‘hard yards’. I wonder who his favourite soccer franchise is? Miliband guarantees that a Labour government would set out plans for tougher immigration controls within 100 days of power.
Russell Brand interviews Miliband on his internet TV channel – The Trews. It has to be said that starting from a low base Miliband cuts a better figure these days but none of this will be enough for Labour. 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 expected, despite hard campaigning , TUSC will do well in one or two areas but get low votes overall – between 1 and 1.5 per cent or over 100,000 votes, but as my partner Sue says to me, it is not the votes that count, although the more the better, but whether TUSC and Left Unity can join with others to build a new party out of the supporters we have engaged with this time round. A very good point I reflect on as the polling day nears.