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This is the third in a series of four posts I wrote in May after the European and local elections then, which I'm posting now as they seem to be still relevant after our spate of by-elections. The first looked at UKIP, the second at the rest of London's electoral landscape from the Lib Dems to the Greens. This post focuses on the left. I probably should have included the Greens in this post rather than the last one, as they are to the left of Labour on most issues even if not part of the historical tradition of the left; this was just the order in which I wrote the sections. Paragraphs in italics at the end of each section were written today, in November 2014.
The results of the more explicitly left of Labour alternatives have been frankly embarrassing. Despite a couple of impressive exceptions (Southampton, Coventry), the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and the Eurosceptic dinosaurs of No2EU barely left the starting blocks, beaten even by a dead-on-its-feet BNP. The endlessly triumphalist reality-blind idiots of the Leninist sects behind these electoral parties might claim otherwise, but the sad fact is that explicitly socialist politics has almost zero electoral appeal.
The slight exceptions are instructive. In Lewisham, for example, People Before Profit performed respectably in Telegraph Hill and New Cross and the TUSC candidate (Chris Flood) who had previously served as a councillor performed respectably in Telegraph Hill. As I noted in comments, these were candidates with a local track record standing in local elections on very bread-and-butter local issues. Similarly, Keith Morrell in Southampton and Dave Nellist in Coventry had track records as councillors.
My inference from this is that, in the short to medium term at least, the left-of-Labour left is far better off investing its energy in campaigns on very specific bread-and-butter issues – especially around cuts to public services, such as hospital closures – than in electoral activity. This might mean sacrificing ideological purity for coalitions and alliances, in particular with Labour Party supporters. (This might mean that the People’s Assembly approach to re-building left politics (joining up existing struggles against austerity) is a far better bet than the Left Unity approach (the creation of a new party).
Since I wrote the above, People Before Profit got 69 votes in the Rochester and Strood by election - behind the Monster Raving Loony Party but thankfully ahead of any of the fascist parties. My patience with them had diminished in the summer when one of their figureheads tweeted stuff about a Jewish lobby controlling the media and more recently when they had a friendly social media exchange with a Hitler fan on the Bilderberg conspiracy. The fact that the group had no local roots in the constituency was presumably a bigger factor in their low vote than their dabbling with antisemitic memes.
As for Left Unity, they have made uneven progress. They had their conference a week or so back. I like the strong commitment to transparency and democracy that characterises Left Unity, but it also opens them up to the various Trotskyite and Stalinist sects using it as a playroom, which is pretty off-putting for anyone else who might potentially be engaged by the left. Among endless motions using the arcane jargon of the Third International, one stood out: praising the murderous scum of ISIS as "having progressive potential" from an allegedly "anti-imperialist" perspective. Mercifully, only four people seem to have voted for the motion (and it's not clear that all of them realised which motion they were voting for), but the fact it could even be discussed shows how badly the left needs saving from itself.
The one exception to the English far left’s electoral failure in the last decade or so has been Respect. But Respect is an exception in too many ways to make a difference to the argument I’ve just made. For a start, Respect’s apparent political radicalism is barely skin-deep and its electoral advances have been built partly on the now-dwindling personal celebrity of the Nigel Farage of the left George Galloway.
But the much more important factor has been mobilising (often mosque-based) machine politics in relatively ethnically homogeneous South Asian communities. As there are very few local authorities or constituencies in the UK were this kind of vote can make a difference numerically, the Respect strategy is not one that can be scaled up.
It is also a fragile strategy, because it promotes a Boardwalk Empire style political culture that is so cannibalistic that it consumes its activist base faster than it can regenerate, and this cycle has already played itself out in Bradford, where Respect’s councillors had all deserted by election time and a swing back to Labour has seen its remaining candidates' fortunes collapse.
However, it is depressing to see that the Respect model has clung on in Tower Hamlets, the UK’s equivalent of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, where the Muslim Brotherhood/Jamaat-e-Islam network around the East London Mosque and Islamic Forum Europe (not afraid to use polling station intimidation and other corrupt practices) was able to out-mobilise rival secular Awami League-linked Bangladeshi networks loyal to Labour and keep Lutfur Rahman in power.
Since I wrote this, the mounting allegations against the ruling junta in Tower Hamlets led to the central government imposing commissioners to oversee the running of the council while a full investigation into various apparent malpractices unfold. The story is too complex for me to describe here, and is best followed on Ted Jeory's excellent blog, starting here.
Or maybe it's time for a different approach....
Next: the Jewish vote.