Britain - The May 4th election and the revolutionary Left

May-Jun 2000

Blair, his policies and his Labour government have come out of this year's local elections with an even bloodier nose than most pro-Labour commentators had feared.

As it turns out, Brown's hot air and fairy tales about billions being lavished on the NHS, education and other public services, have been completely lost on a sizeable section of Labour's electorate. Far from regaining the hearts and minds of its traditional voters, the Labour government's posturing has only given more working class people the feeling that they were being conned, while providing the Tories with arguments to get their electorate to close ranks around their candidates. As has always been the case with past Labour governments, Blair's austerity policies are helping the Tories to rebuild their credibility and electoral support, thereby probably paving the way for their return to power sooner rather than later.

The abstentionist trend of the past few years - since Labour came back into office - remains unabated. Overall the turnout was a dismal 29%, the same level as in 1998 and 1999, and down 6% on 1996, the last time the same seats were contested. Even in London, the elections of the new Greater London Assembly (GLA) and mayor, which were supposed to revive interest in local elections, only managed to raise the turnout to 2% above the national average. And just as in the past two elections, the areas most affected by this low turnout were the traditional working class Labour strongholds which are at the receiving end of Blair's anti-working class policies.

In terms of seats, the pendulum is now more or less back to where it was in 1996, with a slight advantage to the Tories who gain 593 seats compared to the 567 they had lost in 1996. And once again, just as in the last two local elections, Labour's most spectacular losses are concentrated in urban strongholds such as Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Coventry.

London was no exception in the catalogue of Tory success - or rather Labour failure - even though, in this case, there are no previous election figures that can be used for comparison. Of course, the Labour machinery now argues that if its candidate Frank Dobson came third in the mayoral election, far behind the Tories' Steve Norris, this was due to Ken Livingstone's "wild card" independent candidacy, which took over a large section of the Labour electorate. That may be so, but was it the only reason?

Indeed, why then was the total vote for Labour's GLA constituency candidates also lower than the vote for the Tories? After all, in these constituencies, the only candidates supported by Livingstone were Labour's own! So there must have been another reason for Labour's failure to top the poll, which may well be found in the fact that, despite Livingstone's voting instructions, 64% of his votes in the mayoral election do not seem to have benefited Labour's candidates in the GLA constituencies. And this means that even without Livingstone standing as an independent, Dobson might have found it very difficult to beat Norris in the mayoral election, if he could have at all.

Livingstone's balancing act

Of course, the most media-hyped aspect of these elections was Ken Livingstone's election as mayor of London, even though, contrary to the predictions of most opinion polls over the past two months, his victory was far from sweeping - with only 39% on first preference votes and 58% after the second preference vote was added.

According to the voting figures it would seem that Livingstone managed to capture the support of slightly over half of London's present Labour voters. At the same time he seems to have succeeded in bringing back to the ballot box a number of voters - many of them probably former Labour supporters - who had stopped voting over the past two years. However this number remained small - no more than 2% or 3% of the registered electorate - and certainly far smaller than he had hoped for himself, judging from his past statements.

But Livingstone's support went well beyond current or former Labour party voters as can be deduced from the differences between the voting patterns in the mayoral election and the GLA constituency elections. It would indeed appear that while roughly 36% of Livingstone's 667,877 votes went to Labour constituency candidates, 17% went to the Greens, 11% to the Liberal- Democrats, while 15 to 19% abstained, a few percent probably voted for the Tories and, of course, 2% or so to the Left.

As his election campaign showed, this broad political spectrum was exactly what Livingstone was aiming at. Indeed, having kick- started his campaign as a "victim" of the Millbank machinery, he went on to present himself not just as an independent candidate, but as a politician who stood above the parties and was determined to put aside party politics in the administration of London. This image went down rather well with a section of the electorate which is - and quite understandably so - sick and tired of the constant bickering between the three main parties, while nothing gets done on the ground to improve living conditions.

But this non-party image was also designed to appeal to the individualism and general hostility to politics which has become fashionable among a section of the middle class. At the same time it was intended as a useful counter-weight to his ill-deserved reputation as a "radical", dating back to the days of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, which was certainly not an advantage among the middle-class voters and City circles he was wooing.

In fact, going through Livingstone's lengthy election manifesto, it was impossible to find any trace of this alleged radicalism. It did contain lengthy considerations on the environment, obviously designed to back up his alliance with the Greens and his call to vote for their top-up list in the GLA assembly election. But it also contained just as many references to "partnership with business" that can be found in any of Blair's conference speeches, not to mention a pledge to "work with the Corporation of London and major City institutions to ensure London remains the financial capital of Europe".

To be sure Livingstone's manifesto was pretended to address the preoccupations of ordinary working people. So of course, it raised the issue of public transport, the flagship of Livingstone's campaign for mayor right from day one. On this, admittedly, Livingstone has stuck to his guns. He has kept arguing against any form of privatisation of the tube, total or partial, as well as in favour of a four-year freeze of transport fares. However, again, Livingstone has avoided mentioning the fact that the government could easily bypass his authority over the Underground if need be. And the experience of the GLC is there to show that, even in his radical days, Livingstone stopped short of risking a confrontation with the then government. Why should he act differently with Blair's government?

In addition, Livingstone's manifesto contained a catalogue of all sorts of pledges concerning health, housing, education, etc.. Except that the content of these pledges amounted to saying that if elected, Livingstone would "work" with such and such institution in such and such direction, without the slightest reference to the fact that these areas are beyond the remit of London's mayor anyway!

Typical of these pledges was that made in response to the threats to carworkers' jobs at the Ford-Dagenham plant. On this issue Livingstone responded by promising "to talk to London's manufacturers and trade unions as soon as possible once I am elected so we can together make the most effective case for lower interest rates to protect vital manufacturing jobs in London" - a pledge which was hardly likely to worry Ford's management or help the workforce to keep their jobs, but was certainly intended to please London bosses!

Overall, Livingstone's campaign was a balancing act between his ambition to win the support of the capital's well-to-do and his need to maintain the image of a "left" opponent to Blair in the Labour party - indispensable if he was to win the support of disillusioned Labour voters.

For the benefit of the well-to-do, Livingstone went out of his way to show himself as a "responsible" politician who would stand above party politics and would not rock the boat. Significantly, for instance, his manifesto did not contain the slightest criticism of the government's policy!

But Livingstone did not go out of his way to win the votes of the working class electorate he was counting on. Because he knew very well that those who would choose to express their opposition to Blair's anti-working class policies by voting in the mayoral election would have no choice other than to vote for him - given the politics of the other candidates. In this respect, Livingstone showed the same contempt for working class voters that Blair showed himself when he boasted recently that he would bring disillusioned Labour voters back to the fold in the next general election, because they would have no other way to oppose a return of the Tories.

The revolutionary left and Livingstone

It is in this context that the policy of the revolutionary left in these elections has to be discussed.

Indeed, in London a number of groups stood candidates on the left of the Labour party. Scargill's Socialist Labour Party and the Communist Party of Britain both had their own top-up list in the assembly election and won less than 1% of the vote. A list initiated by activists from the railways and the London Underground formed another top-up list - under the label of the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation - and won 1.1% of the vote.

The main list on the left, however, was the London Socialist Alliance (LSA). It was formed by six revolutionary groups - the Socialist Workers' Party, Socialist Party, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Communist Party of Great Britain, International Socialist Group and Workers' Power. The LSA stood candidates in every assembly constituency - where they were only opposed by the candidates of the main parties - winning an average 2.7% of the vote, with a 7% peak in the North-East constituency. The LSA also stood a top-up list which won only 1.6% - probably losing votes to the other left top-up lists.

Given the presence of the LSA in both the single-member assembly seat election and the London-wide top-up list, its absence in the mayoral election was all the more conspicuous. But instead of standing their own candidate, these comrades had chosen to support Ken Livingstone. In fact they did more than that: they made their support for Livingstone one of the main themes of their public campaign. Every leaflet and every poster issued by the LSA during the election campaign featured in the most prominent place a large "Vote KEN for London mayor", just as large as the "vote LSA for a workers' voice against New Labour" which came just underneath.

What could working class voters understand from this material? Obviously that voting for "KEN" was indeed voting for "a workers' voice against New Labour"! All the more so as the LSA did not distance itself from, nor formulate clear criticisms of Livingstone's politics and demagogy - certainly not in its printed material and hardly in its public meetings. Nor did the SWP or the Socialist Party do so in their weekly papers. To find such criticisms, one had to read the monthly publications of the groups involved in the LSA - something that most workers, even among those who are politicised, seldom do.

The argument used in support of such a policy is well-known: because Livingstone has emerged as an opponent to Blair in the Labour party, his election will be felt by the working class in general, and disillusioned Labour supporters in particular, as a victory and as revenge against Blair, and will therefore boost their morale and help them to regain confidence for the struggle against Blair's policies.

It is undoubtedly true that a section of working class voters supported Livingstone in order to give Blair a bloody nose and that these voters have welcomed Livingstone's election with glee. But does this prepare them for the struggles to come? Isn't this feeling of revenge an illusion which should be exposed and not condoned? Should the state of these voters' morale be made dependent on the fortunes of a politician like Livingstone, who is an enemy of the working class, and should revolutionaries assist in this? Is it not a problem that some workers may well even regard Livingstone as their "friend" who will sort things out for them in London? Or that they may see him as an ally against the Labour government, when he supports almost everything in its policy except over the tube?

As most of the groups involved in the LSA admit themselves more or less in the privacy of their monthly journals, there is nothing to choose politically between Blair and Livingstone. So is it the role of revolutionaries to allow, let alone help, this political adventure-cum-demagogue to appear as a vehicle to fight New Labour?

And yet it was the absence of a genuine left candidate in the mayoral election - a candidate who would have campaigned clearly against Blair's policies from the point of view of the interests of working people - which allowed Livingstone to appear as a means of voting against Blair, just because Livingstone had rebelled against Blair's authority. And instead of exposing this political deception, the LSA condoned it through the conduct of its election campaign and its unreserved support for Livingstone.

However, we are not arguing here that the LSA should necessarily have stood a candidate in the mayoral election. Maybe this was not possible after all, due to material or political reasons which we are not in a position to judge, since our tendency was not itself part of the LSA. But since the LSA chose not to stand in the mayoral election, it could at the very least have made clear its criticisms of Livingstone and warned against the fact that he would turn against workers just as Blair did, while refraining from supporting any of the mayoral candidates in the ballot, Livingstone included.

An ambiguous policy

Of course, such a policy would not have been very popular among certain sections of Labour party supporters who wanted Blair to be censured but remained fundamentally loyal to Labour's reformist policies. This is true. But this is precisely the crux of the matter.

Indeed, our problem as revolutionaries is not to be popular among the politicised milieus influenced by reformism, but rather to allow workers who are influenced by the reformist organisations to see the real content of our ideas whenever there is an opportunity for this. And elections can provide such an opportunity, even if only within narrow limits.

What did the LSA make of this opportunity? We described above what these comrades did - or rather did not do - with it in the mayoral election campaign. What about its own assembly election campaign then?

To quote again the LSA's public propaganda - a text that was printed in leaflet and poster form all over London - it says: "LSA candidates will fight to: - Stop the privatisation of the tube and bring the rail back into public ownership - Secure a fully funded NHS; end privatisation and cuts - Stop the sell off of council homes; end homelessness - Secure a decent minimum wage and trade union rights for all - Set up tough controls on water and air pollution - End police racism and corruption - End student tuition fees; provide high quality education for all."

To begin with, one can only remark that this catalogue of commitments could have been produced by many Labour party branches without changing even a comma. It is "Old Labour" in its most traditional form, nothing more and nothing less, much like what could be found in the election literature of the CPB or SLP, both of which are reformist. In any case there is certainly nothing in it which indicates that revolutionaries have more than that to offer the working class.

Next, it is rather ironical that the LSA, which purports to offer a "workers' voice against New Labour", does not even mention the day-to-day problems faced by the working class - with just one exception for the minimum wage. There is not one word, for instance, about the casualisation of labour, the current wave of job cuts and factory closures or the increased exploitation experienced by the working class under Blair. Why is this? Because it would have sounded too "working class" for the Labour supporters whom the LSA targeted? Likewise why is it that in this list of objectives for a fight "against New Labour", there is no mention of the need for the working class to fight the Labour government, nor the capitalists for that matter? Because "Old Labour" supporters would not welcome the idea of a fight against what they consider, despite everything, as their own government? Because even for these "Old Labour" supporters references to the class struggle are too "old hat"?

But above all, it is the claim that "LSA candidates will fight" which exposes the approach of these comrades for what it really is. Indeed there was no space in their election publications to even mention the vital need for a working class fightback to achieve the objectives they mention - or others - in order to regain some of the ground lost to the bosses. There is a fight to be waged, but according to the LSA, the working class does not seem to have any role to play in it. Apparently the LSA candidates themselves are meant to take care of everything!

Is this a language for revolutionaries? For reformist bureaucrats, maybe, when they tell workers that all is taken care of and that they will be told in due time what they are expected to do - but this is always in order to avoid losing control. But not for revolutionaries, whose aim is to get the working class to adopt their objectives for the future struggles as its own and to get organised to fight for these objectives, and who certainly never pretend that they can achieve anything on behalf of the working class, without its direct intervention in the class struggle.

But maybe there was a hidden and simpler logic behind all of this. Maybe it was not just "Old Labour" nostalgia that the LSA comrades were targeting. They were certainly hoping to win some support among the middle-ranking layers of the union machineries, after the showdown over Livingstone's selection as Labour candidate. Or maybe, even, the LSA was hoping for some sort of more or less informal alliance with Livingstone (after all, for a long time, they did call on Livingstone to stand as a "socialist"). But if this was the case, it did not work!

Preparing for the future

This is not to say that revolutionaries should not have a policy towards workers who are under the influence of reformist organisations. On the contrary. No revolutionary party will ever be built without significant sections among these workers being won over to the revolutionary programme. So, yes, it is vital for revolutionaries to find a way of addressing themselves to these workers and have a policy towards them as part of the process of building this revolutionary party.

But the setting up of such a party is not on the agenda today. Nor are revolutionary organisations as they are today - small and lacking any real influence on the political scene and in the class struggle - capable of winning over to their programme significant numbers of workers who are influenced by reformism. It is purely and simply a matter of credibility. The revolutionary perspective is not credible for the vast majority of the working class, if only because the present low ebb in the class struggle does not make it possible to put this perspective to the test of reality against the policy of the reformists.

In such a context there is no shortcut. Individuals can be won over to the revolutionary programme, but not sizeable numbers, at least not without watering down this programme in order to make it "acceptable" to left reformists. This is a very old trap into which the revolutionary left has fallen many times in the past, leading to demoralising deadends.

Elections are not a terrain which is particularly favourable to revolutionaries, specially in the context of Britain where the political scene has been the monopoly of the same established bourgeois party for so long. But an election can be used, as the LSA comrades have shown. Only the occasion will not be productive if the revolutionaries fail to use the opportunity to spell out clearly what they are about. In particular, an election can allow the working class to use the ballot paper in a different way - that is not to give a blank cheque to politicians who will do what they like once in office, but to use it to express an opinion which reflects its own class interests.

Today, it is obvious that there is a vital need for a counte-offensive of the working class against the bosses' drive on jobs, wages and conditions. It is obvious that the working class lacks the confidence to embark on an all-out fightback and that, even if it had the confidence, it would still have to break free from the straightjacket imposed on it by the union bureaucracy. But it is no less obvious that the ground for such a fight back can and should be prepared right from now, by defining its objectives and the methods to achieve them. Many workers are conscious of this need. But no-one expresses it on the political scene. And if revolutionaries do not grab the opportunities to do so, no-one else will do it for them.

8 May 2000