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There must be more to politics than this

In the aftermath of the local and Euro elections, JOE GILL talks to the Greens and left parties about building a radical alternative

WATCHING the news during last month’s local and Euro elections it was easy to get the impression that the only option for voters who wanted to reject the mainstream parties was Nigel Farage’s so-called “People’s Army” of right-wing nationalists.

But this misleading perception ignores the fact that Ukip got nowhere in Labour inner-city heartlands in London, the north and the Midlands. 

In the local elections Labour gained 330 seats, more than double Ukip’s gains, and made a net gain of five councils with triumphs in London where the party won back Tory flagship council Hammersmith & Fulham. 

While Labour came second in the Euro elections behind Ukip, the real unsung winners in those polls were the Greens. Arguably the only major national party offering a strongly left-leaning platform of policies, they put the Lib Dems into fourth place in the Euro poll, with 1.2 million votes to the Lib Dem’s 1.09 million, and gained a third seat in the European Parliament with Molly Scott Cato’s victory in the South West region. 

In the locals the Greens gained 23 council seats and are now the official opposition in five councils — Liverpool, Solihull and the London boroughs of Lewisham and Islington, as well as Norwich, where the party has been the main opposition for some time.

The party now sees itself as the fourth party in the country. Party leader Natalie Bennett told the Morning Star: “We have clearly finished ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the last two major elections, the European Parliament election and the London mayoral and assembly election.”

This has been achieved in the face of a media that consistently ignores the Greens. 

The problem of media exclusion led Brighton Green Portia Cocks to launch a 38 Degrees petition that has gathered almost 50,000 signatures calling on the BBC to “Stop this media news blackout of the Green Party.” 

When Cocks and others took the petition to Broadcasting House recently they were met by a host of BBC security staff and several police officers. “We were told we were not allowed on BBC property and would not be permitted to enter the building to deliver our petitions — instead a member of staff was sent out to collect them.” 

The BBC representative even asked for the petition envelopes to be opened so she could look inside. “I was shocked,” said Cocks. “The BBC is essentially owned by the public and as a member of the public, representing a further 50,000 licence fee payers, I did not expect to be treated as a potential terrorist.”

Bennett points out that the BBC and other media ignored critical issues at the elections including “the disastrous proposed EU-US free trade deal, the importance of strong renewables and energy efficiency targets, the very nature of the EU and the need to reform it to make it work democratically for the people of Europe rather than in the interests of big corporations.

She adds: “Is it any wonder that more than 60 per cent of voters decided to opt out of this seemingly stale game and stay at home?” 

Despite this, Bennett says the party is winning over not just disillusioned Labour and Lib Dem voters but people who previously didn’t vote at all. “Increasing numbers of Labour voters and members have had enough of positions like that taken by Rachel Reeves, who said a Labour government would be tougher on welfare than the Tories. 

But we’re also attracting increasing numbers of former non-voters, who often have looked at the Ukip advance and felt it was time to take a stance.”

For left critics of the Greens, the party’s record running a minority administration in Brighton & Hove council shows that in office they are not prepared to make a stand against the coalition’s cuts and, by imposing cuts to allowances for its CityClean workforce, they provoked a damaging strike. 

Bennett rejects this criticism. “I don’t think the option of handing the council over to Eric Pickles and then probably the Tories was one we could have contemplated, and the bin strike arose from a need to sort out unfair, gender-discriminatory allowances that previous councils had failed to deal with. 

“I’m proud of the record of the council in becoming a living wage council and promoting the living wage in the city, in keeping open all branch libraries, and in improving GCSE results in the city.”

Looking toward the general election, she says the party’s main task is to hold onto Caroline Lucas’s seat in Brighton.“Obviously our first target is to hold Brighton Pavilion, where the Labour Party is throwing vast sums into their campaign, but we also will be running strong campaigns in Norwich South, in Liverpool Riverside and Oxford East, just to name a couple. 

“A lot of people have also been pointing out that we got the most votes in the council elections this year in Bristol West, and in a swathe of London constituencies were a clear second.”

Bennett concedes that the party does have a challenge to reach more working-class and minority voters. “Like all political parties we need to do a great deal more to reach and involve ethnic minority voters, but I think more and more working-class voters are looking at our policies like making the minimum wage a living wage, renationalising the railways and defending the decent levels of benefits for everyone who needs them and choosing us.”

The Green leader says voters looking for a socialist alternative to break with austerity and neoliberalism should now support the party. “We are the alternative to the three business-as-usual parties, who let loose the bankers, are comfortable with soaring levels of inequality, and don’t see the need for radical transformation to a society that works for the common good, not just the few.”

 

The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition put together what it describes as the biggest left electoral challenge to the mainstream parties since the Communist Party in 1950.

It stood 559 candidates in the local elections and received 68,000 votes. It supported Southampton rebel Labour councillors Keith Morrell and Don Thomas, who were expelled from the Labour group for voting against council cuts and presenting an alternative budget. 

Morrell, who sits on the Tusc steering committee, was re-elected as an independent on a landslide with 1,633 votes. 

Nationally, however, Tusc’s candidates scored an average of just 3.4 per cent.

The Tusc steering committee met last month to discuss the election results. Tusc election agent Clive Heemskerk tries to put the result into perspective, saying: “If there were 68,000 people at the People’s Assembly demo it would be considered a great success.

“To search out this many voters who are looking for candidates who are standing on a clear anti-austerity platform in the context of a complete media blackout is a real achievement.”

While Nigel Farage received wall-to-wall coverage on television and the press, Tusc was excluded almost entirely from the election coverage.

“Go to the BBC website and there are only four entries for Tusc this year. There are more for the English Democrats who only stood 31 local council candidates. There is no justification,” says Heemskerk. 

Tusc’s original target was 625 seats — or one sixth of contested seats — the threshold number of candidates for a party to be included in BBC election coverage according to the broadcaster’s rules on political “balance”. It wasn’t easy to work out the figures since there is no national database of local election results, explains Heemskerk. “We fell short.”

Although Tusc contested many more seats in 2014 than in previous local elections, its average vote was down to 3.4 per cent from 5.2 per cent in 2011. 

“The reality is disappointing — the Ukip effect hit Tusc as well as the other parties, there’s no doubt about it. It’s too simplistic to say that only reactionary people vote Ukip. It’s also those who want to lash out at the Establishment parties.

“We know what Ukip really is but by calling itself ‘the People’s Army’ and claiming to be anti-Establishment, it’s positioning itself as a receptacle of protest against the established parties and unfortunately it impacted on us.” 

Heemskerk believes there was a media blackout against Tusc, but adds that this is nothing the left is not used to. He dealt with BBC producers and the BBC’s chief political adviser Ric Bailey, who produces guidance on electoral coverage. “I spoke to him and he gave us soft soaping stuff.” 

Dave Nellist, Tusc’s national chair, is due to appear on Question Time in July, says Heemskerk. “When I asked the BBC why he wasn’t going to appear before the elections, the producer said we can’t do it because of the balance issue.” After further probing, Heemskerk was told that the BBC position was that Nellist could not be invited onto the Question Time panel “under any circumstances.”

The Tusc agent argues that the rise of Ukip is partly a result of the failure of the labour movement to capitalise on the momentum built up in the TUC-backed March for the Alternative in summer 2011, when half a million people took to the streets of London to protest against coalition attacks on public services. “It was the biggest demonstration in the history of the trade union movement. 

“Until there is a revival of working-class struggle, there is no magical solution to contest the rise of Ukip. But we can’t just hold up our hands — working-class people need representation in Britain.” 

Heemskerk makes clear that Tusc, founded on the initiative of late RMT leader Bob Crow and other trade unionists including retired POA leader Brian Caton, does not claim to be a mass party for working-class representation. 

“At most we are a precursor,” says Heemskerk. “We could play a role like the Independent Labour Party. Certainly it is not by a long stretch a finished vehicle. It needs the involvement of the big unions. But everywhere there is a struggle to save libraries and health services, we will be involved. 

“There are people who say that Ed Miliband has made noises about the bedroom tax, but the cuts still goahead in Labour-run authorities. We want to offer the widest possible opportunity for people to vote against austerity.”

The steering committee decided to send a letter out to all Labour candidates for the 2015 general election asking them their views on key issues. 

“As part of our campaigning we will be sending local delegations and lobbies to prospective Labour candidates asking if they are prepared to sign up to John McDonnell’s Trade Union Freedom Bill, agree to support the reversing of all the cuts in public services and benefits that have taken place under the Con-Dems, and support an incoming Labour government banning zero-hours contracts and immediately introducing the living wage (£7.65 an hour, £8.80 in London).

“If the Labour candidate says no or refuses to meet us, then their seat will become a potential target for Tusc.”

Tusc no longer has its standard bearer, Bob Crow, although his union the RMT remains officially in support of it following a 2012 conference decision. The union holds seats on the national steering committee, along with other individual union figures including PCS assistant secretary Chris Baugh, POA leader Steve Gillan and assistant secretary Joe Simpson. 

“The loss of Bob makes an incredible difference,” says Heemskerk. “You could always say to people, whatever you think of Bob Crow, he gets results for his members and isn’t that the kind of person you would want to represent you? It’s a massive loss in terms of his public profile.” 

Other political organisations on the committee include the Socialist Party, Socialist Resistance and the SWP. 

“Tusc is not the finished product,” says Heemskerk. “But who would have thought when the ILP was formed in 1893 that within seven years it would become part of the Labour Representation Committee (the precursor to the Labour Party). 

“Labour after the Collins reforms makes it even clearer that the trade union movement will not have a role within the Labour party.”

LEFT UNITY was launched with some fanfare last year with the support of film director Ken Loach, held its founding conference in November and a policy convention in March. It now claims more than 2,000 paid up members.

The new party did not aim to contest the local elections nationally in 2014 but where branches were active, some decided to stand candidates. 

However, the overall results were modest with the best result in Wigan West, where the party scored 8.8 per cent in part thanks to local members’ involvement in an anti-fracking campaign and the popular Diggers Festival.

The majority of Left Unity candidates won what John Tummon, writing on the party’s website, described as a “bus full of votes.”

Left Unity spokesman Tom Walker says: “Judging Left Unity by the election results doesn’t show what’s going on, where the main project is to do much more campaigning. 

“Left Unity are in it for the long haul, not just popping up at election time. We’ve been quite open about this result as a modest beginning.”

So what is the long-term goal of Left Unity? Walker says there was a strong feeling at the founding conference that people wanted a party, not a loose alliance. “People were looking around for something that had a permanent presence. Some came out of far-left groups and some from the Greens and Labour.

“It was established as a party because people looked at the experience of the radical left in Europe and saw that it was about doing patient work on the ground in the community over years. 

“What the election results show is that across Europe and in Britain people are moving away from the centre ground. You can see this in the rise of the far right and the radical left. 

“Each country is different but in each case people are abandoning the mainstream pro-austerity parties and this is leading to the rise of parties outside the neoliberal consensus.

“Left Unity has a lot of internal democracy so an individual can join and have a say. It is open to anyone — there is no requirement to leave other parties or organisations. We all have one vote.”

Stephen Hall campaigned in Wigan where the party got its best result — 8.8 per cent. “Given that what we did was put leaflets through 30,000 doors in every ward wrapped around the Hope Not Hate leaflet, that’s a good result. If we had gone out and canvassed we’d have probably bumped that up three times — but we didn’t have the manpower.” 

However the very low number of votes for Left Unity nationally might suggest that it has jumped the gun in launching a new party when the labour movement and left is not united in support of an electoral challenge to Labour. 

Hall disagrees: “When is the right time? You’ve got to start somewhere in my view. It means doing a lot of work in your local community, getting stuck in and working on the ground is the key.”

Hall says electoral alliances across the left and with the Greens will be necessary for the 2015 election. “In my view we need to campaign for a Labour victory and only stand in safe Labour seats. We’ll support Labour when it stands up for ordinary people and argue for the right policies. 

“If Labour doesn’t deliver this time the unions are going to say why are we still paying money to the party when it is not delivering policies we want.”

 

How does the Communist Party view the results of the Euro and local elections? 

The elections indicated that Labour must put some clear red water between itself and the Tories if it is to win the general election. It should campaign against austerity policies, for taxing the super-rich and big business and taking energy, public transport and sections of the City into public ownership. The Lib Dems should be finished off as a credible progressive force, not thrown a lifebelt by Labour. Ukip benefited from public discontent with the established parties and with rule by a distant bureaucracy in Brussels. Labour should be mobilising and politicising that discontent, not joining the Tories, Ukip and the right-wing press in gutter bashing immigrants and Muslims.

Did the party stand candidates — where and how did they do?

The Communist Party played a leading role in the No2EU — Yes to Workers’ Rights electoral alliance and we stood a small number of candidates in the English local elections. It was important to use the EU campaign, including our well-received election broadcasts in Scotland and Wales, to expose the anti-democratic, pro-big business character of the EU and to put the left case against EU membership. Our low votes reflected No2EU’s lack of resources and publicity, demonstrating the need to build a perennial anti-EU movement of the left, one rooted in the trade union movement. Local CP candidates fared better, with between 2 and 4 per cent of the poll.

What do you think left strategy should be in the run-up to the 2015 election?

This Tory-led coalition must be removed and the only realistic alternative is a Labour government. The fight should be on to secure the most progressive Labour manifesto possible — and that requires a rising tide of mass political and industrial action, led by the trade unions and People’s Assembly, politicised by a stronger Communist Party and the non-sectarian left. The CP will be looking to stand some candidates of its own in bold, high-profile local campaigns.

Can you see a time in the future when the trade union and socialist movement will have to agree on a united strategy to challenge Labour from the left?

The immediate task is to secure a Labour victory on a left and progressive manifesto. Unless the labour movement shows that it can and will reclaim the Labour Party as its own within the next 18 months, trade unions and the left will have to begin taking the necessary steps to re-establish a genuine mass party of labour. Such a historic necessity cannot be fulfilled by sectarian groups who exaggerate the immediate possibilities and their own importance. I also suspect that such a party will need to understand and reject the unreformable and imperialist EU if it is to offer a popular, progressive alternative to Ukip, the Tory right and the fascists.

 

Joe Gill was speaking to the Communist Party of Britain’s Robert Griffiths

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