By Carlo MorelliJoe HartneyMichael LavaletteMike Gonzalez
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 275

Electing to Fight

This article is over 19 years, 2 months old
Carlo Morelli, Joe Hartney and Mike Gonzalez examine the success of the Scottish socialists, while Michael Lavalette explains how he won in Preston.
Issue 275

The political landscape of Scotland was transformed on 1 May, with the election of six Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) MSPs to the Scottish Parliament. In the face of Blair and New Labour across Britain, we cannot overestimate how important it is that a party that openly talks about socialism and is consistently anti-war has won mass support. Even the most reticent bourgeois commentators agree on that.

They will concentrate on the parliamentary numbers, of course, on the balance of forces in the chamber and the deals and bargains they will try to forge. Apart from the SSP, seven Greens were also elected along with independent candidates like Dennis Canavan, the left wing ex Labour MP, John Swinburne, the pensioners’ candidate and Jean Turner, elected in what has always been one of the strongest Labour constituencies in the country on a ‘Stop hospital closures’ ticket.

For socialists, it is a different number that is important. Over 120,000 people – some 7 percent of the total – voted SSP. Some 110,000 of those voted SSP in each of the three concurrent votes – constituency, list, and local council ballots were held simultaneously. That is not a protest vote, but a hard political declaration, rejecting New Labour and its policies on the war, privatisation and the rest.

The dramatic rise in the Green vote might be seen as gesture politics, as they stood only for the second, list vote. Since the SSP vote was very solid, the Green Party support must have come largely from people who supported other parties – Liberal Democrat, SNP, Labour – in the constituency elections. But the Green Party manifesto, and its election leaflets, were well to the left on most things, and especially in their consistent opposition to the war in Iraq.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), on the other hand, lost a quarter of their MSPs. John Swinney, its leader, had fought to turn the SNP into a pro-business establishment party which had severed its connections with a more radical past – for example, when it opposed the poll tax and the first Gulf War. Its shortlived anti-war stance this time around, when it tried to assume the leadership of the Scottish anti-war demonstration on 15 February in Glasgow, turned into ‘support for our troops’ as soon as war began.

And its few remaining pledges of principle, like opposition to PFI, were played down in favour of its assertion of being ‘fit to govern’. One of the few remaining radicals in its ranks, Margo Macdonald, marginalised by Swinney, stood as an independent list candidate and won a seat. So there will be a group of people in the Edinburgh parliament who have been elected to speak with a radical voice, and at their core six with a responsibility to argue for socialism.

While the strongest base of the SSP is in the west of Scotland, it won significant support in every single area of the country. The SSP has been and remains committed to building a mass socialist party. That possibility now comes closer, if the vote is transformed into an active membership, campaigning and building at a local level. Rooted in the communities and the workplaces, intervening in struggles, the SSP can become a focus for the discontent and resistance of many people.

Two issues have made that incontestably clear. During the firefighters’ dispute, the SSP gave active support and solidarity. In a recent poll of FBU members, only 2 percent said they would vote Labour (compared with 60 percent at the previous election) while 25 percent said they would vote SSP. The key role played by socialists in the anti-war movement drew in a new layer of support. In Edinburgh the recently formed Lothian Muslim Voting Committee called for a vote for the SSP, on the basis of its activity on Palestine and its campaigning anti-war record. And the support for independent candidates like Jean Turner as well as the Greens was, among other things, a clear call for resistance to the privatisation of hospitals, schools and the water industry.

Grassroots organisation

The struggles to come are already waiting in the wings. Jack McConnell, the Scottish First Minister, has already said that he will follow Prescott in forcing a pay settlement on the firefighters in Scotland. PFI in schools is well under way and although water has not yet been privatised in Scotland, the plan to do so exists already.

The challenge is to transform the tremendous SSP vote into a vibrant, grassroots activist organisation that builds support for any section of workers who are taking on New Labour, and that mobilises the resistance to the Blairite project on a far greater scale. It will also be important to build resistance to the continuing occupation of Iraq.

But there will be other pressures too that will test the relationship between a growing mass socialist party firmly rooted in localities and workplaces, and the comrades who represent them in parliament. It is certainly true that small parties can put forward bills. And in the current situation, where the balance of votes and parties at Holyrood will mean constant horse-trading and bargaining, some of them may even be accepted. Tommy Sheridan’s Free School Meals Bill may well win broad support; action against evictions and extra benefits to pensioners may also get through the parliament. Green campaigns around support for organic farming and opposition to the commercialisation of GM crops may well be supported by what the Greens are already calling the ‘traffic light coalition’. League tables and some privatisation schemes could be delayed or even scrapped in parliamentary dealings.

On the other hand, the Scottish parliament will not stand against globalisation or the occupation of Iraq, it will not denounce Israeli assaults against the Palestinians as they intensify over the coming weeks, and it will not change the priorities of capital. In the end, power does not rest in parliament, still less in its cut-down version in Edinburgh. The battle for socialism takes place on the streets, in the organisations of the working class, and in the campaigns through which workers discover their own power.

In the lobbies and committee rooms of a divided parliament, some small gains may be made, some measures taken. The other face of that small increase in influence may well be a pressure to conform – not just on matters of dress or singing in parliament, but in accepting that what can be done and changed is limited to what the parliamentary compromises allow. Some will agree with the SSP about taking on the multinationals – yet they will not agree that all private ownership of the means of production should end. Some will go part of the way in calling for an end to Blunkett’s repressive assaults on asylum seekers, yet hold back when it comes to a world without frontiers.

In other words, the SSP’s commitment to socialism will find some parliamentary allies on the way who will not last the course. On the other hand, the opportunity to build a mass socialist party on the ground, taking on the day-to-day battles and in the course of them winning people to the idea of changing society root and branch, to a socialism that is internationalist and working class, is closer now. But it will be built where the votes were given, at the grassroots, rather than from parliament. To have six comrades to speak for us there is a massive gain. But the power to change the world still lies with the working class, building socialism

from below.

– – – – –

‘The Response has been Incredible’

The election victory in Preston had its roots in the Stop the War Coalition. I am coordinator of Preston Stop the War and the coalition has worked very hard to ensure active meetings and large turnouts on the various local, regional and national demonstrations. Our monthly steering committee meetings, for example, were open meetings and regularly had between 60 and 120 people at them. The Stop the War Coalition has now organised the biggest meeting in Preston for years (bigger than any I’d known) when over 600 people came to listen to John Rees and Yvonne Ridley the week war started. And it sent more people to every demonstration than I’d previously known.

One of the most important aspects of how we organised was to actively engage with people from the Asian community in Preston. From the turn of the year I visited the mosque at least once a week. I helped book transport for people coming from the mosque. Further, at the People’s Assembly, Preston sent 16 delegates and 3 were directly elected from the mosque.

One very important event that took place the week before war started was a petition to local Labour MP Mark Hendrick. This originated within the mosque but they approached the coalition and asked me to their first meeting (with representatives of 11 of the 12 mosques in Preston). Hendrick’s position was that he would only support war if there was a second UN resolution. The activists in the mosques took the lead on the petition. They wanted to get 12,000 signatures (the size of his majority) together in just over a week. They worked incredibly hard to get this huge total and we presented the petition to Hendrick on day one of the war. There were 10,256 signatures. This was an important turning point. The Asian community in Preston has traditionally been solidly Labour, but now cracks were starting to appear.

There was some talk of an anti-war candidate standing at the local elections. There was debate about whether we should stand and who it should be. When the decision was made most people thought I was the best candidate. For those in the Stop the War coalition who supported this move I let it be known I’d be standing for Socialist Alliance Against the War.

We decided to stand in the Town Centre ward – the biggest in Preston, with the largest Labour majority, and some of the worst poverty indicators in the city. Last year, when the whole council was up for election, the ward returned three Labour councillors. The Labour candidate this time, Musa Jiwa, is an active and

devout Muslim.

Every house got three leaflets. One of those was my biography, which obviously said that I was coordinator of Preston Stop the War Coalition, but the leaflets were Socialist Alliance leaflets rather than just peace or anti-war leaflets. The first was the national Socialist Alliance leaflet. The second one started off with the failure of New Labour, how they weren’t spending money on health and education, but they could launch a war and attack asylum seekers. The final leaflet dealt with the kind of council we would be electing. I said I was an activist who would use the chamber to be the voice of the oppressed, and the exploited.

We also canvassed hard. On the four days before the election we went out in small teams. In each group there were Asian and white people – and if we knocked on the door of Asian elders we had Gujarati speakers available to talk with them.

But as well as the hard work I think we need to understand the election victory as being the result of the interaction of four elements. First, there were (overwhelmingly but not exclusively) white socialists. They gave direction to the campaign and made it clear that with street meetings and a cavalcade it would be different from a usual Labour-type campaign. Secondly there was the involvement of people from the anti-war movement. These people were not alliance members (and our task now is to try and get them to join us). Many of them were from the Muslim community and their links and linguistic ability were vital. Thirdly was the key role played by one of the imams at the Clarendon Street Mosque. I had been working very closely with Maulana Said Ahmed during the anti-war campaign. During the election he made it clear he supported me. But then, crucially, at Friday prayers the week before the election he made a statement, which said two things. First, people should vote (there were leaflets circulating saying it was against Islam to vote). Second, that although Michael Lavalette was not a Muslim, and the Labour candidate was, it was Labour who took us into war, reinforced racism and attacks on asylum seekers and cut welfare – and Michael Lavalette, was at the forefront of campaigns against war, racism and cuts. This intervention was vital. It pulled people away from Labour and gave us credibility. Finally, the fourth element kicked in. When it became clear that we were in with a chance – that we were a real alternative and not a protest vote – a number of traditional Labour voters (and even some local Labour activists) came over and voted for us.

The response since our victory has been incredible. I have had messages of support from individuals, Socialist Alliance groups and trade union branches across the country. I have even had e-mails from Ireland and Australia.

In Preston we hope to build upon this success next year when there are more seats up for grabs. But this will depend on what we do, how hard we work both in the council and in the movements. The lesson of Preston is that if we immerse ourselves in these campaigns then we can build links that can translate into electoral gain.

I think you can learn lessons from what we did – but let me stress one final thing. There are no shortcuts. It would be mad for people just to run off to the local mosque and expect the imam to greet you with open arms. People are breaking with Labour from different traditions. We must listen, engage and work with them – not preach. All over the country there are communities who are being let down by Labour. We need to work closely with them and – through our practice, by being the best activists – we can win them over to our side.

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