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Learning from the General Election

Mary McGregor assesses the outcome of the 2005 general election campaign

The UK general election on May 6th already seems a distant memory. It came, went and nothing much seemed to change. Tony Blair was re-elected with a majority of 66 seats. This was slashed from a 166 seat majority at the 2001 election but was still comfortable enough to form the current government with barely a backward look from New Labour at the opposition parties. The pundits had predicted this for months. The Tories under Michael Howard were no real opposition and under our undemocratic first past the post system the third, historic Labour victory was secured.

To those outside the UK, this may seem almost inexplicable as Labour’s majority is based on gaining 36% of the popular vote in the UK which is the lowest of any government in the last 175 years. A massive 39% of the electorate did not vote!

Blair’s unpopularity is palpable amongst the electorate. So much so, that during the election, he had to stage manage walkabouts where he met ‘ordinary people’ by in fact blocking out any genuine voters and flooding any photo opportunity with Labour Party workers and their families. He is believed, by many thousands in the country, to be a liar and a warmonger.

Britain’s imperialist venture into Iraq, the systematic erosion of civil liberties and human rights, detention of asylum seekers, tuition fees, benefit cuts, pension’s crisis - there is a huge list of reasons why the New Labour agenda turns people sick to their stomachs yet they have been re – elected, claiming a mandate and promising more of the same.

There is of course a need to examine where the left vote went in this election.

Remarkable victory

With the exception of George Galloway’s remarkable victory in Tower Hamlets, and some respectable votes in a few other London and Birmingham constituencies with a substantial Muslim community, votes for Respect candidates, where they stood, were at the same level as the SSP's across Scotland. While Oona King’s defeat was to be welcomed, it would be totally wrong to categorise Respect as a socialist organisation despite its deification by the SWP. Again while it was a joy to see Galloway take the anti war message to the heart of the beast, his views on certain issues like abortion do not make him the darling of the left he would purport to be unless he is looked at through special SWP rose tinted spectacles. There is also the strong danger of the Left abandoning its historic commitment to a secular society, as Islamicist forces, such as MAB, make any continued electoral support dependent on the delivery of state-funded Islamic schools.

I think Labour perpetrated a very clever trick during their campaign. They managed to convince a sizable number of working class people that the a patently unelectable Tory party was in fact nipping at Labour’s heels and that not to vote Labour would in fact Let the Tories in through the back door. Absolute rubbish, but many people remember the misery of Thatcherism and would not take the risk. We on the left have failed to convince them that the difference between Labour and Tory is thinner than a cigarette paper and that the Thatcher legacy is expressed not through Howard but through Blair!

Why, particularly in Scotland, have we seen a set back electorally for the left as opposed to the advance some people may have expected given the circumstances?

Advance our message

There were a minority in the Scottish Socialist Party who argued unsuccessfully that we should ignore the Westminster elections. They did this from a nationalist perspective claiming that we should only focus on Scottish elections. Strange arguments from those who claim to have followed the nationalist struggles in Ireland that they do not recognise the way the Sinn Fein used UK general elections to their advantage! Socialists should also look to use bourgeois elections to advance our message, put out revolutionary propaganda and build our organisations. Electoral successes are a by product of this primary activity. Within the SSP, concern continues to grow over whether it has become too much of a parliamentary organisation at theexpense of our socialist message.

While sharing these concerns, I believe the decision to contest all bar one of the Scottish seats in the general election was the correct one. (The SSP stood down in favour of Rose Gentle mother of killed soldier in Iraq and anti war campaigner). It proved to be a wake up call for the SSP because although Labour also lost votes in Scotland, the SSP failed to capitalise electorally on this and the Liberal Democrats, on the basis of these results, are now the second party in Scotland. The SSP vote was down by 30,000 on the 2001 general election from 3.1% to 1.9%. The Scottish nationalist vote also fell despite some successes like gaining Dundee East from Labour.

There is no doubt that the SSP was not in its best shape. We had just come through a media feeding frenzy with the gutter press hounding Tommy Sheridan and others about their private lives. The unity of out Scottish parliamentary group was exposed for its fragility during a leadership election campaign after Tommy’s resignation and the grass roots membership were left bemused and disillusioned by internal battles which had, of late, taken on a more personalised rather than political air.

Of course the electoral system is of itself fundamentally undemocratic as the above percentages show and we were squeezed out of the national media even though some local coverage was its best ever. But we were The Anti War Party! We exposed New Labour’s lies at Westminster and in Holyrood. We have been on the streets, week in and week out, and yet we lost support and the Lib Democrats gained!

I think that, although all these other factors did have an influence on the result, we have to look at increasing our understanding of the nature of a bourgeois system in order to explain the position of the SSP at this time. We focussed too much on pushing for reforms that the bourgeois parties could deliver. Scottish Service Tax trumped by Lib Dems local income tax. Be anti war – trumped by Charles Kennedy’s safe anti war message. Free school meals trumped by Jamie Oliver’s TV campaign!

We have all but ignored political education in the party in favour of adherence to the leadership and activism. Our most experienced cadre are run ragged trying to do everything and more. We have an over reliance on our MSPs who are asking for more political direction from the party (at least some of them are) and we are failing to build genuinely in communities across Scotland with few exceptions.

Build and strengthen

I think we can learn from the 2005 general election. We need to build ourselves and strengthen our politics. After the G8, political education that is participative and democratic must be a priority. We must look at how our activities relate to our communities. We must become part of those communities, not stand to the side of them. Crucially, we must put forward a message in all elections which shows how we differ from the other parties not just put forward reforms which they can steal and sell with more credibility than ourselves. Our republicanism and our alternative to capitalism make us unique. These are the messages we must continually take to the working class of this country but we can only do that effectively if we understand them ourselves! It is our duty to rebuild democratically and in a spirit of comradeship and to remember that elections, important and useful as they are, are just one part of the struggle.

Mary McGregor