‘Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here’
The assorted ragtag of cowards and traitors probably felt that socialism had been safely consigned to the dustbin of history with the victory of neo-liberalism in the 1980s and 90s. Not so. Taking inspiration from socialist parties in Europe, the socialist left is alive in Britain, while the jury is still out on its health. Mind you, it’s still prone to a dizzying and bewildering process of splits, expulsions and re-formations. Endlessly fascinating to those of us who willingly don our political anoraks, this can be a mite confusing to the casual observer, unschooled in the niceties of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, the Leninist concept of the vanguard party or the details of Marx’s theories of surplus value. It also ensures that British socialist parties can still live up to Monty Python’s Peoples Front of Judea versus the Popular Front of the Judean People parody.
Socialist parties have three main family roots. The first is what could be called a left social democratic tradition. Although its roots are in that pre-Communist social democratic world, the oldest socialist party in Britain – the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) – can hardly be described as social democratic in the modern sense. This was (inevitably) a split from the Social Democratic Federation (a marxist party that was then affiliated to the Labour Party and which had a councillor in pre-WW1 Truro) way back in 1904. The comrades in the SPGB are hardly social democratic in the modern sense as they keep the fire of counter-reformism blazing merrily away.
It’s an impossibilist party. This means that in addition to it being impossible to see it save any deposits in the election, it sees reform within the capitalist system as pointless. The logic is therefore to call for revolutionary change that will sweep away a system geared to creating profits for the ruling class. In contrast to other revolutionary parties however, the SPGB has held on to the quaint belief that revolution can be achieved solely through the ballot box. Win enough seats and we can legislate capitalism away. These dreamers may be on a roll, as the 10 candidates they’ve announced for May is a ten-fold increase on their intervention in 2010.
The SPGB isn’t the only socialist party with venerable connections. The Socialist Labour Party (SLP) has a venerable leader in 77 year old Arthur Scargill. Breaking away from Labour after Blair binned Clause IV, the SLP is especially keen on renationalization. In the 1997 and 2001 general elections the party made a major effort, standing in 65 and 114 constituencies respectively. In those days it was the largest socialist party in terms of candidates (easily in 1997 when it supplied 58% of such candidates). But as Arthur has aged so the number of SLP candidates has fallen, to 49 in 2005 and just 23 in 2010. Many of those, as in Camborne-Redruth, were paper candidates and the average SLP vote has also drifted steadily downwards, from 1.8% in 1997 to just 0.8% in 2010. The party has announced eight candidates in Wales but none yet in England or Scotland. They may surpass their 2010 effort in number of candidates at least.
The youngest party in a Left Labour tradition is Left Unity. This emerged in a blaze of publicity in 2013, backed by Ken Loach and with an explicit appeal to the spirit of 1945 (NHS not rationing). It quickly gained 10,000 signatures of support, showing that Nye Bevan’s socialism may still have some pull. But membership settled down at 2,000 and has fallen since. Left Unity, which despite its name prefers not to enter into a full blown electoral alliance with other socialist groups, will be standing at least half a dozen candidates in May, a couple under a joint ticket with TUSC (see below).
The second tradition is that of Communism. Tied to Leninism and then hanging on to the coattails of Stalinism, Communists viewed the Soviet Union as a workers’ state and an improvement on capitalism. Given the history of the past half-century this position didn’t turn out to be too sustainable in the long run. However the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) is proud to acknowledge its roots in the former Communist Party of Great Britain, which loyally twisted and turned from the 1920s to the 1980s in deference to Soviet foreign policy. The CPB has stood half a dozen candidates in the last three general elections and this time announces eight, displaying a stubborn survivability at least. Rather bafflingly, two of their candidates are to be found in North Devon and Plymouth, places hitherto not particularly known for their mass support for the party of the working class and steadfastness in the struggle against deviationist tendencies.
Turning to the third tradition, we meet the equally hierarchical and even more authoritarian comrades in the various Trotskyite groups and sub-groups. Happiest when slagging off another Trotskyist sub-sect for counter-revolutionary tendencies, the Trot can always be counted on to give obscurantism a bad name. Before the 1980s in Britain Trotskyists mainly amused themselves by engaging in entryism. Not quite so dubious as it sounds, this involved entering the Labour Party under the fond delusion that they could convert it to socialism. More often the Labour Party converted the burrowing Trots into becoming Labour hacks. Even worse, several former Trotskyites found the transition from authoritarian Trotskyism to authoritarian Thatcherism a not too difficult step to make in the 1980s and 1990s.
One of the earliest entryist groups was the Socialist Labour League, formed in the 1950s, which later became the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). I can well remember the endearing and nostalgic sight of humourless WRP adherents who used to hang around factory gates and universities accosting worker and students trying to flog them their equally dour paper News Line. That said these days the formerly impenetrable News Line does carry the occasional insightful editorial. Surviving a bitter round of splits and expulsions, the WRP rump has stood in just over half a dozen seats in recent elections, regularly garnering pitiful vote totals. They have yet to announce to the breathlessly expectant working masses whether their presence will grace ballot papers again in May.
One of the splits from the WRP was the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), which follows the line of its American big brother party of the same name. Vigorously opposing Scottish independence and noted for a fine line in condemning all others socialist parties as ‘pseudo-left organisations‘, the SEP opposes austerity and imperialist war but also hasn’t yet said whether it will repeat its experiment of 2010 when it stood a couple of candidates.
The largest, or at least formerly the largest, Trotskyite party is (or was) the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Like the WRP, it can trace its roots back into the 1950s, being known before 1977 as International Socialists. For the ideologues of IS/SWP the USSR was bureaucratic state-capitalist, not a degenerated workers’ state, which apparently distinguished them from other socialist groups. The SWP’s secretive and cabalistic leadership clique made the most of broad front groupings to encourage recruitment into its ranks, for example the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s and 80s. In 1999, the party joined with other socialist parties – the Socialist party (see below but not to be confused with the SPGB), Alliance for Workers Liberty, Workers Power and the Independent Socialist Network – in the Socialist Alliance. Boosted by the Stop the War Coalition against Blair’s Iraq adventure, 98 candidates stood under this banner in 2001, gaining an average vote of 1.7%.
However, by 2004 the Socialist Alliance was no more, as the SWP opted in 2003 to join with George Galloway and other disaffected Labourites in the Respect-Unity Coalition. This stood 26 candidates in 2005, gaining an impressive average 6.8% of the poll and getting gorgeous George elected, the first left of Labour success since the Communist Party back in 1945. But in 2007 Galloway and the SWP fell out as each struggled to control the organisation.
Galloway’s Respect went its own way, becoming Respect Renewal and standing 11 candidates in 2010. It succeeded in maintaining its 6.8% average vote share, far higher than any other socialist party, and since then Galloway has won a stunning by-election victory in Bradford West. But Respect has come to rely heavily on Muslim communities for its support. Even in those communities, its councillors rarely seem to stick with the party. By 2014 it had lost all its local council seats to defections. This wasn’t helped by Galloway’s crass remark in 2012 about the alleged rape committed by Julian Assange. He described Assange as just exhibiting ‘bad sexual etiquette’. This triggered the predictable departure of several of Respect’s most prominent female activists.
Unthinking misogyny wasn’t limited to Galloway on the socialist left. In 2013 an anonymous Comrade Delta high up in the leadership of the SW was exposed as a serial sexual harasser. The party leadership decided the matter was internal and closed ranks, stimulating accusations of cover-up and being apologists for rapists. This also led to major defections from the SWP in 2012-13. An alleged sexist attitude to women was also a factor in the downfall of the Scottish Socialist Party’s Tommy Sheridan and his subsequent jail sentence for perjury. Although here the charismatic Sheridan had been targeted by the now thoroughly discredited News of the World. Nonetheless, such coincidences across three socialist parties might suggest a deeper problem of misogyny among Trotskyite men, one that would certainly fit a psychology of morbid authoritarianism.
Recovering from their troubles of 2012-13, Respect has so far announced five candidates for May, including Galloway (all men however), while the SWP has joined the bigger electoral coalition known as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). TUSC was launched specifically as a socialist electoral alliance for the 2010 election. It brought together socialists from parties such as the SWP with others from no party and left wing trade unionists, notably the late Bob Crow of the RMT plus members of the NUT, the Prison Officers Association, the PCSU and the Fire Brigades Union.
The political driving force behind the TUSC is the Socialist Party, which formerly had to contest elections as Socialist Alternative, as the SPGB had bagged the name Socialist Party. This, along with the SWP, is the largest of Britain’s small socialist parties. It can trace its roots back to the entryist Militant Tendency, quite influential in some parts of the Labour Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (In fact I distinctly remember a Militant militant assuring me just before the 1979 election that the working class in Camborne-Redruth were turning to Labour. They didn’t, preferring to turn to Thatcher. Such ingratitude!) Expelled by Kinnock, Militant came out as the Socialist Party in 1995. The party played a key role in the anti-poll tax campaign of 1989-90 and has a solid organisation based of course on Trotsky’s Transitional Programme. Moreover, the Socialist Party has so far remained untainted by the gender wars that have riven its rivals.
TUSC’s electoral presence has steadily grown since 2010. Last year they stood over 500 candidates in the local elections. This year, TUSC set itself the target of 100 parliamentary and 1,000 local candidates for May. While the 1,000 local candidates looks over-ambitious, TUSC has already announced the names of over 110 parliamentary hopefuls. This makes it the sixth largest all-Britain party and will guarantee it a party political broadcast. While the number of TUSC candidates grows apace, its vote remains frustratingly low and even at local elections fluctuates between the minute and the invisible, despite its resolute opposition to austerity policies. This is partly because it has little organisational presence between elections. It does have a handful of councillors, kindly expelled by Labour, in Southampton, Preston and Walsall and a couple directly elected onto Maltby Town Council (which is in South Yorkshire).
Nonetheless, TUSC and the Socialist Party are playing the long game. A regular presence on the ballot paper breeds familiarity and positions them to take electoral advantage of any sudden swing away from austerity politics or right wing populism. Remember that Syriza’s predecessor was only polling around 3% in Greece ten years ago. Or that Ukip only averaged 2.1% in 2001 come to that.
Finally, there are couple of socialist parties that don’t fit easily into either Labourism or the ‘democratic centralism’ of the Trot groups. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was originally the Militant Tendency in Scotland but since the split in 2004, when Tommy Sheridan walked out to form Scottish Solidarity (now affiliated to TUSC), followed by Socialist Party adherents, the SSP has had no formal leadership. It favours democratic public ownership, an independent socialist Scotland and is against austerity and was arguing for a pro-yes alliance after last year’s failed referendum. This didn’t happen so a half dozen or so SSP candidates are likely to appear in May on a ‘distinct anti-austerity political’ platform. In fact the SSP in 2001 stood in 72 seats and scored a 3.1% average vote, higher than any other socialist party in Britain apart from Respect.
The final party in this blizzard of acronyms is the Alliance for Green Socialism, which provides a more libertarian bridge to green politics. This is a small grouping which has its focus on Leeds. It stood half a dozen candidates in 2005 and 2010 and three candidates have so far declared their intention to stand under its banner in May.