BY ALISON DELLIT
"We started election campaigning in a handful of seats, now we're moving towards 100 local branches throughout England and Wales", Marcus Larsen, the chairperson of the London Socialist Alliance told Green Left Weekly.
In the June 7 British general elections, the relatively new Socialist Alliance contested 96 seats in England and Wales, and worked in solidarity with the Scottish Socialist Party, which fielded candidates in all of Scotland's 72 seats.
In the seats in which the alliance stood, it received an average of 2.4% of the vote, significant for a new, anti-capitalist political organisation in a non-preferential system. (Unlike Australia, seats in the British House of Commons are allocated to the candidate with the highest primary vote, so a Socialist Alliance voter is denied the opportunity of indicating a preference between a Labour government and a Tory one.)
Larsen, who is also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and on the Socialist Alliance's national executive, spoke to Green Left Weekly about the campaign when he was in Australia during late June.
It was the first time that the Socialist Alliance ran in a British general election, and the first election that Tony Blair's "New Labour" government faced since coming to power in 1996. Blair has taken the Labour Party dramatically to the right — repudiating socialist rhetoric and openly embracing a pro-corporate, pro-privatisation regime.
This has been deeply unpopular with sections of Labour's traditional support base in Britain, where rail privatisation is widely considered responsible for an increase in fatal train accidents.
The Socialist Alliance campaigned heavily for nationalisation of the railways — under workers' and passengers' control. Other foci of the election campaign were defending the National Health Service, opposing Britain's racist immigration policies and defending and extending trade union rights.
Larsen views the alliance's involvement in the elections as a thorough success, despite the fact that it received a lower percentage of the vote than was received by the London Socialist Alliance in the May 2000 city council elections.
"The general elections put Socialist Alliance on the radar", Larsen said, pointing to the large amount of media coverage it received, as well as the dramatic increase in the number of alliance local branches. "The main success was strengthening our cooperation and organisational functioning. The Socialist Alliance is a new beast, and many of the constituent left organisations don't have much experience in electoral work, or in working with each other. We are breaking down decades of mistrust."
According to Larsen, the alliance identified two main constituencies in the election. Firstly, ex-Labour voters who were disgruntled and disgusted by the move to the right under New Labour. Secondly, those who have been disenfranchised by the electoral process entirely: anti-capitalist youth, the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities and poor white communities.
The elections had the lowest voter turnout in Britain since 1918. "Because of [the low turnout] I think the Socialist Alliance has to present itself as different sort of electoral vehicle. We need to say 'We are not of the political establishment, we are something different, we are ordinary people with political vision'."
Any Socialist Alliance candidates elected to parliament would only accept an average worker's wage, giving the bulk of their parliamentary salaries to support campaigns to defend working people.
This "different sort of politics" was evident in the sort of campaign that the Socialist Alliance ran. Unlike other party's policies, the alliance's 12 "priority pledges" were not just promises to be implemented when and if the alliance formed government. Instead they provided a platform for the Socialist Alliance to conduct activity around immediately.
This was clear from the beginning of the election campaign. On January 25, the alliance kicked off its campaign with simultaneous railway station actions in 15 different electorates calling for the re-nationalisation of the railways.
This was the first of many protests Socialist Alliance activists organised during the election campaign, ranging from protests against sanctions on Iraq to joint-action with the Chinese community to oppose the scapegoating of Chinese restaurants operators for the disastrous spread of foot and mouth disease.
In one of the more original actions, Socialist Alliance activists turned up to a New Labour function attended by the deputy prime minister John Prescott. When Prescott failed to show on time, activists kept up their spirits, singing "Why is Prescott oh so late, do dah, do dah; Why is Prescott oh so late — he must have caught the train!"
Under intense media pressure, Prescott invited Socialist Alliance candidate Claire Kime onto the platform to discuss rail nationalisation, before retreating into his campaign "battle bus".
In St Helens South, Socialist Alliance candidate Neil Thompson received 7% of the vote. "St Helens reflected the contradiction within New Labour", Larsen explained. The New Labour candidate for the seat, Sean Woodward, was previously a Conservative member of the House of Commons before deciding that New Labour's politics had moved so far to the right that they now matched his own better than the Tories.
Neil Thompson was a member of the Labour Party for 20 years, and a former local chairperson of the firefighters' union. He was so outraged at the decision to hand the safe Labour seat to Woodward (who once boasted that "even my butler has a butler"), that he told the party "I've had enough, this is the last straw", and quit. Although he considered standing as an independent, Thompson was convinced to join the Socialist Alliance after discussions at the Fire Brigade Union conference.
According to Larsen, the Thompson experience is a growing one in the party, although still a minority. He cites the high profile cases of Mike McHazy, the former editor of Labour Left Weekly, and former member of the Labour Party national executive Liz Davies, who both joined the alliance last year.
"In most cases though", he continued "the branches are the existing left groups plus a few individuals. Now that we've shown that we are some sort of alternative it's about building on that and involving ourselves in communities and workplaces to the extent that we can.
"This means that we have to go beyond being a purely electoral vehicle, and we've done that already".
The Socialist Alliance has been discussing its relationship with the trade unions. The alliance held a series of fringe meetings with union officials in the lead up to the elections, and is planning its own trade union activists' conference.
"A number of trade unions have seen rising disgruntlement with the Labour Party", Larsen argues. "We don't have an affiliation structure, and we don't take a position on affiliation. But we think that unions' political funds should come to us."
During the election campaign the Fire Brigade Union adopted a policy, proposed by Socialist Alliance members, allowing its political fund to be paid to any candidate or party which reflected the policies of the union. Previously the funds went to the Labour Party automatically.
The Socialist Alliance is also discussing its relationship with the anti-corporate movement. "Socialist Alliance was very involved in the May Day demonstrations earlier this year", Larsen said. "And we have endorsed the demonstrations in Gothenburg and Genoa. Most of our members are mobilised through Globalise Resistance, which the Socialist Workers Party initiated. But given that we have identified anti-capitalist youth as one of our constituencies, I think we need a more public involvement.
"One of the problems is that the main initiatives of the anti-capitalist movement have often come from an anarchist background. The socialist left's involvement came a little later."
All of these perspectives will be discussed at the Socialist Alliance's conference in November.
Larsen believes that the future of the alliance is bright. "People are always saying to the far left, 'Why don't you lot all get together?'. We're saying we are — and the debate now is on what sort of basis, what sort of party and what forces should be involved.
"Our platform needs to be about transferring power to ordinary people. It's about ordinary people having solutions over their own lives, not the state, not legislation, not even the trade unions necessarily, but working class communities themselves developing the answers. It's by inspiring people in their own power that we can build the alliance and take the next steps."