Whichever way you slice it the general election results for the far left were poor. The average scores in contested constituencies were 0.8% SSP; 0.7% SLP; 6.4% Respect (w/out Galloway, Miah and Yaqoob, 1.35%); and 0.9% TUSC. The various grouplets (WRP, AWL etc.) that also contested a handful of seats offer no improvement on these figures. With only a few exceptions (Camberwell and Peckham, Foyle, Manchester Gorton, Pontypridd, and Wellingborough and Rushden), every seat that was contested by a far left candidate in 2005 saw a decline in vote share on Thursday. In a situation marked by economic crisis, a partial delegitimation of the political system, and a slow reviving labour movement, to not poll scores in the traditional 1-2% range should be of concern to the leaderships and thinking layers of Britain's far left. What's going on?
I would agree with the analysis of Respect's performance at Socialist Unity. In as much it has a media profile Respect is seen (and often introduced as) the "anti-war party" and its fortunes in the main are tied to the anti-war movement. But considering the scale of the split Respect went through with the SWP, that it still managed to poll extremely well in its core areas shows it's doing something right. Unfortunately for them the problems the 2005 results flagged up - highly concentrated strength and severe weakness elsewhere - was repeated in a more exaggerated form. Nevertheless, despite those eager to write Respect's obituary it remains the far left formation with the best chance of getting candidates elected at any sort of election. If it can continue to build its organisation in its core areas I fully expect Respect will be a feature of general elections to come - and see further successes as well.
There is no need to dwell on the SLP. Everyone knows this is a spoiler organisation with no life independent of Arthur Scargill's vanity. However it does show in the absence of any kind of campaign and media profile a far left organisation can poll similar numbers to other socialists who do the rounds of meetings, leafleting and door knocking. A sobering thought for the rest of the far left.
The continued decline of the SSP and Socialist Party/TUSC vote must be very disappointing for the comrades involved. Clearly the Scottish left hasn't escaped the shadow of the 2006 split - the SSP's support does not differ in degree from the rest of the far left's in England and Wales. But equally Sheridan's stock continues to fall. To poll under a thousand votes (2.9%) in Glasgow South West cannot be spun as anything other than disastrous for "Scotland's most iconic post-war socialist".
The SP vote across the board is stubbornly stuck in decline. The decision for the SP to stand under its Socialist Alternative label as opposed to TUSC in the majority of contested seats (apparently to capitalise on name recognition and assist simultaneous council contests in Lewisham and Coventry) may have acted as a brake on the scale of decline, but the tendency cannot be denied. Of particular concern must be Coventry. While it is true the SP's stronghold in St Michael's has a transient population, which helps explain why each electoral outing in the ward represents a massive challenge (though this time the SP's Rob Windsor saw a large increase in his vote, despite losing his council seat), this alone cannot account for a further decline in the SP's support. Its votes in Coventry North East, where Dave Nellist stood, declined almost by a quarter on the 2005 result. In Coventry South its proportion of vote share almost halved and in Coventry North West, which was contested for the first time, it could only manage 370 votes (0.8%). The SP simultaneously contested all Coventry's council seats and with just one exception outside St Michael's, the vote was poor (by far left standards) across the board (interestingly, Rob polled 1,783 votes - almost 200 more than the parliamentary challenge in the same constituency!)
This suggests two things. In Coventry the SP's support is so localised that outside of St Michael's its reputation does not translate into wider support. Second, its fortunes are tied to the electorate's perception of who is likely to win. Because Rob was the sitting councillor of many years and therefore was seen as a serious contender, he attracted more votes than Dave was able to secure. The same can be applied to the (apparently) anomalous votes in Lewisham, where each of the SocAlt candidates in Telegraph ward (including Ian Page himself!) polled much higher than the parliamentary vote.
If these processes are at play in the SP's core areas, what hope for election challenges outside of them? The lessons of this campaign suggests there are more openings at council level and that general election campaigns are recipes for disillusionment. For instance, I remember many local comrades lamenting the 0.9% Stoke SP polled in 2005 - to have it fall further to 0.4% can only demoralise. But at the next set of council elections there won't be a general election on the same day. Therefore if the far left want to build an electoral profile similar to Respect's it requires focused, consistent and community-centered work.
But this is problematic for Trotskyist organisations, and goes right to the heart of their political DNA. The party building model favoured by everyone from the SP to the Spartacist League is about building a centralised organisation around a newspaper. This is justified in the name of the Bolshevik experience who managed to do so (who on the far left hasn't heard the old newspaper-as-scaffolding metaphor?). But the continuation of this organising tradition down to the present day isn't because Trotskyist leaderships and cadre are stuck in an early 20th century time warp, it's an effect of operating in political situations where the far left space is tightly circumscribed. With a mass media indifferent and occasionally hostile to socialist ideas Trotskyist groups have no choice but to produce their own material, and doing so requires they spend much of their time gathering the resources to make this possible. Then, of course, this has to be distributed.
The much derided and lampooned basic repertoire of stalls, petitions, paper sales and fundraising are good for inculcating new recruits in Trotskyist politics and the need for regular rhythms of activism, but leaves little room for consistent work beyond this (excluding workplace activity). This is not helped by the unreadability of most of the far left press, which in turns is either boring or navel-gazing. This makes putting down new roots in the working class extremely difficult. Where, for instance, the SP has a real base (Coventry and Lewisham) the organisation here are of such a size that the branches can effectively divide their labours (this size however is ultimately the legacy of the organisation Militant was able to build while still inside Labour). In my experience of a moderately-sized SP branch, the comrades who did the paper selling were also the ones who did the 'wider work' too. i.e. organising/attending public meetings, union work, door knocking, etc. Theoretically a branch can reach the level of critical mass by recruiting the ones and the twos but all the time the door is revolving and existing members are lapsing into inactivity.
Therefore British Trotskyism is caught in a bind. Material necessity demands it prioritises paper selling and fundraising above all else, but this cuts it off from the opportunities focused, consistent community work affords socialist ideas. Continuing as is means keeping the printing presses going and the full timers paid, but also limiting the spread of its message. What is to be done?
There are no easy answers. The rest of the far left cannot pursue Respect's trajectory because of the constant financial demands of their party apparatuses. Neither will the far left join Labour en masse, even though the organisational state of many CLPs means it would be easy for socialists to be selected for local office. The only way open to wider, sustained influence that eschews these alternatives is the one fluffed so many times by the left these last 15 years: unity. Having one multi-tendency party would cut down on the replication of existing party bureaucracies and enable an effective division of activist labour. You never know, it could produce a populist newspaper people might actually want to read too. But given the existing divisions and different ways of relating to the labour movement and the working class, the unions' dogged determination to stick with Labour, and the closing political space to Labour's left, the prospects of such unity is as bleak as it's ever been.