Monday 2 June 2014

TUSC's Exercises in Self-Deception

Under-appreciated they may be, but local elections are a vital component of any party-building project. UKIP certainly accept this wisdom. They know that a base in local government can give them a foundation on which to build. And theirs is an ambitious project. It's not about taking Britain out of the EU, but replacing the Tories. As such, their 161 new councillors give them a start for 2015 and beyond. The far left have cottoned on to this too. In addition to haphazardly standing in the European elections as No2EU, the Socialist Party-led Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition stood in 554 council seats - apparently, a record for a left-of-Labour challenge. How did it do?

According to TUSC's official report, 12% of all council seats were contested by the coalition, up from five, four, and two per cent in 2013, 12, and 11 respectively. This was also an electoral challenge with social weight.
There were 53 candidates who were members of the RMT transport workers' union, one of the constituent organisations, of course, of TUSC. But then there were 19 Communication Workers' Union members who were candidates, 18 members of the National Union of Teachers, 16 PCS members, and 20 members of the University and College Union. From the big Labour-affiliated unions, there were 74 Unison members standing for TUSC and 130 members of Unite.
TUSC polled 68,152 votes and saw its anti-cuts councillor, Keith Morrell retain his seat in Southampton. According to Hannah Sell, the SP's deputy general secretary, this represented the anger of an "important minority of workers" ignored by the media. Nevertheless "the achievements in this election - particularly the breadth of TUSC's local election challenge - mark an important step on the road to building such a force" that can challenge Labour and stand up for working class people.

There's nothing wrong with ambition, but to achieve something you have to appraise where you are and how you might meet your destination. An honest reflection on TUSC's results would set it in the context of labour movement weakness, the - unfortunately - wide indifference to austerity, the ongoing restructuring of the British labour market, the crisis of mainstream politics, and the continued acceptance of neoliberal common sense. It also means having a sense of history - where does TUSC sit in relation to and how does it compare with the preceding regroupment projects of the previous 20 years? Has it developed any since it was founded in early 2010? It has to ask discomfiting questions such as why does it continue to poll less than spectacularly, why have the comrades who formed Left Unity given TUSC a wide berth, and why do Labour-affiliated unions remain stubbornly Labour loyal? It has to ponder on where the new party SP/TUSC want to see is likely to come from, and how their coalition is a step toward it. To answer these questions, to perform an analysis that takes all this in requires honesty. Alas, the official line coming from the SP/TUSC is fundamentally dishonest.

Take the victory of Keith Morrell in Southampton, for instance. This was one of the few areas TUSC or, to be more accurate, Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts, ran candidates in all wards. All wards that is save one: the Coxford seat. Coxford happens to be the ward which brother Morrell won. See for yourself - he was down on the ballot paper as 'Independent'. You might say it doesn't matter - the significant point was that his "bold stand" was rewarded by the electorate. Nevertheless, it does require an explanation. Did Keith think the TUSAC label would have weighed him down like a corpulent albatross? Were TUSC happy to have one of their few "star turns" spurn their label? Why have the SP/TUSC kept mum about it - is it because Keith winning can be read as legitimation of their strategy? As he himself puts it, "this result ... shows what is possible. Other significant results across the city for TUSC candidates show the potential that exists for a new party that stands up for working people." These "significant results" were coming last in all but one ward, and polling between the 15 of them gave TUSC just 40 more votes than what Keith received alone.

Let's have a look at the national "significance" of the TUSC result. 68,152 votes split between 554 candidates is an average of 123 votes. Not bad by far left standards. But putting that in perspective, the Labour Party's 95 candidates in May's by-elections got 72,754 votes. Across the local elections as a whole it won the popular vote with 2.9m votes, or just under 36%. In contrast, TUSC won 0.8%. To be fair, you might say TUSC were hampered by standing in far fewer seats. That much is true, but this comes with a caveat. Given the very limited resources available - and going from previous experience - TUSC go for seats they think are particularly favourable, and these tend to be Labour-held seats. If they consistently perform badly here, they will consistently perform badly everywhere else. If these results are genuinely about putting down a marker, those seats have to be worked repeatedly. Alas, if past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour only a very small number of those wards will be so worked, and then it will - in the vast majority of cases - be as the SP, until TUSC/TUSAC is dusted down for the next set of elections.

As for the rest, well. Let's just say cherry picking the least worst results is as embarrassing as it is silly. For example, while noting TUSC chair Dave Nellist got a "very good 974 votes" and coming second, it "forgot" to mention this was once a ward where the SP had all three councillors and that, unfortunately for Dave and his comrades, his vote share is in decline. Across Coventry too, once something of a crown jewel for the SP, in the 13 clashes with the decrepit and near-extinct BNP, the fascists outpolled TUSC in all but three of them. While it might be keen to talk up how in Birmingham 1,766 votes  were won (lower than what the LibDems polled in a number of single wards), where's the chin stroking and furrowed brows over the 12 votes here, and 19 votes there. What point is an analysis if it fights shy of setbacks and disappointments?

What about the social weight, the dozens of trade unionists and community campaigners that decided to stand for TUSC? After all, didn't Lenin once note that elections were the lowest form of class struggle? For those turned on politically by such things, the beauty pageant of candidates with union membership by their names sounds impressive. However, the one significant set of initials missing from the bulk of prospective councillors was (SP). All party members are expected to be members of their unions and certainly, the SP pulled out all the stops, urging as many members as it could to stand. This is your real reason for the preponderance of trade unionists on the list - it is factually accurate, but does not represent large numbers breaking with Labour which, of course, is the intended impression it wants to convey.

No one is naive enough to think the SP leadership are interested in a sober analysis of where its flagship project stands. Their treatment of TUSC's results are exercises in self-deception. It's fodder to keep the troops marching, to demonstrate to them that the campaign was worth it and that real successes were made. Sure, TUSC was squeezed by UKIP mania and there was a media blackout but 68,000 votes represent a real echo among the class. Etcetera, etcetera. More importantly, however, the SP desperately need to keep the RMT on board. With a crunch election coming in 2015, whoever wins September's ballot, the new boss will be under pressure to back Labour next May, a pressure made all the stronger now there are clear, discernible differences between it and Dave's hapless, vicious Tories. Talking up TUSC's "achievements" and the absence of any kind of open, critical reflection has to be seen in this context. The SP and its eternal general secretary knows as well as I that if the RMT goes, not only will the TUSC project be sunk but it will have a profoundly demoralising impact on a whole layer of party activists. In short, it would be a disaster and back to square one.

Overall, contrast the SP's analysis and commentary with the heavy load of words expended by Labour people looking at last Thursday's results. One set of comment has been asking searching questions about their party's levels of support - whether it's enough to win next year, whether the electoral base is fraying, whether it too is prone to UKIP's predations. Meanwhile, the other content themselves with a self-satisfied mangled marriage of boosterism and excuses. It is, yet again, another symptom of an avowedly Trotskyist organisation unable or unwilling to use the categories they lay claim to make sense of their own position. What's going on when the sell-out Labourites are more Marxist than the Marxists?


John Boadle said...

Phil, I took part in TUSC’s campaign in Coventry, where the electoral outcome was a bit disappointing. So yep, bit down, thought hard about what had happened, did calculations and discussed with others. Because really we’re not especially self-deceiving.
Firstly as you know we aimed to reach the 600-odd candidate threshold the BBC imposes before you get coverage. This was an ambitious target, several times what we’d managed previously. In the end 554 candidates stood, so not quite there but four or five times as many as before. That’s rather successful.
In vote terms there were no breakthroughs but quite a few encouraging scores around 20%. You have previously suggested that 1-2% is a relatively respectable result for Left candidates. We got an average of 3.4% this time, so about double that. Sure, mainstream parties won’t be losing any sleep j yet but it’s ok. And it’s not based on going for the most favourable seats. When you go all-out to stand as many people as possible you obviously have little choice where they end up being.
Then you say we’re being embarrassing to cherry-pick the best results. Isn’t that what you’re doing? Well whatever the opposite of cherry-picking is, obviously. Shit-picking? It’s true our vote was down in Cov including Dave Nellist’s ward. There was a series of specific reasons why we took a hit here this time. I can list them if you’re interested. It’s a bummer, but it’s not representative of elsewhere. But we recruited members for the SP here and involved FBU and RMT activists, which is partly why we stand in elections. You ask (rhetorically) how TUSC’s campaign reflects on the development of the initiative. It’s going alright. In a 2010 posting your main jibe was that the RMT didn’t actually support TUSC. You couldn’t say that now. How they could support it more? It’s gone through RMT conference and survived challenges from the Labour-ites. More Left groups have come in. The ISN has been established. Demonstrations and picket lines have a visible TUSC presence. Meanwhile, how exactly has Labour developed its project of representing organised workers? Mainly by shoving them from arm’s length to barge-pole length. When it’s not calling the police on them for trying to exert an influence.
Now then, coming onto our ‘dishonesty’ in accentuating the positive. Show me a party that doesn’t. Any party, anywhere, at any time? And show me a bourgeois party that doesn’t spin the facts, when they’re not just plain lying. You are in the Labour Party ffs, and you accuse us of spin?
Finally, in your last paragraph, were you trying to provoke some response? If not, well I’m baffled, because I had always been under the impression that you are a thoughtful chap, and within your Labour body beats something of a Marxist heart. Just in case I’m wrong I’ll try and answer your strange argument. Of course there will have been some ‘searching questions’ within Labour about their relative result. For most of them it’s crucial because their jobs, their careers, their future ministerial limos and places in history depend on getting elected. Actually they don’t exercise their minds about much else nowadays, because that’s what their party is for and why they’re in it. It’s like say, a racing car team debating how they can make their car get round faster than the others. Apart from dubious banter I should imagine it’s all they ever talk about. That doesn’t make them Marxists, Phil. Nor does career politicians discussing how to get the most votes.
Whilst it’s not quite so much a matter of life and death to us trots, we do our level best to assess the results of our campaigns. Just not solely the vote. Equally important are questions like how well did we mobilise our members and sympathisers to work in the campaign (happy), did we recruit new members (yes) and what are the implications for the future of TUSC and other campaigns (positive). Big votes would have been nice, but we didn’t expect anything very different in the context of UKIP and the sort of factors you mention.

Phil said...

The involvement of the SWP in TUSC this time round is interesting, although clearly not significant!

It's a wretched story. I've done some quick number-crunching on the Manchester City Council results, which show quite a lot of volatility thanks to the collapse of the Lib Dems. There were 33 seats contested (32 wards, but one had two vacancies); Labour won all of them.

The Green Party stood 32 candidates, who got an average vote of 455 (high 1002, low 116); they came second to Labour in 11 wards (four of which I'd class as a good second place), and last in one (with 351 votes).

TUSC stood 10 candidates, who got an average vote of 89 (high 207, low 30); they came third in one ward, second-last in two and last in seven wards. (In one ward they were second-last with 64 votes; the Lib Dem got 62.)

Not fair to compare a well-oiled machine like the Manchester Greens with a relatively new initiative like TUSC? Read on...

UKIP stood 12 candidates, who got an average vote of 725 (high 1406, low 189); they came second to Labour in ten of the 12 (seven of which I'd class as a good second place), third in one and second-last in the other (with 369 votes; TUSC came last with 38).

I'm all in favour of trade unionists and socialists against cuts, God knows. But first you do the campaigning and get yourselves known, then you've got a chance of making an impact at an election. (Dave Nellist of all people used to know this. What's happened to the SP?)

Ben Norman said...

Many fair points Phil, but I don't think Keith being an Independent on the ballot is the contradiction you believe it to be. As an (occasional) part of the canvassing team, I think it's fair to say that many people in Coxford would have voted for Keith no matter which banner he stood under, due to his strong local record.

As I understand it, the original intention was for the ballot to represent his Council group name 'Putting People First' a slogan/brand that Keith and Don have used in Coxford for some time now and so has a certain degree of recognition. While the local media wasn’t always consistent about it, they did identify Keith as a supporter of TUSC. See this Echo piece which states: “... is standing for re-election in Coxford in tandem with the Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts.” ( This was reiterated in conversations on the doorstep.

While Coxford is slightly trickier than elsewhere, everyone in TUSC has a similar duel identity. For example, in Portsmouth we were keen to stress that 8 of the 14 candidates were members of the RMT, including former Council of Executives and TUSC steering committee member Sean Hoyle.

The key point is that Keith was recognized as a fighting councilor and the voters turned out to support him in what was historically Labour’s strongest ward in the city.

Phil said...

John, I think your reply could have been written in 2010, 2011, 2012 etc. That's not a bad thing in and of itself because TUSC is in pretty much the same position as it was back then. It face the same obstacles, the same lack of resources, the same "special circumstances" in St Michael's, and so on. The problem is that the analysis you offer, which is free of boosterism and does assess things as you see them, is a mile away from the official response. You might not be deceiving yourself, but the editorial line of your paper is certainly a case of self-deception. It's about not demoralising the troops and turning a brave face to the RMT who, it has to be said, have hardly made a qualitative difference to TUSC's fortunes.

Phil said...

That's fair enough, Ben. But it begs the question - if folk were confident that people would have backed Keith regardless of the banner, why couldn't he have stood as TUSC (or TUSAC)?

It's also worth noting independents get voted in all the time, with or without Keith's anti-cuts record. Knowing politics, I am pretty certain his vote got a boost from standing as such.

Mat said...

To be honest the reports from the TUSCites could have been written about the Socialist Alliance in 2001 and 2002.

George Hallam said...

In Lewisham, John Hamilton, People Before Profit candidate for the mayor, won 6,014 first preference votes (8.33 per cent).

In the council elections Lewisham People Before Profit stood 22 candidates out of a possible total of 54.

Of the 73,000 people participating, more than 10,000 people (14 percent) voted for People Before Profit candidates*. The mean vote was 589 (highest 1259, lowest 309 standard deviation 202.3)

This was not enough to win any seats, however, Lewisham People Before is now second to Labour in six seats. LPBP candidates out-polled the Green Party in nine of the 18 wards of the borough.

TUSC stood 12 candidates in 10 of the 18 wards. At least 1798 people voted for TUSC candidates. The mean vote was 228 (highest 659, lowest 104 standard deviation 227.9).

* This is the sum of the votes in the 16 wards where we stood one candidate, plus the vote of the top candidate in the two wards where we stood a full slate of three candidates. The precise total was 10,440 (14.27 per cent).

David Furnell said...

As a Labour Party activist in Southampton I can give a bit more background on Keith Morrell.
He was originally elected in 2010 as a Labour councillor and in the following two years was part of the team which put together our manifesto for the 2012 election where we won power from the Tories. In no meeting before we took power did he raise his objections to Labour Party policy locally or come up with an alternative for discussion.
He was given a cabinet post in 2012 which incidentally dealt with how the new Labour Council would find savings without affecting front line services, he resigned this post within 10 days and a month later resigned with his ward colleague to form his own group.
In the two years since Cllr Morrell has made no contribution to the running of the city, has come up with no new ideas and the two Coxford councillors invariably vote with the Tory group against the Labour administration.
There are issues in Coxford ward such as the swimming pool which was closed by the previous Tory administration which was losing £250k a year and needed investment, the pool is now run by a community group and is not losing money. Cllr Morrell also opposed the building of 180 new council housing in his ward.
Cllr Morrell is a very poor councillor who spends his time looking for a pat on the back but always runs away from hard decisions

Phil said...

Apologies for the belated response in case anyone is reading this.

Re: Lewisham PBP, it's pretty obvious - the very creditable results you achieved is because you have worked there consistently under the same name for years. It also demonstrates that fundamentally the SP is a sectarian organisation - they put their man forward as a PBP candidate, he didn't get selected, but they stood anyway. How they think they'll ever manage in their hoped-for new workers' party phantasm with this kind of behaviour will be interesting to see.

Phil said...

Wasn't Keith also a member of Socialist Appeal too?