Hard on the heels of their drubbing in the Eastleigh by-election last week, comes the news that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition have won their first ever election under their own colours reports Harry Blackwell.
Standing under the description of “Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts”, Joe Robinson of the Socialist Party won a by-election yesterday (7th March) for Maltby Town Council North Ward in Yorkshire. It was an emphatic victory with Joe winning 303 votes against 201 votes to the ‘Independent’ candidate, on a turnout of 16%. The success was based on grass roots campaigning by the energetic 20 year old local-born welder who managed to force the Labour-controlled council to call a by-election.
However, before we get carried away that the revolution has arrived, a reality check is needed. This was a parish council by-election. Parish Councils are the lowest tier of English local government and have very few powers and small budgets, mainly concerned with the upkeep of parks and cemeteries. They are usually found in rural areas – in the case of Maltby, it’s a small working class former mining community of 17,000 people within the Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council area. Their budgets are typically in tens of thousands of pounds, not the millions and even billions spent by larger Councils. Parish elections tend to attract little interest and are sometimes uncontested or only fought by candidates describing themselves as ‘Independent’. In the case of this by-election, there was only one other candidate – a so-called ‘Independent’, who had previously stood as a Labour candidate in another parish! While Labour currently control both Maltby Town Council and Rotherham Borough Council, so toxic is the ‘Labour’ brand in the wake of the disgrace of former Rotherham MP Dennis Macshane resigning over expenses, and the Rotherham childcare scandal over UKIP that exploded in the by-election last November, Labour’s preferred candidate went under the ‘Independent’ description and was rumoured to be planning on ‘defecting’ to Labour after winning the by-election. In addition, the ‘Independent/Labour’ candidate did not even live in the town of Maltby itself! Labour made a major mistake in this cynical ploy, and the energetic campaign by Joe Robinson and TUSC has made a breakthrough.
It will be hard work to repeat the success in future election campaigns when there might be a wider electoral field, but nevertheless 303 votes is an excellent foundation on which to build. The success of Joe Robinson’s campaign is a lesson for TUSC and all other socialists in how to build an electoral presence. In Eastleigh, TUSC chose a candidate who lived 20 miles away and had no local roots. As Nick Wrack of the Independent Socialist Network has pointed out, despite Daz Proctor being an excellent trade unionist he was never going to be able to build an impact in the short time of a parliamentary by-election, and for a party that has no visibility outside elections. Contrast that with Maltby, where the candidate, Joe Robinson, was from a local socialist family and fought hard to actually have the election held in the first place.
Maltby is not actually in the Rotherham parliamentary constituency – it’s in the neighbouring Rother Valley constituency of Labour’s Kevin Barron. Barron is himself from Maltby and was a former Militant Tendency (precursor of the Socialist Party) supporter who worked at the local pit. Barron was aligned with Arthur Scargill and supported by the left-wing National Union of Mineworkers to get nominated to parliament . However once in parliament he became a Blair loyalist, left the Campaign Group of left-wing MPs and was expelled from the NUM. Like Macshane, he has been implicated in expenses difficulties, though he has so far managed to avoid Macshane’s disgrace.
The next elections in Rotherham will be the Borough Council elections in May 2014. Given that Respect did so much better than TUSC in the Rotherham parliamentary constituency by-election and have promised to stay and contest future elections from their base in Bradford, it makes sense for TUSC and Respect to work closely together to agree a division of wards to contest at Borough level and to prepare the way for candidates in the General Election in 2015. Socialist Resistance’s policy is that it would be far better for there to be just one left wing candidate in each ward and constituency.
There are two other councillors who support TUSC, the SWP’s Michael Lavalette in Preston and the Democratic Labour Party’s Pete Smith in Walsall, though neither was elected under the ‘TUSC’ umbrella. For Joe Robinson and Michael Lavalette, taking part in TUSC is easy. They are members of the SP and SWP respectively and their organisations are represented on the TUSC steering committee. However any of their supporters who are not in the SP and SWP are unable to join TUSC currently, and therefore denied the right to take part in TUSC’s decision-making processes. This ‘democratic deficit’ in TUSC has existed for the three year’s since it was founded. Unfortunately the SP and SWP show no signs of changing that, and therefore, in spite of the huge potential that exists for an electoral force to the left of Labour, TUSC is in danger of going nowhere. For now, it is right to celebrate Joe Robinson’s victory. But the longer term challenge of building a consistent and democratic socialist alternative is not going to go away after one small election victory.
It is to be hoped that the ‘Maltby Spring’ will lead to a serious re-evaluation.