The space to the left of Labour just got huge

Photo Tim Green aka atoachThis is the editorial from the upcoming issue of Socialist Resistance.

George Galloway’s Bradford West victory, like the student revolt in December 2010, the inner city riots of August 2011, the Occupy movement in October was an event that no one predicted. Yet, as Galloway said in his acceptance speech, his election was the most sensational result in by-election history involving a left candidate. He polled 18,341 votes (55.9%) with a 10,140 majority. His Labour opponent Imran Hussain won a humiliating 8,201 votes (25%) although this was a triumph compared to the Lib Dems’ 1,505 votes (4.6%).

A bombshell hit British politics. Galloway, who had stood on an anti-cuts, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-establishment platform, had polled more votes than all the other candidates put together – and on a 50.8% turnout, good in by-election terms! Only 4 out of 10 voters voted for the three establishment parties. Labour slumped from 45.2% at the last election to just 24.9%. The Tories nosedived from 25% at the last election to just 8.4% and the Lib Dems, a coalition partner in Government, lost their deposit.

Like the August riots this was clearly an explosion waiting to happen. And it was generated by the same brooding discontent – particularly amongst young people who are alienated from the political establishment. It was a rejection, in a highly multi-cultural city, of 10 years of wars, occupations, Islamophobia, and attacks on the poorest in society. It followed Osborne’s blatant reward the rich budget and the cash for access scandal, which had dominated the media in the days before the vote. It also came shortly after Leanne Wood’s election as leader of Plaid Cymru, another sign that people are willing to support a radical alternative. Leanne describes herself as a socialist republican, a rare breed in mainstream politics in the British state.

There was a huge surge to Respect as the campaign connected with young people in particular, including large numbers of young women who are trapped in an increasingly divided and impoverished society. They are faced with deteriorating social conditions made worse by the Con Dem austerity drive, the de-industrialisation in the Northern cities, and the increasing north-south divide. Those who came forward in large numbers to fight the campaign so well have dealt the movement a great service and deserve our thanks and congratulations. Respect now has the task of winning these young people to its organisation for the long term.

French parallel

The Respect result was a rejection, however, not only of the Con Dems and their policies, but Labour’s appalling timidity in fighting them. It was a vote of no confidence in their pathetic ‘too deep too fast’ approach and their inability to present a clear alternative to the economic crisis. In fact much of the Labour Party electoral machine in Bradford went over to Respect, at the start of the campaign, including the agent. When Radio 4 went to a Labour Club after the election they could only find one person who had voted Labour.

There is also a remarkable parallel to the Bradford result, at the European level, in the gains made by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche, in the presidential election in France. The Front de Gauche, which is backed by the French Communist Party, has shot up from 6% to over 15% in a few months, overtaking Marine Le Penn’s Front National in the process. It has transformed the election and has pushed Francois Hollande, the candidate of the Parti Socialist (PS) (the French equivalent of the Labour Party) to the left in the process.

Mélenchon, like Galloway, is a left social democratic ex-parliamentarian with a strong populist flair who broke with the PS. Although his platform is more comprehensive many of his demands echo Galloway’s campaign. He calls for a cap on the highest incomes, the dismantling of NATO, control of the banks, ecological planning, withdraw from Afghanistan, a referendum on the EU Treaty, and for the right of workers to take over factories faced with closure. He has been scathing and effective in his attacks on the far right.

George Galloway has been accused, by his detractors, of ‘playing the Muslim card’. And he has certainly enjoyed strong support amongst Muslim voters since he was expelled from the Labour Party for his opposition to the war drive. The facts, however, do not support this allegation. In the University ward of the constituency, for example, which is both multi-cultural and young, Respect polled a remarkable 83% of the vote. In fact Respect won a majority in all six wards in the constituency, including in the mostly white working class and semi-rural areas, which the Tories have often taken in the past.

Nor was his campaign based on conservative community networks which exist in some sections of immigrant communities. In fact an important part of the surge to Respect was a result of a rebellion by young Muslims against the local community and patriarchal networks which Labour had relied on for its four decades in office in the constituency. Galloway called publicly for an end to what he called village and mafia politics. Although these local factors are important they cannot in the end explain the scale of the victory which Respect achieved.

An opportunity

The lesson for the left from Bradford, therefore, could hardly be clearer: the space to the left of Labour had just got huge. An opportunity has opened up, in the teeth of a worsening economic crisis, for the left to offer a real alternative. This demonstrates, as with Mélenchon in France, that the left can make the running even at a time of severe economic crisis.

The opening of such a space raises, once again, the issue of a new broad, pluralist, party to the left of Labour – something which has been both urgent and possible in England for at least 10 years if the left had been prepared to put its collective weight behind it. This has already happened in a number of other European countries. The Red Green Alliance in Denmark and the Left Block in Portugal are examples of this.

There has already been a lively discussion of the implications of the Bradford result in many places – including on the blogs. Andrew Burgin responds to this on the Socialist Unity site by saying: “The problem with all these assessments of the Respect victory is that despite saying many correct things they all neglect to deal with what must be the central issue of the moment – that perhaps Respect itself can become the serious political party to the left of Labour that is so vital to the advance of the interests of the working class in Britain today.”

What Andrew ignores is that building such a party was something Respect singularly failed to do during the years when it was at the height of its support. George Galloway defeated Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow in the general election of June 2005. By May 2006 Respect had 18 local councillors including 13 in Tower Hamlets. Salma Yaqoob had built a mass base in south Birmingham and was elected to the council.

What was resisted at every stage by George Galloway and the SWP when they were jointly the leading forces in Respect, was building the organisation as a political party. They insisted on building it as a loose network or coalition focusing on elections in core seats. This was always problematic. It was hard to retain members, particularly independents. There was no internal political life. Little was done between elections. New members could be recruited during an election campaign but when it was over they would drift away.

After Respect was founded in January 2004 it had a membership of well over 5,000. Within two years, however, it had gone into decline. At the time of the split with the SWP in November 2007 it was already half that number. By the time of the Bradford campaign it was down to a few hundred members.

In fact a Respect conference had been called, just before the Bradford by-election, to discuss the future of Respect. The principal proposal from the leadership was to downgrade electoral work for the foreseeable future, and turn Respect into a Respect Foundation which could organise the occasional meeting or conference.

The resolution said the following: “The choice for Respect now is how we continue the work we have started. It is clear that under our current electoral system, with Labour in opposition, the opportunities to fight successful election campaigns are going to be few and far between. While we should keep open the possibility of fighting elections in the future, it can no longer be at the centre of our activity.”

It went on to call for: “Support the formation of the Respect Foundation as a non-party political body that is clearly in the anti-imperialist, anti-austerity camp while remaining above electoral politics”.

Bradford changed everything

Bradford changed all that. The conference was cancelled when the election was called. Today big opportunities have opened up for Respect, arguably even bigger than before. Its membership has reportedly doubled since the result and not just in Bradford. More will join. Respect will clearly expand its Bradford base by winning council seats next month. There are big opportunities, particularly in other Northern cities, in the next general election and in by elections if they occur.

The question is posed, however, as to how the most can be made of this opportunity, not just for Respect but for the wider movement. How it can contribute not only to tackling the crisis or working class representation but politically stiffen the fight against the cuts and the Con Dems. This should be an issue for the whole movement and not just for Respect, although its central role is obvious. Andrew Burgin argues that: “Surely nobody in their right mind will expect the party that achieved this to dissolve itself or stand aside because some on the left now see the possibility of building a new political organisation.”

It would certainly be ludicrous to suggest that Respect should dissolve itself or stand aside after such a result. What is posed, however, is whether the left in its various strands is prepared to be bold enough, and imaginative enough, to rise to the challenge, break from the past, and begin unite around this new situation; whether Respect is prepared to do the same and reach out to the rest of the left.

There will be others on the left standing candidates in May as well as Respect. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) will be standing a range of candidates. Socialist Resistance (SR) is calling for a vote for TUSC where we think they are the best left candidate standing. But TUSC is a top down organisation which refuses to adopt a democratic structure or reach out to other organisations on the left. SR has been refused membership, for example. A new party of whose members are doctors is being formed from the fight against the Lansley Bill. It is also planning to stand against Lib Dems in the general election and possibly in some council elections. It has already scored 15% in Tory test polling.

In the light of all this, we appeal to Respect to involve the wider movement in discussing the way forward by calling an open conference to discuss the Bradford result and how to maximise its impact in terms of working class representation. There is a lot to discuss. There is an urgent need to involve the unions in the way forward in terms of working class representation. Bob Crow has called for a new party of the left as a result of the Bradford result, which raises the issue of what kind of organisation is needed to meet the opportunities which have been presented.


At the level of local government the backlash that elected George Galloway in Bradford could see other anti-cuts councillors elected under various banners in different parts of the country. This raises the issue of how anti-austerity councillors could begin to work more effectively together. Green councillors in Brighton have unfortunately voted for cuts and nowhere is a stand being made at the local government level. The only exception of which we know is Barking and Dagenham councillor George Barratt who was expelled from the Labour Party for refusing to support a cuts budget. It is urgent to discuss how to turn this situation around. There are other questions looming. What would a group of Respect councillors in Bradford do if they are elected in May?

Finally there is the overarching issue of the internal democracy of broad left organisations. After four years in the Socialist Alliance and five years in Respect the main conclusion we in Socialist Resistance drew was that the internal democracy of such organisations at every level is a precondition for their long term development as broad and pluralist organisations. This can give them the ability to draw into their ranks, and hold for the for the long term, those who are breaking from the politics of sell-out, compromise, and betrayal.

These are some of the reasons why we think such an open conference, called without preconditions, is urgently needed and could act to develop collective discussion on the way forward and materially strengthen the struggle against the Con Dems.

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14 Comments on The space to the left of Labour just got huge

  1. Larry Nugent // 16th April 2012 at 6:45 am // Reply

    You are deluding yourself,if you think calling for an open conference will create a broad front acceptable to Respect, George believes he is a well oiled machine capable of furrowing his own course with or without Respect and SR our any other. Stick to building TUSC.

  2. Trouble is Larry that unless the problem of democracy is seriously addressed it’s going to be a case of same old same old unfortunately; and TUSC doesn’t seem to have broken from the old way of doing things.

  3. I think you need to look at the situation here in France a little more closely before citing it as an example. The dynamic alliance that is the Front du Gauche has taken a long time to come together in its present form.
    The transition of the PCF from Stalinism to essentially left wing social democracy has been painful and in many senses before the FdG aimless. The old ways couldn’t continue but the new left configuration unclear. In many ways it was the PS who pushed the Party in the right direction. The PS has for years wanted to rid itself of the PCF, the rise of the NPS and the move to the right- linking up with the centre a la Blairism, the deals with the Greens gave them the ‘space’ they needed and forced the PCF to look for a new road. It also lead to the alienation of the PS’s own left wing which lead to the creation of Melechon’s PdG.
    The formation of the FdG therefore can actually be seen as in some ways a continuation of the Left of the PS and PCF collaboration, and at the same time as a new Left formation occupying the ground left by the rightward shift of the PS.
    That said however, I think the break down of the PCF’s hegemony on the Left of the PS has lead a to a wide range of interesting and more creative formations, such as FASE and of course the early days of the NPA. But there has also been a number of creative bridging projects that have built up a new levels of trust in and amongst the Left, the Politis call for a new left lead to an interesting break off from the PCF in the form of FASE whhich pulled together a number of anti-globalisation organisations that were grouped together and active in Attac. It’s highest profile members are probably Clémentine Autain, who was elected on the PCF list to the Paris Council and is the director of Reagards, the four former PCF deputees Patrick Braouezec, François Asensi, Jacqueline Fraysse, and Pierre Zarka and Patrick Jarry, the Mayor of Nanterre and François Asensi Mayor of Trembley also on the outskirts of Paris- all elected under the PCF banner. Not totally sure how you would describe their politics, Euro is a bit old fashioned- modernists? democratic communists? Difficult to put your finger on it really.
    But my point is that a lot of the leg work for a left realighment had been put in place by organisations such as the Copernic Foundation, Espace Marx, Politis, Regards, and Attac that pulled together the various strands of the Left.
    The involvement in the FdG of the smaller groups, such the Gauche Unitaire has I think been much more impactful that mere numbers reflect. The development of the lists and policies has involved much more give and take than the PCF has a tradition of being open to. It has also generated real debate within the PCF itself- a rare event in itself, trust me the level of political debate in PCF meetings is pretty low. Party meetings tend to be dominated by local union issues, council politics and organisation.
    What the PCF does bring to the FdG is its immense political and financial machine. The size of the machine is rather unimaginable for UK leftists to get their heads around. It is the logistical support of the Party that has organised the huge rallies Melechon is holding, from the basic infrastructure, to negotiating with SNCF to lay on TGVs, to pulling in communists and supporters to the actual rallies. The country is literally fly postered from Top to Bottom with FDG and PCF campaign posters, every market in just about every town for the last three months has been leafleted, most large work places. Factory meetings are back in fashion.
    The PCF may be ideally placed to organise a mass occupation of the old people’s homes of France but it appears there’s life in the old dog yet. The FdG has managed to mobilise and engage both the young and the non-voting working class in a way that the Left has been unable to do for decades.
    How the FdG develops after the elections will be interesting to see, there have been calls from the likes of FASE to set up a membership organisation, but I can’t see the PCF which already has a strong national organisation being comfortable with that.

  4. If Galloway’s Respect victory in Bradford West isn’t a wake up call to the entire left in all it’s diversity that the majority of working class and poor people, and even plenty of middle-class people too, are sick to the back teeth of the Camercleggiband entire political class in this country then I don’t know what is!! Don’t let sectarian difference get in the way of seeing this result for what it is … a seismic protest vote to the left of the majority of our class in Bradford West. Something that should and will give hope and inspiration to millions of others across other cities, towns and deprived rural areas. It’s a no-brainer that an open conference should be called … but HOW this is facilitated to actively involve and engage those very layers that are coming into political activity through this radicalisation is another question. I think it’s time for Respect and the rest of the left to think boldly and really open out to engage these layers every which way possible.

  5. “Stick to building TUSC.” Larry, as it mentions in the article we applied to affiliate to TUSC but were not allowed to. Or to be more precise we were told by a member of one of its component organisations that they would oppose us being allowed to affilitate. Although our request was to be discussed at its January leadership meeting we are still awaiting a response.

    Of course TUSC’s success is not contingent on whether or not SR is allowed to participate in the functioning of the organisation. That’s not the point. At issue is a methodology which relies on anti-democratic backroom deals. For us democracy in political organisations is an absolute matter or principle not just because it’s good in itself but because it strenghtens the confidence and combativity of the working class.

  6. My experience of working with TUSC is not good ! I see little evidence that a meaningful coalition works on the ground where it matters in the “Public arena”! Distrust and edging around the issues are widespread on it seems, all sides.I think the Left(SW/SP/WL/Etc as at present constituted will not really attempt it until its too late. All want their own advantages out of the coalition- and see it as yet another “Party Building Exercise” and not to build “the Movement “at all ! Thats the issue the Left refuses to face in my view. They will perhaps come together in a more meaningful-sincere attempt if the French Elections show a huge growth for the Left Coalition there. It could be that the combination of the Left Coalition and the Soc Party is enough on paper to oust Sarkozy. If that happens, then I think the CP may want to get onboard as it is in France(Unlike in the UK- not in the TUSC )-My view is that the others don’t have the right to exclude any Left Tendency that wants to participate, but there must be ground rules, that cover what’s being worked for, and the “Party Building V Movement ” dichotomy must be resolved ! Obviously I support SR being part of the coalition. Hence the coalitions agreement is wanting a real set of rules- they’ve not worked out any sort of working agreement at all- its a slung together last minute cock up job. The real work building such a coalition has not been done at all.Its just a simple “coming together for convenience- which cannot really work long term. We need a lot more than this to get something effective electorally, off the ground. I do want a “New Workers Party/Movement” ! I do think the New Labour Party has had it long term. I cannot wait to bury it. We cannot allow the Class to have no effective voice in the Media/Press- Councils etc opposing the Cuts- and demanding the end to pauperisation of our people.Rodney Kay -Kreizman

  7. Mark Douglas // 17th April 2012 at 4:57 pm // Reply

    Yes lets learn the lessons fron the french elections.
    Then we must apply them to the british context.All left groups have to combine in a new socialist or Left alliance and stick together and lose their petty sectarianism.This will require discipline and concentrated politics. The prize is a powerful Left alliance challenging rotton old Labour for the first time in 50 years.For my part I will work in green left to promote this plan and I hope all SR supporters will do the same in their organistion. No more splitting! Luck.Mark

  8. It is a great shame that the former Socialist Alliance went under, especially when it was beginning to traction. Why did it collapse? We need to learn the lesson from this.

  9. i would just like confirmation as to what socialist resistance position is in tusc? if anyone knows how to update wikipidia sr is listed as part of tusc on that. also the greens and plaid who are both to left of labour could benifit to i know they are not classed as left by some in marxist groups.

    • SR has not been ‘allowed’ to join TUSC despite several attempts to do so. One of our comrades has been a TUSC candidate in Brighton, but that is a local decision only. Yes, Wikipedia needs altering but I don’t know how to either!

  10. A very useful article. The problems, unfortunately, seem all too familiar and the tragedy is that what doesn’t happen in Britain has an impact on what doesn’t happen in the rest of the English speaking world.Maybe more stuff on the Irish United Left Alliance would be useful — as it does offer both promise and frustration as the franchisees of the two main English left groups coalesce in a way they have not managed to do so in England.

  11. Tobias Abse // 19th April 2012 at 4:18 pm // Reply

    Whilst as somebody who is trying to work inside TUSC via the Independent Socialist Network, I am well aware of the problems you refer to, I think there is a somewhat greater chance of democratising it than of getting Gorgeous George to ever accept even the most elementary notions of democracy and accountability. He has not changed his ways and never will. Moreover, the TUSC London list not all represents a variety of trade unions but includes a fair number of black people, women, at least one gay man and at least one lesbian – whilst I have never been impressed by Respect’s record in relation to women’s rights or gay rights ( and GG has been particularly awful on both). And TUSC is secular ( and unlike some on the left I am against all faith schools, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, whatever – they both breed sectarianism/communalism and fill kids’ heads with daft ideas – creationism, homophobia, misogyny etc). I agree the ‘ social weight’ argument used against SR affiliating a a group to TUSC is unconvincing ( it was used against Socialist Alliance – our ‘continuity’ version – too) but the basic line of TUSC is a class struggle left wing one which is a lot clearer than Respect’s. Hope you send somebody ( preferably more than one) to the meeting for an Anti-Capitalist Alternative next Sat – I am not saying TUSC is the only answer, just that Respect is no answer. Understand why people voted for them in Bradford ( and accept most of it was not a communalist vote but you should not prettify GG’s campaign – I have seen some of his material and I suspect you have too – the leaflet about how his opponent was not a good Muslim and not a teetotaller like GG etc etc – pretty disgusting frankly).

  12. terry conway // 19th April 2012 at 9:00 pm // Reply

    People interested in this discussion may also be interested in Socialist Resistance’s book New Parties of the Left: experiences from Europe (see more here which has a chapter about our experiences inside Respect but also reflections on other experiences in Europe building and trying to build parties of the left.
    On another point, not sure what Toby is referring to with this “Anti-capitalist Alternative” meeting – when, where who is it organised by?

  13. Ive only just seen this disingenuous piece.

    When SR left Respect, it stated that it was over the principled issue of Respect standing in Scotland.

    Now, after Galloway’s success, you want back in, and say it was about ‘lack of democracy’. And meanwhile, had been angling to attach yourselves to the sectarian dead-end of TUSC, which surely has more components than voters by now?

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