|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
TUSC here to stay
‘TUSC IS not going away’ was the conclusion of all the participants in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) at its first national steering committee meeting held after May’s local elections.
There was no spectacular breakthrough in the second set of local polls contested by TUSC since it was formed in early 2010. But the 6.2% average vote achieved by the 134 local council candidates – up from last year, and in a bigger percentage of seats – was felt by all involved to be a solid basis for continuing the task of building a trade union-based and socialist electoral alternative.
The main feature of the elections was the 823 council seat gains made by Labour while the Tories lost 405 councillors, and the Liberal Democrats 336, 44% of the seats they were defending. The Lib Dems now have less than 3,000 councillors in total, the smallest number since the party was formed in 1988, by a merger of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party.
But the gain in seats and councils – a further 32 are now Labour controlled – is not evidence of surging enthusiasm for Labour. The seats up for election this year – except in Scotland – were last contested in 2008, when Labour polled 24% of the vote. This year the estimated national equivalent vote share had Labour on 38%, the Tories 31% and the Lib Dems 16%. It would have been impossible for Labour not to have gained seats in that situation.
More significant in indicating the state of consciousness, however, was the lowest overall turnout since 2000 – just one in three people voted. There was a fall in Labour’s absolute vote compared to last year, even in councils where they picked up seats.
Southampton, for example, was a national Labour target – with two visits from leader Ed Miliband – where Labour-affiliated unions poured in resources to defeat a Tory council involved in a high-profile dispute with its workers. The local Labour group had not supported the council workers’ strike action and had its own cuts plan. It won control of the council with 2,733 less votes this year than in 2011, because the Tories dropped 5,136 votes, one fifth of their 2011 score (and the Lib Dems 40%!). But Southampton was not an aberration.
TUSC did not stand widely – five percent of the council seats in England – and it would be wrong to draw exaggerated conclusions from a small sample. But particularly in the 74 wards which TUSC also contested last year, there is interesting information that accords with the national trends and indicates the future potential. Labour gained seats in these ‘comparator wards’ but, as happened nationally, the actual number of people who voted for Labour fell (by 17%). TUSC’s absolute vote, in contrast, held up in these wards and its share of the vote rose, from 5.4% in 2011 to 6.8% this year. But still the overwhelming mood was one of angry disenchantment with ‘politics’, which TUSC could not cut across.
Labour’s newly-appointed policy review co-ordinator, the Dagenham MP John Cruddas, quotes polling showing that "60% of working class voters believe they have no political voice in the UK" (The Guardian, 16 May). And that will not change given Labour’s transformation into another party of capitalism with its resultant ‘fairer austerity’ policies. This was the real message of May.
The Guardian’s editorial summary of the elections outcome was ‘Fed up, not fired up’ and it is a fact that, this time, TUSC was not able to ‘light a spark’. But it is as well positioned to do so in the future as other contenders – the Guardian editorial referenced the Greens and Respect – more so, in fact, amongst disenfranchised working class voters.
This is shown in the response TUSC’s election campaigns receive in the trade unions, including from its Labour-supporting opponents, for example to its challenge in Southampton. Regional and national officials of both UNITE and UNISON attacked TUSC for standing there. A newsletter to Southampton UNISON members carried an article headed ‘Why UNISON does not support the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’. It stressed emphatically that, "despite the name of the coalition, it is not endorsed in any way by UNISON" – or more accurately, a union leadership that nationally has failed to effectively defend its members against the austerity agenda. With Labour now in control in Southampton the warning made by TUSC that the Labour councillors will carry out their own cuts programme will be remembered by council workers.
But this attack shows precisely TUSC’s potential to act as a catalyst in the trade unions, a spark to ‘fire up’ the idea of independent working class political representation. Why else would the UNSION leadership stress that, ‘despite its name’, TUSC is not ‘endorsed by UNISON’? The Greens also stood ten candidates in Southampton. To have issued material saying, ‘despite the Green Party’s name’ (or Respect, for that matter) they are ‘not endorsed by UNISON’ would have been incomprehensible to workers.
This is because the Green Party has not emerged as an expression of the political interests of the working class, and is not based on working-class organisations, in particular the trade unions. Neither does it have an explicit socialist ideological opposition to capitalism – socialism being the generalised political expression of working class interests against those of the capitalists and their system – with no acceptance amongst its members of a class analysis of society. It is not accidental that the Greens now "have the Lib Dems in their sights", as a lot of Liberal Democrats "feel increasingly disappointed", the Green MP Caroline Lucas recently told the Guardian (15 May).
These points also apply to some degree to Respect, although with different social forces involved. Respect’s initial electoral successes from 2004 were a reflection of predominantly working class voters from an Asian Muslim background breaking from their traditional allegiance to the Labour Party in the aftermath of the Iraq war. George Galloway was elected to parliament from Tower Hamlets in east London in 2005 and Respect won 12 councillors there in 2006, two in neighbouring Newham, and seats in Birmingham.
This turn away from Labour was a positive development, which could have aided the development of the class consciousness of Muslim workers. This would have meant turning to other sections of the working class in an attempt to build a new mass workers’ party. But unfortunately, under the leadership of George Galloway and, at that time, the Socialist Workers Party, Respect did not act as a bridge to other workers, but re-enforced the idea that a ‘Muslim community’ of all classes could solve the problems.
The danger now is that Respect’s breakthrough in Bradford, winning five councillors following Galloway’s by-election victory, is similarly squandered. Most of Respect’s Tower Hamlets councillors went back to Labour – and one to the Tories! There were no Respect candidates in Birmingham in May – just three outside Bradford in fact – and Galloway himself admitted that, before Bradford, "it was probably winding down" as a party (The Guardian, 30 April). A parliamentary figurehead is not an alternative vehicle for working class political representation.
Yet nor is TUSC the finished article, and it does not claim to be more than a herald for a new workers’ party which would embrace mass forces. TUSC has written to Respect to explore relations, and the federal ‘umbrella coalition’ structure of TUSC would allow Respect, as with other participants, the full rights of an autonomous party. But joining would provide the basis for Respect to develop a relationship with the serious trade union forces that are beginning to coalesce in TUSC. And it would especially allow structured discussions to co-ordinate electoral challenges. George Galloway will remain a feature in the convulsive political life of the ‘age of austerity’ – and so will TUSC, and the task of building the forces for a new mass workers’ political voice.
A full breakdown of TUSC’s results is available at www.tusc.org.uk