SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 189 June 2015

The TUSC campaign

The 2015 elections marked another step forward for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which stood 135 parliamentary candidates and 613 council candidates on 7 May.

This was not because TUSC made an electoral breakthrough, something which none of its participants thought was likely to happen this time. The 118,000 votes won across both the local and general elections, while it would be a good attendance at the People’s Assembly anti-austerity march on 20 June, for example, is still a very modest score. But once again, and on a wider scale than before, TUSC fulfilled its role of providing a means for trade unionists, working-class community activists and socialists to fight the establishment parties under a common, unifying umbrella, pioneering the struggle for a future mass workers’ party.

Seventy-five percent of the 748 TUSC candidates were active trade unionists – one in twelve parliamentary candidates were members of the RMT transport workers’ union, one of the constituent organisations of TUSC. But there were also a similar number of National Union of Teachers members standing, including three members of the union’s national executive – more than for any other party. From the big Labour-affiliated unions, there were 196 Unite members standing for TUSC and 118 members of Unison – all pointers to future developments.

As well as the RMT, the other current constituent organisations of TUSC are the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, and the TUSC Independent Socialist Network (for individual members), all represented in the election challenge. Members of other socialist organisations also stood as TUSC candidates, as has been the case since its formation. There was political breadth around its agreed core policies. This year there were candidates standing under the TUSC umbrella who were members of the Walsall Socialist Group, the Harrow Independent Labour Group, Leicester Independent Councillors Against Cuts, the United Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Britain, and Left Unity, all with the rights guaranteed in the TUSC rules to promote their own organisation in their election campaign as they so wished. And once again there were a significant number of candidates, 20% this year, who were not members of existing socialist organisations at all.

There was criticism of TUSC’s campaign, however, from Socialist Resistance, the British section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), which for 15 months from March 2013 was part of the TUSC national steering committee. "TUSC is not going anywhere and should be discontinued", it wrote in its post-election analysis, "we are worse off than we were 15 years ago when the Socialist Alliance existed" and stood in 98 seats in the 2001 election (The Implications of the Election Result, 9 May).

But this is a superficial comparison. The parliamentary results for TUSC – 36,420 votes – were less than those achieved by the Socialist Alliance in 2001. But with Tony Blair’s New Labour going into that election with an unassailable lead over William Hague’s Tories it was ‘safer’ to cast a protest vote. Moreover, while UKIP stood in 428 seats in 2001 (624 in 2015) it was not then attracting some working-class support as a vehicle of protest, or the media profile, that it did this time. And the same was true of the Greens, who stood in 145 seats in 2001 compared to 575 in May, and whose average vote per seat mushroomed, from 856 in 2010 to 2,013.

TUSC’s best parliamentary scores were for Dave Nellist in Coventry North West (1,769 votes, 3.9%) and Jenny Sutton in Tottenham (1,324, 3.1%) but a more significant indicator of support were the local election results. As anticipated, there was an almost uniform incidence of ‘split voting’ with many voters – in some cities by a four-to-one ratio – supporting TUSC but, afraid of the now realised prospect of another Tory government, only being prepared to vote for a local council candidate at this stage.

Even in Coventry, while 3,052 people voted for the TUSC parliamentary candidates, 4,389 voted for the TUSC local election candidates in the city. In Doncaster, TUSC won 1,116 votes in the three parliamentary constituencies but 4,104 votes were cast for the TUSC candidates contesting just over half of the council seats.

In seven councils, TUSC’s score was over 3,000 votes: Leicester (5,158), Coventry on 4,389, Doncaster (4,104), Liverpool (3,486), Medway (3,402), Southampton (3,351), Manchester (3,214), and 3,053 in Sheffield. In a further 17 councils TUSC polled over 1,000 votes. The best average percentage share of the vote score across a council in which TUSC stood in at least a third of the seats was achieved in Barnsley, with an average of 6.3%. In Doncaster, TUSC candidates averaged a 4.6% share of the vote, Coventry 3.5%, York 3.4%, Southampton and Walsall 3.3%, Stoke and Nottingham 3%, and Medway 2.9%.

With government funding for council services having been cut by 37% in real terms since 2010, according to the National Audit Office, but with English councils still controlling £114 billion of spending a year, local elections will become an increasingly significant battleground for the anti-austerity struggle – with TUSC well positioned. Half of the councils with elections in May 2016, for example, are Labour-controlled. TUSC’s clear platform of refusing to vote for Tory cuts in the council chamber can get an ever-bigger echo.

In one in four of the council wards where TUSC fielded a candidate on 7 May, it either outpolled the Liberal Democrats or they couldn’t find a candidate. In one in five it similarly outpolled the Greens. So what impact would TUSC have made if it had been given a one-in-five share of the media coverage that even the Greens received in this election?

The BBC and Ofcom produce guidance policy for election coverage by the broadcasting media, including a minimum threshold of the number of candidates a party must stand – in one sixth of the seats – before it qualifies for what they call ‘fair coverage’. This year, for the first time in its five-year history, TUSC reached the seat number threshold and got the coverage that guaranteed, which included one four-minute party election broadcast.

But the ‘statutory minimum’ was all that the national broadcast media gave to TUSC, and consciously so. Despite being the sixth biggest presence on ballot papers across Britain TUSC was not invited to participate in the seven-party leaders’ debate on 2 April. It was also denied the opportunities afforded to other parties not participating in the debate, like the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which had a pre-debate interview on the BBC News channel.

In the run-up to the second challengers’ debate on 16 April, involving five opposition parties, TUSC proposed to the BBC’s chief political advisor, Ric Bailey, that it should at least have a pre-debate interview on the News channel like the DUP or be part of the post-debate discussions, in the so-called ‘spin room’, or perhaps in a Newsnight item. In 2014, Bailey had justified the non-coverage of TUSC in that year’s local elections – in which TUSC contested just under one-sixth of the seats – on the basis that "part of the logic of the threshold is that to justify coverage on UK-wide outlets, a significant proportion of those watching should have the opportunity to vote for the party concerned". The TUSC letter pointed out that this criterion obviously did not apply to the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru, participating in the debate, or to the DUP – all of whom, individually and combined, were standing less parliamentary candidates than TUSC – and that therefore the BBC’s decisions on allocating airtime were politically based.

The TUSC letter also made the point that there was no legal bar on parties standing more widely and that, "indeed, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the early 20th century equivalent of the SNP, contested and won seats in England", holding a Liverpool seat until 1929. That was the political choice made by the SNP, Plaid et al, "and equally it is a political choice by the BBC to invite them to participate in the debate despite this, but not to invite TUSC".

No, it was not politically motivated at all, was the urbane reply. "The BBC will give the party at least the minimum level of coverage set out in the guidelines", Ric Bailey wrote, but "additional coverage will be a matter of editorial judgment for programme editors".

The presence of TUSC chairperson Dave Nellist even in just one of the debates would have transformed them. Only one mention was made of trade unions in the two TV debates – by Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood – but none about the £750 billion-plus hoarded profits held by the major monopolies in Britain, or for the democratic public ownership of the banks, utilities and other companies, which was at the core of TUSC’s general election platform. Dave’s record as a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage against that of the grasping establishment politicians, or the contrast between TUSC councillors’ refusal to vote for cuts and the ‘anti-austerity’ posturing of the SNP, Plaid and the Greens – whose councillors do vote for cuts – would have shaken up not just the debate programmes but the whole election.

The BBC complaints department had justified covering the English Democrats but not TUSC in the 2012 local elections – although they stood in fewer seats – because they had "broadened their message, campaigning for tax cuts and more directly elected mayors". Surely TUSC’s distinctive ‘broad message’ would warrant at least some ‘additional coverage’? But every programme editor’s ‘judgment’, strictly ‘objectively arrived at’ of course, was that there should be none.

And that was also the position of the national print media, with an almost total boycott of TUSC. The Guardian, for example, carried features covering comedian Al Murray’s campaign in Thanet, the Class War candidate in Chingford (where TUSC was standing), the National Health Action Party, the Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol candidates, Bez from the Happy Monday’s and his ‘Reality Party’, and even the artist Bob and Roberta Smith’s stand against Michael Gove in Surrey Heath. But outside the letters pages there were just three one-sentence mentions, in passing, of TUSC. Even the Morning Star declined a request to interview a TUSC spokesperson.

The least that TUSC critics like Socialist Resistance should concede is that TUSC polled a far bigger share of the vote than its share of media coverage. Its call for ‘TUSC to discontinue’, on the basis that "Left Unity has clearly emerged as the only hope" for "the building of a long-term united left-wing alternative", does not rest on Left Unity’s election performance. Its 19 council and three parliamentary candidates who chose to stand outside of the TUSC umbrella polled 2,540 votes. It is based instead on the patently false claim that ‘TUSC doesn’t exist between elections’.

It is true that TUSC does not have the same elaborate 17-page constitution that Left Unity has. It has a hybrid structure, not dissimilar in a different context to the early Labour Party, as described by David Butler and Anne Sloman: "There were scarcely any official Labour Party constituency organisations except for those provided by local trades councils, groups of miners’ lodges, and local branches of the Independent Labour Party. In 1914 there were only two constituency associations with individual members". (British Political Facts, 1900-1979) And, of course, TUSC’s structures should and will be constantly reviewed. But TUSC will not be ‘discontinued’ – it is here to stay.

The TUSC national steering committee has written to Left Unity since the election inviting it once again to become a participating organisation. TUSC welcomed the fact that, in addition to the 22 candidates mentioned above, seven parliamentary and six council candidates stood under a Left Unity-TUSC joint description, in a positive demonstration that the flexible, federal character of TUSC does allow different organisations to genuinely collaborate under a common ‘umbrella’ while retaining their own structures and identity.

But, while it is recognised that TUSC is only a step towards a new party of the working class and not the finished product – with now nearly a third of a million votes having been cast for it since its foundation in 2010 – it is not an electoral vehicle to be lightly discarded.

Clive Heemskerk

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