The post-mortem on the 2015 election ought to rage on the British left, though it is doubtful whether there will be much contrition from the main protagonists.
Rightly, assessments will examine how the ruling classes’ first team did it, the limitations of Labour’s leadership and politics, why the Liberal Democrats collapsed, UKIP’s four million votes, the SNP’s tsunami and the Green ascendency. But one unavoidable question is the responsibility the left for this class-wide defeat.
The left might appear marginal, but it is not irrelevant. The left is a political school for young people, an organiser of protest and an alternative voice even where the echo seems faint. What the left said and did around this election matters for socialist renewal.
The dismal vote attained by candidates to the left of Labour suggests their approach is flawed. TUSC garnered scarcely half a per cent in the 135 constituencies where it stood, less than 300 votes per candidate on average and just over 36,000 overall. It was funded partly by a £50,000 donation from an old man’s will. TUSC performed worse than the Socialist Alliance did in 2001, winning half the votes while standing a third more candidates.
The picture is no better for Left Unity. Eight SLP candidates in Wales got just over 1%. The rest — the WRP, SPGB, Scottish Socialist Party, Alliance for Green Socialism and various others — mostly failed to get a fraction of a percent.
Left activity was not however completely irrelevant to the outcome. In a dozen places, TUSC stood candidates where the Tories held onto the seat by a few hundred votes. In four cases — Bolton West, Gower, Plymouth Moor View and Southampton Itchen, the Tories took the seat from Labour. In the worst case in Gower, the Tory margin of victory was just 27 votes, while TUSC picked up 103. TUSC also stood in a handful of marginal seats where the Tories held the seat narrowly from Labour. In the worst case in Croydon Central, the Labour candidate lost by 165 votes while TUSC garnered 127.
Elsewhere, TUSC stood candidates in places nearby or alongside marginal constituencies, where a few more resources might have tipped the balance. In Derby North, a decent Labour MP lost by just 41 votes, while in Derby South TUSC got 225 votes. Their choice of constituencies was far more about their own convenience than any calculation about the best outcome for workers.
TUSC activists should not console themselves with slight increases in Coventry, Tottenham and a handful of other places. They made no breakthroughs and barely matched previous results. Of course no one knows whether these voters would have transferred to Labour. In some marginal constituencies like Hendon, Labour still lost. But the intervention of left activists in a few marginals could have deprived the Tories of their majority.
There is a wider sense in which the left bears some responsibility for the current balance of political forces: the ideological front. This is a more diffuse, but is still discernable. It is evident on crucial political issues such as the rise of nationalism, the role of the Greens and the issue of Europe.
The SNP filleted working class politics in Scotland after getting a huge leg-up from the left, which has swallowed their faux-social democracy and helped them dissolve class into nation in the name of “anti-imperialism”. Almost the entire left sold independence to workers in Scotland over the last two decades and thus paved the way for the SNP.
Some left activists are the most belligerent campaigners for independence, dubbing Labour as “quislings” and traitors, poisoning political debate. Some like the Radical Independence Campaign made it their mission to drive Labour out of Scotland, gifting the fruits to the SNP. Some like Tommy Sheridan took the next logical step and called for an SNP vote. The chameleons in the Socialist Party and SWP recoiled in horror, having gone nine-tenths of the way with him.
The Green Party is backed by Socialist Resistance and various others as some kind of left force. Yet it is a bourgeois party, funded mostly by small business, celebrities and well-off individuals. The Greens are often a rest home for tired ex-lefts who prefer the comforts of frozen leftish commonplace to the hard battle to transform the existing labour movement. Green Left is infused with Stalinist politics, parroting nonsense about Latin America and the Middle East without serious reflection. Green councillors routinely vote for austerity. And in this election the Greens played a spoiler in at least 10 seats (and perhaps as many as 30), which helped the Tories get in.
A further issue is Europe. The drumbeat for EU withdrawal has been banged by large sections of the left since the 1970s, conniving with the reactionary backwoods English nationalists to soil the ground for international solidarity. Far from taking votes from UKIP, they have made EU withdrawal a respectable bipartisan issue, despite the evident drawbacks for workers here and across the rest of Europe.
The left aspires to represent the working class, but in this election it largely devoted its meagre resources to a pantomime performed mostly without an audience. Worse, it did so largely on an “anti-this and anti-that” lowest common denominator rather than making propaganda for socialism. Their intervention was not about building a broader left vehicle for revolutionary regroupment, but a cobbled-together amalgam of hostile grouplets, barely able to debate each other’s ideas properly.
Instead of throwing themselves into serious electoral interventions, planting their small lever at points where it might actually heave greater forces, they put sect-building fetishes above the working class.
The alternative was to organise a Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory. This gave the “vote Labour” call a critical edge, appealing to trade unionists and other workers to vote on the basis of their class interests and to prepare to fight any incoming government.