7 May 2007

Nothing Serious To the Left of the British Labour Party

As New Labour abandons social democracy, no serious force to the Left has emerged.

The last thirteen years of Blair and New Labour have seen the disappearance from British elections of a social democratic option on ballot papers. One issue for discussion is why Blair has been able to divorce the Labour Party so fully from social democracy (i.e. policies centring on redistribution and welfare universalism). The other – my concern today - is to focus on Labour’s challenge from the Left.

Three attempts at setting up left parties have been made since the 1990s: Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (1996), Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party (1998) and George Galloway’s Respect (2004). Each one was set up by a charismatic and dominant leader, garnered a small devoted following, but soon fell to sectarianism leading to decline or implosion.

The two English left parties have been the least successful. Scargill’s party, based on authoritarian nostalgia, soon fizzled out into nothing. Respect retains a minor role thanks to its embedding in the Islamic community and support from the enduring SWP. The first-past-the-post electoral system (with the exception of elections for the Greater London Authority) has also hampered electoral prospects.

Scotland in 2003, though, was different. The SSP in the Scottish Assembly elections enjoyed a PR system that awarded seats to parties with approximately 5-6 percent of the votes. The SSP won six seats in five of the eight electoral regions. A start had been made. Yet within a few years the party had managed to split over a libel action about Sheridan participating in sex parties. In 2007 the Scottish electorate showed its contempt by wiping out the party from the assembly.

Setting up a new party is not easy even with PR. Convincing people that you are serious, and winning their trust, is hard. A successful party would need intelligent broad-minded socialists who can set up street stalls, campaign around local issues and get elected to local councils. Sadly in Britain the gap between New Labour and sectarian cultism has not been filled.

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