The European Election Lesson For The Left: Go Green
The failure of Respect to make an electoral impact leaves the Greens as the only party offering a credible left alternative to Labour.
For everyone disillusioned with Labour's rightward lurch, the results of the European elections are a huge disappointment. The bid to create a successful party to the left of Labour in England has failed - again.
Respect was trumpeted as spearheading a radical left revival. It would mobilise the votes of the millions of people who opposed the Iraq war. The leaders of Respect confidently predicted they would win seats and "give Blair a bloody nose" in the 10 June elections. I wish.
The reality was that Labour got a deserved drubbing, and Respect got total humiliation. Sad but true. Respect needed a UKIP-style breakthrough to make an impact. But in the European ballot it averaged a mere 1.67% of the vote in the nine English regions. The other radical left party, the Greens, polled nearly four times better, notching up 6.19%. Not brilliant but, dare I say it, respectable.
As well as being annihilated by the big three parties, UKIP and the Greens, Respect was also eclipsed in the European election by a motley collection of minor fringe parties, including the BNP, English Democrats, Seniors, Independents and the Countryside Alliance.
Even in London, where it invested massive campaign resources and benefited from a high-profile, nationally-known candidate, George Galloway, Respect managed only 4.84% of the European vote. Oh dear.
Respect mustered a truly meagre share of the vote in the most left-leaning part of the country, led by its brightest electoral star, and in the wake of the biggest anti-war movement in British history. Truly depressing. This result offers no grounds for optimism at all.
In defiance of the electoral result, George Galloway claimed: "Tonight we were runners-up (sic), but in elections to come we will be the winners". If only.
Cooler heads on the left may prefer some serious reflection and soul-searching. This is, after all, the second time in the last decade there has been an attempt to forge an electoral force to the left of Labour in England. Respect's predecessor was the Socialist Alliance. It was, at least, a grassroots, democratic movement. But it, too, ended in failure. Isn't it time the left learned the lessons of these setbacks?
Whether we love or loathe Respect, its defeat is a wake up call to everyone on the left who is disillusioned with Labour. Two attempts to create a viable left-wing party, first the Socialist Alliance and now Respect, have hit the buffers. It is pointless deluding ourselves that Respect will come up trumps next time. Get real. Respect is doomed. This begs the question: what is to be done?
Part of me fantasises about an electoral pact between Respect and the Greens. In the PR list vote for the London Assembly, the Green Party won 8.57% and Respect 4.67%. Their combined vote was 13.24% - only three points behind the Lib Dems. A red-green alliance clearly has potential to be a significant player in London politics - and perhaps eventually elsewhere in England.
An electoral deal between the Greens and Respect would, however, be difficult to broker. In every region of England in the Euro-election, the Greens were way ahead of Respect. In some regions, such as the south east and the south west, the Green's share of the vote was 10 times greater than Respect's.
Many Greens understandably ask: why should a 30-year old party with a strong local presence and a record of substantial electoral success, stand aside for a new political force that has weak community links and has failed to win a single seat?
Equally problematic is the vanguardist, hegemonic and often sectarian politics of many Respect leaders. They have, in the past, been unwilling to broaden their socialist agenda and share power with other progressive forces outside the orbit of the orthodox left, such as the women's, black, disabled and gay movements. Not a good omen for red-green cooperation.
An alternative option for people disillusioned with Labour is to fight to recapture the party for socialism. This is the view espoused by Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. They believe any attempt to create a new left-wing party is destined to fail. It will begin and end, like the Socialist Alliance, on the political fringe.
Reclaiming Labour for socialism is a fine aspiration, but about as likely as winning the German SPD back to the Marxism it ditched in the 1950s.
Labour has lost its heart and soul. No longer committed to the redistribution of wealth and power, the party leadership has presided over a widening gap between rich and poor. Now to the right of the Liberal Democrats, it has pandered to prejudice on asylum, drugs, terrorism, Europe and crime. Restoring Labour's socialist ideals is impossible because internal party democracy has been gutted. Ordinary members have no say. The party conference has no real power. Everything important is decided by The Dear Leader and his acolytes.
My conclusion? Labour is beyond reform. Respect is fated to remain in the political wilderness. For left-leaning people who are fed up with Blairism, there is only one serious option left - the Green Party.
Unlike Respect and its forerunner, the Socialist Alliance, the Greens are winners. They have seats on local councils, the London Assembly and in the Scottish and European Parliaments. If left-wingers and progressive social movements united together in the Green Party, it could become an influential electoral force - pressuring Labour and the Lib Dems to adopt more radical policies and perhaps, one day, even holding the balance of power.
After three decades of moving from right to left, the Greens now occupy the progressive political space once held by Labour. They offer a clear alternative to Blair's pro-war, pro-big business and pro-Bush agenda.
The Green Party's Manifesto for a Sustainable Society (www.greenparty.org) incorporates key socialist principles. It rejects privatisation, free market economics and globalisation; and includes commitments to public ownership, worker's rights, economic democracy, progressive taxation, and the redistribution of wealth and power.
The Green's synthesis of ecology and socialism integrates policies for social justice and human rights with policies for tackling the life-threatening dangers posed by global warming, environmental pollution, resource depletion and species extinction.
Greens recognise that preventing environmental catastrophe requires constraints on the power of big corporations. Profiteering and free trade has to be subordinated to policies for the survival of humanity. Can any socialist disagree with that? If not, what are you waiting for? Come over to the Greens and help us secure a future where there is peace, justice and freedom for all the world's people.
* An edited version of this article appeared on The Guardian website on Tuesday 15 June 2004.
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