Elections: Standing on the Left

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Since the Chartists, the left has often debated mounting electoral challenges, writes Keith Flett.

Ralph Miliband, in his classic 1961 commentary on Labourism, Parliamentary Socialism, noted that the British Labour Party had always been obsessed not about socialism, but about parliament and elections. That remains the case under Blair. However, that is not the only tradition of the British left. There is also a thread of those who have stood for election as part of a wider strategy of achieving social change.

The Chartists had to work in a largely unreformed parliamentary system, where not only all women but also most men did not have the vote, even after the 1832 Reform Act. By the time the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was growing in the 1890s there had been several extensions to the suffrage, and most working men had the vote. Working women did not. Finally, the Communist Party in the period before and after the Second World War faced a parliamentary set-up very similar to the one we have today. Across these examples of over a 100 years can be traced a rich heritage of electoral challenge placed firmly in the context of extra-parliamentary action. And some common themes also appear.

The Chartists are best known for putting forward 'The People's Charter', a programme of six points of democratic demands in respect of the vote. Most, such as the secret ballot and payment of MPs, eventually came to pass. Their demand for annual parliaments, however, remains unfulfilled.

The Chartists did not just campaign for a basic parliamentary democracy - they also got involved in elections in a variety of ways. In some cases they continued a radical working class tradition of backing middle class candidates. These 'gentleman leaders' such as Henry Hunt and William Cobbett had their own funds, and were sometimes able to get elected to parliament even on the restricted franchise then existing.

Hustings battles

In general elections the Chartists often nominated candidates for the poll, who would go to the outdoor hustings and invariably win the popular vote of those present. Of course most of the working men, and all of the working women present, had no vote. The Chartist candidate usually stood no chance and withdrew before polling day itself. On occasions, as when the left wing Chartist leader George Julian Harney contested the seat of Lord Palmerston at Tiverton in 1846, these hustings battles had a widespread political resonance.

There were other tactics. One which has bedevilled the left down the ages was to try and work out which of the two parties that were likely to win, Tory or Liberal, was likely to be more favourable to Chartist demands and back them. It is true that in the 1840s a few 'radical' MPs were elected from both sides who did broadly support Chartist demands. But it was not a strategy that did much to build the forces of Chartism.

In a few other cases it was possible, due to very specific local configurations of forces, to get a Chartist actually elected as an MP. The Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor, something of the 'gentleman' himself, was returned for Nottingham in 1847. In the circumstances this was a huge victory.

Beneath the parliamentary level, in various forms of local elections, the make-up of the electorate could vary and might include some workers. Here Chartists used the tactic of exclusive dealing - only buying from shops and drinking in pubs where the owner had publicly agreed to support the Chartists.

The political powerhouse of the Chartist movement, the Northern Star paper, was based originally not in London but Leeds. When towards the end of the 19th century a new force in working class politics arose, it also had its origins in what EP Thompson ironically referred to as 'those shadowy parts', the provinces. Indeed, the early strength of the ILP in England was limited largely to Yorkshire and Lancashire, with some pockets of support elsewhere such as Leicester and West Ham. Nor was the ILP the only left wing party in the field. The Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a more avowedly Marxist party, also had support. The ILP was eventually formed in January 1893, although there had been local organisation in some areas prior to that. It took 20 years and more for it to become a national party, and then as part of the wider coalition of forces around the Labour Representation Committee which became the Labour Party.

Standard bearer

The early successes of the ILP were in breaking layers of trade union activists and organisers from the Liberal Party to independent labour politics. This process was uneven and took time, but it underscored ILP electoral success where it took place.

In West Ham South, Keir Hardie won the parliamentary seat in 1892 due to very specific circumstances. The Liberal candidate dropped out, and he beat the Tory by 5,268 votes to 4,036 on a 59.8 percent turnout. Hardie stood as a Labour, Radical and Home Rule candidate, and was careful to attract support from the large Irish and temperance votes in the constituency as well as the labour interest, including support from the local SDF. David Howell has noted of this election that Hardie's victory was due to a 'body of organised workers voting for a labour standard-bearer, with local socialists doing much of the work'. While Hardie was defeated in 1895, a Labour coalition took control of West Ham council in the late 1890s, the first anywhere in the UK. In 1906 the SDF's Will Thorne, standing as the 'Gasworkers and Trades Council' candidate, took the seat.

Hardie moved on to win Merthyr in South Wales for the ILP in 1900 as the junior member in a two-member parliamentary constituency. Here no Tory stood, making his job easier. Underwriting the success, though, was a change in mood among members of the South Wales Miners' Federation, with a new generation impatient for change. In 1906 the dam burst and 29 Labour members were elected to parliament, often with covert Liberal support. After that there was no looking back.

The ILP successfully engineered a break from the Lib-Lab politics that had come after Chartism. It was a party with grassroots support, but not necessarily always of an explicitly socialist nature. The break towards independent labour politics, when it came, was messy and uneven, and the ILP was certainly not the only vehicle for it. The victory of the revolutionary socialist Victor Grayson in the July 1907 Colne Valley by-election gave support to those who thought the ILP and the Labour Party in particular 'timorous'. The more overtly socialist SDF did have pockets of support, although often ILP and SDF activists on the ground had quite similar responses to the need to build electoral alliances to win seats from the Liberals and Tories.

It is easy to deride the electoral performances of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The well known picture that the CP had influence industrially, but when it came to electoral politics the Labour Party was dominant, is broadly true. The period when the CP had any electoral significance is also very limited, stretching from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Before the mid-1930s there had been a handful of Communist MPs elected, such as Shapurji Saklatvala with Labour Party backing. By the late 1920s this practice had been banned by Labour, and the CP had moved to its ultra-left period where it viewed Labour candidates as little different to fascists. Not surprisingly, fighting the 1929 general election on the slogan of a 'revolutionary workers' government' meant a dismal vote was received.

In 1945 mistakes were made too, when the CP initially failed to pick up the mood that led to a landslide for Attlee's Labour Party, and were reluctant to break from wartime coalition politics. It is also true that, as with the Chartists and the ILP, the CP had a few areas where it could do well electorally, and many where it performed very badly.

Despite this, the CP did get a handful of MPs elected in the 1930s and 1940s, including Willie Gallacher in West Fife, first elected in 1935, and Phil Piratin for Mile End in London's East End in 1945. Both had strong local bases, Gallacher in mining and Piratin in the community, where much work was done around housing and opposing attempts by Mosley's British Union of Fascists to grow.

The electoral tactics used by the CP were varied depending upon the tactical situation. In some cases they stood in very few seats (invariably finances also played a part) and focused campaigning efforts there. On other occasions, for example in 1950, they stood in 100 seats with the attempt at a national profile. Even so, their peak performance of 102,780 votes nationally was when they targeted very specific seats in areas such as their industrial heartlands of South Wales at the 1945 election, when 22 CP candidates stood.

In 1945, apart from the election of Gallacher and Piratin, CP leader Harry Pollitt got 45 percent of the vote in Rhondda East but was defeated by the Labour candidate. Meanwhile Bill Rust got 24 percent in Hackney South and G J Jones 21 percent in Hornsey. These gains were swept away at the 1950 election, when 97 out of 100 CP candidates lost their deposits and the vote declined to 91,815. At the same time 1,280 new members joined the CP during the 1950 campaign.

What conclusions can be drawn? Firstly, the left tends to succeed after building local bases of support, and that while election victories can enhance a broadening of this support in other areas it is not inevitable. It did happen with the ILP, but not with the Chartists and the CP. Secondly, making an electoral breakthrough in a first past the post electoral system remains tough. Thirdly, targeting electoral efforts in a few seats or standing more candidates to gain a national profile have both proved successful tactics. Which is best depends on specific circumstances. Fourthly, winning is not the only issue in elections although it is important. The CP used them to recruit widely. Elsewhere, and this was true of Labour in the 1906 election, the aim was to win where possible, but to make a difference to the outcome wherever a left candidate stood. Finally, in terms of electoral success it might be noted that the quarter of a million votes scored by Respect candidates in last June's European elections represent by far the best results the left has achieved, in aggregate, over 160 years of electoral challenges. The aim this year is to build on this firm basis of support.