It wasn't, sadly, a good election for candidates of the (non-Labour) Left. Victory for Caroline Lucas of the Greens was the undoubted success story. The Greens' status as left-wing is admittedly more ambiguous than those I'll consider below, but this was a breakthrough for all those who want a progressive, broadly left-wing alternative to the neoliberal mainstream.
It is very significant when a candidate outside the three main parties - and standing on a political platform to their left - scores electoral success. It dents the whole idea that we must be trapped in simply choosing between three variations on the same theme, and at least hints at the possiblities for building left alternatives in the longer term. Lucas is especially strong and will be a powerful voice in the new Parliament.
Three high-profile Respect candidates achieved very good results. Salma Yaqoob took over 12,000 votes and 25% in share of the vote in Birmingham. She won her council seat with 5000+ votes. George Galloway and Abjol Miah both took 16-18% in their Tower Hamlets constituencies.
The combined vote of these 3 candidates is nearly 30,000. They are credible candidates with experience in either Parliament or local council politics and they have a strong local base. But even in east London this marks a decline for Respect compared to 2005, when Galloway was of course elected to the Commons. Losing its only MP is a regrettable setback for Respect; it also means the anti-war movement has unfortunately lost a powerful voice in the Commons.
Furthermore, Galloway's long-term commitment to Respect is in doubt. The same is perhaps true of Yaqoob. It won't help that support is so heavily concentrated in two areas (east London, Birmingham) and the national organisation has, since the damaging split of November 2007, been understandably quite weak.
Respect remains, for now, a serious operation in those key areas. Its broader campaigning activity (I'm thinking especially of the brilliant Viva Palestina initiative) is commendable. Respect demonstrates how the established Left can work effectively with activists and supporters from Muslim backgrounds, in confronting Islamophobia, promoting solidarity with Palestine and on other issues.
However, the weaknesses once you get beyond its strong areas must cause concern. Nobody else reached the 5% threshold, despite Respect opting to stand in very few seats in the first place. Even in the strong areas there was, disappointingly, a collapse in local council seats, with just one retained in Tower Hamlets and none in neighbouring Newham. There is bound to be lots of soul-searching and internal discussion about future direction.
Respect candidates, like all those standing on the left, were squeezed by the threat of a return to Tory government. Why did space for left-wing candidates open up in the first place, several years ago? Precisely because of disillusionment with Labour in office, complemented by a sense that the Labour government was secure enough from Tory attack that we could afford the luxury of people voting for an alternative to Labour. This time, however, there's been a degree of rallying round the Labour Party, whatever reservations and criticisms people may have.
This has narrowed the electoral space available for the left. The phenomenon began in the 2008 London Assembly elections, when a tight two-horse race between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson prevented the left getting much of a hearing. It was made still worse by the divisions between Left List and Respect, rooted in the split of six months earlier, and (for Left List) the lack of a recognised 'brand' due to having only recently adopted a new name.
But the bigger political dimension was the resurgence of the Tories and the perception that Livingstone was a viable alternative to Johnson who deserved the left's support. The Left List results appeared abysmal at the time, but the TUSC results this time put them in perspective.
Objective conditions are vital to keep in mind. It is tempting for socialists to berate themselves or the rest of the left for recurring failures to create an alternative to Labour, but there are larger political forces shaping our fortunes. Labour still has deep roots in the working class - admittedly weakened by a drastic fall in membership and levels of activism, stemming from widespread disenchantment, but nonetheless real - and a close relationship with the millions-strong trade union movement.
Labour also remains the first defence against raw capitalism, expressed politically by the Tories who have always been the party of the ruling class. Social democracy - and in this country that still means Labour - offers itself as a bulwark protecting working class people from the ravages of the system. People will continue to turn to reformist answers, in the absence of a mass revolutionary challenge to the status quo, so they will carry on backing Labour.
Our electoral system makes it even harder for the left to make gains. Even as successful a party as the Lib Dems (nearly a quarter of the popular vote) struggles to win seats in many areas. The Greens' patchy, often disappointing, results (beyond Brighton) illustrate both the problems caused by first-past-the-post and the squeeze on all parties outside the mainstream.
In a first-past-the-post system it's incredibly tough to get established as a serious contender. This is one reason why even at a time of relative success - think back to 2005-06, with Galloway's election followed by a raft of Respect councillors - electoral politics is difficult and frequently hostile territory. We can make a big impact through campaigns and protests, then stand in elections and find we are completely marginal.
The left and elections
Yet socialists still persist with elections. For some small left-wing sects - repeatedly standing, repeatedly getting far less than 1% of the vote - this is for reasons best known to themselves. For the rest of us it is because we recognise that for most people elections are politics: this is where it's at, in terms of the consciousness of most people in our society (at least in more or less normal circumstances).
If we want to relate to wider layers and ensure the left grows in significance, electoral politics can't be avoided entirely - even if, for revolutionaries like me, elections are definitely not how we will change our world. In the long term we need a serious left-wing political challenge, with candidates standing in elections and using any victories as the foundation for broader political struggle, but in the shorter term our horizons are somewhat narrower.
This is partly because of the political factors indicated above. It is also because any electoral coalition needs to emerge from something real, i.e. a broad-based movement of some kind, not simply from wishful thinking or a cobbling together of relatively small socialist organisations. Respect gained its viability from the mass movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Any future electoral challenge is likely to develop out of a political movement addressing the problems generated by capitalism's crisis. Out of struggles to defend the public sector, for example, a broad left alternative may become plausible. But first we must build the movement.
And so we turn to the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition: an attempt at cobbling together small left-wing organisations - in a marriage (or brief fling) of convenience - in the absence of a genuine political movement. It is, in such circumstances, no surprise that TUSC did badly in Thursday's election.
Dave Nellist in Coventry and Tommy Sheridan in Glasgow lost their deposits, despite having in the past achieved considerably better results. 32 out of the 42 candidates took under 1% of the vote in their constituencies. Caroline Lucas in Brighton got more votes than all 42 TUSC candidates combined.
TUSC wasn't helped by a number of things: its name, a lack of recognition (it's a temporary ad hoc arrangement), the absence of much of a base through already having local councillors or past breakthroughs, a failure to involve real forces beyond the Socialist Party and SWP. Pointing out these flaws is not to denigrate the very good, principled candidates or their campaign teams. It is simply to acknowledge the continuing difficulties faced by the radical left when it comes to contesting elections.
In Scotland the left is still paying the price of divisions and splits in the last few years. The SSP's results were so bad I can't bring myself to type them; TUSC's Scottish results weren't significantly different to those south of the border.
This election had a paradox. The dominance of the three big mainstream parties has been shored up (notwithstanding the Lucas breakthrough and the different picture in Scotland and Wales), but at the same time those parties now each face a crisis. Indeed, it is a sort of collective crisis for the political class, with the balance of forces in a hung parliament such that nobody is satisfied. It still isn't clear how this crisis will be resolved, or indeed if it can be.
What really matters for the left is the political climate created by this crisis for our rulers. What is going to make a difference in the coming period is extra-parliamentary activity which exploits the weaknesses on their side, and channels the widespread popular opposition to deep cuts and austerity.
That opposition found little expression in the elections. There was no real outlet for it. We need to ensure it now finds expression - on the streets and in workplaces throughout the country - with the message: we won't pay for their crisis.
For fuller information about left-wing candidates' results see A Very Public Sociologist and a series of posts at Liam Macuaid's blog.