Back in 2004 Dave Parks of Exeter Socialists wrote an article about Respect, the Socialist Alliance and electoral politics. This article included the following:
“The first response of your average working class voter on receiving a RESPECT leaflet will be – ‘Who the fuck are these people?’. They won’t think, look at their opposition to war and privatisation, oh I must vote for them.
Why has the Socialist Alliance done so badly at elections? Well in most places that is not because people reject our policies. Instead it is because many of our potential supporters react with the response ‘Who the fuck are these people?’ – we have failed to get any implantation within the class. They haven’t got to know us – because we have neglected them.
In areas where the SA has been engaging in activity in between election times – the vote has been much higher than areas that have been worked hard in the weeks before an election. Strangely working class people don’t vote for people they don’t know. They are sceptical and cynical about all politicians including fly-by-night Lefties who have never done anything for them as far as they can tell. For your average working class voter, if they have never spoken to the candidate, or worse never spoken to a single member of the organisation concerned you will NEVER get their vote. You need to earn their respect and trust through patient long term work. The voter needs to form a relationship and understanding of who and what the organisation is – this requires more than an electoral front – it requires the building of an organisation which working class people know and can identify with as fighting for their interests.
Unfortunately the BNP understands this only too well. They work hard in elections – canvassing several times and speaking to electors. They work target areas for long periods prior to elections. What is more…people *know* who the BNP are and what they stand for. Who really knows what the SA is and what it stands for?
Working class people in their swathes are rejecting mainstream politics. Where do they turn when they reject mainstream politics? It depends how they see the main contradictions in society. If they are persuaded that the main contradiction is ‘race’ then they will go with the BNP – if they are convinced that the main contradiction is class then they will turn any *viable* socialist alternative. It is important to put emphasis here on viability – because the masses won’t vote for something they don’t know and trust. Some temporary alliance won’t be perceived as being viable – that is a problem both for the SA and for RESPECT. That is another reason why we need a new workers party.
A long term perspective of building a permanent organisation that becomes a household name in working class communities, through long term and serious work.
Above all else the most essential requirement facing the class today is the need for a new workers party tied in with organised labour – or at least those unions who could be on the verge of breaking with Labour – if there was something viable for them to break towards.”
We endorse Dave’s arguments. Now, nine years later, the cold hard reality he pinpoints is still largely unheeded. We are committed to and involved in TUSC. We want it to succeed – the alternative is an impotent Left, the working class continuing to take a battering and right wing alternatives gaining increasing popularity e.g. UKIP.
The new Left Unity initiative is a blind alley, exemplified by the fact that they see no relevance or significance at all in the RMT involvement in TUSC.
Below we flesh out our thoughts about TUSC and make some suggestions for the future. Two events have brought matters to a head for us. Firstly, the poor turnout for the national TUSC conference in Autumn 2012 (which we attended) suggested lukewarm commitment to TUSC around the country. Secondly, the pitiful number of votes for the TUSC candidate in the Eastleigh parliamentary by-election in February this year. There appears to be no honest and open accounting of the situation TUSC is in three years after it started, particularly its overwhelmingly poor election results.
Here we will outline what we believe to be the problems in TUSC, and propose some solutions. We will provide examples from the Eastleigh by-election and the May 2013 council elections, and examine the responses to these and arguments put by some of the constituent parts of TUSC. We concentrate particularly on the Socialist Party (SP), as this is the organisation which we only recently resigned from, and have been more exposed to the views of its members. This should not be taken to mean that we blame the SP for all, or most, of TUSC’s problems. The SP is at least engaged with TUSC, nationally and locally. This is in stark contrast to the Socialist Workers’ Party, whose involvement (or, rather, lack of it) with TUSC is lamentable. The detailing of problems doesn’t mean that we think these problems exist everywhere. Furthermore, some of the suggestions we make will be at this stage only aspirations in some areas with very low numbers of existing activists. This document aims to catalogue all the problems we have observed, and hopefully will provide the basis for an honest accounting of TUSC’s activities.
Failure to seriously analyse elections and activity
We admit that we are ignorant of the precise details of the Eastleigh campaign. One of the reasons for this is that the comprehensive report we were promised, which appeared in Issue 755 of ‘The Socialist’ written by Nick Chaffey didn’t furnish too many details. In fact in nearly 1000 words it didn’t even mention how many votes the TUSC candidate got. In a subsequent report from the SP National Congress, Nick emphasised the disappointing vote for Labour!
We pieced together some more details about the campaign from comments on the internet. One of the reasons why we were so shocked and dismayed by some of the comments, is that they seemed completely divorced from reality, and put an absurdly positive gloss on a terrible result. We would like address some of the (paraphrased) comments that have been made on the internet, and elsewhere, including Nick’s article, to explain the poor vote:
‘The campaign was at short notice’ – No it wasn’t. We all knew Huhne was going on trial. A candidate should have been in place, the leaflets prepared, and work done in Eastleigh in advance.
‘Media blackout’ – There was a media blackout for the Beer Baccy and Crumpet Party too. There’s going to be a media blackout until they absolutely have to take notice of us, and even when they do, they’re going to paint us in a terrible light. We need to get across to people directly. Also, going on about the media blackout, while it may be true, looks like a bit of a sorry excuse for a poor result, and can come across as paranoid and conspiratorial.
‘We will build out of this’ – Will we? How is finishing second bottom going to make people think it’s worth getting involved with and building TUSC?
‘Daz was a good candidate’ – He may have been, but he wasn’t from Eastleigh. He certainly wasn’t a “local candidate”. If we haven’t got anyone suitable in a constituency, we’re clearly not in a position to stand.
‘On election day, before heading to the Eastleigh count, Daz visited his home town of Bootle where he had organised a demonstration against the hated ‘bedroom tax’ – It’s excellent that this demonstration was so well attended, and will lead to TUSC candidates standing. But this is a deflection from talking about the actual issue, which is Eastleigh. And why was Daz not in Eastleigh on election day? Joe Robinson and the campaigners in Maltby were out and about on election day to ensure as many votes as possible.
‘The vote was a plague on all your houses’ – Then why did UKIP finish a close second?
‘The Labour Party was derided for bad results in its early days’ – Not this bad. And, please don’t tell us (which we were) about how the Labour candidate finishing a distant third in Tiverton in 1922 was derided by the Liberals and Tories. The same day, Labour won 142 seats in the general election, becoming the official opposition. More to the point, it’s worrying that someone thinks that the 1922 Tiverton Labour vote of 1457 (6.63%) is comparable to the 62 (0.15%) TUSC Eastleigh vote! Likewise, a comparison was made to us about the vote for Keir Hardie standing for the Independent Labour Party in West Ham South (1895) – he got 3975 votes (45.6%)! No more crap historical analogies please.
‘If Transit workers had occupied their factory, this may have increased the number of TUSC votes’ – Yes, the workers let TUSC down. Let’s dissolve the working class and elect another.
Interestingly, when one of us was in the process of leaving the SP, and Eastleigh was discussed with an SP full-timer, only at that point (after many emails back and forth between us and SP national committee and national executive members) was it revealed that, there were criticisms raised by other members of the SP about Eastleigh, that the SP had objected initially to standing there, and that there was initial disagreement on the TUSC Steering Committee (SC). In the end, as the RMT were keen to stand, the SP gave way. At no point during this process was anyone outside certain exalted circles aware of such disagreements and debate.
Now, while we believe that standing in Eastleigh was a mistake, there is nothing necessarily wrong with deferring occasionally to the wishes of the RMT. The RMT has by far more social weight than any other organisation or individual in TUSC. However, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be public debate, before and after the decision. Provided this is conducted in a respectful and fraternal manner, such debates are crucial to ensuring that there is proper examination of decisions and consequences, and also that those without a direct line to the TUSC SC feel involved in the discussions about the present and future progress of TUSC.
The air of unreality about TUSC election results continued with the reporting of the 2013 County Council elections. On both the TUSC web-site and in ‘The Socialist’ a whole host of statistics were thrown about – all except what the average vote was for TUSC candidates and what this was in percentage terms (later revealed as 2.5% in a TUSC steering committee report).
The fact was that, out of the 119 TUSC candidates, 14 got a creditable 5% or more votes. However, 66 received 2% or less.
‘Cart before the horse’ approach to building TUSC
As far as we can tell, we had no presence in Eastleigh prior to the by-election. To use a parliamentary by-election to establish this presence seems to be putting the cart before the horse. We cannot successfully intervene without an existing presence.
The rise of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, and their current ability to cling on against the odds in many areas should show us something. Starting from an admittedly higher base than us, in being an established (indeed, establishment) party with some MPs and many councillors already, the Liberals came back from near oblivion in the 1950s to polling 20% consistently from the 1990s to 2010, and building an army of councillors bigger than the Socialist Party’s national membership. They did this by being visible campaigning locally between elections, by doing lots of little things well, and using an army of volunteers to run energetic, door-knocking, leaflet-dropping, election campaigns.
We don’t know whether the contacts coming out of the campaign have helped to build TUSC and the movement against austerity in Eastleigh – the poor vote in an Eastleigh Division in the recent County Council elections suggests not (Eastleigh West, 22 votes, 0.5%).
The view that the number of votes is unimportant
It seems bizarre that we even have to point out that the number of votes matter, but apparently we do. We have been told (in all seriousness) that only sectarians and die-hard opponents of TUSC care about the results. Apparently, militants and ordinary people couldn’t care less. This is extremely wrong-headed, and fails to take account of the fact that many people see politics through an electoral prism, and will not think it worth their while getting involved with TUSC if they see it as a joke party, especially people moving into political consciousness by current events. Credibility matters, and the number of votes we get deeply affects how credible we will be perceived by workers.
Inactivity before and between elections
Public recognition is important for any political organisation. We have failed if the overwhelming response on the doorstep is ‘Who are you then?’ Dusting down TUSC just for elections is not acceptable and yet in many areas, it seems that this is indeed what happens. We are likely to be met with the same cynicism that the capitalist parties are – ‘You’re only interested in our votes.’
Justifications for standing TUSC candidates in places where there has been no sustained presence over the previous year or more fly in the face of evidence that, in most cases, this will lead to a joke/derisory vote. An extreme example – in the recent County Council elections a TUSC candidate in Nuneaton got 8 votes. That is disgraceful by any standards.
Justifications tend to include that standing raises the TUSC profile or to kickstart TUSC in the area. TUSC should have been started in an area and its profile raised in that ward/division long before an election occurred. Why wasn’t it? Won’t an already cynical electorate see TUSC as just another ‘Johnny-come-lately’ merely interested in cadging votes?
Many of the responses we have received when we have raised our concerns about TUSC have come from SP members. We do not believe TUSC is being pushed with the utmost effort and seriousness by the SP. There are no doubt reasons for the nature of the SP’s (generally lacklustre and intermittent) engagement with TUSC. However, we do believe that the SP genuinely thinks that it is trying to build TUSC but does not recognise the inadequacy of its efforts. Revolutionary socialist organisations like the SP have unique difficulties in relating to TUSC. It’s perfectly understandable that SP members’ first priority is their own organisation and attempting to win people over to it. But this can still occur, whilst building TUSC at the same time.
The structure of TUSC
We share the view of the SP and the RMT that moving to a full-blown party is premature at this stage.
The Independent Socialist Network (ISN) has been prone to a certain amount of structural/democratic fetishism. One member one vote (OMOV) would probably mean the RMT withdrawing from TUSC and is also irrelevent to the reasons for TUSC’s lack of success.
This issue of individual membership (which hopefully one day TUSC will have) should be separated from the issue of OMOV (which it should never have), and the discussion of membership and structure from some of the other matters raised by the ‘independents’, which have some validity (such as the need for TUSC to be active all year round).
The fact is that the ISN has a place on the Steering Committee and its members are free to set up local TUSC branches, with individual membership. Sadly, they appear to be moving away from TUSC towards Left Unity. This would be a shame as the comrades have done some excellent work for years as TUSC in places like Rugby and would have to start all over again under a new name in an organisation with (at best) woolly and nebulous politics.
The TUSC name
In this day and age, a key part of establishing the profile and credibility of a political organisation is familiarity with the name. One plus in its favour is that TUSC is fairly easy to remember and pronounce. It may also have associations for people with elephants and who doesn’t like elephants (we’re deadly serious about this). Additionally, most people like consistency and familiarity, and we need as much recognition from using the same name – election after election – as we can get. The ideas being floated about the possible convoluted names to be used for the 2014 European Elections will not help us.
Unfortunately, the name TUSC and what these letters are short for, is not used consistently around the country and when TUSC has candidates. Variations have been used (and approved of). These have included both TUSC and TUSAC as short for Trades Unionists and Socialists against the Cuts.
The use of TUSAC has been justified by the argument that if people don’t know about us before an election, it’s an easy way to let them know. But if people don’t know who TUSC are (and what we stand for) before an election, then we shouldn’t be standing! Also, by emphasising the anti-cuts aspect, this detracts from our other policies and makes us appear as a single issue, one-off campaign not a long term political organisation.
Time after time, we see reports of electoral activity that seem heavily weighted towards holding stalls and public meetings. There is sometimes an indication of leafletting, and very occasionally, door-to-door canvassing. Too often paper candidates are stood. A proper campaign (to maximise the chances of a credible vote) does not just mean holding stalls, public meetings, and attending hustings, important as these are. It means at least two leaflets going out to every home, and canvassing working class areas. If there aren’t finances and people available to do this properly, we shouldn’t stand.
Just having a stall (especially if that stall isn’t even in that ward/division!) is wholly inadequate now, expecting people to come to us. Most of the electorate won’t pass that stall and most of those that do will walk past or not notice it – they probably have other things to do. How many see a stall and associate it in their minds with strange religious groups and animal rights people? Not a good impression to make is it? Stalls in this day and age should be used sparingly – at demos and rallies – not as a central political activity. We have to reach the maximum number of people and to do this means actively seeking them out i.e. where they live – directly and by a much more serious attitude to using the social media.
The effective and widespread use of the internet (including social media) is critical to advancing the cause of TUSC. It’s not an ‘either/or’ – talking to people and distributing paper-based material locally should be complemented by the ongoing use of local TUSC group websites or blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and so on. How else will we reach the millions of people we’re unable to in person. Such sites should reflect the activity on the ground – an inactive web presence suggests an inactive local group.
Public meetings are fine at certain points (during an anti-cuts or anti-bedroom tax campaign, for example) but as a rule, most of the public don’t go to public meetings anymore. It’s usually Lefties talking to other Lefties.
The fact is, to run a proper election campaign, canvassing is a must not a luxury option. People really appreciate that we make the effort to talk to them face to face and it hones our skills in putting across our ideas and dealing with people who will say what matters to them and may be apathetic, cynical or hostile. After forty years of neo-liberalism we have to do this – there are no short cuts or quick fixes. Putting our programme in a leaflet and shoving it through a letter box is not enough. Canvassing also allows to sharpen up our political arguments by having to respond to all manner of unpredictable comments and opinions on the doorstep.
We need to appropriate the best practices of building electoral support from the capitalist parties and use it to promote socialist policies. Success breeds success, and the best way of attracting workers, politically hardened or new to struggle, is to convince them through election successes, that we are worth getting involved with, and worth the risk of sticking their heads above the parapet, and putting the time, money, and energy into building TUSC, the opposition to cuts, and the promoter, and eventually implementer, of socialist policies.
Developing TUSC – constructive debate, analysing failure, learning from success and sharing expertise
1. We need to discuss, share and learn the lessons from our activities and electoral results (good and bad). Putting positive glosses on everything and ignoring poor votes is completely counterproductive. We need to be honest with ourselves and the working class. A critical assessment isn’t being destructive it means acknowledging reality and addressing problems.
2. Individuals involved in successful TUSC election campaigns and others (e.g. people with journalistic expertise) should collaborate and produce a booklet on how socialists should fight elections and build TUSC between elections. This could include emphasising such things as:
· Using plain English and avoiding Lefty jargon wherever possible;
· Creating local group websites and using the internet to build TUSC;
· How to lay out material in an eye-catching and easy to read way;
· Using graphics and cartoons wherever possible. We’re not the dour, miserable gits we’re often portrayed as! The internet has a wealth of material to draw on – let’s use it;
· How to canvass e.g. how to get across our key ideas/policies on the doorstep in a brief amount of time, how to listen to the people who open their doors to talk to us, using the information gained through canvassing etc.;
· The importance of producing eye catching posters for people to put up in their window if they seemed likely to vote for us;
· Using local printers;
· Following up after the election (within a week or two) people who had been identified as likely TUSC voters, to ask them if they want to be kept in touch with about TUSC activities.
3. Training schools/workshops should be run to provide expertise covering the issues raised in the booklet referred to above.
TUSC name, logo, and colours
4. The TUSC SC should ensure that the TUSC name is adhered to by all candidates, with no variations.
5. We live in an age when immediate visual recognition is important. We suggest that the uninspiring colours of the TUSC logo should be replaced by more eye catching ones, to be associated with a consistent national profile. Perhaps the old Chartist flag colours of red, white and green. Obviously, local finances will dictate that much material will be in black and white but, purely from a resource point of view, the existing logo colours are more expensive to print than red and green.
Building TUSC locally – before and between elections
6. There should be a committed, active and well-established TUSC branch in an area before even considering standing a candidate locally. Depending on resources, concentrate on the working class areas you can reach on a consistent and regular basis. If that means only one ward (for the time being, hopefully), so be it. This activity should include supporting and being involved in local campaigns, clearly identified as TUSC, producing TUSC material such as leaflets/newsletters as often as possible. A TUSC logo on the back of a non-TUSC leaflet on a stall is not sufficient. TUSC material should contain content that addresses local issues, whilst also making the links to national political decisions and drawing out broader political lessons. Using just national material is not sufficient – people can relate more to what’s happening in their areas. Newsletters should include a useful contacts page with the TUSC logo and local contact on it for people to stick on their fridge.
7. Local websites should be created, and regularly updated, to reflect local activity. These websites could include not just dates of local meetings, but resources such as leaflets and petitions to download. WordPress (www.wordpress.com) is a good place to build a website for those with little technological expertise.
8. We need to be more creative and imaginative about how we build TUSC. We can use the vast amount of available electoral results and other data (including mosaic town profiles and council tax banding) to target new areas with appropriate class make-up. This may involve ignoring larger areas such as Bath for smaller, working class towns such as nearby Radstock.
9. By targeting areas, we don’t mean one stall or round of leafletting – it has to be more than that to make an impression. In this day and age, and the fact that we are not covered by the media, we can’t passively hide behind a pasting table or a newspaper. We need to actively get out there and talk to people one-to-one. Ask them about the issues that concern them. Campaign on a specific achievable local issue. There should also be planned specific targeted media interventions for particular campaigns.
Planning for elections
10. Presently, whether or not to stand a TUSC candidate is usually a local decision. In many cases this clearly leads to questionable decisions to do so. A bad vote doesn’t just have local repercussions – it has national ones for TUSC’s credibility (especially when poor votes occur all over the country). There should be centralised approval of all TUSC candidates, using key criteria as a basis for approving proposed candidates. These criteria would include for the candidate – local credibility, involvement in campaigning, ideally living in the area up for election – and for the area, potential for a positive result and previous TUSC activity there. We have produced a template document (click here to download) as the suggested basis for this. This has to be completed by a member of a bona fide local TUSC group and submitted to the TUSC SC, who should establish a permanent sub-committee of, say, three people to scrutinise these proposed candidatures, using the template criteria. Only those local TUSC groups with candidates approved by this sub-committee may stand candidates.
11. Areas to stand should be picked, and candidates selected, at least a year in advance of the election, and the decisions communicated to the local media. All references to that candidate can then (and should) be as ‘prospective parliamentary candidate for X’ or ‘prospective council candidate for Y’.
The election campaign
12. When it comes to election time – send a personalised letter to all postal voters. In the recent County Council elections in Barnstaple, about 70% of postal voters voted, and the overall turnout was about 27-28%. The postal voters are therefore a self-selected sub-section of the electorate who are several times more likely to vote than non-postal voters. They tend to be older. Target your message, to the street or neighbourhood that they live in. Personally write their names at the top (not just first name), and personally sign yours at the bottom. There is nothing wrong with targeting your message, with employing the best tactics of capitalist parties. We aren’t changing our principles, or our policies, we’re just making sure that these policies are more likely to turn into votes.
13. Leaflets should be designed locally, and targeted to particular parts of the ward if possible. These should be delivered to working class areas in the first two weeks of the campaign.
14. Starting in the second week of the campaign, canvass the postal voters. In the final weeks of the campaign, canvass all other voters in working class areas.
15. Keep detailed records of the canvass. As TUSC develops, some form of spreadsheet recording all the information from canvassing would be useful. Use a number system, 1-5 say, to record their likelihood of voting for you, general enthusiasm and so on. Use a standardised print out sheet to record the information as you knock doors. Leave a space on the sheet for general comments. This can be useful in noting down particular issues raised on the doorstep. This can form the basis for organising a campaign meeting on a particularly notable issue after the election. We used a 1-4 scoring system in the 2011 District Council elections, and then recorded the 3s and 4s onto a spreadsheet with their contact details. These we invited to a public meeting on housing after the election, because this was an issue that cropped up most during canvassing. This wasn’t a success, but it was the right approach. We have sent special additional newsletters to these contacts, and a Christmas card (a suggestion from Pete Smith).
16. Canvassing should involve asking people if we can count on their vote and have any questions, after a brief one sentence description of what we’re about. Ask anyone who says they want to vote for us if they would consider putting a poster in their window. Carry these with you!
17. Anyone who isn’t home, record with an O, and slip in a pre-printed, TUSC candidate X visited earlier, sorry we missed you thing with contact details if they have any questions, issues that need raising etc. Try and re-visit if you finish your canvassing elsewhere.
18. If you can afford it get a few rosettes done for those canvassing. We have a few eye-catching red and green ones!
Should you think this is armchair theorising, we have put our money where our mouths are. Over the last few years done all we can to build the SP and TUSC in North Devon, not particularly fertile ground for socialist ideas!
Having delivered both SP and TUSC material – leaflets and the occasional newsletter – in those areas previously, and campaigned against cuts and privatisation, we stood two TUSC candidates in two Barnstaple wards in the 2011 District Council elections. This was the first time we had stood in elections. Both candidates (credible and known locally) received a vote of 10% (154 and 186 votes each).
This wasn’t just luck – we put in the work well beforehand to establish the TUSC name and what we stood for. During the election campaign itself we concentrated our forces on the working class areas, canvassed all the homes in those areas, leafletted twice and left another leaflet with those who we couldn’t reach through canvassing.
We’re not saying we’re super-militants – this can be done by comrades anywhere.
Doug and Jim Lowe
North Devon TUSC
tuscnorthdevon [at] gmail.com