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Lessons of the Swindon election campaign

Andy Newman

 

Around midday on May 5th I became aware that the voters who have been loyal to the Socialist Alliance in borough council elections in Swindon were voting Labour in the general election. For example, in the past three years we have consistently polled over 170 votes (between 11% and 13%) in one ward, Gorse Hill and Pinehurst, but this time we only received 208 votes in the whole constituency; almost exactly the same proportion of the vote that Respect gained here in the Euro elections last June.

So what went wrong? This is a complex question, but is perhaps best explained by the admission of two comrades who signed my nomination papers that they had voted Labour in the end to keep the Tories out, but they congratulated us on an excellent campaign! Earlier on in the campaign I had had a long talk with a prominent environmental campaigner in the town (while on a demonstration against a new housing/university campus development) and she had said she agreed with everything we were saying, but had no choice in voting Labour to stop Tomlinson (the 28 year old Tory candidate, former national chair of Conservative Future).

Indeed, as the contest developed it became clear that the Tories could win both Swindon seats. It seemed that literally every other billboard in the town was showing a Tory poster about immigration; and in the last few days of the campaign Labour made a Herculean effort to distribute thousands of leaflets explaining that it was very close and urging Labour voters to go out and stop the Tories. On Election Day itself they even had teams knocking on doors getting the voters out, something I haven't seen here for a long time.

The urgency was all the greater because for the first time in living memory the Tories gained control of Swindon Borough Council last year, and their administration has been marked by arrogance, ruthlessness and a determination to force through cost cutting regardless of the impact to services and the human misery caused. The election therefore became dominated by a deep desire to stop the Tories at all costs.

Looking at the national results there is a similar picture,  most left candidates in Labour/Tory marginals received poor votes. This would certainly fit the case of Dorset South where Respect received 0.5% of the vote in Labour's most marginal seat, and even the Liberal Democrats only received a 1.3% upswing. The Green vote seems less soft, but they represent a distinct ideology, whereas we are competing with the Labour Party for the class conscious working class vote.

There are other objective factors that may have an impact. Swindon is a relatively prosperous town, with nominally full employment, despite the prevalence of deep social exclusion and poverty on some estates. It also has (according to census returns) one of the lowest proportion of university graduates in Britain, and the national picture shows that those likely to protest over the Iraq war are often more educated. Swindon is also predominantly white, and the largest non-white populations have no vote in national elections (Goans who have Portuguese citizenship). Many people we spoke to expressed very real concerns that if the Tories won the election then the economic prosperity may vanish, and the war in Iraq did not seem to play a major role in the predominately white working class areas where we were campaigning.

So what of the subjective factors? Firstly it is necessary to understand why we stood. Having been relatively successful in local elections for the Socialist Alliance over the last three years (13%, 12%, 11%, 9%, 9% and 4% in the six elections we have fought, in three different wards) we wanted to continue to build on that electoral base, and there were no borough council elections in Swindon this year. In local terms it is vital that some alternative representation is gained on the council. Swindon Borough Council is silent about the South West Regional Development Plan to expand Swindon by a further 24,000 houses, and build on all the green spaces in and around the town. So this year's election was keeping the flag flying for our strategic aim of influencing local politics.

It was of course also desirable to give the electors the option of voting for a socialist, and getting socialist arguments across given the greater opportunities offered by a general election.

Our strategy was to concentrate all our campaigning efforts on the two or three wards where we have stood in the past, and intend to stand in future local elections, and rely upon the mass mailing to reach the rest of the town. But early on this became compromised by lack of resources. In fairness some members of our group always expressed concern that we had too narrow a base to fight the election. Financial considerations meant we had to send out only a postcard as the mass postal mailing instead of a leaflet, which obviously gave less opportunity to explain our politics. Secondly, the human resources at our disposal were stretched very thin, and although we delivered 20,000 leaflets we were unable to spend much time talking to people face to face, which has been crucial to our impact in local elections. To a certain degree there was a loss of impetus and momentum because we were not standing as part of a Socialist Alliance national campaign, and some who have campaigned for us in the past took a less active role this time. On the other hand, several people also helped with the campaign who are not normally actively involved with the Socialist Alliance, and we did make a few new contacts.

The few wards we targeted are those with the most solid Labour vote, and in purely electoral terms our results were always going to be affected by the degree of social exclusion there, in Penhill only 37% voted, and in Pinehurst only 40%.

So what were the positive aspects of the campaign? We received a great deal of sympathetic press coverage in the local paper, and on local radio, where we were able to counterpose left policies to the neo-liberal consensus spouted by the main parties. This is also true of the hustings, where our arguments were often the best received. We had the opportunity to participate at a reasonably well attended hustings at a sixth form college, and the hustings organised by the World Development Movement were broadcast on the BBC radio. We even found friends at the hustings organised by the churches, where nowadays there is a constituency concerned with global justice and opposing war.

We leafleted both the Mosque and the Sikh Gurdwara. The response at the mosque was very positive, (based upon our long term relationship with them, going back some 10 years) and worshipers coming out of Friday prayers helped us leaflet. A leading member of the Islamic association made a generous financial contribution. We were also invited to address Wiltshire FBU, and came within a hairsbreadth of gaining their backing, and I am sure the vote would have been won had it been put to the meeting, but a Labour Party member played a very clever game of influencing the meeting to refer the decision to the region, that of course never happened.

During the election campaign we also consolidated further our relationship with the local branch of the Communist Party, who organised a debate between me and Rob Griffiths , and they have confirmed that they are interested in future joint meetings. We received a more disappointing response from the local Socialist Party, who nominally agreed to rejoin the Socialist Alliance here last year, but have not attended meetings. They stood in a ward within the constituency last year, and we were hoping they might work with us in that ward during the general election (in their own self interest), but they went to Bristol to support the SP candidate there instead, and never accepted invitations to talk about it. In truth the SP comrades in Swindon do not work with anyone else, nor do they involve themselves in any local campaigns or in local trade union work. They were involved in the Stop the War Coalition at its height but did no work and took no responsibility, and only used it as a way to meet young potential recruits

At the outset our campaign had been predicated upon the idea of working with the local Green Party. This was successful, as we were able to divide the two Swindon seats, and at joint hustings our arguments supported each other. Our ambition is to continue this into next year's local elections, but the fact that we received so few votes may mean the Greens are reluctant to pursue this. On the other hand, in terms of numbers and actual roots in the local environmental campaigns we are stronger than the Greens. And in local elections our results have been as strong as theirs.

In conclusion: the result was disappointing, based upon both objective and subjective factors. Objectively the fact that the contest was a tight Labour/Tory marginal; and the fact that the economy was a bigger issue than the war here. Subjectively, the base for our campaign involved too few people and too little money. We also suffered by the fact that we were not part of a national campaign with even a limited profile.

On the positive side it was fun! It gave us the opportunity to inject socialist arguments into the election, and we made the other candidates sweat on many occasions! It raised our profile in the town (the local paper reported our results very kindly as if we had done well, and ran a short interview with me about the need for proportional representation). We met some new people and consolidated our good and friendly relationships with the Communist Party, the Moslem community and the Greens. Would we do it again? Ask me in 4 years!

 

May 2005

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