Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 April 2001
On the face of it, it’s difficult to see why everyone is making such a fuss about the day of anti-capitalist action planned for 1 May in London. So 1,000 anarchists, radical leftists, Turkish Stalinists and assorted crusties turn up in Oxford Street, a few of them have a punch-up with the cops, a McDonald’s gets trashed and a statue defaced? Well, unless someone is badly injured or killed – OK, it’s a serious unless – big deal.
There is, I guess, a chance that a mini-riot will have an impact on the election campaign, though I’m not sure what that might be: I can’t see Jack Straw being skewered by Ann Widdecombe because the police were too soft. And I suppose it won’t do the tourism industry much good if television pictures of fighting on the streets are beamed across the world, though it’s a moot point whether they’ll do any more damage than pictures of burning animal carcasses and wrecked trains.
A few broken windows and bruised bodies will not, however, shake capitalism to its foundations or bring the country to the brink of revolution. Come 2 May, it’s safe to say, it will be business as usual.
So why do the anti-capitalists bother? Of course, they’re angry – with varying degrees of justification – about injustice and meat-eating and multinationals. They’re alienated from traditional politics. And some of them get a buzz from chucking stuff at the police. But the crucial motivation is simply that it’s great fun to outrage respectable opinion. If the press and the political class didn’t get into such a lather about the threat they posed, most of the anti-capitalists would stay at home.
Meanwhile, the Trots are limbering up for what they say will be the most concerted ever left-wing electoral challenge to Labour. The Socialist Alliance – essentially a coalition of the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) and the Socialist Workers’ Party, though there are a couple of other small Leninoid fractions involved and a handful of independent lefties – is running candidates in 100 seats in England and Wales. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party (the core of which is Militant’s Scottish organisation) is contesting all 72 seats.
I’m not remotely tempted to vote Socialist Alliance, and wouldn’t be even if it had a chance of winning seats – but that’s not my point here. Rather, it’s to remind readers of just how quixotic the Trot challenge actually is.
Even though no single far-left grouping has ever put up as many as 172 candidates in a general election before, there have several elections in which one of them has contested 50 or more seats. The Communist Party put up 100 candidates in 1950, 57 in 1966 and 58 in 1970, and the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party stood 60 in 1979.
But although the CP won two seats in 1945, not a single far-left MP has been elected since. And in terms of share of the vote, the far left’s record has been risible. Even in 1950, the CP managed to take an average of just 2 per cent of the vote in the seats it fought; by 1970, the last time it attempted a substantial nation-wide election campaign, it was down to an average of just over 1 per cent. (The CP’s figures for share of the national vote were even more pathetic.) The WRP in 1979 took an average of just 0.5 per cent in the seats it contested.
Needless to say, everything could be different this time around: an optimistic Trot would say that the CP was never able fully to mobilise left-wing opposition to Labour because it was compromised by its Stalinism, while the WRP was incapacitated by its lunacy. Somehow, however, I doubt the Socialist Alliance will do any better than previous far-left challengers. There is of course a great deal of left-wing dissatisfaction with the Blair government – but it is trifling by comparison with the disillusionment felt by the left in 1979 or even 1970. If the Trots get more than an average of 2 per cent of the vote, I promise I’ll shave every hair off my head.
Finally, two simple questions to all those Tribune contributors and correspondents in the past few weeks who have sung the praises of Castro’s Cuba. If it’s so bloody marvellous, why doesn’t the regime allow free multi-party elections? If the Cuban people really do support Castro, wouldn’t they give him a landslide victory and prove that whingeing democrats like me don’t know what we’re talking about?