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Learning from Lewisham
COUNCIL BY-ELECTIONS are not history-making events. But the victory of the Socialist Party candidate, Chris Flood, in the Lewisham council Telegraph Hill ward by-election holds some important lessons for socialists.
Firstly it shows it is possible for socialist candidates to win even 'first-past-the-post' elections. Socialist ideas, carefully linked to the real experiences people have of New Labour's profit-first policies, can win broad support.
While a democratic proportional representation system would undoubtedly see more socialist candidates succeed, Chris is now the eighth elected socialist councillor in Britain. He joins the other four Socialist Party councillors in Coventry and Lewisham, the two Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) councillors in Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire, and the Socialist Alliance councillor in Preston.
Important though these successes are, however, they are just a foretaste of what could be achieved by a new, mass workers' party, uniting the growing forces of opposition to New Labour in the trade unions, community campaigns and the anti-war movement. The fact that the Telegraph Hill ward now has, for the first time ever, no Labour representation - and that the opposition has gone to the left and not, for example, to the Liberals - is evidence of that. The Lewisham result should be a boost for all those arguing for a new workers' party and any interim steps that are taken in that direction.
THE LEWISHAM campaign also showed the importance of any new party - or electoral coalition on the road to a new party - being organised on a democratic and inclusive basis, and adopting a sensitive approach to the different forces that could potentially become involved.
One of the key issues, particularly in the north of the ward, was the lack of secondary school places for local pupils, with just 400 places available last year for nearly 700 primary school leavers. A New School for New Cross campaign had been established in 2001 which, in 2002, set up a 'political arm' - Local Education Action by Parents (LEAP)..
The Socialist Party was fully involved in the New School campaign from the outset and, in the 2002 full council elections, reached an electoral agreement with LEAP over the three Telegraph Hill seats.
Faced with a by-election for a single vacancy, however, the unity between LEAP and the Socialist Party could have been seriously undermined. It would have been wrong for the Socialist Party not to contest a seat where there was a clear chance of a socialist victory.
The development of community campaigns are a symptom of a growing search for an alternative to the Labour Party, a step forward in the thinking of many former Labour voters or previous non-voters. But where a firm socialist vote has already been established it would have been taking that consciousness backwards to have stood down in favour of a single-issue candidate.
The LEAP officers turned down the offer of a joint candidate - partially under the influence of local Socialist Workers Party members who argued that a socialist candidate was less likely to win - leaving us with no option but to attempt to contest the election as a 'friendly rival' to LEAP.
In the event the split vote did not allow Labour to sneak back in and now, with another pro-new school councillor elected, the Socialist Party will strive to resume joint campaigning activity with LEAP.
What is clear, however, is that genuine community campaigns like LEAP - or trade unionists moving into electoral activity - would not lightly abandon their independent identity, even where a joint electoral campaign was possible. This too is an important lesson to be learnt in any effort to construct a new electoral alternative to New Labour.
In The Socialist 13 December 2003: