frontline 14

Lessons of the European Elections

On the face of it the European election results in Scotland seem in marked contrast to England and the rest of Europe where there was a major turn-away from established political parties. However, this masks deeper processes in this election as explored by Nick McKerrell – who was second on the SSP European Election list.

In the early evening of June 13th as the English football team crumbled to France in Euro 2004, the first results of the European elections began to be announced across Britain.

In Scotland, superficially it seemed as if it was “business as usual”. Losing one seat because of EU enlargement, the remaining seven MEPs were split between the four establishment parties in Scotland. New Labour, the SNP and the Tories all got two seats; the Liberal Democrats one. Neither the SSP nor the Greens made an electoral breakthrough.

The UK Independence Party – which we look at in detail in Phil Hearse’s article in this issue of Frontline - the story of the night in England- gained 6.7%. This was a big increase on their vote in the last election but was in marked contrast to their 17.3% in England and their smallest vote anywhere in Britain.

However that is only one aspect of the analysis. The Scottish New Labour vote at 26.4% was its lowest share since 1918, although in the disastrous British context it was one of its stronger votes.

This was partially masked by the collapse of the SNP vote – at 19.7% there was a 7.5% fall from 1999. This directly precipitated the resignation of John Swinney a week later and the current fractious leadership battle within the SNP.

Although they maintained their two MEPs they were only slightly ahead of the Tories. It was also their lowest share of the vote in an election since the dog-days of Thatcherism in 1987.

Significantly, that year marked a qualitative change in the attitude to Scotland to the national question and independence. It also saw a radicalising of the SNP – now almost completely overturned during the leaderships of Salmond and Swinney – and a big increase in their support.

The one establishment party that did well in Scotland was the Liberal Democrats - they increased their vote by 3%. Aided by the UK focus of the election coverage and a higher differential turnout in more prosperous areas they were the main beneficiaries of a radical middle class protest vote.

The SSP Result.

In general the SSP should be very proud of the 5.2% share of the vote we achieved. Such a level of support puts us up with the major far-left parties in Europe. Nevertheless there is a measure of disappointment because there was no electoral breakthrough as there had been spectacularly in the Scottish elections of 2003.

There were a number of factors that made this a very difficult election for us. For a UK election the SSP suffered from a media focus on the British parties: this also affected the SNP. The one televised TV debate for all the Scottish candidates was shown at the peak viewing time of 11pm on a Thursday night!

The issues that became the focus of the European campaign made it difficult for the SSP to motivate our core support and vote. The turnout at 30% in Scotland was 10% less than in the UK as a whole. In Glasgow, the heartland of the SSP, this was even lower at 22%.

This was also quite a right-wing election campaign with propaganda on a daily basis against asylum seekers and Eastern European immigrants from the new EU member states. This had an effect, albeit a fairly marginal one in Scotland. Although the collected right wing vote of the Nazi BNP, UKIP and the Tories was 25% compared to 33% in Wales and 50% in England – highlighting the different political complexion in the member states of the so-called United Kingdom.

Not wanting to sound like the Scotland manager spouting a litany of excuses, the result the SSP achieved was all the more remarkable given these factors. In a sense this is a testimony to the activist and branch-based nature of the SSP that we could mobilise so much of our support.

Although turnout was down we maintained a third position in Glasgow and strong percentage votes in Lanarkshire and the West of Scotland.

This could be contrasted with the Green Party who had the benefit of a British media profile – albeit more limited than the established parties – and a higher turnout in the Scottish seats where they tend to do better. Their vote did increase from 1999 by 1% but given this context and the increase in the Liberal vote – probably their chief competitor – this would have been disappointing to them.

In a sense this reflects the different nature of the Green Party who have a very small number of activists and don’t really operate a branch structure on a Scottish basis.

One clear lesson the results do show us is the need for the SSP to build on and develop our grass-roots base. Our campaigns against the council tax (which called a very successful demo in April 2004 at the beginning of the election campaign) for free school meals and a host of other local issues need to be used to develop our party across the whole of the country.

When we couple this activism with our vision of an independent socialist Scotland this can be an unstoppable force in winning people to our banners. Our base in communities is one of the factors for the very limited support for the BNP in Scotland compared to England.

The BNP trying to shed their “boot-boy” image have attempted to re-position themselves as defenders of white working class communities in England – and built up branches doing so. In some areas they have achieved electoral success by this strategy.

However in Scotland, largely because of the existence and the work of the SSP, this gap does not exist. Having said that racism particularly towards asylum seekers is on the increase and the BNP vote, though marginal at 1.7%, is 4 times more than their % vote in 1999. In many areas of Glasgow they were up to 2.5%, which although swamped by the SSP vote shows there is a potential area of concern which should redirect our focus as a party.

But regardless of these factors, the SSP as a clearly socialist party achieved over 5% of the vote in Scotland on June 10th. Any analysis has to put that as a major achievement and it contrasts quite sharply with the results in England.

English vote

Morrissey, the charismatic singer, was probably never more prescient in his lyrics when he sang in his top 5 single Irish Blood English Heart one month before the Euro-election: “I’ve been dreaming of a time when the English are sick to death of Labour and Tories…”

For the first time in centuries the combined vote of the Conservatives and Labour Party was less than 50% of the overall total. Blair and Howard were left gasping as their vote evaporated. It was the lowest share of the vote the Conservatives had since the first partial election of 1832. Unfortunately as mentioned above the major beneficiaries of this were not on the Left with the UKIP making huge gains and the BNP also making advances. For example, in Yorkshire the BNP went from 1.2% of the vote to 8%, the North-West from 1.3% to 6.4%. Throughout England the overall BNP vote was 5.3%.

So what happened to the Left?


In the European elections the standard bearer of the Left was to be Respect – debated in Frontline 13. This coalition was seen as broader than the Socialist Alliance by some of the left, significantly the SWP, and more able to capitalise on the massive anti-war movement throughout Britain which mobilised 2 million demonstrators in London on February 15 2003.

Moreover Respect was headed by George Galloway, whose major anti-war profile and subsequent expulsion from the Labour Party won him the admiration of thousands of anti-war protestors. However Respect as an organisation was only launched four months prior to the June election. Their overall vote in England was 1.7% or around 250,000 votes.

In many Euro-regions the Respect vote was not much bigger than the Scargill-led Socialist Labour Party in the 1999 elections. Also in those elections there were a number of independent Labour campaigns including in the East Midlands around Ken Coates – an expelled MEP and colleague of SSP Euro candidate Hugh Kerr – who received much higher votes at that time.

However Respect also contested the London Assembly and Mayoral elections held on the same day. It was here that some really heartening results could be found.

In the constituency of City and East in the heart of London Respect garnered 15.3% of the vote and third place. In the neighbouring seat of North East there was a good vote of 8.3%. In general the votes were higher or on a par with the votes received by the London Socialist Alliance in the 2000 elections with some exceptions – notably in Lewisham.

Overall in the top-up list for the whole of London – an electoral system similar to that in Scotland – Respect got just under the winning margin of an Assembly seat of 5%.

Also in the election for Mayor Lindsey German the Respect candidate got 5th place, albeit with 3.2% of the vote. This was an achievement though as the Green candidate who was 7th was treated as a more serious candidate by the establishment. Through this he received more media coverage and invitations to electoral hustings meetings. It was also a marginally higher vote than the BNP.

One advantage of the Respect challenge in these London elections was the relatively united banner of the Left it presented. In the 2000 assembly elections there were 5 different left-wing organisations standing! Their combined % vote was slightly more than Respect in 2004. Ironically given the turn of history there was no left challenge against Livingstone for mayor in the same year.

So Respect did pretty well in big areas of London. Moreover in some big English cities respectable (!) votes were gained: Leicester 9%, Birmingham 7% and Luton 6%. In Preston where Respect stood five local council candidates including a number of ex-councillors they averaged 30% of the vote.

However the votes were more limited than expected than the leadership of Respect and the SWP expected. George Galloway standing as an MEP on the day of election stated, “I would be very surprised if I was not elected”.1 There was also the target of a million votes – half the number of demonstrators on February 15th. Neither was achieved and in many regions of England Respect trailed the BNP considerably. One of the arguments in favour of the initiative was that it could mobilise more support than an explicitly socialist organisation could.

Respect were not the only left force contesting elections as there were also local elections on that day. But looking at the overall pattern the key phrase seems to be fractured.

The Socialist Party, the English affiliate of the CWI, did well in local areas, notably Coventry, although they lost one of their sitting councillors and Bootle. They also stood in a wide variety of locations reflecting the branch-activist structure of their organisation.

The Democratic Socialist Alliance – a group who did not support the Socialist Alliance decision to back Respect – did well in Walsall, where they stood a number of candidates. This stems from a left wing organisational split off from the Labour Party in the 1990s.

The group the ‘Independent Working Class Association’, now has 3 councillors in Oxford. Their strategy is to reject big visions of socialism but build solely at a grass-roots level on local issues. Their role is to reflect what local people want so they do not campaign on “macro-issues” like opposition to the war in Iraq. Although their forces are small and the vision essentially negative there is an effective element to that type of campaign.


Forward Wales, an organisation established by John Marek, a member of the Welsh Assembly expelled by the Labour Party, achieved some very strong votes in Wrexham with one councillor elected, and also faired well in Caephilly. Marek is a close admirer of the SSP and has achieved a significant amount of support from disillusioned Labour voters. Ron Davies, Blair’s first Secretary of State for Wales, was their lead candidate in the European elections.

Respect made a clear mistake by deciding to stand against Forward Wales at the Euro-election. Although both got fairly marginal votes FW with 1.9% of the vote had three times more than Respect who came bottom of the poll in Wales. It seems that FW has the potential to develop in the same direction as the SSP.

So across England we have a number of left organisations polling quite well in very localised areas but in some instances competing against each other and in more instances not being on the ground at all leaving the far-right to step in.

It seems clear that a united left organisation, probably with some sort of federal structure to reflect regional differences, is still really vital in England.

After these elections could Respect be a force in England? Once again it is unclear.

Muslim voters

A number of criticisms have been levelled at Respect. These include that they down played their progressive socialist policies and only emphasised their anti-war message. Moreover they deliberately exploited the religious element of their support.

In extreme language this has been called “communalist”, in short appealing to Muslims to vote as Muslims for Respect as the clearest anti-war candidate.

One leaflet was headed “George Galloway: Fighting for Muslim Rights”. It also differentiated between joining Respect and “the Muslim campaign to elect George Galloway”. In one speech Galloway underlined his personal feeling against abortion rights – which was immediately praised by the Muslim Association of Britain.

The criticisms have a base, but it also is significant that considerable numbers of Muslims feel able to vote for an organisation which for all its organisational faults has on the whole a progressive programme when compared to the established parties.

What is true however is that this base alone will not be enough for a new force on the English Left. The sizeable votes Respect gained in London were in areas where there is a very large Muslim population

Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party correctly stated that, “A new mass left formation cannot be built on one issue, or by appealing to just one section of the population”.2 Although her point has relevance, her use of the limited geographical success of the SP in Coventry or Dublin (in the Euro-elections) as the possible alternative to Respect lacks credibility.

Probably in response to such criticisms, John Rees, a leading member of the SWP and Respect candidate, in the first major official statement since the election, states that Respect is the “beginning of the politics of hope”.3

Rees states that the 3 foundations of Respect are, “The socialists, the left in the unions and Muslims who have been radicalised by the wars in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq.” On the communalist jibe he responds, “Respect cannot prosper, does not want to prosper, without Muslim support. But it cannot prosper with only Muslim support”.4

But fine sentiments like this do not really mean anything unless they are backed up with strategies to implement them. A positive political programme that promotes socialism needs to be utilised to win over working class communities. This needs to deal with practical day-to-day issues as well as engaging with broader international themes like the movement against the occupation of Iraq.

Linked to this there has to be clarity over the organisational structure of Respect : branches, policy making, an accountable leadership, rather than a sprint into the next election campaign which seems to be occurring with two by-elections in England in mid-July.

Building An Alternative

Respect did reasonably well in parts of the election but it did not do well enough, for example, by gaining a sizeable consistent vote or making an electoral breakthrough to give it the sole authority to launch a pluralist pro-active socialist organisation in England.

For that to occur a major left group like the SWP or the SP has to set their own organisational bravado aside and seriously build such a movement – possibly using the structures of Respect.

In history as in science all analogies are ultimately false but Scottish developments could be mentioned here. In 1997 the Scottish Socialist Alliance decided to contest 16 seats in the general election. This reflected the financial restraints and the localised nature of support – mainly around Glasgow and Dundee. This seems a political eon ago – in the run-up to Tony Blair’s landslide there was a perceptible desperation to be rid of the Tories. Any left assault on Blair was going to be marginalised – many thought better of even attempting it including at that time the SWP. In any event we lost 15 of the 16 deposits but managed one of the biggest left votes in Britain at 11% in Glasgow Pollok.

To take the next step in developing socialism there had to be a qualitative shift by the leadership of Scottish Militant Labour. It needed to exploit the political potential by taking significant organisational measures, that being, in the launch of the SSP.

This was opposed by the leadership of the CWI and the SWP.

Moreover a political programme was developed, at first within the SSA and then in the early months of the SSP, that related a big picture of socialism down to practical issues like the abolition of warrant sales and the concept of the Scottish Service Tax.

Now in a completely different political climate the potential of challenging Blair, New Labour and capitalism from a socialist perspective has long been here and the election results in 2003 and 2004 indicate that the SSP have built a strong base doing just that.

In England the potential for the left was there. Indeed some argued that the mass demos against war and Bush showed there was a qualitative shift against Blair. But what was the electoral outcome? The anti-war vote was splintered - it did not all go to Respect. The left results show a series of very diverse and localised bases of support.

A branch based pluralist left organisation that promotes socialism could be built in England. The growing electoral strength of the right and the intransigence of Blair mean it is becoming even more vital. But big steps have to be taken and big decisions have to be made for this to happen.


  1. The Herald, June 10th 2004
  2. The Socialist, June 26th 2004
  3. Respect statement, June 22nd 2004.
  4. ibid