In November, Transform, the fledgling left-wing alternative to Labour will be having a national conference in which they will undoubtedly decide to become an electoral party with plans to challenge Labour at the next election in 2024.
Many people who were supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have been arguing for a new party ever since the Labour Party swung to the right under Starmer and particularly since Corbyn had the whip removed.
But, should a new party emerge, is it likely to receive what a recent entry on our Readers and Writers Telegram Forum described as “a lot more than 200,000 homeless voters”? Nobody knows in advance of an actual election what will happen. But wishful thinking has rarely been a good predictor of the future.
The last general election in the UK, prior to Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, was in 2015. It was won by the Conservatives led by David Cameron. Labour was led by Ed Miliband, and, under his leadership, Labour received 9,347,273 votes.
A variety of left parties stood in that election, and it is worth our looking at their performance.
In total, nine left parties stood in 2015. They were: Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), Respect, Socialist Labour Party, Workers Party, Communist Party, All People’s Party, Socialist (GB), Workers Revolutionary Party and Left Unity.
Collectively these parties stood 178 candidates, who received a total of 56,736 votes, which works out at 319 votes per candidate. Given this, even 200,000 votes would seem wildly optimistic, let alone a lot more than that.
The situation may not even be that rosy. Respect no longer exists. It was a vehicle for George Galloway, who has since joined the Workers Party, and, as far as I am aware, the Workers Party is not aligned to Transform, which includes the untested new parties: the Breakthrough Party, the People’s Alliance of the Left (PAL) and Liverpool Community Independents. Only Left Unity has stood in a previous General Election, managing 455 votes between 3 candidates, or 152 per candidate, which, for an avowedly left wing party, is not that bad but hardly likely to rock the political establishment.
Breakthrough has appeared in one by-election, Chesham and Amersham, receiving 197 votes. Although Breakthrough has some elected representatives at local level, none of these has won an election as a Breakthrough candidate; they are mainly defectors from Labour. When Breakthrough stood candidates in the local elections, they came 5th out of 9 candidates in Birmingham, with 265 votes; and last in Carmarthenshire, with 97 votes.
In 2021 the Northern Independence Party, now part of PAL, stood former Labour MP Thelma Walker in the Hartlepool election. She lost her deposit, getting 250 votes. They stood 8 candidates in the 2022 local elections; none of them getting elected.
For those who think this is too negative, let’s look at the positives. In Liverpool, the Liverpool Community Independents, a group of ex-Labour Councillors and members stood in the local elections this year. They gained three seats, two being sitting councillors who had defected from Labour. Of course, this is Liverpool, once home of Militant, and possibly the most left-wing city in the UK. And these are not General Election results.
Generally, smaller parties do better in local elections, where they can appeal to a local electorate away from the glare of the mass media. Political scientists call these type of elections ‘second-order’, meaning that they are less significant. This can be shown by the fact that turnout rarely, if ever, comes close to a General Election. In Birmingham, where Breakthrough fielded candidates, average turnout was below 40%.
For Transform to make an impact in a general election, it first has to field candidates. TUSC is not part of Transform, neither are most of the other left groups, apart from Left Unity. If the Workers Party joins, it would be because George Galloway regarded it as a means to support his electoral dreams. In October last year the TUSC Steering Group sent an invitation to other groups, including those who have since launched Transform, proposing that they work together. Most of them did not respond.
TUSC not only already exists but has an infrastructure, including being a legally recognised party. They pointed out that the threshold for getting media coverage on TV was 15%, or 98 constituency candidates. Take away the TUSC candidates, and the rest of the left managed just 50 between them in 2015. What makes Transform think it can manage twice that when, at present, it does not even exist as an electoral party?
The desire for a new party does not make sense. It is difficult to make the case that the public are crying out for a left alternative. All the opinion polls give Starmer’s Labour a massive lead, which should be enough to guarantee the stomach wrenching sight of Starmer entering Number Ten.
The sensible option is to put individual egos to one side and for the left to unite under a single banner for electoral purposes. Given past performance, that has to be TUSC. They are an open, democratic organisation with a left reformist agenda which is anti-austerity and pro-worker. Unlike Transform, the TUSC website does not include a set of agreed policies for the coming election because, as they say, as a democratic organisation, the core platform will be open to discussion and debate.
The idea that there are 200,000 or more politically homeless voters out there just waiting for a new party does not stand up to scrutiny. The 56,000 votes gained in the 2015 election would appear to be close to the limit. It is pure fantasy politics to believe that a first time party, entirely ignored by the mainstream media, is going to break through and reach that number. It is plausible that TUSC, with its established name and good on the ground support, will add to its 36.5k.
Of course, advocates of the new party will claim that much has changed since 2015. And I would concede that to be the case. But I would have to also point out that much of the change has made it more difficult for the left.
There is a rather naive belief that all those ‘extra’ voters who voted for Corbyn in 2017/2019 will vote for a new party. Even if that were true, why would they vote for Transform? As I pointed out in the Sunday Socialist (September 17th), whilst Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour manifesto gained an additional 3.5 million votes compared to Ed Miliband, by 2019 the “Corbyn Premium” was worth only 900,000 additional votes. These are facts which are difficult to deny.
It is also true that the majority of those votes were those returning to Labour, and that was undoubtedly a result of Jeremy Corbyn transforming the Labour Party into a Scandinavian style social democratic organisation with manifesto to match. But there is no compelling evidence that a new left party, not called the Labour Party, can simply mop up those 900,000 votes.
I think it inevitable that Transform will become an electoral party. I also think it inevitable that they will refuse to join TUSC. And, whilst predictions are difficult, especially electoral ones, this one is easier than most. Transform will get fewer votes than TUSC. Most of their candidates will lose their deposits. It is also likely that many Transform members, probably fewer than 2,000 active members nationwide, (though that could be higher including online members who will not be door knocking and leaflet pushing), will be so demoralised at the end of this process that they give up on politics altogether.
I would urge those excited about Transform to realise that all that Transform is likely to do is to make life slightly more difficult for TUSC, though we assume they will not stand in direct opposition to each other, without making any significant impact on either the Labour Party specifically or the political system more generally.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.