Could the left have done better?
I am now back in my NHS day job after a rollercoaster experience. Despite losing by only 195 votes and seeing a hardline Tory/DUP government in Westminster, my political and feminist standpoints are strengthened. As should those of the left be. The left and the union movement had a rare opportunity to unite behind a winnable socialist manifesto. What if the left had the vision and confidence to truly unite around this class agenda? That’s what the Labour manifesto was and that’s what inspired so many – especially young people – to unite behind Jeremy Corbyn. Regretfully, many so-called left comrades in Scotland persist in prioritising national identity politics.
As a left activist, feminist and former Unite EC member, I was already committed to Unite’s political strategy to ‘win back the Labour Party to working people and to win back working people to Labour’. I agreed, following a ‘please stand’ phone call, to fight the Airdrie and Shotts seat. I was motivated by the left aim for a gender-balanced slate and by Corbyn’s ten pledges that hinted at the socialist manifesto that was to come including nationalisation of public transport, £10 minimum wage and workers’ rights.
My approach was to work alongside elected councillors, MSPs and Constituency Labour Party officers and members connecting ‘Labour’ to communities; to take the manifesto to people’s homes across the constituency; and to be highly visible at campaigns, events, street stalls and through the press/social media. Early on in this short campaign, we started to sense successes with this approach connecting particularly with former Labour voters. Good conversations on doorsteps bred an increasing confidence amongst our small but growing group.
My recent grassroots Unite electioneering for left executive council and general secretary candidates meant I was already in campaigning mode in left politics. Reflecting on my experience as a left working woman Labour candidate -not working or living in the political bubble -but doing an NHS job in an already highly politicised arena, with commonplace family and neighbour carer responsibilities taught me that the left needs to demonstrate not just talk about solidarity and equality – specifically gender equality.
The left needs to show solidarity by having a duty of care to the welfare and well-being of candidates selected to champion the left cause. Equality of opportunity should not stop at generating a gender- balanced slate but must be demonstrated e.g. in the allocation of support and resources. In Lanarkshire, despite having four women and three men as Labour candidates, it was the three men who got paid staff from the Scottish Labour Party. All the men got a shop front office rented for them to use and the women got none. There appears to be no statistical justification for this in terms of other election outcomes or margins – indeed, the majority in Airdrie and Shotts of 8,779 was the smallest of the seven seats to be overturned. I have to question if sexism provides a potential explanation about this stark contrast of resource allocation? Two of the men got elected. Meanwhile, two of the women came a so close second, reducing the majority to 195 in Airdrie and Shotts and from 11,800 to 318 in Motherwell and Wishaw.
Solidarity during the election can best be shown by joining the candidate in door knocking, leafleting and displaying posters. Being the candidate can feel lonely and vulnerable, never knowing if anyone will respond to the mass call to members and affiliated organisations to help. I am deeply thankful to everyone who did volunteer to help – particular thanks to the solid crew who came rain or shine- and, unlike my sister in the neighbouring constituency, I was fortunate never to have no-one turn up.
The absence of formal support from my union and other affiliates to dedicate staff and members as volunteers, to win a Labour government committed to delivering so many of our union campaign ambitions, was a major disappointment. Could this be perceived as a lack of confidence in fully backing a socialist agenda or just a sign of caution wrongly worrying about non-Labour supporting member resignations?
If only the left both in the Labour Party and the wider union movement had truly done all it could! If there was ever the need for the three main Labour affiliates in Scotland to go beyond the call by issuing, for example, a joint statement to ‘Vote Labour’ to remove the anti- union legislation, ban zero hours contracts and end bogus self- employment, this was that time. A missed opportunity indeed!
So after my experience I am left wondering … if the left had strived for equal opportunity, fully demonstrated solidarity and been bold and confident in the Labour manifesto, could we have gained more left MPs and secured a Corbyn led Labour government? What now for the left? A serious conversation about where we go collectively is long overdue. My hope is that the left is bold and recognises the opportunity that may still be there to back a government in waiting, committed to an undeniably socialist manifesto and that the left in Scotland shows solidarity by supporting and joining Labour.
Helen Mcfarlane stood as the Labour party candidate in Airdrie and Shotts for Westminster. She works for NHS, is a member of the People’s Assembly, a unite member and activist and is vice chair of United Left both in UK and Ireland and in Scotland.