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Convention agrees plan for a united general election challenge to Sunak and Starmer

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Representatives of twelve different campaign groups and socialist organisations met in Birmingham on Saturday 3rd February in a Convention to Organise a Working Class Challenge at the General Election. 

Initiated by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) last year with an appeal to different organisations to discuss the possibility of a joint election challenge to both the Tories and Sir Keir Starmer’s rehashed Tony Blair-style ‘New Labour’ party (see https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Invite-to-organise-convention-October-2023.pdf), TUSC was joined as a co-host of the Convention by the Socialist Party, the registered political party System Change (formerly Resist), the Campaign for a Mass Workers Party, the TUSC Independent Socialists group, and the Socialist Students organisation, with a presence on forty campuses across Britain. 

Joining them in Birmingham – in person and on zoom given the ASLEF train drivers’ strike – were representatives from six further organisations.  These included the registered parties, the Social Justice Party and the Workers Party of Britain, the newly-formed Transform party, and the Organising Corbyn Inspired Socialist Alliance (OCISA) campaign group, who are promoting a single independent left candidacy for Sir Keir Starmer’s Holborn & St Pancras constituency seat. 

Debating a joint election challenge

The Convention debates were organised around six propositions that had been circulated in a pre-Convention questionnaire that gave participants the opportunity to suggest amendments or alternative proposals.  Eighteen amendments had been submitted (see https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Convention-Agenda-document.pdf) and these were moved and discussed under the relevant agenda heading.

The Convention began with an introductory session under the title, ‘Do we want a common election challenge? And is it possible?’, debating the first of the six propositions: “A joint election challenge should attempt to contest enough seats (98 candidates appearing on the ballot paper with a common name or variants of it) to reach the broadcasting authorities ‘fair media coverage’ threshold”.

An amendment to the proposition was moved by the North West Leicestershire district councillor Ray Sutton, a former Labour Party member who had stood and won the Kegworth ward in May 2023 as an Independent on the ballot paper, polling 283 votes ahead of Labour on 160, the Tories with 154, and the Liberal Democrats on 27.  Arguing that a common name on the ballot paper will not be achieved, Ray’s amendment suggested instead that “a joint election challenge should effectively be a tactical voting umbrella. It should include pure and simple ‘Independent’ if that is not the selected umbrella name”.

In the discussion two of the parties represented at the Convention – Transform and the Workers Party – indicated that they would abstain on the proposition.  The speaker from the Workers Party, which is currently causing waves in the Rochdale parliamentary by-election with George Galloway’s high-profile candidacy, explained that their strategy was for a more targeted approach in the general election, with their candidates standing under the Workers Party name.  While Transform, their representative explained, was a small, newly-established party which felt that building their own profile by standing candidates under their own name was a greater priority than reaching the ‘fair media coverage’ threshold, which was less important with the alternative media available. 

Nevertheless, all speakers expressed sympathy with the idea of a joint challenge and that, at least, an attempt should be made to achieve it.  Proposition One was agreed unamended, with 80% of the representatives present voting in favour.

The attitude to left-wing Labour candidates

The Convention then moved on to Proposition Two, on what attitude a joint election challenge should take to left-wing Labour Party members – an ever-dwindling number! – who have managed to remain as official Labour candidates, with seven amendments submitted.  This included an appeal from the OCISA campaign for the joint election challenge not to field a candidate in Holborn & St Pancras, which was accepted nem con.

There were arguments made, expressed in different ways in separate amendments, that the joint election challenge should not be restricted in which seats it would contest by the political position of the Labour candidate, but these were not accepted by the Convention. 

Amendments were agreed, however, referencing Labour’s 2019 manifesto as a benchmark, and the attitude to Green Party candidates, with the Proposition as amended now reading:

“The joint election challenge will not in general seek to contest seats against left-wing Labour candidates or left MPs or ex-MPs standing as independents, encouraging local TUSC groups to send delegations to Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) to ask where they stand on Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto”.

“This does not apply to Green Party candidates.  When in office, both in Britain and internationally, the Green Party has demonstrated that it does not represent a step towards working-class political representation”.

“The Organise Corbyn Inspire Socialist Alliance (OCISA) campaign group and the For the Many campaign will be standing one left candidate as an independent in the Holborn & St Pancras constituency against Keir Starmer and the joint election challenge will not contest this seat”.

What common name?

With the Convention having agreed that an attempt should at least be made to organise a joint election challenge contesting enough seats to reach the broadcasting authorities ‘fair media coverage’ threshold, the discussion moved on to some of the practical details of the campaign, starting with the obvious one: what common name should appear on the ballot paper?

The threshold for ‘fair media coverage’ is to stand a candidate in 15% of seats – 98 for the UK as a whole – which guarantees a party election broadcast (PEB) and coverage of a manifesto launch event as a minimum.  The qualifying threshold secures additional coverage by the Scottish broadcast media if the 15% figure is reached there (meaning nine candidates need to stand in Scotland) and Wales (six candidates); but also by the regional news programmes in England (if there are eleven candidates in London, for example, or nine in Yorkshire or the West Midlands, five in the North East, and so on).  Of course achieving the statutory minimum coverage is one thing; using that as a foothold to push for additional broadcast and print media coverage, and using such coverage in an alternative media campaign, is something else that the joint campaign needs to discuss. 

But what is certain is that the BBC, which acts as the lead organisation for OFCOM in election coverage, insists that only candidates appearing on the ballot paper using one of the descriptions of a political party registered with the Electoral Commission (including its Scottish and Welsh variants) go towards the ‘fair media’ qualifying threshold number.  Standing as an Independent or under the name of another political party registered with the Electoral Commission would not count, even if the party or individual candidate declared their alignment with the joint election campaign, whether in a ‘non-aggression pact’ or a mutual endorsement agreement. 

The Convention discussed what flexibility there may be within these rules, including the possibility of registering a new party and name and the opportunities to register joint descriptions between officially registered political parties; although recognising the time pressures involved particularly for a May election, with each registration procedure taking at least six weeks to complete. 

But eventually Proposition Three was agreed unamended, with one voice against: Candidates in the joint election challenge striving to reach the ‘fair media coverage’ threshold should appear on the ballot paper using the TUSC name or one of its registered variants, including joint descriptions”. 

Minimum policies and other campaign details

The remaining propositions dealt with the minimum policies that prospective candidates should be required to support to be part of the joint challenge; their rights – and the rights of the organisation that they are members of – to campaign independently as part of a joint challenge; and how the campaign should be organised going forward.

Proposition Four proposed that: “The TUSC draft core policies platform for the general election (at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/TUSC-draft-GE-platform-for-2024.pdf) shall be the minimum set of policies that candidates need to support to be part of the joint election challenge”.  An amendment to change the wording in the TUSC draft platform from “reverse all the cuts, kick out the privateers” to “oppose privatisation and cuts to public services, and campaign to reverse cuts and privatisation”, was agreed nem con. 

Other amendments to policy bulletin points on proportional representation for local, regional and national elections; annual elections for local councils; and reinstating full trade union rights to prison officers, were not accepted.  However, as the Convention chair and the chairperson of TUSC, Dave Nellist, explained, the TUSC core policies platform for the general election remains a draft for a minimum platform until candidates begin to be formally selected and the discussion is not closed.

This was also emphasised in the brief discussion on Proposition Five – that Individual candidates and organisations participating in the joint election challenge shall retain at all times responsibility for their own campaigns, including the right to promote their own organisation and policies that go beyond the core platform” – which was also agreed unamended.

With the framework of a joint election challenge in place, the final debate was on Proposition Six, with the Socialist Party proposing an amendment that effectively asked all organisations that will be involved in the joint election challenge to participate in the TUSC steering committee meetings, for the duration of the election at least.  This, and the proposition as amended, were accepted nem con.

Dave Nellist concluded the event by thanking all the participants for the contributions they had made – and pointed out that, if the general election is not in fact held on the same day as this year’s local elections on May 2nd, those polls will be an ideal ‘dry run’ for the general election and should have as many TUSC candidates contesting them as is possible. ■

The TUSC Council Candidate Application Form can be downloaded at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/2024-Application-form-Cllr.docx (if you are having difficulty opening this link, try copying it into your browser) and an explanatory TUSC Guide for Election Candidates and Agents can be found on the resources page, at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/TUSC-Guide-for-Candidates-Agents-2024.pdf.

A list of the 105 councils with elections in May 2024 is also available, in the TUSC directory of elections, at https://www.tusc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/2024-Elections-Directory.pdf).

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