What it takes to keep a good socialist on the street

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The Independent Online

The thing that wears down most socialists isn't armies or beatings, but having no apparent impact. History is full of rebels smuggling poems out of South American jails that start, "they can imprison my body, but will never jail my spirit". But try selling papers for an hour in the shopping centre, during which time your only conversation is with a woman who wants to know the way to Debenhams. Or turning up to a fly-posting session that gets as far as two of you saying, "I thought you were bringing the bucket."

Now I'm standing for election to the Greater London Assembly as a candidate for the London Socialist Alliance, it's fascinating to watch New Labour going through a similar process of unpopularity. Because they just can't understand it.

One debate I took part in was on a radio programme, in which Baroness Thornton said Frank Dobson would be elected as mayor of London. Her reason was, "from where Ken is in the polls, he can only go down. And from where Frank is, he can only go up. So I think that come 4 May they should cross over."

Blair's response to the debacle he created has been to stay clear of Dobson as far as possible.

I expect if an interviewer asks Blair who he supports, he'll say, "Oo, I don't know much about politics really, they all seem the same to me. To be honest there's so much of it on the telly that I'll be glad when it's all over."

When Dobson was asked on Radio 4 about Blair's arms-length approach, he replied, "I can assure you the Prime Minister is doing a lot of work behind the scenes." I see. He's stuffing lots of envelopes, and leafletting his own street.

On a local level, I was cautious and nervous before my first public debate as a candidate, at a branch of a teachers' union. Despite my inexperience, I perfected one technique that the Labour candidate didn't master, which was the art of turning up.

The next debate was at a college, where the Labour candidate was told by one student that she was having to work as well as do her course, and found it hard to live on the minimum wage. The reply was, "If you don't think you're paid enough, my advice is to value yourself higher. Get a job that pays more."

So that's why so many people are on low pay. They've forgotten to ask for more. The result of this contempt was almost unanimous support for the LSA. One woman announced that she'd been a member of the Labour Party for 40 years, but "listening to you made me want to be physically sick".

Some of the students enthused, "We can set up, like, an LSA benefit with some kicking DJs. Then, like, we can stop the dancing while you make a speech." This seems terrifying, although a rave would be easier, as you could wait until the E kicks in. Then even Baroness Thornton could go down well, as ravers shook her hand, saying "wow, that polls-crossing idea was lovely, man".

On Saturday, decades of tradition were reversed. Now it's the Labour stall staffed only by the candidate and two others which remains ignored or attracts abuse. Reports from the rest of London tell a similar story.

In one constituency Labour's launch meeting was due to be addressed by Frank Dobson, but only 20 people turned up. Then it emerged that 18 of them were supporters of Livingstone who'd come to protest at Dobson's nomination.

In this context, it's easy to see how Labour arrives at its stance on asylum-seekers. There is widespread concern, largely whipped up by the press and the Tories, so Labour dares not counter it. Labour's position is to be anti-racist as long as they're in a room with other anti-racists. In the wider world, they give us the Asylum Bill and Jack Straw's attempts to out-Widdecombe Widdecombe.

They remind me of one of the regular pieces performed by the extraordinary socialist Tony Cliff, who died on Sunday. He would tell the story of how anti-Semites in the Thirties accused Labour MP John Strachey of being Jewish. The Labour Party's official response began, "we deny absolutely that Strachey is Jewish". Cliff would then boom that the only true socialist response was, "not only is he Jewish, but we are all Jewish".

That is why socialists can endure the many windswept mornings when few people want to know what you're selling or saying. Because at least you're fighting, however inadequately, for a set of principles. New Labour dumped their principles in order to become popular, and now they're not even popular. They go home with nothing.

Of course it's still possible that the LSA will get hardly any votes. But that means we start the next election on nought per cent. From there we can only go up, so that by polling day we're bound to walk it with a few million votes to spare.

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