French elections confirm urgent need for Left unity – Join Socialist Alliance!

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The recent French elections highlight why revolutionary socialists participate in electoral politics. The result is also a powerful argument for united Left electoral alliances, argues Alison Thorne, a member of the Socialist Alliance National Executive and Convener of the Wills Branch.

The result of the first round of the French Presidential elections, held on 21 April, was widely described by commentators from across the political spectrum as “a shock.” Jean-Marie Le Pen from the racist, extreme right National Front came in second — scoring nearly 17% of the vote, edging out Lionel Jospin from the Socialist Party. This result was the first time since World War Two that the social democrats failed to progress to the second round.

A clear message from the French election is that the majority of voters are fed up with both the conservative Gaullists led by Jacques Chirac and the traditional Left parties — the Socialist Party and the Communist Party — described by anti-capitalist activists as the “pro-market” Left.

Both Chirac and Jospin made a commitment to reduce the deficit, which would result in increased austerity measures. Both favoured raising the retirement age by five years. Both accepted privatisation of the state-owned electricity company. And both helped fuel a climate conducive to Le Pen and the right wing with their promises to increase security by implementing law-and-order drives particularly targetted at young people.

The combined vote received by the Socialist Party and Communist Party fell dramatically from just over 32% in the 1995 elections to less than 20%. Le Pen’s vote increased modestly from 15% to just under 17%. The abstention rate was nearly 28%.

But the big news — buried by the mainstream media — was the combined vote for three Trotskyist candidates which, at nearly 10.5%, was almost double the far Left vote in 1995.

France is now a highly polarised society. Neoliberal policies are having a harsh impact on ordinary people. When life becomes a struggle to survive, some of society’s victims can be attracted to the racist, scapegoating message of Le Pen and his ilk. For opponents of the right wing, it is not enough to simply oppose racism and rightwing populism on moral grounds — the victims of capitalist globalisation need effective solutions to their problems, and that’s where a united fightback, led by revolutionary socialists, is crucial.

While the vote for the revolutionary Left was impressive, it is disappointing that there were three Trotskyist candidates instead of a single united campaign. In 1999 two of the parties — Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) — ran a combined ticket in the European elections, and succeeded in electing five revolutionary members to the European Parliament. The LCR initially approached LO to run a joint ticket for the recent presidential elections, but LO declined. Given this fragmentation of the far Left, we can only speculate about how much more impact a united campaign could have had.

The inability of the French Left to overcome differences in order to present a united revolutionary socialist election campaign reinforces how precious are the achievements made to date by the Socialist Alliance in Australia.

Taking on the establishment. The Socialist Alliance — formed in March 2001 by eight socialist parties, including the Freedom Socialist Party — is starting to make its mark on the electoral scene at the Federal, State and local levels. Although the Alliance did not achieve electoral registration prior to the Federal election, it ran candidates in 15 Lower House seats and seven Senate teams, attracting a combined total of more than 25,000 votes across the country.

The Alliance has since successfully achieved its Federal registration and has jumped through anti-democratic hurdles to achieve electoral registration in both Tasmania and New South Wales, in preparation for competing in upcoming State elections.

The word “socialist” will appear on ballot papers during the July 20 Tasmanian State elections for the first time since 1976! Socialist Alliance needed 100 members willing to have their name and address published in the newspaper. It achieved this feat and is now one of only six officially registered political parties in Tasmania. SA is running two candidates in each of the seats of Denison, Franklin and Bass.

Achieving the impossible. In February, Socialist Alliance achieved an enormous victory by getting registered for NSW’s State elections in 2003. The Socialist Alliance is opposed to the raft of grossly anti-democratic laws introduced by the NSW Parliament in 1999 — with the support of The Greens — designed specifically to make it almost impossible for small parties to achieve registration.

The new measures require parties to be registered a full year before running in a State election. Parties must pay a $2,000 fee to apply for registration. New parties must provide the State Electoral Office (SEO) with 750 individually signed forms of members correctly enrolled to vote in NSW elections and whose addresses are also current at the time of checking. Any letter returned to the SEO unopened would result in the member concerned being deleted from the list accepted by the SEO. Finally, 300 of these members are randomly sent a letter, and at least 75% must return a signed form confirming their membership. Members of other electorally registered parties cannot be used to help a new party seek registration. The SEO refused to tell the team organising the registration drive the names of the members who had been sent letters. Not surprisingly, the Socialist Alliance was the only Left party to get registered after both the Communist Party and the Progressive Labour Party gave up.

Having experienced the impact of these measures first hand, Socialist Alliance will continue to campaign for basic democratic rights. Lisa MacDonald, from the Sydney District Organising Group, explains: “Getting rid of these laws will not result in a level playing field. Those who control the media, have access to money and can use the State to repress emerging political forces will continue to dominate electoral politics. But the abolition of any laws which limit people’s ability to use elections in order to present and test public support for their ideas can only advance democratic rights.”

Best result yet. The Socialist Alliance has seized several local opportunities to put forward a socialist alternative. In March the Alliance stood Ruth Ratcliffe as a candidate for Mayor of Darwin City Council, campaigning around refugee rights, opposition to the racist use of Council by-laws to harass Indigenous people and for drug law reform.

In the same month, the Alliance in Victoria ran candidates in the local Council elections of Darebin and Moreland. These campaigns prioritised welcoming refugees, defending public transport, protecting the Merri Creek and the need to fight for local councils that would mobilise the community to campaign for better funded services. In Darebin, the election was conducted by postal ballot.

The best result was 3.8%. But in Moreland, where traditional polling booths enabled Alliance members to actively campaign, it achieved 5.5% of the vote in Merri Ward and 5.4% in Hoffman Ward. This was the Alliance’s best result to date.

The Socialist Alliance has announced plans to stand candidates in seats across Melbourne and Geelong in the Victorian State election and is working toward electoral registration in Victoria.

Get on board. Socialist Alliance has achieved a new level of unity among affiliates and members in areas of struggle beyond electoral work. The Alliance made an important contribution to discussion within the trade union movement about political representation for workers — hosting fruitful trade union seminars in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.

Alliance activists this year have also campaigned together in support of refugee and gay rights, in opposition to the Howard Government’s anti-terror laws and in defence of trade unions.

It’s time for union and community activists, initially sceptical that the forces which formed Socialist Alliance would be able to cooperate around agreed goals, to reassess and join up. The bipartisan scapegoating of refugees during the last Federal election highlights all too chillingly that a French scenario is possible in Australia. Socialists don’t have the luxury to stand on the sidelines. And we increase our impact when our message is united.

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