As part of the Socialist Party of Great Britain's European Parliament election campaign, I took part in two hustings recently, one on the Isle of Wight and another in the New Forest, both organised by Remain-supporting groups. It was an interesting and for me new experience, having come into the SPGB a few years ago from a political position that rejects electoralism altogether.
Being on a panel with capitalist politicians (or would-be capitalist politicians) gives us socialists an opportunity to share our vision of a better world more widely and to question assumptions that would otherwise go completely unchallenged - although the hustings format has obvious limitations. On the Isle of Wight, for example, I challenged Labour candidate Rohit Dasgupta's early description of Jeremy Corbyn as a 'socialist'. Both of us promised to follow up on this point, but neither of us got time to do so during the course of the evening. That's the frustrating aspect of these sorts of events, where contributions from the many party candidates are typically restricted to one-minute answers: there is little time to seriously debate any particular point.
After the Isle of Wight hustings I found myself looking at local media following the event and defending the reputation of the Green candidate Vix Lowthion - who struck me as a very decent person - when she was attacked, in prurient and sexist terms, by contributors to a local news website (Lowthion has also been vilified on the political gossip website Guido Fawkes). It was a little insight into the backwardness of many sections of the working class and the abuse endured by women with any kind of public profile.
A few weeks later I participated in another hustings in the New Forest, where again, against tight time restrictions and fortified by the home-baked cakes provided by the organisers, I proposed the abolition of capitalism, nation states, borders and money. The audience of mostly Hard Remainers listened respectfully - perhaps, in some cases, appreciatively - although there was a somewhat muted response to my point that the EU, while protecting 'freedom of movement' for some working-class people, was also forcibly repelling refugees on its Southern borders, consigning many of them to death at sea.
I also challenged the Labour candidate's response to a question about the rise of the far right. Arran Neathey claimed that Labour were the natural party to resist the UK's reactionary wave. But as I pointed out, the last time Labour were in power, they 'out-righted the right' with their dawn raids on immigrant families. And who could forget Gordon Brown's infamous slogan 'British jobs for British workers', a phrase stolen from the British National Party, no less? Indeed, from 1997 to 2010 the Labour Party did more to attack black and brown people at home and abroad than any far right party could ever have dreamed of doing. This, I felt, was a point worth making, not least for the benefit of the audience member who harangued me, before the start of the event, over the "disgrace" of standing against the "socialist" Labour Party.
So what was the outcome of the party's election activity? The main one was that through the hustings, and more importantly, the distribution of party literature and appearances on television and radio, we were given an opportunity to outline what real socialism involves. After both of the hustings I had some good conversations with members of the audience. Generally, however, the voting public remains largely ignorant or unconvinced about socialism and in the end the SPGB garnered a slightly disappointing 3505 votes in the South-East region. Then again, the party's (entirely correct) refusal to support either Brexit or Remain - to pick a 'side' in the capitalist class's dispute over its trading arrangements - meant that it was always likely to be punished in an election regarded by many voters as a second EU referendum. Perhaps, too, the party fell victim to the 'Corbyn effect', since so many workers have been taken in by Labour's (latest) promise to make capitalism work 'for the many, not the few'.
And so there is nothing to do except to go on - at work, in our communities, in our political organisations - with the struggle for socialist world, however far away that may be. At the end of the New Forest hustings, one of the independent candidates turned to me and made a cryptic but intriguing comment: "You're right... but you're too early". I hope that he's correct. At any rate, it's better to be too early than too late.