Standing for the Labour Party: The International Socialists 1959-1970

Even new members of the SWP today will be aware of its general tradition of calling for a vote for the Labour Party at General Election time. Less of those members will be aware of the fact that up to the late 1960s many members of the organisation were also active members of the Labour Party. Even fewer will be aware that during the period 1959-1970 IS members actually stood for election to Parliament under the banner of the Labour Party. In the third of my articles on aspects of IS and electoral politics I will look at these instances.

The 8 October 1959 General Election

In 1959 the Socialist Review Group (SRG) remained a tiny organisation with much of its activity focused on the Labour Party. The Socialist Review newspaper of October 1959 appeared before the date of the General Election and had this to say about the prospect of a Labour defeat:

“Labour’s defeat can breed only despair in its ranks, greater apathy amongst its supporters. It could lead to mass desertions from rank-and-file activity and even from membership, and could face the weakened socialist movement with the stupendous task of building afresh in extremely unfavourable circumstances.

Criticize we must, and mercilessly, but Labour must win. Every socialist must see it is his imperative duty to help break the Tories and put Labour back in.”

It was in this General Election that SRG member Syd Bidwell, a Trotskyist since 1937 who joined the Socialist Review Group in 1954, stood unsuccessfully for Labour in the safe Tory seat of East Hertfordshire and polled 18,020 votes (32.84 percent). This was the first instance of a current member of the organisation standing for Parliament.

Labour duly suffered its third consecutive defeat with the Tories winning a thumping 100-seat majority. The following issues of Socialist Review contain some interesting articles on the way ahead for Labour, including by Eric Heffer, who had the front-page article in the December 1959 issue. Heffer was, of course, to become an extremely well known Labour MP serving the Liverpool Walton constituency from 1964 until his death in 1991. During the latter part of the 1950s Heffer was often very close to the SRG.

Socialist Review 9th Year No. 15 December 1959

The 15 October 1964 General Election

In 1964, much of the activity of the International Socialists remained focused around the Labour Party, including in its youth organisation the “Young Socialists” where IS organised through the paper Young Guard.

The front page of the September 1964 issue of the Labour Worker newspaper deals with the upcoming General Election of October 1964 under the banner headline “Out With the Tories”. The underlying article says that:

“… the removal of the Tories must be the first of our demands. But it is only the first. Our willingness to give electoral support to Labour must not blind us to the total inadequacy of Labour’s present programme.

Labour under Wilson may introduce social reforms which we cannot fail to welcome; it will not fundamentally challenge the capitalist system which is the root cause of all the social ills we campaign against. In fact, Labour stands for economic measures that will strengthen, not weaken, capitalism. It stands for continued membership of NATO, and for nuclear ‘defence’.

By trying to impose a policy of wage restraint it will be acting directly against the interests of the workers it claims to represent …

… To hide our criticisms of the Labour programme, through fear of ‘rocking the boat’, is to surrender to the Right. But to turn our backs on the Labour Party, the only mass working-class political movement that exists, is to condemn ourselves to ineffectual sectarianism.

Instead we must fight alongside the thousands of workers who in the next few weeks will be on the doorsteps campaigning against Toryism; at the same time we must put forward, clearly and openly, a genuine socialist policy.

A socialist policy for Labour, a policy which could transform the whole system, must be based on the following demands. In foreign policy, we reject nuclear strategy, and call for immediate withdrawal from NATO and all military alliances. The repressive policy being pursued in Aden must be ended. At home, housing, education, health, and social welfare must be given vastly increased priority. The Immigration Act must be repealed. Nationalisation with workers’ control must be central to Labour’s programme. And without workers’ control there must be no wage freeze in any form.

This is not to foster the illusion that such a programme will command support within a few weeks or months … but if we do not begin to campaign for such a policy NOW we will never build a movement that can defeat once and for all Toryism and the system it stands for.”

Prominent IS member John Palmer stood as a candidate for the Labour Party in Croydon North West and received 13,967 votes representing 33.46 percent of the votes cast. Syd Bidwell stood again, this time in South West Hertfordshire, polling 22,237 votes (35.96 percent).

Founding member of the Socialist Review Group Ray Challinor had been the Labour Party prospective parliamentary candidate for Nantwich but he stood down from that position around six months before the General Election.

Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won the election with a tiny majority of four seats. The next issue of Labour Worker in November 1964 explained the outcome thus in its front-page article:

“It could hardly be worse. Labour’s paper-thin majority is sure to drive the leadership farther to the right, and faster than even the most pessimistic feared during the election run up. We warned readers then that the steel frame of Labour’s economic policy was its intent to freeze wages, but we thought it would be hidden behind a useful facade of better pensions, better housing, better health services. Now the facade is more than likely gone.”

It is worth recording that in this General Election two former SRG members were elected to Parliament for the Labour Party. Founding SRG member Trevor Parks won the South-East Derbyshire seat which he held until he stood down at the 1970 election. Very early SRG member Stan Newens won in Epping. He was MP for Epping from 1964 to 1970 and subsequently for Harlow from 1974 to 1983.

The 31 March 1966 General Election

Wilson opted for another General Election in March 1966 and Labour Worker Issue Number 54 (14 March) had this to say:

“The General Election raises issues of the most profound importance for the British working class and labour movement. The Labour government’s appeal for a ‘big working majority’ comes at a time when the trade unions are faced with threats of legislation which would place the clock back more than 50 years; when workers on the shop floor are confronted with long-term wage control and a tougher industrial discipline; and when the forces representing a socialist alternative are – in the main – tied and blinkered by a blind loyalty to the labour leaders.

Labour Worker is convinced that the series of retreats on domestic promises of reforms made by the Labour leaders, the new anti-union policies, and the disastrous support for imperialism abroad, all reflect the growing tensions and crisis within British capitalism. Our starting point in assessing our attitude to the general election is an assessment of the forces of capitalism and the capitalist state acting on the Labour government.”

The article goes on to say that:

“Every Labour candidate should be pressed to give commitments on at least the following four points:

  1. All out opposition to shackle the unions through new laws
  2. Total opposition to the leadership’s support for the Americans in Vietnam
  3. Opposition to the Immigration White Paper and its support of controls
  4. Full support for workers’ fighting a coercive incomes policy in defence of their living standards”

The article finishes as follows:

Labour Worker urges socialists everywhere to vote and work for the biggest possible Labour majority …

… A Labour government with a big majority will be held to account for every promise made to the working class. It will be openly opposed and fought on every act taken against the organised working class movement. It will be exposed for its every shameful act of accommodation to nuclear imperialism. Its ‘left wing’ will have its last protecting fig leaf for supine inactivity rudely removed.

Labour Worker will play its part in the struggles ahead under a Labour government. For out of them and out of the education they will bring can and will come the development of a powerful force for socialism.”

Labour duly won the election with a massive 98-seat majority. The headline for the Labour Worker issue after the election (No. 55) proclaims “Wilson’s Victory Means – The End of Fig-Leaf Politics”.

In pursuing the argument that the size of the new Labour majority removes any excuse for Labour based on their need to survive in Parliament the article states:

“At every conceivable level in the Movement the point must be hammered home: that there is no genuine purpose of a Parliamentary Labour Party, elected and supported by working class people, unless it is to enact policies which will benefit their working class supporters and to move towards a society where workers control their own destinies: that unless it does move in that direction, if it moves in precisely the opposite direction and attempts in the name of the workers to establish a super-capitalist state, then the workers will seek an alternative.

The alternative will not be the Tories: it will go to the very roots of the Parliamentary structure, undermine it, and replace it with properly representative organisations. How the Parliamentarians behave over the next few years will decide the fate of Parliament itself.”

In that 1966 General Election IS member Michael Downing stood for the Labour Party in Woking polling 19,210 votes (30.8 percent). The seat was won by the Tory Cranley Onslow.

Possibly of more historical significance is the story of IS member Syd Bidwell who was standing for Labour in his third General Election campaign, this time in the safe Labour seat of Southall. Bidwell won the seat with 19,989 votes (53.5 percent) but his pandering to racism during the campaign led inevitably to his expulsion from IS within weeks of his election. John McIlroy (1998) tells the story so I will not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that:

“Syd Bidwell, who died on 25 May 1997 at the age of 80, was a Trotskyist during four decades. In 1966, he became, momentarily, the first Member of Parliament to be elected whilst a member of a Trotskyist organisation.”1

John Palmer was the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) for Labour in Croydon North West but was this time banned by the Labour Party NEC from standing. A front-page article on the subject, “NEC action on left-wing Labour candidates must be opposed” written by Michael Downing appeared in Labour Worker issue number 49.

John Palmer (pers. comms.) explains the story as follows:

“I fought the 1964 election for Labour in Croydon North West but was refused endorsement by the NEC for the 1966 election because, among other things, I had accused Labour ministers of being apologists for US war crimes in Vietnam. The Croydon NW party refused to accept this ruling and was temporarily closed and a candidate was imposed. Stan Mills, a fellow IS member and experienced militant in the National Union of Railwaymen, was a prominent member of the constituency party and was a stalwart in leading the local party opposition to the NEC’s decision. The NEC witch hunt was led by Ray Gunter, a former trade union leader and Labour minister who eventually left Labour and went to run a security firm in South Africa”.

Fellow IS member Constance Lever had been selected to fight the seat in Epsom for Labour and was also banned. Michael Downing covered the situation of both Palmer and Lever in an article “’Democracy’ in Croydon” in Labour Worker number 54 (14 March 1966). He wrote:

“Against every kind of pressure and moral blackmail from Transport House and the Labour Party National Executive, North West Croydon Constituency Labour Party decided to stand by John Palmer as their selected parliamentary candidate. Despite his non-endorsement by the NEC two months ago, and Transport House threats that the seat might either go by default or that a ‘scab’ candidate [be] imposed on the party, the North West GMC reselected Palmer by an overwhelming majority against two other ‘supported’ candidates.

But this show of democracy was too much for the disciplinarians at Transport House. They have again refused to endorse Palmer and have imposed their own candidate on the party …

The NEC still has given no reason for the non-endorsement of either Palmer or Constance Lever at Epsom CLP despite protests from more than 60 constituencies. It has become quite clear, however, that it has been the refusal of the two left wingers to give written undertakings to ‘make no public criticism of any aspect of government policy until after the general election’.

Gunter and co want to tighten the controls over the selection of candidates as part of a drive to tighten control still further over the parliamentary ‘left’. Victory in North West Croydon would have been a major blow to the muzzlers and a big victory for the rank and file”.

The 18 June 1970 General Election

Following the upheavals of 1968 with its growth in the membership of IS and its turn to being a more interventionist and action-orientated organisation work within the Labour Party had declined dramatically.

The upcoming June 1970 General Election was debated at the IS Annual Conference in March of that year. The IS Perspectives Document presented to the conference starts as follows:

“A general election this year or early next year will find the working class confused and disorientated. There is widespread discontent with the Labour Government and more politically advanced workers have little sympathy for the Labour Party. But the absence of a credible left alternative means that discontent cannot be welded into a potent ‘third force’ and a ‘Keep the Tories Out’ campaign by Labour is likely to force the more advanced workers to reluctantly toe the line. Apathy and disillusion among less class-conscious workers will result in abstention or voting for the Tories, though when confronted by the ballot paper they may find Tweedledee Wilson marginally less repulsive than Tweedledum Heath. We must grapple with the situation as it is and not as we would like it to be and must reject the posturings of Left sects who crudely lump together all ‘bourgeois’ parties, ignoring their intricate links with different class forces. There is no alternative to the general approach that the election offers no way out for the workers but nevertheless they should ‘Vote Labour – Without Illusions’, on a class basis. We must pillory the record of the Government in all our propaganda and activities but it will be futile to call for an electoral break with the Labour Party until massive open and political working class disenchantment with it exists.”

This perspective was firmed up in a somewhat different manner in the policy put forward in the editorial in International Socialism Journal No. 42 (February/March 1970) titled “Their Election and Us”. Here the “Vote Labour – Without Illusions” line has been dropped in favour of one that says:

“… [A]lthough our main aim in the election period should be to make propaganda against the policies of the Labour government and to indicate the source of these in reformist theory and practice, it would be a mistake, although not a major one, for the Left to call for a vote ‘against both Tories’ and to urge abstention. This would be to claim that a vote for the overt party of capital and a vote for the shamefaced party of capital are the same, a claim which most militant workers still reject …”

This represented the policy of the IS National Committee majority.

A minority on the IS National Committee saw the above majority policy of a refusal to call for a vote for Labour as in sharp contrast to the IS’s approach to the 1964 and 1966 elections.

Their policy was put forward in a “Polemic” in the International Socialism Journal No. 43 under the name of Roger Protz (although the actual internal IS National Committee minority view document was signed by Andreas Nagliati, Jim Higgins, Roger Protz, Fred Lindop, and John Palmer). The Protz article ends as follows:

“What strategy, then, for the election? Our propaganda must make no concession to Labour. We must return again and again to the argument that Labour’s policies have paved the way for a return of a more right-wing Tory Government (a glaring omission from the editorial [in ISJ No. 42]). Labour cannot solve the working class’s problems and, whichever party is in power, the attacks on their organisations and living standards will continue; both parties will attempt to solve capitalism’s problems at the workers’ expense.

Above all, we must stress that a Labour Government is the price we have to pay for the failure to build a real socialist alternative. Support for our own or other independent socialist candidates can be considered, but if we are to maintain a fruitful dialogue with the potential vanguard of the working class, we must advance the slogan: ‘Keep the Tories out – vote Labour and prepare to fight’”.

At the March 1970 IS Conference itself there were three broad positions on the General Election put forward, the majority and minority NC positions, plus another from York Branch (championed by Peter Sedgwick). This third position was in the form of a motion that said, inter alia:

“Conference affirms that the main focus of the Group’s work during the General Election will lie, not in putting up or supporting candidates, but in the production of propaganda attacking the ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ nature of the choice between the Tories and Labour and exposing the sham of parliamentary politics. Bearing in mind that, for most branches, independent candidatures are out of the question, Conference instructs the NC to make early arrangement for the production and distribution of anti-election propaganda and to decide on the form of action (spoiling ballot papers, burning of polling cards, simple abstention etc) that will be urged during the election.”

In the event Conference voted against the York IS motion and in favour of the ISJ No. 42 Editorial “NC majority” policy. To somewhat muddy the waters Conference also voted in favour (by 74 votes to 72 votes) of the International Socialism Journal No. 43 “minority” NC policy.

A later (undated) “Statement by the Executive Committee” on the election circulated to all IS branches tells us that:

Socialist Worker – the paper must be our main weapon for hammering the phoney ‘alternatives’ of Labour and the Tories … The eve of poll issue will explain the need to keep the Tories out because of the lack of a real socialist alternative and will also contain a major article on the case for revolutionary socialism …

‘Election’ Manifesto – the EC will write and produce by next week a special Manifesto for wide distribution at factories and meetings. Printed in two colours and written in easy language, the Manifesto will, like the paper, expose the phoney alternatives of the Election, explain Labour’s record, and put the case for revolutionary socialism, with an appeal to join IS. If possible, 100,000 manifestos will be printed.

… Activities – no canvassing for the Labour Party, except in the most exceptional circumstances … No canvassing for the Communist Party – there is no room for a second reformist party …

Labour Election Meetings – these provide us with an opportunity to present our policies. We should not aim to break up meetings but heckle, ask questions, and attempt to politically dominate meetings”.

IS Executive Committee Statement to all Branches on the 1970 General Election

The “Election Manifesto” that was produced is, in point of fact, an interesting publication being a 6-page foldout with red type on white paper. Its title is “Labour…Tories. What a Choice!” in a large font with the following text making up the rest of the front page:

“A GENERAL ELECTION – does the prospect bore you? Do you wonder about the promises the parties are making? Can you see less difference than ever between Labour and Tories?

However you vote on 18th June, it won’t give you any real say in the running of the country. Power is supposed to be held by parliament, but real power these days is exercised by a few all-powerful business tycoons and top civil servants. They’re not elected. They’re responsible to no one.

More and more working people are thinking this way – thinking that the election is a meaningless farce.

Most workers will vote Labour because they like the Tories even less. But they remember Labour’s promises in 1964 and 1966 – and they compare the promises with what’s actually happened.”

The inside of the manifesto has sections on “Promises – and Reality”, “The Unfair Society”, “The Undemocratic Society”, “Inequality” and “What we Say”. This last section does say “…we think you should vote Labour…” – but this is caveated somewhat in a final page headed “But No Illusions” which makes the case for revolutionary politics and for joining IS. This page starts with:

“We don’t say ‘VOTE LABOUR’ because we believe in them. We don’t. We believe that the real choice is missing at this election. There is no strong socialist movement in Britain that could really challenge the power of the bosses. That is the tragedy of this election …

And it ends with:

“Yes, vote Labour on 18th June. But do more than put your little cross on a piece of paper. Take a more important decision – to join the fight to build a real socialist movement based on the working class and its struggles. Join the fight to end the power of the profiteers and the merchants of death, and to lay the basis for a world of peace and plenty for all. That’s what we want. Why not get in touch with us, now?


1970 IS “Election Manifesto”

Interestingly, the immediate pre-election issue of Socialist Worker with its headline “Keep the Tories out – Vote Labour and Prepare to Fight!” suggests that the Roger Protz NC Minority line had become IS policy.

Somewhat ironically IS member Jim Murray stood as the Labour candidate in Louth in 1970 against Jeffrey Archer. Ian Birchall tells me (pers. comms.) that:

“Murray was apparently on the Labour Party reserve list and was selected at the last minute to fight this unwinnable seat. He did not ask the party’s permission and the NC was only informed after the election. He claimed to have campaigned on the basis of the four points of the 1968 unity appeal. Certainly he remained a member and was not disciplined. He polled 16,403 votes (33.93 percent) against 25,659 votes for Jeffrey Archer”.

Jim Murray was, in fact, a person of some standing in the north-east labour movement over a number of years. He was convenor of the Vickers plant in Newcastle amongst several positions in the engineering union. In the 1996 book “Faces of Labour: The Inside Story” by Andy McSmith, a former chief press officer for the Labour Party, Murray gets a whole chapter to himself. This is alongside other “faces” such as Neil Kinnock, David Blunkett, Clare Short, Peter Mandelson, John Prescott, Ted Grant, and Tony Blair. In the book McSmith does state that Jim Murray was expelled from IS for standing but the author does not directly name his source for this assertion.

John Charlton was an IS member in Newcastle who knew Jim Murray and advises (pers. comms.):

“Ian has it about right. I can add the fact that Jim was always a semi-detached member of IS. From the mid-seventies, he was pulled into the Hilary Wainwright orbit – alternative plans and so on. There was no formal parting of the ways. Jim was very hard to fall out with, a delightful, amiable raconteur who enjoyed a drink. I suspect Jim never had a bankers-order but paid by cash ‘when the treasurer saw him’. This was not uncommon in the sixties and early seventies. I checked my recollections with Jim Nichol who was IS National Secretary. He is certain Jim Murray was not expelled – though he may have wished to romanticise his parting!”

To underline the general lack of information available, even at the time, the following snippet appears in Vol. 6 Number 7 of Solidarity for Workers Power journal published by Solidarity (North London) on 1 December 1970:

“A pissed-off dicky bird recently whispered to us that one Jim Murray, Convenor of Vickers (Newcastle) and Chairman of the local IS branch, stood as the official Labour Party candidate during the 1970 General Election at Louth (Lincolnshire). Brother Murray apparently stood on a straight Labour Party platform. No action has yet been taken against him by IS locally or nationally. All denials will be acknowledged”.

Murray did also stand for the Labour Party in the February 1974 election, this time in the Nottinghamshire constituency of Carlton. He was again unsuccessful. Whether by 1974 he had left IS voluntarily or been expelled I have no reason to believe he was still a member. In either scenario, it seems that Murray was the last IS member to stand for parliament as a Labour Party candidate.

The Tory 30-seat victory in the 1970 General Election came as a surprise to many.

List of SRG/IS Candidates Standing in UK Parliamentary Elections for the Labour Party

DateCandidateOrganisationConstituencyNo. of VotesPercentage
08/10/1959Syd BidwellLabour PartyEast Hertfordshire18,02032.84
15/10/1964Syd BidwellLabour PartySouth West Hertfordshire22,23735.96
15/10/1964John PalmerLabour PartyCroydon North West13,96733.46
31/03/1966Syd BidwellLabour PartySouthall19,98953.50
31/03/1966Michael DowningLabour PartyWoking19,21030.80
18/06/1970Jim MurrayLabour PartyLouth16,40333.93


This paper is a specially edited extract from my confidential research document:

Rudge, John. 2019. Out for the Count: The SWP and UK Parliamentary Elections, 71pp


  1. McIlroy, John. 1998. Adrift in the Rapids of Racism. Syd Bidwell (1917-1997). Revolutionary History Volume 7 Number 1, pp. 134-165. ↩︎

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Standing Alone: The Socialist Worker Experience

In the first of three articles on the International Socialists (IS) and aspects of its electoral politics I looked at the tradition’s relatively consistent policy of calling for a vote for the Labour Party at General Elections. This was done through the example of the 1966 Hull North by-election. In the second of my articles I look at the short-lived experiment undertaken during the 1974-1979 Labour government of the organisation standing its own candidates.

On 20 July 1976, the IS Central Committee (CC) issued a one-page circular to all Branch/District Secretaries and Full-time Organisers titled “IS and Elections”. The circular reads as follows:

“The very rapid development of the political situation, especially the acuteness and immediacy of the cuts issue, the ferment in the Asian communities following the racist murders, and the ominous election successes of the National Party and the National Front, requires us to seek ways of strengthening our political intervention and impact.

Comrades have made a very effective anti-fascist intervention in the Thurrock by-election (as earlier in Rotherham). In Thurrock, what amounts to an election campaign has been carried out with mass distribution of literature – but no candidate.

This is excellent work, but it has one serious inherent weakness. Without a candidate, we are in a largely negative position. We are saying, ‘don’t vote fascist’ but are not, except in a very general propaganda sense, calling on workers to support some generalised political alternative. To the extent that we have an impact on voting behaviour, it is to moderate the slump in the Labour vote …

In these circumstances, we need to intervene with a complete political alternative, as well as with systematic anti-racist and anti-fascist work, so far as our resources and the possibilities permit.

The Central Committee has therefore decided that a Socialist Worker candidate will stand in the Walsall by-election … and in any other suitable parliamentary by-election … Suitability will have to be assessed on the merits of each case but includes the existence of a substantial Labour majority. The candidates will stand on a hard ‘socialist alternative’ policy and every effort will be made to draw in the support of immigrant organisations and other non-IS elements …

This is a new departure for us in practice, although not, of course, in principle. Our 1973 Conference adopted a programme which committed IS to the general line of the communist movement in Lenin’s time – which includes commitment to the revolutionary use of elections as well as a rejection of the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’. Our 1975 Conference reiterated this position whilst also deciding that an intervention in Walsall (which was already being discussed) was not appropriate at that time.

Now, with a growing Labour abstention and a significant fascist intervention, the circumstances demand a serious fight to raise the socialist alternative electorally.

We do not expect large votes. We are concerned to spread our propaganda, to broaden our circle of contacts, to strengthen links with militants – including militants in the immigrant communities, to expand sales of Socialist Worker, to recruit members and to unite the left around a militant anti-fascist, anti-government socialist platform.”

In the September 1976, Internal Bulletin the IS Central Committee explained further and more fully the change of strategy for the organisation – standing in parliamentary elections – in this case the Walsall and Birmingham, Stechford by-elections.

The rationale is explained by the CC as follows:

“Many active militants are now thoroughly disillusioned with the way this government has attacked the working class. Their anger and resentment is moving them away from the Labour Party.

In almost every part of the country there are Labour activists who put it quite starkly and say, ‘I can’t be a part of an organisation that causes unemployment and attacks the poor and the sick’.

They are moving away from Labour but not towards the Communist Party. The CP is part of the whole set up, and offers no way of fighting to change things. These militants and activists are looking for a socialist alternative.”

The CC document is at pains to point out that:

“There isn’t any way that the decision to put up candidates can be seen as a retreat from our rejection of parliamentary socialism.

Our campaign will firmly state that socialism cannot come through parliament, and it will say more.

By standing against unemployment, against the cuts, against racism, and for building a rank and file fight back, we will be saying that only workers themselves can change society.

At the same time, we have to be clear about what we expect to gain in the specific situations.

At the other end of the anti-parliamentary stick from the anti-candidate position, are those who expect IS to win a large number of votes.

We need to be just as firm about these sorts of ideas as we are about the other. The fact is, we cannot expect to win more votes than organisations like the Communist Party have gained in their campaigns …

We cannot expect to get more than a few hundred votes, and we will pick up considerably less votes than the National Front. The NF will do very much better than the SW candidates because the NF work within the stream, within the accepted ideas of the ruling class.”

The CC document ends with a list of seven aims for the by-elections around targets for membership increases, a strengthening of district organisations, sales of Socialist Worker, large contact lists, credibility within the Black community, an acceptance amongst militants and activists that SW is about building a socialist alternative and increasing our periphery nationally.

As it turned out the Birmingham, Stechford by-election was not held until March 1977 but IS (under the title “Socialist Worker”) stood in Newcastle Central on the same day as the Walsall North contest – 4 November 1976. Reports on both by-election campaigns are contained in the November 1976 IS Internal Bulletin.

Jimmy McCallum stood in Walsall North and got 574 (1.53 percent) votes. Before the election IS had five members in Walsall, all in one factory. During the campaign seven or eight new members were recruited in Dudley and 25 in Walsall, nearly all workers. Some good trade union contacts were made during work on the estates and many good general contacts were made in the shopping centres. The addresses of 2,000 buyers of Socialist Worker were recorded.

There had been an anti-NF demo in Walsall in mid-September which IS mobilised for nationally (I remember being there myself). This helped the campaign get off to a good start and apparently, the effects on the Asian population and the left in the town was significant.

The total cost to the organisation was approximately £900.

Jimmy McCallum Walsall North

Dave Hayes Newcastle Central

In Newcastle Central the candidate was Dave Hayes and he polled 184 votes (1.87 percent). Prior to the election, the IS branch had 50 members, albeit only one lived in the constituency itself. A total of 29 recruits were made – one in the constituency and eight in Sunderland leading to a new branch there. Among the recruits were five or six shop stewards plus the first IS member in the shipyards – a chairman of the Boilermakers committee in the yards. About 70 workplaces were visited. The total cost was approximately £800.

On 31 March 1977 Paul Foot stood in Birmingham Stechford and received 377 votes (1.0 percent). The local targets set for the campaign had been “Increase in membership – 15; Increase in Socialist Workers sales – 150; Beat the CP vote of 1974” and all three were achieved. Socialist Worker reported:

“[I]n all 42 Birmingham workers joined the SWP during the by-election campaign. Thirteen are shop stewards, 15 are black … In the nine days of the active SWP campaign, 1,000 SW’s were sold. This looks like settling down to a regular sales increase in Birmingham of at least 170”.

In an unexpected turn of events Paul received less votes than an International Marxist Group (IMG) candidate did. Why this happened is explained by Sheila McGregor (Birmingham Organiser) in the SWP Internal Bulletin No. 5 (June 1977) as being due to poor organisation around an anti-NF demo in the city in February.

Paul Foot Birmingham Stechford

Next, on 28 April 1977, came by-elections in Ashfield and Great Grimsby. Jill Hall stood in Ashfield and got 453 votes (1.0 percent). Michael Stanton was the candidate in Great Grimsby polling 215 votes (0.5 percent). In terms of recruitment to the SWP the figures were 25 in Ashfield and 50 in Grimsby.

In the May 1977 SWP Internal Bulletin Duncan Hallas writes on the subject of “Electoral blocs and joint slates”. The reason for the contribution is that “some comrades have asked if we should reconsider our attitude towards an electoral pact with other organisations on the revolutionary left” – for all practical purposes at this particular juncture this meant a pact with the IMG.

The long and fully argued answer from Hallas is “no”. Here is the key part of his argument:

“We are certainly in favour of joint action with everyone in the working-class movement, whether Labour Party members, CP members, independents or whatever to fight the fascists, to fight hospital closures, to fight the Social Contract and so on and so forth – always provided it is action. We do not, however, form blocs to make propaganda. We put forward our own ideas in our own paper.

The distinction is obvious enough. Unity in action with everyone who can be pulled in to support the particular action, irrespective of their views on other matters. Independent expression of our own ideas at all times. We don’t stay out of any genuine working class struggle and we don’t make our participation conditional on others agreeing with us. At the same time, we don’t hide or dilute our politics or pretend to be other than we are.

How does this apply to parliamentary etc. elections?

Revolutionary intervention in parliamentary elections at present is essentially a propaganda operation, a means of contacting people and involving them in some of our activities and of recruiting.

We judge our success (or failure) in a contest by members recruited, contacts made, SW readers gained and so on and not mainly by votes gained.

Of course, it is very pleasing if we get a better than expected vote, a little disappointing if we get a lower than expected vote. But it is not the main thing. We are not parliamentary roaders.

Even in circumstances where there is a serious prospect of winning a particular contest this remains true. It would be very useful for propaganda and, indeed, agitational purposes to have a revolutionary MP, or even better to have several.

But this will always be secondary to building the party in the workplaces, to fighting for leadership in the day to day struggles of working people and inside the unions.

Our aim in contesting parliamentary elections is to build the SWP. We do not put the emphasis on getting the biggest possible vote for the ‘far-left’.

Protest votes, and that is what is being spoken of, are not without significance, but they are incomparably less important than building the party.”

The 1977 SWP Conference passed a motion on “Electoral Strategy” confirming that the SWP “stands candidates as a party building operation” and “we will not enter into a bloc or front with other organisations”. The motion does, however, clarify the position on voting Labour when more left-wing candidates are standing. The motion ended with:

“[W]e will … call for a vote for Labour solely as against the Tories, fascists, nationalists etc, (where we have no candidate). We will not urge support for Labour, especially right-wing Labour, against more left-wing candidates and our members will be expected to vote for these. Our campaigning will, however, be for the SWP”.

On 18 August 1977 Kim Gordon, one of the organisations leading Black activists, was the Socialist Worker candidate in Birmingham Ladywood. He polled 152 votes (1.0 percent) but the IMG “inspired” Socialist Unity candidate got 534 (mainly Asian) votes and a Black Nationalist candidate got 336.

Around the end of 1977 thoughts were turning to the next general election, the standing of SWP candidates in that election and the lessons learned so far from the by-elections. An internal document “Our Election Tactics in the General Election” was produced but not widely circulated. It was signed by Tony Cliff, John Deason, Jim Nichol, Mel Norris, Margaret Renn and Jack Robertson and pointed to the failures of our current electoral strategy and the costs, financial and otherwise, of not correcting them.

The policy of standing in appropriate by-elections continued, however, into the following year.

On 13 April 1978 Peter Porteous, an electricians shop steward in Yarrows Shipbuilders, was the candidate in Glasgow Garscadden. He polled 166 votes (0.5 percent), way behind the CP’s vote of 407.

The following week, 20 April 1978, Anthony Bogues stood in Lambeth Central as the Flame/SWP candidate. Flame was “the monthly socialist paper by and for Black workers” and Tony was its editor. He received 201 votes (1.0 percent). In what might have been a final straw for the SWP leadership Tony was beaten by both the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) and “Socialist Unity” candidate.

Peter Porteous Glasgow Garscadden

Tony Bogues Lambeth Central

Indeed, it was the final straw. Duncan Hallas produced a document dated 21 April 1978 titled “Elections – We Have to Think Again”. This later appeared in the May 1978 Pre-Conference Issue 2 SWP Bulletin in a slightly amended format as a Central Committee document called “Election Strategy”. The document opens with:

“A serious revolutionary organisation has to be able, as Trotsky once put it, ‘to look reality in the face’. It has to be able calmly to check its predictions and assess its policies against the facts that experience reveals. And it has to be able to do this, and to correct its course when necessary, without any attempt to ‘cover up’ or pretend or bluff in the interests of the ‘prestige’ of this or that comrade or group of comrades or leading committees or even of the party as a whole.

Fact one: we have not done well in recent by-elections.

Fact two: our performance in this field has not been getting better over time; if anything, it has been getting worse.

Fact three: this cannot reasonably be blamed on ‘special circumstances’. Every case is ‘special’ but the sum of the ‘special cases’ adds up to the trend – and the trend is not what most of us expected nor is it what we predicted. We have now, after all, contested eight by elections. Enough to make a realistic assessment.

None of these unpalatable facts – and they are facts – is any grounds at all for criticising the comrades who have been actively involved in election work. They have worked hard and well along the lines laid down by the organisation nationally. The fault, if there is one, lies with the CC, the NAC and Conference. There can be no question of making scapegoats of the comrades who have actually carried out the work and made recruits and contacts in the process.

But neither can we blind ourselves to the results …

… We did not go into election work primarily to get votes but we certainly did not go in to get results like this”.

Hallas continues by recapping “what we set out to do” and “what was achieved”. Hallas writes that:

“The original decision to go into electoral work had been taken with one eye on the CP. Their inactivity in this field was, we believed, due mainly to their extreme unwillingness to upset Labour MP’s. We assumed this would continue and that, in most cases, we would have a clear field, nutters apart, because our non-CP rivals on the left were also not running.

The Militant group, probably the biggest after us, were tucked away safely in the Labour Party. The IMG was half in the LP and half out and the WRP visibly declining. None of the rest of the sects was capable of intervening. The prospect was open, or seemed to be, to establish ourselves as the far-left opposition to Labour, albeit a very small one in electoral terms. We looked to a spin-off from this in other fields of work”.

According to the CC:

“Birmingham, Stechford put an end to this as a realistic perspective. We got 377 votes (100 more than the CP got in October 1974) and 45 recruits were made; in itself a good result. But the IMG (not running as Socialist Unity – they hadn’t got around to inventing that yet) took 494 votes. The total far left was a respectable 2.5 percent of the poll. But we took less than half of it”.

For the CC:

“The conclusion is inescapable. We do not enjoy dominance over the far left in the electoral field. Our original aim in this field has not been achieved and is not now achievable by simple persistence in our present tactics”.

Underlying the problem with the votes themselves was the evidence that it was proving extremely difficult to retain members recruited during the election campaigns. This was particularly the case in areas such as Ashfield, Grimsby and Walsall where, before the campaigns, we had little or no organisational presence.

The CC document then turns to “what to do now” in the light of all the learnings.

Their first conclusion is that the original aim of standing 50-60 candidates (so as to qualify for television time) in the General Election is no longer a viable tactical option. On the other hand, they state that we should not rush to the other extreme and stand no candidates at all.

The second is that during the General Election campaign the bulk of our propaganda must be aimed against the Labour government – but where there will be no candidate to the left of Labour, we will call for a Labour vote to keep the Tories out.

Thirdly, one learning from the by-elections is that there are a significant, although not massive, number of people who are prepared to vote to the left of Labour. Under certain conditions, an electoral intervention can lead these people to be drawn closer to the SWP. The conditions identified by the CC are the pre-existence of a strong party organisation operating in the constituency, the need to be ultra realistic about what we can achieve in terms of votes and recruits and there should be no splitting of the left of Labour vote.

This last point is of some interest given how one year earlier Hallas was wholly against pacts. Here Hallas (on behalf of the CC) writes:

“The gains are likely to diminish to zero where we are standing against other far left candidates. This is particularly true in the case of Socialist Unity, although it seems that even the WRP can whip us. Therefore, we must take all steps necessary to ensure that where we stand we do not run the risk of splitting the vote to the left of Labour, including seeking a non-aggression pact with Socialist Unity.”

The CC contribution concludes thus:

“Provided that these conditions are kept firmly in mind, then a limited election intervention can still be worthwhile. In practical terms, this means that we should aim to stand between ten and fifteen candidates in the general election. In the overwhelming majority of constituencies, where we will not be standing, we should call for an anti-Tory Labour vote. However, in our propaganda our fire should still be concentrated on Labour’s policies. We should avoid standing against other candidates to the left of Labour and should, where they stand, vote for them.

To sum up, we made a miscalculation when we took the original decision to stand candidates in 1976. The miscalculation has not proved disastrous, but it could do so unless we recognise our mistake. The proposals contained in this document provide the basis for a realistic alternative policy.”

The proposed change of strategy provoked a substantial debate in the run-up to the June 1978 SWP Conference with a range of views put forward. At the Conference itself the views were distilled into three alternative propositions as follows:

  1. Put forward by Duncan Hallas, Eddie Prevost and Andy Strouthous: Essentially:
    • standing 50-60 candidates is not a serious possibility
    • SWP intervention to be a propaganda one
    • standing 10-15 candidates adds little – we should “withdraw temporarily from the field so far as candidates are concerned”
    • a pact or alliance with Socialist Unity is no solution
    • our propaganda “must be the bankruptcy of the Labour Party and the necessity to build a real socialist alternative. We should call for an anti-Tory vote. Vote left, vote Labour or cast a protest vote for candidates left of Labour, but build the SWP as the core of the fightback against Thatcher and Callaghan”
  2. Put forward by James Anderson, Dave Peers, Sue Cockerill, Linda Quinn and Sandra Peers: Essentially:
    • our original reasons for standing 50-60 candidates remains valid today – but our success has been limited by the Socialist Unity offensive – the IMG has outflanked us
    • the disunity of the left is a barrier preventing workers moving towards revolutionary politics
    • a separate campaign with 15 SWP candidates does not solve the serious problem. The Socialist Unity offensive against us is mainly electoral and it is mainly through a united front electoral strategy with them that we can undercut their vague but quite significant “Socialist Unity” appeal
    • we should publicly call for a strictly electoral link up which would include Socialist Unity and as many other organisations as possible from the working class and the black community
  3. Put forward by Peter Bain, John Cowley, Kim Gordon and Steve Jefferys: Essentially:
    • we don’t believe that there will be a serious SWP intervention on our general politics if there is no direct electoral intervention
    • the experience of electoral interventions is that we can build around candidates, and that when elections take place without candidates it is extremely difficult to motivate members’ SWP activities
    • our activity (wages, anti-cuts, equal pay, Grunwicks, Lewisham, ANL Carnival etc) has created an audience it would be a tragedy for us not to approach in the General Election as the SWP
    • we need to choose areas with large Labour majorities so that we can run a strongly anti-Labour campaign
    • we support a maximum left anti-Labour vote, and therefore wish to work out non-aggression pact[s] with other left-of-Labour forces
    • gains can be made for the SWP by standing a limited number of candidates. “We instruct the CC to prepare the ground in discussion with the Districts to ensure that we have at least one candidate in every major area”

As the first proposal included Duncan Hallas it can be safely assumed this was the CC’s preferred option but in the event conference passed option number three.

Actually, this was not to be the final word. The Central Committee revisited the question in the December 1978 SWP Internal Bulletin by saying that:

“… however, post-Conference, new factors emerged. First, the General Election is postponed so we have the opportunity to review the question. Second, and very important, enquiries have shown that very few districts are willing to run candidates and find the necessary money.”

Suffice it to say that SWP candidates did not run in the 1979 election.

The table below provides the full details of the eight by-elections fought by IS/SWP in the 1974-1979 Parliament:

By-elections fought by IS/SWP Candidates in the 1974-1979 Parliament

DateConstituencyCandidateNo. of VotesPercentage ShareElected
4/11/1976Newcastle CentralDavid Hayes1841.87Harry Cowans (Lab) 4,692 votes
4/11/1976Walsall NorthJames McCallum5741.53Robin Hodgson (Cons) 16,212
31/3/1977Birmingham StechfordPaul Foot3771.0Andrew MacKay (Cons) 15,731
28/4/1977AshfieldJill Hall4531.0Tim Smith (Cons) 19,616
28/4/1977Great GrimsbyMichael Stanton2150.5Austin Mitchell (Lab) 21,890
18/8/1977Birmingham LadywoodKim Gordon1521.0John Sever (Lab) 8,227
13/4/1978Glasgow GarscaddenPeter Porteous1660.5Donald Dewar (Lab) 16,507
20/4/1978Lambeth CentralAnthony Bogues2011.0John Tilley (Lab) 10,311
Total votes2,322
Average votes per candidate290
Average percentage1.0

What is one to make of the SWP’s electoral strategy in the period 1976-1978?

According to Ian Birchall (2011):

“Cliff was particularly enthusiastic for the electoral turn; Hallas was much more cautious. Cliff relentlessly argued his case and carried the organisation”.1

and Ian concludes with:

“The reason for failure was twofold. Other left groups were standing candidates and there was a failure on all sides to agree not to stand against each other. So, there were sometimes two and, on one occasion (Lambeth Central in 1978), three revolutionary socialist candidates in the same election. Voters could not be bothered to disentangle the differences between them.

More importantly, although Labour was doing badly in electoral terms, there was no substantial body of Labour support willing to break away to the left. Again the resilience of reformism had been underestimated. Cliff’s long-term analysis of the historical decay of reformism was certainly valid, but in the short term it did not produce the anticipated results”.

I do not personally recollect being too downcast at the time with the small votes obtained. As someone operating in an IS/SWP branch where you could spend a few hours on a busy high street only selling a handful of papers I do not recall expecting high votes. I was content to argue the line with work colleagues that we were recruiting large numbers of new members and building the organisation. To find later that those gains were only transitory was the big blow.


This paper is a specially edited extract from my confidential research document:

Rudge, John. 2019. Out for the Count: The SWP and UK Parliamentary Elections, 71pp.


  1. Birchall, Ian. 2011. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. Bookmarks Publications, London 664pp. ↩︎

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Voting for Labour: The Hull North By-Election of January 1966

Many on the left today will be well acquainted with the fact that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its predecessor organisations, the Socialist Review Group (SRG) and the International Socialists (IS), have consistently called for a vote for the Labour Party at UK Parliamentary elections. To give an example of how wedded to the need to vote Labour the organisation has been, the experience of the Hull North by-election in January 1966 is instructive.

The Hull North seat had been won by Labour from the Conservatives at the 1964 General Election by 1181 votes and the Labour Party had achieved an overall majority of four seats in that election. The by-election was caused by the sudden death of the sitting Labour MP Henry Solomons. Selected to stand for the Labour Party in the by-election was Kevin McNamara. He was a lecturer at a local college and was a candidate not particularly associated with the left.

Richard Gott, himself a Labour Party member and active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), was put forward for the by-election as an independent “Radical Alliance” candidate in opposition to the Labour Party. The “Radical Alliance” was a loosely organised group that emanated from the radical wing of CND that included, as well as Gott himself, such people as Pat Arrowsmith. Tariq Ali was also involved. Gott campaigned on an anti-Vietnam War ticket as well as on other views, many of which corresponded with the IS’s own positions over the previous years.

Gott’s election leaflet expounded his three-pronged platform as follows:


Rejection of any military or diplomatic strategy based on the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass indiscriminate destruction.


Massive diversion of expenditure from military budgets to the social services thereby ensuring that all members of our community, both old and new, may be decently housed, employed, educated, and cared for.

Measures to ensure the equitable distribution of the world’s resources among the peoples of the world and a substantial increase in economic and technical aid to developing countries.


Unhindered movement of all migrants between countries. Legislation to prohibit discrimination in all forms. Appropriate international action to bring about the downfall of the white supremacist bastions in Southern Africa.”

The Labour government under the premiership of Harold Wilson that had been elected in October 1964 had, by January 1966, only a tiny majority of one. The Wilson government had already proved to be a disappointment. When Paul Foot wrote about the period in 1968 he particularly pointed to five examples:

“First was the Government’s immediate and unequivocal support for the Americans in their war in Vietnam, particularly their support for the American bombing of North Vietnam, which started in February. Second was the Immigration White Paper in August. Third was the series of nibbling deflations, culminating in the big £100m bite at the end of July. Fourth was the Government’s decision, in the light of the abstention of Desmond Donnelly and Woodrow Wyatt in the House of Commons, to shelve the nationalisation of steel. And fifth, perhaps worst of all, was the National Plan, published in September. All these, in one form or another, were attacked by the Labour Left, though none of these attacks took the form of Parliamentary votes or abstentions. The National Plan particularly irritated those who had hoped for a genuine economic programme based on social justice, welfare, and equality.” 1

On the face of it one might think that the circumstances were right for a radical challenge to Labour – but not so.

The IS newspaper Labour Worker number 49 (1 January 1966) in an unsigned editorial castigated Gott and his supporters as “scabs” and of “indulging in a form of radical masturbation”. The author of the piece has not been definitively identified although the editor at the time was Paul Foot.

Labour Worker No. 49, 1 January 1966

That official line, and particularly the way that the line was delivered, did not meet with anything like universal approval within the organisation. In the next issue of Labour Worker there was a letter from IS member Peter Sedgwick in turn castigating Labour Worker. Sedgwick wrote:

Labour Worker’s editorial on Richard Gott was the most unpleasant piece of smear journalism to have appeared on the left for some time. No other socialist periodical has used this sort of language on this issue … Before accusing others of ‘radical masturbation’ the author of the editorial should purge his own heated fantasies of useless and self-induced emotion.”

Labour Worker No. 50, 15 January 1966

Sedgwick was certainly not alone. It was reported to the IS “Working Committee” of 8 January 1966 that Alasdair MacIntyre, an IS member at the time and later to become a world famous philosopher, “does not want any more Labour Worker; disapproves of the style of the Richard Gott article.”

In fairness, it needs to be said that IS was not the only organisation to the left of Labour that did not support the Gott campaign. Indeed, supporters of the Gott candidature from the organised left were few and far between either in Hull itself or nationally. Most were terrified of Labour losing its wafer-thin Parliamentary majority. Ian Birchall (1968) in responding to Paul Foot’s 1968 article puts a thoughtful perspective on the issue:

“In Paul Foot’s otherwise excellent article on ‘Harold Wilson and the Labour Left‘ (IS 33), there is one questionable passage. Among Tribunes sins is listed the fact that it ‘severely rebuked’ Richard Gott for his independent ‘anti-Vietnam’ candidature in 1966. In fact, Labour Worker, the then fortnightly organ of International Socialism, criticised Gott in rather more unkind terms than Tribune.

I raise this point, not out of historical pedantry, but because I think it is important to understand that we were right to take such a stand at that time. Gott’s action did not provide the basis for a real campaign against the Vietnam war, which has developed in a much more healthy non-Parliamentary fashion since, and it did isolate the anti-imperialist movement from the mass of the workers and trade unionists who might otherwise have been more sympathetic to it.” 2

In the event Labour won the by-election quite comfortably. Gott received a derisory 253 votes (0.54 percent) against 24,479 for Labour’s Kevin McNamara (52.22 percent). Interestingly, Gott is sometimes credited with being the reason that the Humber Bridge was built. The demand for the bridge had been something he supported, and the Labour government felt it prudent to “spike his guns” – something they possibly later regretted. John Palmer tells me (pers. comms.):

“I remember, years later, being told by someone in the Wilson government that they cursed Gott for saddling them with a big costly infrastructure project when his candidacy in the Hull North by-election was not the threat that they initially had thought it was!”

It is also highly likely (although Harold Wilson denied it in his memoir The Labour Government, 1964-70: A Personal Record) that their favourable result in the by-election was influential in the decision by Labour to call a General Election in March 1966. Labour Worker No. 54 (14 March) urged “socialists everywhere to vote and work for the biggest possible Labour majority.” Labour duly won the election with a massive 98-seat majority.

That 1966-1970 Labour Government which, of course, spanned the period of struggle centred on 1968 was another massive disappointment for the left. John Palmer says (pers. comms.):

“… it was primarily the global revulsion against the US slaughter in Vietnam which generated – inside and outside the Labour Party – a revulsion among a new generation of young militants. After the 1966 Wilson endorsement of the US cause the disillusion with Labour turned into a virtual tidal wave of recruits to the revolutionary left: overwhelmingly to the (by then) IS.”

The upshot for the IS attitude towards the Labour Party at election time Ian Birchall tells me (pers. comms.) was that:

“I think if you had talked to almost anyone in the IS between May 1968 and the end of 1969 they would have taken it for granted that we would not be voting Labour [at the next General Election]; there were various proposals for abstention and independent candidates. Cliff (who I suspect always realised we would end up having to vote Labour) scrupulously avoided forcing a confrontation with a membership that was largely new and ultra‑left.”

However, when the time came in 1970 and faced with a real decision things changed. Ian continues:

“It was only in the period immediately before the 1970 election that we reoriented back to calling for a Labour vote. There was a heated debate at the Easter 1970 Conference – with Sedgwick and others, calling for abstention, but the IS Executive ‘Vote Labour’ line was carried.”

That line has remained relatively constant since.


This paper is a specially edited extract from my confidential research document:

Rudge, John. 2019. Out for the Count: The SWP and UK Parliamentary Elections, 71pp.


  1. Foot, Paul. 1968. Harold Wilson and the Labour Left. International Socialism (1st series), No. 33, Summer 1968, pp. 18–26. ↩︎
  2. Birchall, Ian. 1968. From “Letters from Our Readers”, International Socialism (1st series), No. 34, Autumn 1968, p. 28. ↩︎

Were you or someone you know a member of the International Socialists or Socialist Review Group? If so we would like to interview you for our project. Please contact us at