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Last updated: 02 August 2019. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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The Battle for Seattle


Phil Stott on a fantastic victory for the left, as socialist Kshama Sawant wins a City Council seat in Seattle - in what was effectively a constituency with 3 to 4 times the electorate of a Westminster or Scottish Parliamentary seat

The 15th of November 2013 will go down in history. That was the day when an openly declared socialist, Kshama Sawant, created a political earthquake in Seattle, and among left and progressives across the US, by winning a council seat. This is the first time a socialist has won an election in at least 100 years in Seattle. In fact the Seattle city archivist could find no record of a socialist ever being elected in the city.

Kshama, an immigrant from India, won over 93,000 votes to defeat 16 year council veteran and leading Democrat, Richard Conlin. So how was this incredible result achieved? And what are the prospects for further advances for socialism in the "belly of the beast" that is the US?

The first point to make is that Seattle was not a one-off. While Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative were winning in Seattle, in Minneapolis, Ty Moore, polled an incredible 43% of the votes standing for Socialist Alternative, only narrowly losing out to a Democrat by 229 votes.

Socialist Alternative is the US affiliate of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI). The CWI is a Marxist international grouping whose sections include the Socialist Party Scotland, and the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

Socialist Alternative, uniquely on the left in the US, had been discussing for some time the growing opportunities for socialist and working class ideas to gain traction in the country. In fact, Kshama Sawant, stood last year against a leading Democrat, Frank Chopp, who was the speaker of the Washington state legislature. Kshama, polled over 20,000 votes and a 29% share of the ballot.

The growing radicalisation in US society was a product of the deep economic crisis that hit in 2007 and a huge anger at the the so-called recovery which has only benefited the elite. The Occupy movement had a major political impact on consciousness that this movement had in the US. But it was also a reflection of a deep-seated anger at the failures of the Obama administration to deliver on the hopes of tens of millions who had voted for him. Alongside a mass rejection of the Democrat/Republican two-party corporate system in the US.

A national poll taken in the run-up to the November elections found  60% supporting the creation of a third party. It was into this vacuum that Socialist Alternative was able to step with a clear programme and fighting demands for a new type of politics.

The campaign in Seattle began on a platform of three key demands: A $15 an hour minimum wage - city wide, rent control and affordable housing and a tax on millionaires to fund a mass programme of transport and education.

These demands had an electrifying impact in a city that was dominated by me-too corporate politics. Sawant's pledge to live on the average wage of a Seattle worker sent shockwaves through the electorate. City council members in Seattle are awarded Sawant $120,000 a year, the second highest wage for a council member outside of Los Angeles.

Sawant contested the primary in August against two Democrats and won 35% of the vote, winning through to the run-off against Conlin in November. Her campaign was flying by then.

On the back of Socialist Alternative's campaign last year and the primary, the campaign very quickly built up a very large activist base of 350 people. These were not just members of SA, but veterans of the Occupy movement, young people and workers disgusted by the political system in the US and many others inspired by the chance to kick back at the political establishment. Especially, the Democratic Party who have dominated Seattle for generations.

The demand for $15 an hour minimum wage was central to the campaign. Red posters, placards and huge signs with the slogan and the name of Kshama Sawant could be seen across the city. Although Kshama was standing for council in a local ward, the vote was city wide, meaning she had to campaign across the whole electorate and win over 90,000 votes to be elected.

The campaign for $15 also took on a national profile when fast food workers from McDonald's and other outlets began a militant campaign demanding an increase in the minimum wage.

But Sawant also made it clear she was a socialist, a Marxist and a member of Socialist Alternative. Many times media people and the political class encouraged her to "tone down" the socialism, but the strength of the campaign was rooted in a refusal to compromise to the political agenda and to create a "new politics".

The support of the radical weekly paper, the Stranger, also boosted the campaign and the profile of Kshama.  A majority of the King County Labour Council (the equivalent of a Trades Council) voted to support Sawant, a big victory from the labour movement who the Democrats falsely believe are in their pockets.

Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine came out in favour of Sawant, as did the hip-hop community in Seattle. Nigerian international footballer, Obafemi Martins, who plays in Seattle also endorsed Kshama.

As Election Day approached it was clear that Socialist Alternative were going to achieve a sensational result, win of lose. But the drama of the count, which lasted for two weeks, added to the theatre. The first count after November 5th polling day, saw Conlin lead Sawant by 54% to 46%. The Seattle Times and other media outlets called the election for the Democrat. But the Sawant campaign was confident that the later counts (anyone can post a ballot right up to 5th November which wont be counted until days after the ballot box closes) would see a swing in her direction. And so it proved. Day after day, count after count the gap got smaller and smaller. After Wednesday 6th November, Sawant was winning the new daily ballot counts by 56% to 44% for the week and more.

By the 15th November it was clear that Sawant was going to win and Conlin conceded. In the end the majority was over 3,000 votes. An incredible achievement for a campaign that refused to take any corporate money, although still raised $100,000 from small donations of ordinary people in Seattle. Conlin, by contrast spent over $250,000 of big business money, all to no avail.

The result sent tremors through the political establishment and the corporate media in the US. Fox News, MSNBC, The Washington Post, New York Times among many others covered the sensational story. Guardian columnist, Gary Younge, also commented on its significance.

The idea that radical socialist ideas are unattractive in the US has shown to be a myth. Rather than "tone down" her politics, one of Kshama's first acts following her victory was to speak in support of the Boeing machinists whose bosses are demanding major cuts to wages, pensions and terms and conditions, similar to the demands made by Ineos at Grangemouth.

Sawant at the rally said: "The workers should take over the factories and shutdown Boeing's profit-making machine. The machines are here, the workers are here, we will do the job, we don't need the executives. We can re-tool the machines to produce mass transit like buses, instead of destructive was machines"

The first task for Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative in January, when she takes office, is to put forward the demand for a city-wide $15 an hour minimum wage to the council. There will be a mass campaign in Seattle to apply huge pressure to deliver this advance. Allied to this Socialist Alternative has put out the call for up to 200 independent working class candidates to contest the elections in 2014 and in cities and states across the US.

Seattle and Minneapolis show that the mood for a new political force in US society is society is growing, and growing fast. There is huge alienation from the corporate duopoly of the Democrat/Republican machine, who are both intent on making ordinary US citizens pay for the crisis. Socialist Alternative's achievement shows the potential to build a new independent political voice for the 99% is on its way.

Philip Stott is the national secretary of Socialist Party Scotland.


External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books