Elections and the UK Left: Problems and Possibilities

Elections and the UK Left: Problems and Possibilities

Edmund Potts argues for a serious determination among socialists towards confronting our opponents in all spheres of politics, especially – despite all their limitations – bourgeois elections.

TUSC and the significance of a serious challenge

It is now more than three years since I became involved in TUSC, and in general it has been a weekly source of frustration for most of that time; in particular I regret that Left Unity needed to be founded from scratch in order to vindicate our arguments that there was serious potential for a member-led left-of-Labour party. Some on the left still refuse to acknowledge the truth of this. However I have set out these criticisms on several occasions and wish to deal here specifically with the significance of this year’s election challenge in which I took part. To deal briefly with the numbers: 553 candidates contested seats in local government; over 25% of them were independent socialists of no other affiliation. Approximately 68000 votes were achieved in total, which means an average of approximately 3.4%. Broadly speaking I feel that results of this kind justify the decision to stand widely. At this point I should offer a mea culpa in that I initially dismissed out of hand the suggested goal of 625 candidates when it was first floated over a year ago; only later on did I realise that my participation could help achieve this target. In terms of its significance, I take the view that this is a welcome change of pace from the glacial progress seen previously. TUSC has now crossed a bridge over which it cannot later retreat. Standing widely indicates a seriousness of intent which then makes it obligatory to be back next time round, bigger and better. Failure would not only show the lack of implantation in the class which, as Dave Parks put it, begs the question “Who the fuck are these people?”– in the absence of a compelling alternative it would also signify the demise of such an implantation as a serious ambition.

Hostility to elections

Perhaps the most unsettling sentiment concerning these elections has been a section of the left which not only resists being drawn into electoral campaigning work, but moreover may variously disparage the results achieved by their comrades, attack the credibility of whichever left slate has performed poorly, hint at half-baked conclusions regarding the relevance of forces such as the Green Party, and/or seek an entirely different electoral strategy. Granted, in a period of spasmodically recurring capitalist crises it is distinctly unlikely that elected representatives in bourgeois institutions can secure any significant pro-working class reforms (at least without the underlying support of a substantial anti-capitalist mobilisation). Nonetheless, elections offer revolutionary socialists a variety of opportunities. I feel it is worth referring back to the stimulating interview with August Nimtz we carried in our first issue, where he brings to our attention the following quote from Engels:

 “Do you realize now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in your hands for forty years in universal suffrage; if only people knew how to use it! It’s slower and more boring than the call to revolution, but it’s ten times more sure, and what is even better, it indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made; it’s even ten to one that universal suffrage, intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow legality, that is, to put us in the most favourable position to make the revolution.”

I agree with Fred. Elections give socialists a chance not only to hone and test their programme, but also to take the temperature of the class struggle. Indeed, I would argue that particularly for the socialist movement in this country at this specific moment, elections represent a perfect exercise.

Consider the state of our movement: we are numerically small, constrained by an undemocratic electoral system, organisationally weak yet trying to steer a course distinct from that of Labourism on a shoestring budget. An election (especially for local government) represents a campaigning opportunity that is:

  • as cheap as the quality and quantity of campaigning materials will allow;
  • time-limited: the priorities of a branch will not become distorted in the long-term through having bitten off more than they can chew;
  • an excuse to get out on the doorstep and talk to people who for whatever reason the left has not yet reached through its various campaigning guises;
  • good practice in putting across arguments for socialism, and which expose the folly of people voting against their class interests.

As socialists we should never hold back from submitting ourselves to the judgement of the working class. If our project is to help build the independent self-activity of the class, then it is arguably not a tragedy (in the context of a fragmented left) if we identify potential sympathisers who haven’t heard of us specifically. It is somewhat more difficult if we find that people highly aware of their class identity and interests haven’t had any exposure to socialist ideas. But worst of all is when we find people who not only have never come into contact with the left, but moreover inform us that they are planning to register a protest vote which runs directly contrary to their class interests – I’m thinking of UKIP in particular. Clearly the large numbers of people voting for UKIP and similar racist parties of the new right have not personally surrendered and dissolved their class identity in all aspects of their lives – therefore it is in the context of their [limited] engagement with ‘politics’ that they are willing to grant such charlatans their critical support. It is in this arena – and on the working class’ own terms – that we must confront not only this particular and specific threat, but also the hegemony of the ruling class more generally. So if we want to criticise people for voting UKIP, we should at least consider giving them the option to vote for what is surely the only alternative – working class solidarity in defiance of national and ethnic divisions. If racists choose the ballot box as their means of poisoning our discourse and dividing our communities, what kind of an absurd strategy does not involve confronting them wherever they rear their ugly heads?

Confronting reality, getting our act together

Aside from those who reject a serious electoral strategy for calculated reasons, there is a substantial number of people who are irrationally afraid of confronting the reality of negligible support for socialism as a movement: TUSC, for example, is derided as lacking credibility on the basis of its worst votes. The fear, implicitly or explicitly stated, is of “getting a low vote and looking stupid”. As well as a distinct naivete verging on arrogance, this also demonstrates a refusal to consider the various strengths and weaknesses of our movement analytically. Far better, it follows, to boost the party’s profile as a fresh, original voice with an (entirely laudable) campaign against the so-called “anti-homeless spikes” and then claim a small share in the victory when they are removed. Such a claim defies critical interrogation both from newcomers hearing about LU for the first time, and also from party members. In such ways the left has historically managed to delude itself about the true level of support it can muster.

Aside from this boosterism and the deceitful exuberance it implies, there is a more serious problem within Left Unity, which I would characterise as an emerging nexus between the chronically naive and the chronically jaded. On the one hand, there are the aforementioned fresh activists with an apparently unshakable faith that the party will soon inexplicably leap to respectable showings of 10% + in elections: in this schema, the only reason such feats have hitherto not been achieved by others such as TUSC is merely that they have been “doing it wrong”. Perish the thought that the tasks facing the socialist movement are almost uniformly insurmountable, whatever your level of experience or ‘freshness of approach’.

Hovering in the shadows, ready to exploit this naivete (and its by-product, a sort of half-hearted paranoid sectarianism) are the assorted hacks, jaded activists and voluntarists who are determined that LU commit itself to an electoral strategy not dissimilar to that of RESPECT; stand in a handful of constituencies, and hope to sneak in one or two MPs ‘through the back door’. I feel it is very important to be clear on this point: if we as a party fail to get to grips with the [incredibly tight] timeframe facing us between now and the 2015 elections, we will find ourselves trapped in a default “policy of least resistance” and unable to change track. Unless electoral work is seriously discussed over the summer months and prospective candidates identified in the Autumn, we will inevitably find it too late to mount a properly planned challenge – which will of course lend itself quite neatly to those who would prefer not to engage in such an endeavour in the first place. In opposition to this I have formulated a resolution calling for serious and structured collaboration on the left in order to present the most united possible socialist challenge next year.

A key sticking point which must be dealt with is the curious idea that we should not stand in areas where we lack a “social base”. Quite apart from the fact that this attitude completely ignores the value of using elections as a method of building a social base, this should also be rejected in that with our small numbers it is inevitable that we are unlikely to have a deep knowledge of which geographical areas, communities and groups will be the most fertile ground for organising work. In our electoral challenge in Exeter, one of us was [almost] a paper candidate – a minimal amount of leafletting was done on a single afternoon, yet in that ward we achieved 97 votes; almost three times as many as other wards which had been the focus of serious work. A significant factor in this must have been the absence of a Green Party candidate for the ward in question. In terms of assessing performance, I would suggest that in the context of low recognition for non-mainstream parties generally, “protest votes” may be given without serious consideration as to what they represent in terms of social class. In terms of strategy a more productive lesson can be learnt, which is that sometimes failure simply means identifying those areas which will require more work over a longer period of time.

Building our way out

From the starting point of low visibility and recognition, there are clearly no easy answers as to how to combine the urgent tasks of defending class interests, widening the movement, and building our numerical strength. However I feel that a hostile approach to the rest of the left hides within it the same intrinsically linked dangers which would also isolate Left Unity more generally from the working class. Certainly part of my original enthusiasm for Left Unity was the potential for a serious attitude towards elections which could contribute practically to overcoming sectarian divisions. If we are not to squander both the potential of the project, and the enthusiasm of many members who want to take the fight to the establishment as soon as possible, then we must begin to confront these issues and debate them democratically in full view. If this is undertaken, I am confident that an anti-sectarian and pragmatic approach can win out. This can only be of benefit to those who wish to build a viable and credible socialist project.

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