Only 27% of adults think that their vote gives them a say in how the country is run, but 67% insist that they want to have a say.
About eight in 10 say that they are “interested in politics” one way or another, and on average questionnaires about interest in politics show no decline since the 1970s, but only 52% say that they are certain to vote in the coming General Election.
Young people are more likely to have been politically active — twice as likely to have taken part in a demonstration, picket, or march as older people — but much less likely to vote.
The root cause of these paradoxes is a factor identified by Karl Marx more than 120 years ago, in the preamble he wrote for the French Workers’ Party’s electoral programme of 1880.
The “collective appropriation” of the means of production — the measure necessary to let the majority shape society according to human need, not according to the priorities of profit — “can arise”, wrote Marx, “only from the revolutionary action of the productive class — or proletariat — organised in a distinct political party…
“Such an organisation must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”.
If the working class does not develop its own political organisations — if, as Marx put it elsewhere, voting is reduced to “deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class [is] to misrepresent the people in Parliament” — then the vote becomes an “instrument of deception”.
Today we have mass awareness of deception — spin-doctors, buzzwords, political patter — without the mass organisation that can end that deception.
Where the working class has its own political organisation, the vote is a powerful means to build that organisation.
Until the days of Blair, the Labour Party provided some means by which voting did lead to organisation. A working-class vote for Labour was not just an expression of preference for the Labour Party leaders’ way of running capitalism over the Tories, but part of a complex which also included working-class deliberations and demands through the channels of the Labour-affiliated trade unions and the local Labour Parties.
Blair and Brown have ended that. While most unions still remain affiliated to the Labour Party, the scope for working-class deliberations and demands has been hugely reduced.
The new generation of union leaders, Tony Woodley, Derek Simpson, and the like, are more assertive than the last one, but last July, through the “Warwick Agreement”, they made a deal with Blair to keep quiet up to and through the General Election in return for some small concessions.
Now Blair can boast that his election manifesto will be “uncompromisingly New Labour”, hot on privatisation and marketisation and cuts in civil rights, and the union leaders say nothing.
The channel to making the vote an instrument of emancipation, through organisation, has been blocked. That explains the mass passive disaffection.
No serious effort to change the world can bypass the vote. Elections still involve more people in politics than any other activity.
And disaffection with electoral politics is caused much more by a weakening of non-electoral politics — of consistent organisation and campaigning, and its ability to impact on government — than by the flourishing of some new non-electoral channels into politics. Reviving political organisation and reclaiming the electoral arena go hand in hand.
Thus, in the General Election likely on 5 May, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty will be joining with four other socialist groups to stand candidates for the “Socialist Green Unity Coalition”. We will take the message that the working class needs its own voice in politics — workers’ MPs on a worker’s wage — direct to as many voters as we can reach.
We will also support the candidates of the Scottish Socialist Party, who will present a similar message.
But we are as yet small organisations. It will not add up to many candidates. What about elsewhere?
The trade unions are still a potentially mighty force in politics, with seven million organised members. If they chose, they could turn Labour Party conferences into a full-scale confrontation with Blair’s policies — probably sending Blair, Brown, and their friends off into an alliance with the Lib-Dems, a larger version of the SDP split from Labour of 1982, and carving out a new working-class political force.
Despite the murmurs at their base, the big unions have chosen not to, for now. The more combative of the smaller unions have deferred to the big unions (like the post and telecom union CWU), allowed themselves to be expelled from the Labour Party by Blair (like the rail union RMT), or resigned in disgust (the firefighters’ union FBU).
But the fight to turn round the unions continues. The election of more assertive, if still inadequate, leaders shows that it has possibilities. Likewise the formation last year of the new Labour Representation Committee, committed to reasserting a working-class voice in the Labour structures, and sponsored by the CWU, RMT, and FBU.
To abstain in the name of the trade-union fight from proposing socialist candidates in elections would be to deny ourselves the chance to address disaffected working-class voters directly, now, in the name of uncertain longer-term possibilities which those voters do not even know about. But to dismiss the longer-term possibilities would be to give up on the actual political processes in the trade unions, the actually-existing mass organisations of the working class. It would be equally wrong.
AWL, therefore, has supported the LRC, and in constituencies where there are no SGUC, SSP, or similar candidates, we will vote Labour.
Last July the GMB general union announced that: “The Labour Party had asked the GMB to consider contributing an extra £744,000 to the Party’s central coffers. Instead the GMB’s executive has voted to fund only those Labour MPs who ‘share the GMB’s aims and values’.”
The unions should focus their active support on Labour candidates who are loyal to the labour movement, people like John McDonnell or Jeremy Corbyn, rather than giving extra cash to New Labour’s central machine. The RMT’s London Transport Regional Council recently discussed encouraging RMT branches in London each to select a socialist Labour candidate in their area and to seek agreement to campaign for him or her independently, using RMT literature expounding RMT policies. That should be a model.
A default vote for docile pro-privatisation and pro-war Labour candidates in the large number of seats where there is no socialist Labour or left candidate is a choice imposed by weakness — by the inability of the left to organise sufficiently to get good working-class candidates there — but it is also a choice that follows obviously from wanting to build movements like the LRC. The unions are affiliated to the Labour Party nationally, not just constituency by constituency.
Some leftists talk about instead voting for Liberal Democrats or Greens, who may be anti-war and anti-privatisation. To do that would be to go from an admission of weakness to positively encouraging the elements that make us weak.
What political perspective could such votes serve? To get the Lib-Dems or Greens strong enough that they can participate in a coalition government? Like France under Jospin or Germany under Schröder? Or like a number of local councils in Britain now? Like Leeds City Council, run by a Tory/ Lib-Dem/ Green coalition?
We know that all the left talk of the Lib-Dems or Greens will disappear when they are in office. And what will the socialists who have helped vote them into office do then? Tell voters to find yet another “lesser evil” to vote for? Carry on playing the “instrument of deception”, only more and more deceptive each time round? It is a perspective to disorganise and demoralise, not to organise.
The Respect coalition of George Galloway and the SWP is appealing to voters on the same sort of basis as the Lib-Dems and Greens — a few left phrases, rather than any perspective of organising working-class political representation — but with a twist that makes it worse.
Despite its large financial resources, Respect is standing in only 28 seats. Mostly it is targeting seats with large Muslim populations. Its main objective is to win election in Bethnal Green and Bow for George Galloway MP, who for ten years was the closest friend in British politics of Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz, and their fascistic regime in Iraq, and now promotes himself as a “fighter for Muslims”.
In a recent book he proposes, as his way to improve British democracy, a big cut in the number of MPs and a big increase in their pay (from the current £60,000). He himself says he spends £150,000 a year and “needs” it to “function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system”. He not only accepts, but explicitly proposes, democracy being reduced to working-class people deciding every few years which of the rich should misrepresent them!
Nothing can be gained by Galloway being returned to Parliament, where he has been for 18 years without doing anything very socialist. A great deal can be lost by socialists being channelled into a vote-catching exercise based on persuading Muslims to vote on communal lines.
Even a vote for the Blairite candidate Oona King — as part of a policy centred on a national fight in the trade unions — is better than that.
Socialist Green Unity Coalition launch
Pete Radcliff spoke for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty at the press launch on 26 February of the Socialist Green Unity Coalition (SGUC).
The coalition, involving the AWL, the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Green Socialism, the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform, and the Socialist Unity Network, is standing candidates to present a working-class socialist alternative to Blair, Kennedy and Howard in at least 21 seats in the General Election expected on 5 May.
Pete also spoke about the local campaign in Nottingham East, where he stood as the Socialist Alliance candidate in 2001, and where support is now being canvassed for a socialist challenge this time around.