In the Guardian on 26 March, Tariq Ali, who back in the late 1960s and early 70s was perhaps Britain’s best-known Marxist, called for a “tactical vote” for the Liberal Democrats in the General Election likely on 5 May.
Because the Liberal Democrats have become much more left-wing? On the contrary, they have been carefully “re-positioning” themselves as business-friendly and pro-privatisation. At their spring conference in March the Lib-Dems passed policy to ban any strikes which “will cause far reaching damage to the economy and national interest”.
Because the socialist movement has become so weak that all we can do is despondently cast our ballots for what we might reckon to be the lesser evil? No — or at least that is not what Tariq Ali says.
He seems to think that he can sway a large left-wing vote, big enough to affect the overall outcome of the election and secure “a hung parliament [a Tory/Lib-Dem coalition government?] or a tiny Blair majority [perhaps, then, a new Lib-Lab pact?]”. That will “punish the warmongers” and be “seen as a victory for our side”. In other words, he claims that “our side” can win the election, or at least tip the balance.
Plainly, if “our side” is so powerful, if socialists are strong enough to win the election, then we should stand candidates to do so, and not hand our votes over to Charles Kennedy! If we do not have a large voting block at our disposal, to be summoned to action courtesy of the Guardian — and, of course, we do not — then there is no point obscuring our voice further by reducing it to an indeterminate, indistinguishable extra one per cent among the millions who vote Lib-Dem for the usual right-wing reasons.
The whole argument makes no sense unless Tariq Ali has ceased to think of “our side” as being defined as the side of the working class or of socialism.
In fact, Tariq Ali has said publicly in recent years that he considers the whole idea of communism (not the fake “communism” of the USSR, but the basic communist idea itself) to be “dead”. He defines “our side” as the “broad anti-war front”. In other words, because a few Lib-Dems joined the big anti-war marches, we should forget about privatisation and trade union rights as issues which define which “side” we’re on.
Tariq Ali’s basic idea is to vote for the best-placed anti-war candidate everywhere — anti-war Labour, Lib-Dem, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, or, in Bethnal Green and Bow only, the George Galloway/SWP alliance Respect. Probably some socialists who have not forgotten what “our side” is as much as Ali has will be inclined to go along with his thinking at least to the extent of voting Green, Plaid Cymru or Respect where they seem well-placed to challenge pro-war Labour MPs.
But where socialists do not have the resources to stand socialist candidates, there also, obviously, we do not have the resources to redefine the election, to decree it to be a referendum on the war rather than what it really is. By voting Green, Plaid Cymru or Respect we do not redefine the election or those parties. We redefine ourselves politically as the limp tail of the “broad anti-war front”, by going from marching alongside all sorts in broad demonstrations — which is good and proper — to voting for whomever in those broad demonstrations seems best-placed electorally. We lapse from “united front” actions into “popular front” politics.
It is a repeated lesson of history that voting for bourgeois pacifist parties never stopped a war. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson won re-election as US President with the main slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War”. In 1917 he took the USA into the First World War.
War cannot be separated off from the other issues — privatisation, anti-union laws, attacks on civil liberties, and pension cutbacks. Even if Tariq Ali considers those issues insignificant, the newly elected government will not, and most working-class voters will not.
Where socialists do have the resources for it, we should stand under our own colours and offer our own ideas to the electorate. The Socialist Green Unity Coalition will do that in 25 constituencies in England, and the Scottish Socialist Party will do it in Scotland. AWL member Pete Radcliff is standing for the Socialist Green Unity Coalition in Nottingham East.
Where we do not have the resources to stand candidates, we have to judge what we do electorally not by fanciful calculations about how to deploy our non-existent voting bloc, but by what would be best for moving the levers in non-electoral politics which can advance our cause. Those levers exist primarily in the trade unions.
The trade unions are the bedrock organisations of the working class. They opposed the Iraq war and they support peace, solidarity with the new Iraqi labour movement, public services, union rights, civil liberties and decent pensions. If their leaders had the will for it, the unions could use their votes in the Labour Party structures to turn New Labour upside down — probably forcing Blair, Brown and the New Labour hard-core into a split and a link-up with the Lib-Dems so cherished by Tariq Ali.
For now the unions have decided to be docile. In the Warwick Agreement in July 2004 they did a deal, promising quiet support for Blair in the run-up to the general election in return for a few small concessions. But among the rank and file of the unions there are activists organising to change that. They are beginning to link up in initiatives like the Labour Representation Committee.
That is where “our side” is — defined by the basic class divisions in this society. That is why “tactical voting” makes no sense. Where you can, vote socialist; where you can’t, vote Labour and get involved in the trade union fightback.