The general election and working-class politics


By Liam McNulty

Over the next several weeks, the question “how will you vote in the elections?” is likely to become increasingly common.

While it is good that more people will be taking an interest in politics, the focus on individual electoral choices reveals a consumerist approach to the political system – and one which has been internalised by sections of the radical left.

It is obviously good that we have the ability to elect our governments in Britain. This was not always the case, and it was not handed down from above by ruling-class generosity. That we have elections is the product of a two-hundred year fight for democracy by the working-class.

Socialists call the form of democracy in Britain “bourgeois democracy”. That is, the combination of a limited degree of democratic self-rule coinciding with the dominance of a minority who own and control the means of production.

The task for socialists is to use the strongholds that the working-class has been able to build up within bourgeois democracy – trade unions, political parties, campaigns, free elections etc – to push for a much more rounded democracy, where the social rule of the minority is replaced by the democratic ownership and control of society’s wealth by the majority.

It is in this context that elections should be seen, not as the be all and end all but as steps towards building a labour movement capable of realising this democratic socialist vision.

But the whole set-up of elections under bourgeois democracy is geared towards obscuring the reality of the society we live in.

We live under capitalism, a system where the vast majority of people live by selling their capacity to work to the minority of people who own capital, who decide how our collective wealth is disposed, and who accrue large fortunes off the back of other people’s labour. In other words, we live in a society divided into classes, collective agents with common interests, rooted fundamentally in basic social and economic relations.

In elections under bourgeois democracy, however, we are not encouraged to think as members of classes but as individual political subjects. The real inequalities of wealth and power in society are masked by the formal equality that we all possess as individual citizens with an equal vote. The limited and bourgeois nature of our democracy is portrayed simply as democracy in general.

And this creates an optical illusion about politics and political power. We are encouraged to see politics as a simple matter of ticking a box in the private polling booth beside the party manifesto that we most agree with. All the boxes are then totted up, and the political programme which receives the most support defines how our society is run.

But that is not the reality of power in capitalist society policed by a capitalist state. Most things are not up for a vote at the elections: changing the government does not mean changing the unelected parts of the state – the police, the army, the permanent civil service, the monarchy and the House of Lords. And if that is true of the state, it is even truer of the economy – the privately owned banks and industry.

Just look at Greece, where a radical left government was elected on a number of basic pledges to reverse the humanitarian crisis inflicted on the Greek people by austerity. Despite a clear electoral mandate, they are being blocked at every turn by the capitalist classes of various European countries, acting through the Eurogroup, committed to further immiseration of the working-class.

In Britain, as in Greece, only a mass movement of people in workplaces, in trade unions and in the streets would be capable of pressuring a government to fulfil its pledges and change the balance of forces in society. Such a government would have to rely on a mobilized labour movement outside of parliament to fulfil a programme of thoroughgoing social and political change.

In Britain, over the last two hundred years or more, workers have built such movement based on their fundamental interests in defending and expanding their economic conditions at work. This trade union struggle then extended to Parliament too, with the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee and then the modern Labour Party in the early years of the twentieth century. The labour movement – with its industrial and political wings – succeeded in winning major pro-working class measures such as the NHS and rights at work.

Rather than starting with the question of who to vote for, we must see the election as a product of over two hundred years of history, as workers organised at work and on the political level to fight for the vote and for working-class interests through the political system.

Today, our historic labour movement is tied to a party – the Labour Party – which is led by a timid host of professional politicians, careerists and pro-capitalist politicians. However, the Labour Party remains the only party in Britain backed by most major institutions of our labour movement and most politically-conscious trade unionists.

Rather than passively accepting this like the bureaucrats who run our unions, or opting out of the existing movement like sectarians – we must be demanding that the labour movement fights uncompromisingly for working-class interests.

We must put pressure on its leadership and, ultimately, replace it with a leadership that will fight for the interests of our class just as much as the Tories fight for the interests of the bosses.

However, in this election we are faced by a Tory-led government committed to open war against our class, new anti-union laws and the destruction of the NHS – or a Labour government, politically limited and inadequate, but susceptible to labour movement pressure and opening up the opportunity of working-class assertion.

If we view politics as individual political subjects, and members of an atomised citizenry, it would make sense to enter the polling booth and choose the policies we most agree with from those on offer – be it from the Green Party or Left Unity.

Yet, if we see the labour movement and not the polling booth as the collective vehicle for fundamental political change, we must foreground class politics and the fight for working-class representation in this election.

This of course does not mean the genuine working-class socialist candidates should never stand in elections against Labour to popularise socialist ideas, and give expression to particular labour movement struggles.

But voting for parties – like the Greens or various nationalists – with no democratic connections to the labour movement and no labour movement culture is at odds both with the fight for working-class representation and popularisng socialist ideas.

Though on the surface it may appear more radical, voting for parties such as the Greens represents a political retreat, the internalising of an individualised and consumerist conception of politics by large sections of the left, in the context of labour movement retreat.

We in the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory blame the Labour and trade union leaderships for this retreat, and understand and sympathise with all of those in the labour and student movements who are seeking other avenues for political representation.

But we are voting for a Labour government because we want to replace the current government with one based on the labour movement.

And we do not want to take the current movement as it is or abandon the field of struggle and let the labour movement leadership off the hook.

We are combining a vote for Labour with a programme of socialist agitation aimed at turning our workers’ movement around politically and preparing it to fight – during the election and from day one of the next government.

Liam is Youth Officer of Hornsey and Wood Green CLP and a co-founder of the Labour Campaign for Free Education.