Lessons of the June elections
If under the rule of the bourgeoisie elections are but a gauge of the maturity of the proletariat, it must of necessity be of interest to examine what the latest elections in Britain, municipal and European, tell us. They assist those working in the proletarian movement to ascertain their most urgent immediate tasks when addressing the need to raise the class consciousness of the working class to the realisation of its class interests in preparation for the final showdown with capitalist exploitation and oppression.
In the elections held in June 2004, the overwhelming majority of candidates were representing pro-imperialist parties – Labour, Conservative, Lib-Dem, UKIP, etc. When elected these people follow the party line, paying not the slightest regard to the demands and needs of those they allegedly “represent”, and the party line is always the line of managing affairs on behalf of big capital. Their real constituencies consist solely of billionaires, not those who vote for them. There are of course some minor differences between all these parties as to how the interests of imperialism are best served, but these are of very little consequence most of the time.
At a certain level, all this is to some extent perceived by most people, as a result of which there is increasing indifference towards exercising one’s “democratic right” to vote. Turnout was under 40% in the UK – giving a clear majority to the apathetic. Admittedly this was higher than in the 1999 Council elections when turnout was only 24 (!), but the increase is readily explained by the fact that electors were voting for both municipal and European representatives, and on the question of Europe, there was sufficient strong feeling abounding to move people to the ballot box who normally would not have bothered (see below). The fact that postal voting was introduced in some areas may also have made a marginal difference to the turnout.
Those of us who have engaged in electioneering, however, will be wary of attributing high class consciousness to most of the apathetic, even though in this particular election not voting was the class-conscious thing to do. The fact that people are aware that “politicians” do nothing for them is still a long way from people realising they need to take action themselves – that the major problems facing humanity (in particular hunger, disease and war) are entirely solvable, and that it is the historic mission of the working class to solve them, having first overthrown the rule of capital. If the resources are available to do it, it is important to use election time to propagate among the proletarian apathetic the sense of political self worth, the awareness that they can and must act rather than sit around waiting for handouts and concessions from their enemy – capitalism.
Opposition to the war
The media are generally in agreement that, among those who did vote, the strong anti-government showing in Britain (Labour losing no fewer than 450 seats in the municipal election) was very much fuelled by the war in Iraq. Even Labour Party worthies such as John Prescott and Robin Cook are prepared to admit as much. It is, of course, very common for there to be a marked anti-government vote in any mid-term elections, but in 2004 Labour suffered “the worst local election defeat suffered by any British government” and “finished a dismal third” (behind the Conservatives and Lib-Dems) – see the Daily Mail 17 June 2004, ‘A Kicking for Blair’. The Labour share of the vote plunged to 26% to the Lib-Dems’ 30% and the Conservatives’ 38%.
The Independent of 12 June considers that above all “voters demonstrated that they do not forgive a Prime Minister who takes the country to war on a false premise” (i.e., the claim that Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’), and this may be so, but it is worth remembering that before the war, and before the government’s prevarications had been exposed by the evidence to the Hutton Inquiry into the Kelly affair (albeit Lord Hutton himself ignored all this evidence in arriving at his whitewash), opinion polls showed 80% of the British people opposing the war. Thus it can be assumed that the government’s bare-faced lies only added to public dissatisfaction, and kept alive the memory that the government had all along simply overridden the wishes of the majority of the electorate.
The main beneficiaries of the general disillusion with Labour’s nakedly imperialist stance on the question of the “war for oil” were the LibDems who had been critical of the unleashing of the war, but who nevertheless stated they would support “our boys” once the war had started. The Lib-Dems increased their votes to take second place in the municipal elections – ousting Labour Councils in such important urban areas as Newcastle upon Tyne, Cardiff, Doncaster, Leeds and Swansea. Nevertheless, their 30% share of the vote was no higher than in the previous election, although careful targeting meant they won more seats. One assumes that had they been in a position to stand in every constituency, they would have had a higher proportion of the vote, even if they did not win any extra seats. This is also true of other parties which do not have the resources to stand candidates everywhere.
The fake left
Among these is the ‘Respect’ coalition. Various fake left organisations, led by the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party, an erstwhile avid Labour Party satellite organisation, came together for the purposes of the election using the name “Respect”. Their leading light was ex-Labour MP, George Galloway (expelled, not resigned), but the Socialist Workers Party was very much in the driving seat. Up and down the country, they garnered some 250,000 votes – 1.7% of the vote, a result in which they were very much helped by the fact that the reformists in Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party were far too busy excising the revolutionary element from their midst to put up more than a tiny handful candidates in the municipal election and none at all in the European election or the election for London Mayor. They were also helped by the fact that many Muslims, who would have traditionally voted Labour, were virtually driven away from supporting Labour by the Blair government’s persecution of all Muslims as potential ‘terrorists’ – to say nothing of the imperialist war conducted against a Muslim country, Iraq. It is noticeable that ‘Respect’ was able to gain up to 15% in City and East London, and 8.7% in North East London, areas of high Bangla Deshi Muslim concentration (although most Muslims switched from Labour to LibDem rather than to Respect).
These results have left “Respect” claiming that it has established itself “as a serious national Party” – overlooking the fact that (1) they were never a party but merely a coalition of very disparate elements, (2) that George Galloway had actually set a target of a million votes at their founding conference and (3) that their share of the vote is not substantially higher than the Socialist Alliance achieved in the 2001 election when it secured 1.69% of the vote, despite the help they received from the factors mentioned above.
Nevertheless, there could be no more telling exposure of the nature of bourgeois “democracy” than that with 80% of the British population opposing the war in Iraq, and Respect being the only “party” standing with a consistent anti-war stance (i.e., anti the war against Iraq) as part of its election programme, nevertheless it secured less than 2% of the vote, when by rights it should have had 80%.
It would be comforting to imagine that this was because the electorate could see through the falsity of ‘Respect’s’ position, but sadly this is certainly not the case at this time. To the untutored eye, ‘Respect’ appears to be genuinely socialist, so that the more votes they gained in this election, the higher one could say the class consciousness of the working class had risen, compared to what it was before. The working class could not achieve anything by following Respect or any other Trotskyite grouping because, for all their ability to complain – quite rightly – about the iniquities of capitalism, they have absolutely no concrete alternative to offer. However, it would be true to say that in voting for ‘Respect’ some workers were at least motivated to protest at the policies being pursued by our imperialist masters, even if in order to avoid “putting off” their potential supporters, ‘Respect’ shied away from many of the policies one would normally expect to find on a socialist platform. All Trotskyites favour the right to abortion on demand, a policy supported by socialists because the alternative under capitalism is not “the right to life”, but the death and mutilation of women at the hands of back-street abortionists. The Trotskyites tend to present the right to abortion as a fundamental “freedom”, rather than the need for it being an expression of our oppression, but since it could offend the Muslims this right was given a very low profile, and George Galloway even went on record to say he was opposed to abortion altogether.
If one has to resort to such subterfuges in order to get votes, then it has to be admitted that many of the votes one is getting are not votes for the policies one genuinely represents, but simply protest votes against the policies of the powers that be. Of course, it is better to protest than to say nothing, but socialists must be in the business of doing somewhat more than protesting. They must mobilise the masses to deal with their problems by overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism, to move from apathy and simple protest to action. To do this one must be able and willing to promote policies among the masses whose understanding thus far is very much shaped by the bourgeoisie and who are inclined to be prejudiced against their own interests. Socialists have to fight those prejudices, rather than win votes by pandering to them, for, as has been said, the purpose of standing in elections is to promote the class consciousness of the masses, not to retard it.
The purpose is to take part in bourgeois elections and bourgeois parliaments in order to expose bourgeois parliamentarism. Let there be fewer votes at first. Let the votes, when they are forthcoming, be a genuine manifestation of high class consciousness among the masses, a demonstration that the communists have been fulfilling their duty to the working class and fulfilling it well. Let their votes be an indication of their desire and willingness to go beyond capitalism, for when they are, it will not be through parliament that this will be accomplished, however many seats communists and socialists do or do not have.
The “wasted vote”
The tiny proportion of anti-war people who voted ‘Respect’ also demonstrates the illusions the masses still have in the parliamentary system, and their belief that if they cast their vote for a party which, on past showing, would seem to have no chance of winning or even holding an influential minority, then that vote would be “wasted”.
The widespread concept of the “wasted vote” presupposes that the parties which form the government and, to a lesser extent, the major opposition to them in parliament, actually have power – power to act to improve the living standards of the masses and that, therefore, there is no point in voting for any party unless it is large enough to wield that “power”. The vast majority of those who vote do not have the understanding that power lies exclusively with the capitalist class; and that parliament is merely a tool for implementing the wishes of that class. Whichever party wins the election, the class in power would be the bourgeoisie. Those of the electorate who sense this, having been convinced by their lives’ experience, consider all votes to be “wasted votes” and don’t bother to exercise them.
Of course, there are parties better suited to carrying out the requirements of the bourgeoisie than others. The bourgeoisie would be far happier doing business with Conservative, Labour or LibDems than they would with “Respect”, for instance. However, the bourgeoisie is just as capable of casting aside an instrument (such as Parliament) which is no longer serving its purpose as we are to throw away a pair of scissors that has become too rusty to cut properly. If the working class is to overthrow bourgeois rule, this is one concept it is going to be very necessary for it to understand. By participating in elections at all, communists run the danger of reinforcing the illusions that being elected means having power. It has to be admitted that the very atmosphere of bourgeois elections has succeeded in converting even people who thought they were communists into parliamentary cretins, who ended up joining the Labour Party so that they could actually get elected and thus have “power” (and, incidentally, a well-paid career!). Despite these very real dangers, communists should if their resources allow participate in elections with a view to increasing class consciousness among the masses, but very great care has to be taken not to end up losing their own.
First past the post
The “first past the post” system that has traditionally characterised British elections magnifies the effect of the “wasted vote” syndrome so that the two biggest parties tend to stay that way, and the government passes from one to the other periodically without changing very much at all about the way British capitalism is governed. Even the complete exposure of the Labour government in the eyes of the British people, who, as a result of contradictions between different sections of the capitalist class with different interests regarding the advisability of the Iraq war, have been treated to a full and gory picture of the lies, deception and corruption characteristic of bourgeois governments consequent upon the scandals uncovered by the Hutton enquiry (notwithstanding the ultimate whitewash which convinced nobody), is not expected to prevent them winning the next election – albeit with a reduced majority!
However, the effects of the “wasted vote” theory are less when it comes to European elections where seats are allocated more or less in proportion to votes cast. Three times as many people are prepared to vote for minor parties in that situation since smaller parties can always urge electors that the extra vote may well bring them up to the 10% necessary to secure a seat – a much easier goal to achieve than the 30-40% generally needed to secure a seat under the first-past-the-post system.
The British bourgeoisie prefers the two-party system which is the usual corollary of the first-past the post system, because it then has either one party or the other in government. Proportional representation leads far more frequently to situations where no party has an overall majority and is forced to make alliances in order to govern. However, where all the parties are pro-imperialist parties this usually presents very little problem, and certainly all difficulties are generally very quickly overcome.
Because of the proportional representation system in the European election, combined with the fear of greater European unity among certain sections of the bourgeoisie, and the fact that as far as the working class is concerned it is expected to put up with all the disadvantages of European Union while Britain opts out of what little there might be of advantages to the working class, a substantial proportion of British voters wanted to express an anti-Europe vote. This is a subject on which the only consistently anti-Europe parties were the two fascistic parties, the British National Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party. Both these parties are chauvinist and racist to the core, and oppose European union out of nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past and a belief that this can be restored rather than any objection in principle to the predatory imperialist nature of the European Alliance. Both scapegoat immigrants and/or asylum seekers for the ills of capitalism (as indeed do the major parties), wanting even more draconian measures to be taken against them than Tory and Labour Party governments have hitherto being willing to take, even if they have taken to flaunting international law on refugees in their anxiety to harass foreigners sufficiently to give credence to the idea that they are the cause of all our problems. The only difference would appear to be that the BNP is prepared to resort to illegal means to harass foreigners whereas, probably, the UKIP would prefer to restrict itself to legal channels. The latter party, therefore, is designed to appeal to the more respectable type of fascist, the disgruntled grocers rather than the hooligan and lumpen element of the population. These grocers (relatively small capitalists frightened by what they perceive to be the high cost of complying with European standards of worker protection) provided UKIP with some £2 million for its election campaign, according to the Financial Times of 14 June.
However, since all the bourgeois parties are fairly consistently anti-immigrant, what really made the two fascistic parties stand out is their opposition to the European Union. This opposition brought the UKIP a great deal of support in, curiously enough, the election for Members of the European Parliament, in which they secured 17% of the vote, quadrupling the number of its MEP’s from 3 to 12. UKIP took third place to Tories (27%) and Labour (22% – its worst result since 1918). They outstripped the LibDems, who had come second in the municipal elections, because of the latter’s pro-Europe stand, and they secured their votes largely at the expense of the other parties with grocer-appeal, namely the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Their remit was expressed by their star figurehead Robert Kilroy-Silk (notorious for his anti-Arab and anti-Muslim pronouncements, which cost him job as a BBC programme chat-show host) as being to “Wreck it. Expose it for the waste and corruption and the way it is eroding our independence and our sovereignty”. The interest of a certain section of the British electorate in expressing opposition to Europe led to a greatly increased turnout in this election (39% compared to 24% in 1999), which, since the municipal elections were held at the same time, also meant a higher turnout for the latter.
The success of UKIP has produced headaches for our big capitalists, who control multinational businesses and finance capital and who want to hasten the process of European integration in order to be able to compete more effectively against rival imperialists and to be strong enough to resist US imperialist encroachments on traditionally European neo-colonies, and perhaps to encroach back on a few of the US’s. The government is committed to a referendum on closer European integration, but it is clear that in the present climate this referendum is unlikely to produce the result that our rulers want. Since it is clear that the ruling class is going to press ahead with European integration regardless, it has left the bourgeois press speculating as to how they think they’re going to overcome the obstacle of adverse public opinion. No doubt they will think of something.
The European voters
Over Europe as a whole, the election has been characterised by (a) apathy and (b) the expression of disgust at whichever party (be it ‘left’ or right) happened to be in power. Thus Chirac’s rightists in France were beaten as comprehensively as Schröder’s social-democrats in Germany. As the Financial Times of 14 June remarks (‘EU’s voters hand big defeat to incumbents’), “Europe was swept by a wave of protest last night, as voters in the European elections delivered a damning verdict on their national leaders and against the European Union itself”. Turnout was down over Europe to 45%, beating the previous record low of 49%, and a record number of Eurosceptic candidates were elected. Naturally, the result in the UK was no exception to this general trend. Where there was an exception was in the case of the social-democratic Spanish government, which has pleased the Spanish electorate by removing Spanish troops from Iraq.
By their mass abstention from the polls and their votes against parties in government, especially those that support the war in Iraq, the voters of the UK and of Europe generally have graphically demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the status quo. At the moment, however, this dissatisfaction is without effective direction, as communists, under the influence of Khrushchevite revisionism and then further demoralised by the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, have failed to spread a proper understanding of the causes of, and cure for, the world’s major, but entirely soluble, problems of famine, disease and war. They have left the field open to social democracy to permeate the working class with its rotten class collaborationist ideology, making it difficult for workers, even when they realise they can no longer support the social-democratic parties and their various satellite fake “communist” and “socialist” supporters, to be mobilised for the overthrow of capitalism, which is the only possible way forward. Because of decades of neglect the fertile proletarian field is strangled by a rich crop of intractable social-democratic, class-collaborationist weeds, and it is daunting to contemplate the Herculean task of destroying those weeds so that the future of humanity can flourish. W e have, however, no choice but to get on with it, confident that as we do our work more people will join us, and eventually their will be many hands to accomplish what may seem an impossible task at present.