Saturday, 18 April 2009

Branch Meeting: Marxists and Elections

The Socialist Party is not an electoralist party. As an organisation dedicated to the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society our party works across a broad number of fronts. Week in week out we are involved in trade union activity, community campaigning and organising meetings, in addition to the basic work of street stalls and paper sales. Preparing for and standing in elections is only a priority for a handful of our branches, but most have taken part in electoral contests from time to time. That said, electorally speaking, outside a few areas our party has hardly set the ballot boxes alight. So why bother? Explaining why was the task Brother A set himself at Thursday's night branch meeting of Stoke SP.

As fairly orthodox Marxists, the SP is of the view that the state is an institution that upholds capitalist class relations. Parliament is just one aspect of the state. Behind it stands a system of constitutional checks and balances, unelected bureaucracies, tiers of quangos and the state's repressive arm: the army, the police and the secret services. If a mass socialist party won majority representation at Westminster this constellation of agencies and institutions remain in place to frustrate its measures and protect the status quo in property relations. This view has long been a staple of Marxist thinking, but has found itself confirmed time and again by history - the most prominent being 1973's drowning of Chile's
parliamentary road to socialism in blood.

Despite this and the recent glut of scandals to have damaged the reputation of parliamentary politics, millions of people retain their illusions in liberal democracy. For us elections are just another area of work. We stand because it can give us the sorts of publicity we don't receive outside of them, and it can be helpful in moving a struggle forward. For example, the election of
Jackie Grunsell to Kirklees council did not harm the fortunes of the NHS campaign she was part of, and having that opening in the council chamber has allowed Jackie to assist a number of local workers' struggles. Where the SP does have elected representatives our actions also provide an opportunity to discredit and expose the other parties. For example, for all their anti-establishment verbiage the record of the BNP's 50-odd local authority councillors across Britain pales against that of just five SP representatives. Seldom has so little been done by so many.

But what about those circumstances when the SP doesn't stand under its own name? We have done it when we were part of the
Socialist Alliance and are going into the forthcoming European elections as part of the No2EU - Yes to Democracy slate. But, A asked, would it be better if we stood under our own name?

The discussion opened with a contribution from Sister J, who said coalitions with like-minded forces are often preferable so we avoid the silly situation of socialists standing against each other when large numbers of council and parliamentary seats won't face a socialist challenge at all. Brother N focused on what No2EU represents - it differs from previous left coalitions and broad-based alternatives because it is backed by a major trade union. The
RMT's support shows other unions there are other ways to be involved in politics than just a strained relationship with Labour. And for this reason a lot of trade unionists in Labour-loyal unions will be following what happens with No2EU closely - what counts here won't necessarily be the size of the vote.

Brother F moved onto the nature of the EU and argued that we should see it as a transnational centralisation of capitalist rule. Take lobbying, for example. At the moment firms run offices to lobby for their interests in all the capitals of the EU. But as the EU has assumed greater powers to the point where it is the primary source of law in most countries, it is easier for firms to centralise their lobbying operations around the EU bureaucracy. The democratic deficit that exists at the heart of Europe means, theoretically, that firms can bypass the limited democracy of the member states and have their will enforced against democratic aspirations from below.

He then turned to the opposition to the EU. The right have been allowed to run with the issue of sovereignty for too long. When it comes to the Lisbon Treaty, the only problem
UKIP have with it is that it's an EU measure. Shorn of its EU constitutionalism, he doubted they would find little fault if it the UK government was ramming through its neoliberal measures. Brother P came in to argue we should assess the EU dialectically rather than paint it as a straight neoliberal institution and draw conclusions from that analysis. Unfortunately, while it enshrines a modicum of social democracy in the much-maligned (by the right) Social Chapter, the role it has played this last 20 years is as a neoliberal battering ram against the more corporatist policy direction traditionally favoured by Germany, Italy, France and Scandinavia and the midwife of neoliberal restructuring in Eastern Europe underlines its character as something to be opposed by socialists. Nevertheless among some layers the EU represents itself as the crystallisation of Enlightenment values, as the epitome of liberal internationalism. Brother B, recalling his studies, said that academia tends to reinforce this perspective. When he did international relations he learned about different critical perspectives, but when he took modules related to the EU out they went and in came uncritical liberal theories of the state.

Returning to electoral politics N flagged up the argument often heard on the far left from Labour supporters that standing in X, Y and Z seats will let the
Tories or, worse, the BNP in. We've heard this before - when our sitting SP councillor came up for re-election and faced off against Labour and the fascists, it was we who were accused of splitting the anti-fascist vote - no words for the populist independent, no condemnation of the LibDems. And of course, if we were to blame for letting the BNP in why is it Labour have not only proven unable to win subsequent contests in Stoke's Abbey Green ward, but the BNP's margin of victory is actually increasing? P argued this idea of homogenous voting blocs is a psephological conceit - the primary reason why a party does not win an election is because its campaign has not persuaded enough people to turn out and vote for it. If the BNP are polling well that's a challenge for other parties to meet rather than grubbing around for pathetic excuses.

The discussion then came back to A. When we stand in elections there are two things we need keep in mind. We want to win new people to socialist ideas and we want to build our party. And we need to take the interests of the wider class into account. For the SP the immediate strategic objective in front of socialists is establishing mass working class political independence. No2EU could be an important step in that direction, not because it's going to win millions of votes but it pulls together forces from within the unions around a progressive platform. The relationships the campaign will build and the experience of working together will be the real gain of the European elections, and it puts us on a good footing for an ambitious intervention at next year's general election. And who knows? It might just be under the banner of a newly-formed left alternative.


Dave Riley said...

Of all the tendencies in the English speaking world the SP -- and its CWI franchises in countries like Ireland and Australia -- has achieved the most success in elections.

And I know that we here are trying to learn as much as we can from that approach. It was the sort of approach that enabled to SSP to be for a time so succesful at the polls in some locales.

However, the one problem I have with it is that it seems to me to be very geographically constrained. When I look at the Dublin experience and those of the SP with Steve Jolley in suburban Melbourne local elections -- the template is of consistent and serious work in the one constrained urban area measured by a few hectares.

And in a sense that's the main challenge: to do consistent work in the one locale and link that to your electioneering.

It seems to me that the result of that isn't so much a product of propaganda but winning respect and a very public profile for what you do every other day rather than what you say you are in the lead up to polling day.

That's the problem with most of the campaigns I've worked on for the past 30 years -- that they were broad and primarily propaganda campaigns with occasional forages into agitation. So the challenge is to link what you do with what you say during election campaigns and being respected for that activist political profile.

Here the Greens have soaked up the alternative left vote by patenting a colour , but the verdancy is beginning to fade such that the Socialist Alliance is beginning in some locales to replicate the results that the SP had picked up four years back just as Steve Jolley has doubled his electoral return because of the excellent work he has done as councillor.

But there's a problem there that I see that is conservatising the Greens faster than I expected-- that the more you focus on elections,the more accommodating your politics is going to become if you package yourself as an electoral party and fail to put in the hard yards on the street and in the campaigns. For the Greens here the main game is preference trading and playing at controlling the balance of power in parliament.

This had been a long running dispute in the SA as some affiliates wanted it to stick overwhelmingly to electioneering (like the local IST franchise)-- but even today, many members and supporters of the Alliance relate to the project primarily as a socialist electoral party.

The challenge is to relate to both aspects of your support base -- the extra parliamentary and the electoralist in such a way that what may seem like a contradiction ( given the nature of parliament under capitalism as your meeting discussed ) is subsumed by the collective activity 365 days per year.

So in a very real sense, your challenge is to mobilize people outside of the parliamentary sphere of activity.

Nonetheless, trade unions donate money to the Alliance primarily in consideration for our electoral credentials -- which are nonetheless inseparable from what we carry into our trade union work.

But if elected you are not there to run capitalism but to build the campaigns for its overthrow.

So it does indeed come back down to tactics and the rule book doesn't exist to guide you.

So as A asked, "would it be better if we stood under our own name?" All the better to control our own political destiny perhaps?

But then that's the problem: it's only "us" and there is a limit to how far the political forms we currently untilize can reach.

This is the BIG question of course -- and the one that occupies the far left so much at the moment as a certain sectarian echo works itself through our ranks internationally.

Can we work together in the one formation such that we can merge into the one political party as our confidence in the partnership increases? I think we can just as the Salvadorans in the FMLN have done and the Bolivarian Marxists in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela .

Cecilieaux said...

I wish there were something like that here in the states. Been following your recounted meetings and how Brother so-and-so and Sister so-and-so said this and that. It sounds so wonderful and idyllic. The clarity all of you have, which I lack, is amazing.

Larry Lamb said...

Sorry to put you on the spot, but this site is where I came across No2EU so I'm holding you responsible for their content ;-)

I'm generally in agreement with the No2EU stuff, and was surprised and very disturbed to see the claim about possible reintroduction of the death penalty in times of wait, insurrection, riots &c. Well, I did a bit of web research (not even a matter of life and death is likely to make me read the Lisbon treaty and its milliard protocols), and AFAICS the EU position is that states are allowed to use lethal force to "beat down insurgencies". I'm sure lawyers could argue this one, but that sounds like 'vigorous' policing - obviously not a good thing, as we are seeing, but not Tyburn Tree, either.

Do you know anything more about this claim?

Brother S said...

'Psephology'- 'the statistical and sociological study of elections'.
And I thought it must be a word you got from Dr.Who!

Anything on the psephology front on the RMT list, pbc?

Phil BC said...

Dave, I understand the locality problem very well. From our work in Stoke we tend only to stand in one council seat at a time so we can focus our meagre local resources and get knocking on them doors. An additional problem is some comrades who enjoy other aspects of party work, such as stalls and paper sales, etc. are not too keen to get involved in electoral work. Likewise there are some who come out of the woodwork for elections. So resources are a constraint.

I have often wondered about the utility of putting up paper candidates. One example that springs to mind is last year the comrades in Leicester put one candidate up whereas the Greens contested all the seats. The result? Boosted media coverage for the Greens, which in turn boosted their vote. Be interested to know if you comrades in Oz have any experience with paper candidates?

Phil BC said...

Cheers Cecilieaux, I've added your blog to my blog roll. Glad others find my reports of branch meetings interesting - I remember writing my first one and wondered if anyone would be bothered? But anyway, our US comrades have regular branch meetings like this one too. Don't know if there's a group in DC but no harm in finding out - website here. Not sure if they'll address you as 'sister' - that's just one of my proclivities I'm afraid.

Phil BC said...

I don't sorry, Larry. Sorry to be as clear as mud.

Brother S, it's likely the candidate list will be revealed early in the next week. Some constituencies are finalised, such as Scotland and the Westmids, others have a few loose ends to tie up. By all accounts the list for our region is as solid a list of socialists and trade unionists you could hope for - and I hear the case is the same elsewhere too. Should be some interesting news as well.

gray said...


sorry to be an irritating git but you know I have to make the following clear:

AFAIK, Militant are not allowed to use "Socialist Party" in elections since the Socialist Party of Great Britain has been using the abbreviated version of its name since 1988 (plus the fact we have referred to ourselves as the SPGB, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Party since 1904) and registered the name with the Electoral Commission.

We'll be standing in the Euro elections in London, using the Socialist Party I believe.

It's a silly old business since you knew full well of our existence and could have kept to calling yourself Militant or some sort of name akin to "the Socialist Labour Party", "the Scottish Socialist Party", "the Socialist Workers Party" - all of which differ sufficiently.

Obviously, we have no problems with Militant standing in elections and putting its political perspectives, but once again wenstrongly object at you using "the Socialist Party".

Non-SPGB and non-Militant folks may think this all sounds daft. However, some years ago David Nellist was interviewed on Adam Boulton's politics programme on Sky during an election. I had to spend some time explaining to a contact that Nellist isn't a member of the Socialist Party and all of the policies he was presenting were staple trotskyite transitional demands.

It works both ways, of course, since some people might vote for us because they think we are you!

Anyhoo...moan over.

nationofduncan said...


I think every SPGB member I've met in the last four years, as long as I've been politically active, has gone on about that...

Alright, we were wrong to steal your party name but it was over a decade ago now. Unfortunately there are lots and lots of left-wing groups and since almost all names are made up of a combination of a small set of words it was pretty inevitable that during your long history another group would call itself some variant on the 'Socialist Party'.

Prinkipo Exile said...

Hi Phil

Interested to hear about the progress of the No2EU lists but it appears as though those "in the know" have taken a trappist vow of silence, so can you tell us all whether the pro-capitalist Liberal Party will feature in the list for the North West? Sorry to press you on a controversial topic, but its an important issue for some of us up here.

Phil BC said...

Prinkipo, what I know I've talked about on here. If only I was privy to all the information!

Regards the Liberal Party my understanding is their party as a whole has not joined No2EU - at least there's nothing on either website about it. But one of their councillors has signed up to support it.

Personally I wouldn't have much of a problem if minor (in this case micro) bourgeois parties want to be involved with No2EU - but only provided they're not the ones in the driving seat, politically speaking.

Phil BC said...

Worth remembering as well the SP as a whole voted to adopt the name. I remember some of the coverage in the Socialist Standard at the time. The three options were keeping the name Militant Labour, Militant Socialist Party, and finally Socialist Party. I think the latter won with two thirds of the vote (or something like that).

I'd be quite happy to do a deal with SPGB comrades. Assuming good health I hope I've got at least another 40 years worth of political activity in me. Whoever by the end of that time has done the most to make the name mean something gets to keep it. Can't say fairer than that can we?

Peter M. said...

I'm glad you didn't go with the "Militant Socialist Party." Sounds kind of hokey.