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.