As trade union activists in Britain were preparing for February’s escalation of the movement against the cost-of-living crisis here, news came from across the Atlantic that, in the words of The Independent newspaper headline, ‘Kshama Sawant America’s highest profile socialist won’t seek re-election’ later this year.
The autumn election would have seen Kshama, described by The Independent as “America’s highest-ranking elected socialist”, compete for a fourth term on Seattle city council, the eighteenth biggest city by population in the USA.
The statement from Kshama herself explaining the decision not to stand referenced events in Britain, contrasting the role of “much of the union leadership” in the US – “closely tied to the Democratic Party establishment, afraid to call out the Democrats, afraid to run independent candidates” – with what she perceives to be a different situation in Britain.
“It should be progressive labor unions using their resources” to launch a movement against the might of big business and the political establishment, she argued, “as unions have in the UK with the Enough is Enough campaign. But that has not happened” in the US, she said, because of the unions’ ties with the Democrats. (The Seattle Stranger, 20 January 2023)
And so Kshama’s conclusion is to step back when her term ends in December from the city councilmember position she has held since her victory in 2013, to help, she says, launch “a national movement, Workers Strike Back, instead of myself running for re-election again in Seattle’s District 3”.
A socialist abandoning an elected position however is not a positive model for the working-class movement, in either the US or Britain.
On the contrary. As the world economy enters a new period of stagnation if not recession against the background of heightened geopolitical tensions – an era of capitalist crisis – the workers’ movement in every country will need to utilise every tool available to it, from strikes to the ballot box, to defend its interests against the demands of the capitalists and their system.
While every situation needs to be examined concretely, including electoral tactics, conceding positions won, in general, does not aid the struggle.
In Britain, for example, what would be the most positive step for Jeremy Corbyn to take in the next general election – which the Tony Blair-style New Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has made clear Corbyn will not be able to contest as a Labour candidate?
To stand independently of Labour, as part of a new trade union-based workers’ party, or at least a union-organised list of workers’ candidates as a step to a new party?
Or to stand aside and allow another Labour HQ-vetted Blairite clone to take his Islington North constituency seat uncontested by the workers’ movement? For socialists, to ask the question is to answer it.
Kshama Sawant was first elected in 2013 – in a city-wide vote, and then re-elected in 2015 as the councilmember for District 3 – as a supporter of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), the socialist organisation of which the Socialist Party is a part.
Her victories, as the first socialist to win a city-wide poll in Seattle since 1916, and many of her achievements as a city councilmember such as the $15 per hour minimum wage and the Tax Amazon campaigns, should be counted as credits to our tradition.
But her decision to step back now, if it really is for the reasons given in her public announcement, should not.
It reflects instead the break she and her co-thinkers made with the CWI in 2019, after a seven-month international debate, in which a reluctance to stand up to the prevailing moods of certain radicalised layers and defend a clear Marxist analysis and programme for the working class as a whole became increasingly manifest.
Including, it now seems, a Marxist understanding of the role of electoral activity in the class struggle.
A new anti-parliamentarianism?
There is no explicit rejection of the idea of contesting elections either in Kshama’s statement that she will not stand again or the pre-launch material of the proposed Workers Strike Back movement. But the deed on this occasion has greater weight than the word.
Moreover, while the Workers Strike Back five founding demands include ‘No More Sellouts: We Need a New Party’ – something that is pointedly not called for by the Enough is Enough campaign in Britain – it is prominently billed only as “an independent rank-and-file campaign organising in our workplaces and on the streets”.
It does not say anywhere that it will organise electoral campaigns, even as it makes a general call for “workers’ democracy and a different kind of society”.
Meanwhile Kshama’s statement argues that “elections are not the only, much less the primary, path to political change, because the political system is rotten from top to bottom under capitalism”.
Growing numbers it is true, of young people especially, already share that sentiment, as they increasingly question the institutions and ideologies that have perpetuated the rule of society by a tiny capitalist elite despite the covering of ‘parliamentary democracy’.
The ferocious campaign of the capitalist establishment in Britain to sabotage and then root out the remnants of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, mobilising all of its resources from the media and the legal system to its fifth column in the Parliamentary Labour Party, will have only added to their consciousness of the limits of formal democracy under capitalism, here and internationally.
But what conclusions should be drawn from that evolving understanding, an important development but still a view held only by a minority?
That movements that challenge the existing order – including climate campaigners like Extinction Rebellion debating their tactics for the struggle (see this month’s article in our regular Global Warning column on the environmental crisis) – should not contest elections?
The mechanics of parliamentary democracy – of periodic ‘fair elections’ between ‘competing’ parties, bicameral legislatures, judicial checks etc – certainly serve the interests of the capitalist ruling class. They still act as a “cooling saucer”, in the words of one of the United States’ Founding Fathers and its first president, George Washington, drawing off the heat of popular concerns while also mediating between the different sectional agendas of the capitalists.
Refined during the twentieth century to accommodate the expansion of the franchise to the working class, academic research shows that “a strong party base” – the ‘organising forces’ of parliamentary democracy – increases World Bank good-governance rankings (and rating agencies’ scores). It does so by helping “politicians to push through unpopular but necessary reforms” on their supporters. “A weak one”, on the other hand, “means that followers flee when the going gets tough”. (The Economist, 23 October 2010)
Yet democracy under capitalism is also a contradictory tool, serving the capitalists as a ‘safety valve’ yes, but within certain limits also serving the working class against the capitalists.
Democratic rights, above all trade union organisation and the rights of political parties, are the embryo of an alternative society within the womb of the old, playing the role of cohering the consciousness of the working class in itself as a class and as a potential governmental alternative.
But not if the organised workers’ movement absents itself from ‘politics’ and leaves the broader mass of the working class as spectators in a stage-managed auction between different varieties of capitalist politicians seeking its votes.
The concrete case of Britain
That is why Kshama’s invocation of the Enough is Enough campaign in Britain as a model of what needs to be done is another mistake.
As the Socialist Party has explained, most recently in the British Perspectives document debated at our congress in February (published in the February edition of Socialism Today No.264), the launch last August of Enough is Enough, with the general secretaries of the RMT transport workers’ union Mick Lynch and the Communications Workers’ Union’s Dave Ward to the fore, had the potential to create a new, mass vehicle for working-class political representation in Britain.
As we wrote: “The Enough is Enough campaign, launched by the general secretaries of the RMT and CWU, now has the official support of the RMT, CWU, the University and College Union and the Fire Brigades Union. Over 500,000 people are reported to have signed up. Most did so looking for a way to show their support for the strikes, and for an alternative to Starmer’s Labour”.
“In reality, the campaign shows the potential for a new mass workers’ party. However, this is not how it is conceived by its founders. At the 2022 RMT Annual General Meeting (conference), Mick Lynch was to the fore in opposing a motion from Coventry RMT which argued for support for Jeremy Corbyn standing independently in the general election; to back ‘pro-trade union, anti-austerity candidates in local and general elections’; and, lastly, to approach the recently disaffiliated BFAWU bakers’ union and Unite to organise a conference to discuss the ‘historic crisis of political representation facing the working class’.”
“Mick also argued in favour of a motion withdrawing official RMT representatives from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) steering committee, if it continued to stand candidates in elections. Meanwhile, the CWU remains affiliated to the Labour Party”.
“Nor is it by chance”, we further explained, “that the only explicitly political body on the Enough is Enough sponsors’ list is the Labour-linked magazine Tribune – despite the Green Party having voted at their October 2022 conference to affiliate to Enough is Enough”.
“Mick Lynch and other figureheads of the campaign have repeated clearly that they see its role as putting pressure on Labour to act in the interests of the working class, rather than as a first step to building an alternative to it”.
“As a result, notwithstanding the appeal of it having the leaders of trade unions at the forefront of the struggle heading it, Enough is Enough is not fundamentally different to the numerous previous campaigns of this type, including Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project, the Peoples’ Assembly, UK Uncut, the Coalition of Resistance, and more”.
“While the consciously pro-Labour approach of the Enough is Enough initiators is not replicated among all trade union leaders, unfortunately none at this stage are arguing for clear steps towards the trade union movement standing its own independent candidates, never mind building a new party”.
Where does Kshama get the idea that this is fundamentally different to the role of ‘much of the union leadership’ in the US, ‘closely tied to the Democratic Party establishment’ and ‘afraid to run independent candidates’ as it is?
Our conclusion is clear: “But while there are not yet moves from the tops of the unions towards independent working-class political representation, that does not mean that shifts can’t take place under pressure from below, including some kind of ‘workers’ list’ for the general election”.
“We have to take every opportunity to campaign for steps towards a new party, including such a list. Corbyn, who will certainly not be allowed to contest his seat for Labour, could still stand independently. Other deselected or expelled Labour lefts standing is also possible”.
“Most importantly, under pressure from below, some trade unions could take steps to stand or support candidates outside of Labour”.
“With an incoming Labour government presiding over austerity, even a small bloc of independent working-class MPs would act as a powerful pole of attraction and could rapidly gain support”.
“However, if no more authoritative coalition is in place before the general election, TUSC is aiming to act as the biggest possible umbrella bringing together a slate of trade unionists, socialists and community campaigners”.
“Achieving this would be an important lever for the development of a new party in the next period”.
But what do Kshama and her co-thinkers say?
A faulty safety-valve
The period ahead will absolutely strain to the limit the ‘safety-valve’ role of parliamentary democracy under capitalism. National election turnouts across the OECD countries have already fallen from a peak of 85% of eligible voters during the first years of the post-second world war long boom to 65% by the mid-2010s.
In Britain, according to the authoritative British Election Study (BES) surveys, “the proportion of the electorate reporting a very strong party identification also plunged from 45% in 1964 [when the BES survey first started] to only 10% in 2005”.
The 1960s were a time, with the post-war upswing still not exhausted, when the capitalist system appeared to be able to deliver improved living standards and prospects. This underpinned support for the two main parties.
Labour, a ‘bourgeois workers party’ with a pro-capitalist leadership but mass working class support, had actually delivered material reforms under the 1945-51 governments, and through the trade unions and local councils too. But the Tory party also had mass support, particularly amongst the middle class, with 2.7 million members and the biggest party youth wing in Europe in the 1950s.
Even into the 1980s, the Tories had a membership of one million or more, compared to the 172,000 registered in last year’s Conservative summer leadership contest.
The social base of the established parties begun to decline markedly from the early 1990s. This was against the background of the seeming triumph of the ‘free market’ after the collapse of the Stalinist states of Russia and eastern Europe; and, in Britain, at the head of an international trend affecting the former bourgeois workers parties, Blair’s transmutation of Labour into the definitively capitalist New Labour.
In Britain this period was marked by rising abstentionism predominantly among the working class, with Blair losing 3.97 million votes from 1997 to 2005, while turnout fell by 4.1 million.
The 2008-09 crash, and now the profound shocks dealt by the Covid pandemic and the new inflation austerity, only feed the angry alienation from ‘politics’ of broad layers.
In that context it is significant that, in the 2017 general election, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn attracted a bigger share of the total registered electorate (27.4%) than it had in any previous election since 1979, excepting 1997.
In other words, more than Labour was able to mobilise under Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock (twice), Tony Blair (on two occasions), Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. It is not likely that this record will be surpassed at the next general election under Starmer.
But it is also true that alienation and disgust expressed through electoral abstentionism will not solve the problems that the working class face.
Indeed, aside from the exceptional circumstances of an organised mass boycott of ‘politics’ in favour of an alternative power, abstentionism can actually be a form of individual acquiescence to what ‘those up there’ seek to impose, not a collective response.
The working class needs its own party. Without organisation, in unions but also in a mass workers’ party, we can only face up to all the consequences of the capitalists’ control of society as individuals not as a class.
Helping to build a new workers’ party is a key task for Marxists, and the most conscious elements of the working class movement generally. But that includes contesting elections when the possibilities arise, in the US as in Britain.