The struggle needs an electoral arm

After the defeat of Corbynism within the Labour Party HANNAH SELL looks at the vital question of the struggle for working-class political representation, and the approach currently been taken by different elements of the workers’ movement and left.

In the wake of Starmer’s election as Labour leader there is growing anger among trade unionists at his consistent defence of the interests of the bosses. Ian Hodson, the president of the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU), for example, has reported that a consultation of his unions’ members on disaffiliation from the Labour Party has found that only 9% think that Labour is serving their interests at the present time. In this situation the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) – involving the Socialist Party, the RMT transport workers’ trade union, ex-Labour MP Chris Williamson and others – has agreed to relaunch its electoral activities. However, at this moment TUSC’s stance is alone on the left, with most other forces failing to even pose the question of how to fight for workers’ interests at the ballot box.

Their stated reasons for doing so are varied. Some continue to hope that it will be possible to shift Labour decisively to the left and argue that, in the meantime, it would be a mistake to stand candidates outside of Labour. Others acknowledge the need for a new party but think no action towards it is possible until it starts to develop ‘organically’. Another strand, however, argues for the abandonment of the electoral field in favour of concentrating on struggle in the workplace and on the streets.

With a pro-capitalist Labour leader and wide sections of the working class facing brutal attacks on their working conditions and living standards, it is understandable that some trade unionists have drawn the conclusion that they have to focus entirely on fighting in the workplace and put aside the seemingly insurmountable problem of how to also fight on the electoral front.  Nonetheless, the latter will be a vital part of the class struggle in the next period.

Unsurprisingly, however, some on the left are adding to the confusion by providing ‘revolutionary cover’ for downplaying the electoral field. The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), for example, wrote an open letter to Labour Party members on the lessons of the Corbyn era, following Corbyn’s suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party in November. They say that the capitulation of the left Syriza government in Greece to the European Union in the summer of 2015, just months after Syriza’s election victory in January 2015,  “was a consequence of a strategy that gave priority to achieving electoral success over building and sustaining workers’ struggles”. They go on to say, regarding Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, that “the pursuit of electoral success meant the movements against austerity, racism, and war he had so strongly championed as a back-bencher were neglected. This made it much harder to appeal to working-class communities whose lives had been ravaged by 40 years of neo-liberalism. Any new socialist party would need to give priority to building struggles rather than winning elections”.

Nor does their longer material contain a more rounded analysis. In an eight thousand word article describing the reasons Labour lost the 2019 general election, ‘Why did Labour lose?’, by SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber, the only conclusion is that, “the answer is not to hanker after a return to full Corbynism but to focus on the power of resistance by ordinary people outside parliament, in their workplaces and in the streets”.

Superficially these might sound like radical statements, but in reality the reduction of the weaknesses of Corbynism to ‘a focus’ on ‘parliamentary and electoral politics’ will hinder those trying to draw lessons from the experience of the last five years. In the past the SWP have participated in elections. The logic of their open letter appears to be it is okay to stand in elections as long as you are not successful! This is not serious, and will be dismissed by the audience they are addressing – the tens of thousands of people who got active in the political arena because they saw in Corbyn the chance of a government that would defend the interests of the many not the few.

Lessons of Corbynism

There are many lessons to be learnt from the Corbyn experience, but not that it was wrong to pursue electoral success. The role of genuine workers’ representatives in parliament is never to try and manage capitalism better but to fight tenaciously in the interests of the working class. However, had Corbyn used his position consistently to “build movements against austerity, racism and war” it would have increased the enthusiasm for him among wide sections of the working class. Had he followed through, for example, on his initial call for the requisitioning of the tens of thousands of empty luxury flats in London to house the victims of the Grenfell fire and others without homes, it would have caused howls of outrage from the capitalist class, but would have been popular with the millions living in expensive, overcrowded, unsafe and insecure housing.

The experience of the Socialist Party (then Militant) as part of the leadership of Liverpool city council in the 1980s is a case in point, albeit on a local level. The council led a struggle which took on and defeated Margaret Thatcher, materially improving the lives of the working class in Liverpool. The city council was – and still is – excoriated by the right-wing press and the pro-capitalist wing of Labour. However, the working class of Liverpool didn’t agree. Had the swing to Labour in Liverpool in 1987 been repeated on a national scale a Labour government would have been elected with a significant majority instead of going down to defeat.

No doubt Corbyn’s repeated concessions to the pro-capitalist right were partly motivated by desperation to get a Labour government, and a fear that the pro-capitalist right splitting away could prevent that. Of course, his endless attempts to pacify them only gave them confidence in their determination to crush Corbynism and make their party, once again, a reliable tool for British capitalism. It also left the right free to sabotage Labour’s election prospects, and would have left them – the enemy within – free to sabotage any attempt by a Corbyn-led government to actually implement a programme in the interests of the working class.

It is true, however, that if Corbyn, as the Socialist Party put forward at the time, had led a campaign to transform Labour into a workers’ party, cleansing its structures of the pro-capitalist Blairites, the right would have split away in much bigger numbers than the ill-fated Independent Group of Chuka Umunna and co. By adopting a fighting programme however this could have been overcome. But in any case, a Labour Party that was united in fighting for the interests of the working class would have been far more effective than one jammed full of pro-capitalist saboteurs, even if it did initially have less MPs. Historically, one of the first achievements of the then newly-established Labour Party was to force the overthrow of the vicious Taff Vale anti-trade union judgement of 1901, not by winning the 1906 general election but by breathing down the necks of the incoming Liberal government.

Capitalist crisis – urgent action needed

Instead today we have Starmer’s New Labour, with Corbyn currently not even allowed to sit as a Labour MP, while swathes of his supporters have been suspended or expelled. Starmer’s headlong rush to the right, constantly offering himself as a reliable representative of the capitalist class, has now included aping the Tories and wrapping himself in the union jack and inviting Blair’s ‘prince of darkness’, Peter Mandelson, to act as his advisor.  The latest illustration of the extreme weakness of the left of the parliamentary Labour Party is that only 20 MPs have signed a petition in support of the student rent strikers demands.

Leaders of the left-led Labour-affiliated trade unions have opposed Corbyn’s suspension and have now launched a campaign to demand that Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) calls an emergency Labour Party conference to restore party democracy. However, if the campaign was to be left at this level it would be completely inadequate. Party democracy – destroyed under Blair – was not restored during the Corbyn era and the financial weight of the affiliated unions is limited, with affiliation fees accounting for only about 11% of party income, in the last published accounts (2019). Given the increased grip of the right on Labour’s NEC it is not likely to accede to a demand to call a special conference, and – even if it did – it is ruled out it would allow a free and democratic discussion on the issues at stake. The left union leaders should take the bull by the horns and respond to an NEC refusal by immediately calling a conference themselves, involving all those – inside and outside the Labour Party – who oppose Starmer’s move to the right and want to fight for a vehicle for working-class political representation.

If a conference agreed even on limited steps, such as freeing trade union branches to stand or back anti-cuts candidates in May’s elections, and setting up a trade union group in parliament (perhaps proposing Corbyn as its chair) it would do more to fight back against Starmerism than any amount of pleading behind closed doors. It would also prepare the ground for a widespread anti-cuts challenge in May’s elections. This is more important now than at any time in the last ten years, with eight out of ten councils with responsibility for social care facing technical insolvency, and Labour councils preparing to implement the resulting devastating cuts to their services and employees terms and conditions.

If instead the Labour left continues to focus purely on vainly trying to influence Starmer within the structures of the Labour Party, it will fuel the feeling that the working class has no voice in politics. One of the consequences will be to leave a vacuum into which the right-wing populists – Farage and his ilk – can step.

Danger of ‘non-political’ trade unionism

This is also the consequence of the approach of others on the left, who have chosen at this stage to turn away from the electoral field. Waiting for events to develop ‘organically’ is not an answer; leadership also has a role to play. This was the case with the foundation of the Labour Party, which was the result of tenacious work over many years by a small number of activists, including trade union leaders but also Marxists – not least Engels and Eleanor Marx – who played a vital role.

In Unite there is a new left formation called Workers’ Unite which is campaigning to support the union’s national executive officer in charge of organising, Sharon Graham, to become the next general secretary. This is a crucial election for the trade union movement. With Len McCluskey as general secretary the union has repeatedly acted as a bulwark against the right both in the TUC and politically. It is therefore important for the whole movement that a fighting left candidate is elected when the election is called.

Sharon, and one of the current assistant general secretaries Howard Beckett, are the two most left candidates currently putting themselves forward for election. Both are trenchant in their criticism of Starmer, unlike Steve Turner, another assistant general secretary, who is the ‘official’ United Left candidate. But while Howard – up until now – has focused on fighting inside the Labour Party, Workers’ Unite has taken a different approach.

The initial ‘nine principles’ they put forward include pledging to only “use members’ money to support parliamentary candidates who have represented our union at the workplace and support Unite policies”. This is welcome but unfortunately the nine principles also counterpose strengthening the industrial might of the union to fighting on the political front. At one point they even suggest that they are neutral in the battle between the different wings of the Labour Party, saying “whatever your view, none of the warring Labour ‘factions’ has ever really talked to union members or can claim any credibility as far as the workplace goes”.

But can it really be argued that there is no difference between the conscious representatives of the capitalists in the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, and those who looked to his policies for an alternative to the system? Or, for example, that if Corbyn was to run for and win the London Mayor election in May (see article on page nine) that this would not massively strengthen the industrial position of Unite members, not least those working in London transport? And if so, shouldn’t fighting left trade unionists be intervening in this battle – publically pushing Corbyn to stand for mayor, for example – and taking independent political action themselves when others refuse to lead?

Corbyn’s programme included many points that would have benefited Unite members, not least the repeal of the most recent Tory anti-trade union laws. Starmer’s revived New Labour, by contrast, has made no such pledge. There is no doubt that Starmer, and behind him the capitalist class, would be ecstatic if the new Unite leader retreated even from Len McCluskey’s approach of backing Corbyn and instead ‘stayed out’ of politics. 

Theoretical justification?

The understandable mood of some honest militant workers that they have no choice but to ‘stay out’ of politics in the wake of Corbynism’s defeat within the Labour Party framework is one thing. But the attempts to ‘theoretically’ rationalise that sentiment by the likes of the SWP is another thing entirely.

These are not new arguments for Marxists. The struggle for socialism will not succeed if it refuses as a principle fighting on the terrain of the existing electoral system. In the aftermath of the Russian revolution the newly formed Communist International contained significant currents that rejected all parliamentary forms of struggle and mistakenly pointed to the Russian revolution, and the Bolsheviks who led it, to justify their approach. They were answered by Vladimir Lenin – along with Leon Trotsky one of the two key leaders of the Russian revolution – in the pamphlet ‘Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder’. Lenin points out that under Tsarism the Bolsheviks stood candidates for and, when successfully elected, participated in the debates of the Duma, the Russian assembly which Lenin described as “the most reactionary of parliaments”.  

Then after the February revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar, they fought for elections to be organised immediately to a democratic constituent assembly, even as the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets were being formed. A situation of dual power existed, with a struggle for power between the capitalists and the working class. The Bolsheviks put forward concrete demands as the situation developed, to expose and undermine the role of the Provisional Government and to strengthen the position of the soviets – democratically elected and accountable councils that had arisen in the course of the struggle. However, one of their key demands was for a democratic constituent assembly. Such an assembly was not Soviet power but, with the long history of the demand for a democratic republic in the struggle against Tsarism, the prospect of the calling of a constituent assembly was seen as an enormous step forward by the working class and poor masses.

So terrified were the provisional government of calling elections for a constituent assembly they were not held until after the working class had taken power in October – and, once convened, the assembly only existed for one day! It is true that the Russian revolution did also demonstrate examples of when it is correct to boycott a parliament. In late September, under huge pressure from the growing strength of the Bolsheviks and the working class, the Provisional Government tried to entrap the soviets in a totally undemocratic pre-parliament in order to avoid a constituent assembly. In that situation, with the tangible possibility of a republic of workers and peasants being realised through soviet power, Trotsky and Lenin argued for a boycott of the pre-parliament. As Trotsky put it, however, “such a possibility reveals itself only at the highest point of revolutionary ascent”. (The Slogan of the National Assembly in China, April 1930)

This year is the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Paris Commune, from which the Bolsheviks learnt important lessons.  The Parisian working class stormed heaven as Marx put it – for two months they ran Paris before being brutally crushed. In the wake of the Commune Marx and Engels drew important conclusions from the experience, highlighting that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. By state machinery they meant not only the police and army, but also all the other aspects of the state including the judiciary, what we would call today the civil service officialdom, and so on. This crucial lesson did not suggest however, that the workers’ movement should not fight on the electoral plane as part of the struggle for power.

The Communards did take important steps towards smashing the old capitalist state machinery and establishing a workers’ state – for example, the first decree of the Commune was the abolition of the standing army and its replacement with an armed people. Other measures included all those responsible for public services, including the members of the Commune, only being paid a workers’ wage and subject to immediate recall by their electors. The, Commune, as Marx put it, was to be “a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time”. The experience of the Commune provided a framework for the victorious Russian revolution half a century later.

However, they took those steps having been elected as members of the Paris Commune – or city council – a previously existing capitalist democratic institution. That was not preordained. When the French government surrendered Paris to the invading Prussian army and disbanded the regular army it was the citizens’ militia, the National Guard, which refused to surrender and took power. Marx was critical of the elected Central Committee of the National Guard for focusing on ‘legal’ elections to the Commune in the hope of pacifying the capitalist government of Thiers, rather than pursuing it to Versailles where it had fled.

Nonetheless, once the Commune was elected it was not a question for Marx and Engels of attacking the institution of the Commune for its initially formal ‘legal’ capitalist character, but for praising to the skies how this reality was transformed via the revolutionary steps taken by the Communards, while also pointing to the further steps that were necessary.

And today?

After the defeat of the Commune Marx commented  to a conference of the first international on 21 September, 1871 that, “Living experience, the political oppression of the existing governments, compels the working class to occupy themselves with politics whether they like it or not, be it for political or social goals. To preach abstention to them is to throw them into the embrace of bourgeois politics”. During a revolution the working class is fighting to overthrow the old order and throws up democratic organisations through which the struggle is organised. The possibility of building a new society based on those organisations becomes a real possibility. However, outside of a revolutionary situation the big majority of workers can only see the existing capitalist democratic structures to pursue their goals. Marx’s point was therefore vital even at a time when only a minority of working class men and no working class women had the vote.

Today, a century after universal suffrage was won, in general participation in elections has tended to decrease in most economically-developed capitalist countries, including Britain. Trust in many capitalist institutions has been on the slide, with capitalist political parties often least trusted of all. The British Social Attitudes report on politics was last produced in 2014, and showed only 17% of people trusting politicians most of the time. That was similar to the 16% in 2009 (at the time of the MPs’ expenses scandal) and to 19% in a 2020 poll. Back in 1986, however, 38% of people had trust in politicians, which albeit was in turn lower than in the previous decades of the post-war boom. Voters’ loyalty to their ‘traditional’ parties has concomitantly qualitatively decreased.

Underlying these trends is four decades in which capitalism has offered the majority stagnating living standards interspersed with economic crisis, and every government – including Labour governments – have acted in the interests of the capitalist class. The transformation of Labour into ‘New Labour’, the entirely reliable tool of the  ruling class, resulted in a 4.9 million drop in Labour’s vote from 1997 to 2010, which  was only partially (and temporarily) reversed under Corbyn. 

However, these trends do not mean that parliament has become irrelevant to the working class. The 2014 British Social Attitudes survey also showed that 57% of people think democracy at least works ‘reasonably well’ in Britain, and the same percentage thought they had ‘a duty to vote’. These figures have also gone down (76% thought they had a duty to vote in 1987), but they show that a majority of the population, and a large section of the working class, still have significant hopes in the democratic institutions of capitalism. And even for the sizeable minority who are so disillusioned they can see no point in voting at the moment, that does not mean they will not vote again in the future. The 72% turnout in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the even higher 84% turnout in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, are indications of how, if the working class can see the ballot box as a means to further their interests, they will take part enthusiastically. In both referendums turnouts increased markedly in working class areas, relative to recent elections.

What is more, the entirely justified disillusionment with both Westminster and local politics does not mean that non-voting workers can see another way to change things. On the contrary, in the main they feel powerless. This will change, primarily on the basis of struggle. It is ruled out, however, that workers who fight back via strike action, or young people who become involved in mass protest movements, will uniformly draw the conclusion that they can change society without also fighting on the electoral field. A minority may do so, but the main trend will be an increased determination to find a means to also prosecute their struggle in the electoral arena, including fighting for a government that they think will further their interests by, for example, nationalising factories they are fighting to keep open. Of course this process won’t happen in a straight line, with different aspects of struggle being to the fore at different stages.

The road to the foundation of the Labour Party over a century ago was completely bound up with the development of industrial struggles. The heroic mass strikes of gas workers, dockers and others led to the formation of mass general trade unions based on previously unorganised workers. In 1893, just four years after the massive dockworkers and gas workers strikes, one of the leaders of the former moved a motion to the TUC congress calling for the trade union movement to fund its own independent candidates in elections. Bureaucratic manoeuvring by supporters of the Liberals prevented the motion going anywhere, but it was still an important first step towards a Labour Party. Later, it was the effect of the 1901 vicious-anti trade union Taff Vale judgement which made growing numbers of trade unionists determined to create their own political voice, independent of the Liberals.

The Syriza government in Greece is another more recent example of the interrelation between industrial and social struggles and the political arena. Syriza went from 4.8% of the vote in 2009 to winning the general election in 2015. This was against the background of more than 30 general strikes against austerity. The working class saw in Syriza a means to fight austerity electorally. The Syriza leadership then capitulated to the demands of the capitalist class and the institutions of the EU, betraying the working class and implementing terrible austerity. That did not, of course, lead to electoral success but instead to being defeated by the capitalist New Democracy party in 2019.  The capitulation of the leadership of Syriza, which was incapable of showing one hundredth of the determination and heroism of the Greek working class, reflected that they saw their role as remaining within the framework of capitalism and pleading with the institutions of capitalism to treat the people of Greece better.

Nonetheless, had they used their position to act in the interests of the working class of Greece the situation would have been transformed. That would have required rejecting the memorandums, imposing capital controls and a state monopoly on foreign trade and nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management. This could not, of course, have been carried out successfully if the struggle was limited to proclamations by the Greek parliament. It would have required a mass mobilisation of the Greek working class in support of such a programme, and an appeal for solidarity to the working class continent-wide would have been required. Had the Syriza government been prepared to take such a road, however, it would have had a tremendous effect on galvanising and giving confidence to the working class to fight for a socialist transformation of society.

Revolutionaries’ dual role

Capitalism is a system in crisis, increasingly incapable of providing the basics of a decent life to workers in the economically developed countries, never mind the neo-colonial world. Nor can it solve the enormous problem of climate change. It is necessary not just to reform capitalism but to overthrow it, bringing the major corporations and banks into democratic public ownership under workers’ control and management. This cannot be achieved merely by passing bills through parliament, but only via the active mobilisation of the working class.

There is no contradiction between fighting for this programme and fighting for every possible step towards solving the crisis of working class political representation. Rather than accepting a choice between different shades of pro-capitalist politicians, the workers’ movement fighting for its own voice in parliament and the council chambers is a huge step forward, and will increase the confidence of workers to fight in the workplaces and on the streets. And a mass workers’ party is also an important forum within which debate can take place on what socialism means, and how it can be achieved.