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Kieran Crowe: Elections – the headache and heartache of the far left

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Debate is building up steadily about Left Unity (LU) – a project I think we should all be thoroughly enthusiastic for. We shouldn’t underestimate the novelty of this process: LU is coming together as an unformed organisation and allowing people who come into it the opportunity to have their own say on what sort of organisation it will be. Obviously this throws up all sorts of debates – and one of the key ones is the question of why and how to tackle elections.


The key driving force behind the support for LU was the stark absence in Britain of two things in 2012. Firstly, a vibrant response by workers to austerity, exemplified by the 14 November day of coordinated strikes in many countries, which had no match here. Secondly, the absence of a political party expressing mass feeling against austerity at the polls, while in parts of Europe there are and have been significant breakthroughs or resurgences by an anti-neoliberal, even anticapitalist, left.

The far left in Britain has been significantly smaller than in many other countries for a long time, certainly since the Second World War. Nevertheless, unless we accept that there is some uniquely British reason why a left party cannot exist, we ought to be striving to build one, and that will mean having some way of dealing with elections, one of the hardest but also most inevitable parts of organising politically. The fact that we find elections such a difficult problem is all the more reason to discuss it.

Votes undermined

One of the best things to read from a revolutionary socialist perspective about the history of elections is Paul Foot’s ‘The Vote: How It was Won and How It was Undermined’. While this book is a strictly Britain-only history, Foot uses the British experience to explore a critical question in the relationship between capitalism and democracy: the capitalist class has only been willing to extend the voting franchise down society when it was confident that it was not going to threaten their control of property. As time went by, there was contraction of the decisive power of elected officials in favour of an expansion of ‘neutral’ institutions, chief among them the civil service, which acted as a moderating force.

Neoliberalism has extended this process even further. Partly, by tying elective bodies down only to make decisions which can be justified in market terms. More insidiously for democracy as a lived process, however, is the practice of making an elected administration sign business contracts that have timescales far beyond the duration of that administration. For example, a typical outsourcing deal in a local authority will see that authority tying down its service provision to a private provider for a dozen or more years: the council itself can be voted out of office within only three, but there is a serious question as to what an incoming council (or indeed, three successive incoming councils) is expected to do if large-scale outsourcing has been committed to for the foreseeable future.

Even more than this, recent years in Britain have seen the creation of numerous additional layers of elected administration, the relationships between which can sometimes be thoroughly murky, most recently the risible police commissioners. These elected bodies are frequently able only to mediate policies dictated to them from above or outside and can often resort to blaming each other for the implementation of unpopular measures, particularly if rival parties are incumbent in them. So in London, for example, it is not uncommon for a borough council to blame cuts on policies determined by the mayor of London and the mayor to wash his hands of things because borough councillors have to implement them. Everyone can always blame the national government and even Westminster can and will attempt to argue that “the European Union made me do it”. All these levels of governance were available to be voted for by you the citizen – so no complaining!

Parties and classes

All of this has meant that ‘official politics’ has begun to look both pointless and distant to many people. When New Labour got into office in 1997, it utilised an extreme form of the ‘triangulation’ tactics that the US Democrat party advocates – a tactic that completely threw the Tories for over a decade. Triangulation, “standing on your left foot and kicking with your right” as it was once explained to me, is basically a way of winning an electoral majority by taking your ‘base’ for granted and appealing to voters who are far beyond it and don’t like it. It is a tactic born from conditions of very narrow electoral options for the masses, heavily gerrymandered constituencies and the very modern issue of governments having to somehow persuade large numbers of people to vote for something that, when all is said and done, does not benefit them. Labour under Blair turned triangulation into a highly effective machine and was able get a working class base that was suffering under neoliberalism to vote for one of the most right wing governments in Europe – in decisive numbers, three times. On the last occasion, this was even despite launching a disastrous and unpopular war.

The Blairite myth is that this was all possible because Britain is an essentially middle class and right-of-centre nation, and therefore that the only way Labour could have come to power was by becoming a right-of-centre party: Richard Seymour has attacked this fairly comprehensively and pointed to New Labour in fact pursuing a strategy of moving society itself to the right. I think for this argument what is key is that the historic defeat of the unions in the early eighties had indeed knocked Labour, but the reason they came to power in 1997 and not half a decade earlier was in fact because they had failed to engage with a mass working class fightback: the anti poll tax movement. National resistance to the poll tax wrecked the Thatcher government and was organised on explicitly class lines, but Labour basically abstained from it all and fumbled an election it should have walked – we could barely believe it at the time.

It was the collapse of the Tories later in the 1990s that allowed Blair to get his massive majorities, the causes of this being the loss of previous Tory party lifelines, such as the traditional middle class declining (literally driven out of business by neoliberalism) and women entering the workforce in huge numbers and switching their voting allegiances leftwards. The Tories, after ten years of farcical denial, eventually came up with their own version of triangulation, taking middle class reactionary votes for granted and attempting to present themselves as ‘progressive’ to try to scoop up votes from outside their natural grasp. The thing is, they aren’t really all that good at it. Boris Johnson, who after his shock election as mayor of London was the pioneer of the project, does it better than most. David Cameron has been much less successful at persuading the post-social-democratic ‘new middle classes’ to vote for him. Meanwhile, he has other problems…

Breaking the triangles

As has been argued elsewhere on the IS Network, Ukip are not simply cranks following a daft agenda. Under the leadership of Nigel Farage, a man who is unfortunately very good at doing the very bad things he wants to do, it is savaging the triangulation strategy of the Tories. Farage is pulling them back in a reactionary direction and, doubtless to his glee, dragging Ed Miliband’s Labour along too. Ukip is articulating the feelings and prejudices of the Tory base better than the Tory party. It is extremely significant that it was able to make major capital out of Cameron’s Pyrrhic victory on gay marriage, an issue that should notionally be far outside the scope of interest of a party founded over Britain’s constitutional relationship with the EU.

It is from this point of view that the controversial call for a ‘Ukip of the left’ make the most sense. Numerous people involved in Left Unity and beyond have pointed out that Ukip is a pretty awful model of a political party and not one many of us would want to be in. It is fronted up by a self-selected clique of posh old white men who know how to get around the media, and largely staffed by a cranky assortment of oddballs who cause the leadership and each other huge annoyance and embarrassment. This, however, is not the point of the phrase.

Ukip is an outlet for the frustration the Tory base has at being taken for granted: a ‘Ukip of the left’ would be an organisation that would provide a voice for working class communities getting battered by austerity. If such a party were to take a fight to Labour in areas that it regards as its domain, it would reduce Labour’s scope for complacency, to say the very least. To see an effect like this happening on a national scale, I suggest looking at the French 2012 presidential elections. True, the Left Front did not come close to forming a government of its own like Greece’s Syriza, but it did frighten the French Socialist Party into shifting its manifesto pledges and rhetoric significantly to the left, undoing nearly 20 years of rightward drift. This was a significant propaganda blow against austerity, even beyond France’s borders, as the Socialist Party government eventually got into office visibly out of line with the consensus of the majority of European states.

Is finding hot issues over which to challenge Labour really harder for the left than challenging the Tories is for the right? Probably not, or not everywhere. Ukip simply harnesses the anger that its base feels: it is actually remarkable that there is currently no significant political force in Britain harnessing the different kind of anger that is rightly felt about bankers, tax avoidance and the loss of the beloved NHS.

Getting people elected into office is not just about using and generating propaganda though; it is also about organising. The experience of fighting cuts in Britain has shown that that one or two ‘rebel’ councillors opposing cuts significantly opens up the possibility of blocking them. The numbers of councillors willing to do this, however, has been minuscule on the national level.

The terms of Left Unity

Within Left Unity, debate about how important elections are has sometimes gone in directions that I think are not always helpful. Channelling some of the ideas that Tom Walker recently raised about language, I think starting from the point of view that we want to sort out who is revolutionary and who is ‘reformist’, and whether we want to be ‘electoralist’, is setting up arguments in seriously the wrong way. I accept that we can’t just start banning words because they were in frequent usage by the 20th century left, but there are some points to be made about imposing labels on people.

The number of people who self-define as ‘reformist’, in the sense that the far left means this term, is actually very small. While a majority of people who might be attracted to LU probably think that getting socialist politicians elected would be very important, this does not mean that when they saw the youth revolting in North Africa, Greece, Spain or Quebec that they thought, “Terrible, those silly people should all go home and write letters to their MPs.” Similarly, the phrase ‘electoralism’ may well be a source of some annoyance to people who happen to know a bit about the hard and unglamorous work of electioneering and happen to think it is actually rather important – certainly in terms of the nitty-gritty of the anti-austerity movement in which a thorough working knowledge of local politics can often be decisive in deciding success or defeat. I think if we are going to engage in sensible, grown-up discussions with people, we shouldn’t begin this process by putting them into pigeon-holes. In any case, there is currently no mass movement in Britain, and people who currently mainly identify with social democratic, environmental or civic nationalist politics would very likely not continue to do so in conditions of social upheaval or revolution.

To my mind, a struggle for reforms does not become ‘reformism’ as we mean it until one has crossed the line into believing that the purpose of struggle is to administer the prevailing order, rather than transforming that order. As has been mentioned earlier though, unfortunately the structure of capitalist society means that one can find oneself being co-opted into a purely administrative role long before affecting serious change becomes a realistic possibility, and this has the potential to destroy promising organisations and movements. This has plagued Die Linke in Germany over its junior involvement in running Berlin city council, for example, and was a spectacular disaster for the Italian Communist Refoundation party, which crucified itself backing an imperialist invasion. However, in the long run this is a danger that simply has to be confronted if the socialist movement is going to get into a position where making real change comes within our grasp.

From the movement, for the movement

On the Left Unity website, Simon Hardy has written about the need for Left Unity to be more than just an electoral vehicle. We should all be very firm about agreeing with this: just going out putting leaflets through doors for a few votes once every year or so isn’t building a movement on its own, nor do we want to exclude people who can organise in other ways. Elections won’t always yield favourable results – they can be bitterly cruel – and a party that doesn’t have deeper and broader activism can just be swept away if it loses everything in a bad election. We need Left Unity to be a party that is active on many levels and engaging people on many levels. Elections are just one element of this, but one that will be very important at some times. This is not just a matter of going through the motions of elections to appease allies ‘to the right of us’, it is a matter of building up new organisation and fighting to change to the prevailing narrative of politics.

There is much we can bring to a discussion about where to take that narrative. One interesting point of controversy at the recent Left Unity national meeting was the emphasis on short-term solutions contained within an initial statement – the debate involved, among other things, a difference of opinion about whether to emphasise old Labour-style Keynes-influenced solutions, or to make the rhetoric less traditional and more familiar to the style of social movements like Occupy. The IS Network should be positively engaging in discussion about how to present an attractive set of left wing ideas that we could be convincing masses of people to support.

Even despite the increasingly limited frameworks that elected officials have to operate in, a socialist with a mandate to speak and act as a representative can play a vital role in the success of progressive movements – this, by the way, is why we also don’t ever close the door to working with the left in Labour and other centre-left parties. There is, however, a fundamental difference between what Left Unity is trying to do and what they are trying to do. They are reformist in the very real sense of ultimately presenting themselves as ‘responsible’ organisations that can run capitalism a little better, even if their selection processes do have to allow a few bold mavericks to rise through the ranks now and then. We want a party of leaders of the movements, not responsible politicians. In the Labour Party’s history, a phenomenon like the Poplar council, which saw a group of working class activists get themselves elected and then ultimately go to prison to fight and win a mass struggle for better lives for their community, is an aberration they barely even mention. For us, that should be the very model of a courageous fight.