A little over fifty years ago, in the first general election after the First World War, the Socialist Standard had an historic front page. It was an enlarged reproduction of a ballot paper; there were the names of the various capitalist parties—Labour, Conservative, Liberal and so on. And written across all of them was the one word—Socialism.
This cover was saying, with what the public relations men might call instant visual impact, that no working class voter should use his vote to support any of the capitalist parties and since there were no socialist candidates standing in that election, the only thing worth doing was to state a preference for Socialism by writing the word on the voting paper.
Here was an uncompromising stand. There was in fact no point in compromise, since there was no fundamental difference between the other parties and they all stood for some method of running capitalism. No one who understood Socialism and wanted it could vote for any of them.
It is not surprising that this attitude has provoked a lot of criticism. Socialists have been accused of splitting the vote, of refusing to opt for the least, or the lesser, of many evils. This argument was based on the assumption that there was something in common between the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the capitalist parties—that there was a vote to split. It also assumed that there was something to choose between, say, the Labour and Conservative parties—that there was a lesser evil. These assumptions are quite false—and if there were any grounds for doubting this in 1918 the subsequent experiences of Labour governments should have effectively removed them.
Another criticism of our stand was that spoiling a ballot paper was wasting the vote; we were advising workers to waste and abuse a right which had been established only after a long and sometimes bloody struggle. This argument again was based on false assumptions—that workers somehow protected their interests by choosing between one capitalist party and another; and that the vote must be go to some candidate or other, even though he was anti-working class. In fact, all the evidence indicates that the only way to use the vote properly is against all the parties of capitalism and in favour of the establishment of Socialism.
With all this in mind, it is interesting to notice an event in last month’s municipal elections in Wolverhampton, which is already famous enough because Enoch Powell is one of its MPs. In one of the wards there the official Labour nominee forgot ( yes, forgot) to hand in his nomination papers in time and so was prevented from entering the contest. This left only two candidates — a Tory and a member of National Front.
Here was a situation in which Labour Party strategists of expediency and double-dealing should have been in their element. In this straight fight which was the lesser of the two right wing evils—Tory or Fascist? How should the frustrated Labour supporters in St. Peter’s ward cast their votes?
The Conservatives, perhaps expecting the Labour Party to act honestly, promptly appealed to the Labour M.P. Mrs. Renee Short, . . . to do all she could to ensure the defeat of the National Front candidates by persuading Labour supporters to vote Tory.” (The Guardian, 28 April).
Now in accordance with the Labour Party tariff of political virtue there should have been no problem about their agreeing to do this. In fact what happened was the Mrs. Short’s agent replied that she would “. . . never advise Labour supporters to vote Tory in any circumstances.” And just to ram home the point that Labour are confused and dishonest, he said :
At the same time, we would never advise them to vote for the National Front. They can either abstain or simply mark ‘Labour’ on their ballot paper.
We shall have to stifle our natural feelings of pique at this stealing of our idea and instead try to draw some lessons from it. First, we should notice the bare-faced expediency of Labour tactics. When they feel safe to argue that they are the least of the available evils they want to win votes from workers who are actually opposed to them. But when some other organisation stands to gain from the application of this theory, Labour suddenly finds that it is alright to “waste” votes —even to abstain.
The other, perhaps more important, point is that there is every reason for the Labour Party to extend their argument. It is true that there is no fundamental difference between the Conservative Party and National Front and therefore there is no reason to favour one over the other. But equally there is nothing to choose between Labour and the other parties — Tory, Fascist. “Communist” and so on. That is why workers should vote for none of them. The better, in fact the only, use of the vote is for something basically different from them all—for a new social system.
Which brings us to the final point. Socialism is an idea which implies certain political principles and one of these is an unshakeable refusal to compromise with the enemies of the working class—with any political party, whatever it calls itself, which stands for capitalism. When a worker goes into a voting booth and, where there is no socialist candidate, writes Socialism across the paper he is doing several things.
He is saying that he hates capitalism, is declaring for a social revolution to replace it. He is standing up as the enemy of all the capitalist parties. And in all these he is, simply, stating a principle and when it is all over, when all the votes have been cast and counted, there is no avoiding the fact that expediency can offer nothing to compare with that.