Is Parliament a Sham?

Writing in the Socialist Worker for 11 November, Duncan Hallas contends that Parliament is (1) “a sham” (2) “a show to deceive the public”, (3) “a charade”. Otherwise it is not too bad, presumably. He says: “Parliament still matters, but its importance is largely ideological,” and: “It serves as a front behind which the ruling class conduct the struggle to preserve their wealth.”

Hallas’s evidence for the impotence of Parliament is that the government of the day does not consult Parliament but goes in for “direct negotiations with the TUC and big business as in the case of the Industrial Relations Act”; and a quotation from Professor J. Mackintosh who wrote in his book The Government and Politics of Britain that:

the old nineteenth-century role of Parliament as a body which chose the Government, maintained it, and could reject it, has gone


the life of a back-bench M.P. becomes unsatisfactory, and offers little scope for achievement.

Effective Representatives

Hallas also tells us “There was a time, roughly from the seventeenth to the beginning of this century, when Parliament was in fact, as well as in law, the supreme policy-making body.” Says our scribe, quoting from Professor Plumb: “No member of the ruling class was kept out of Parliament if he wanted to get in.” But today, says Hallas, “Parliament does not contain most of the big-business bosses, bankers and financiers . . . and therefore all the important decisions are taken outside Parliament”.

How, may we politely ask Duncan Hallas, does he prove the ineffectiveness of parliament by stating that the government negotiates directly with the TUC and CBI? Was the Industrial Relations Act read three times to the whole House of Commons and did a majority of MPs vote for it? Obviously, they did: it became law. What is this nonsense that MPs “were not consulted”? They approved the policy on which the Cabinet conducted the detailed negotiations, apart from the fact that the Cabinet (the government) is supported by a majority of the majority party in the House of Commons.

As for the statement that Parliament is no longer Parliament because it “does not contain most of the big business bosses, bankers and financiers, or the important Trade Union leaders” — there are only about 600 seats anyway, so Parliament could never “contain” all these people. But whether it does or whether it doesn’t: so what? The important point is that it contains representatives of the big-business bosses who get elected to Parliament because the electors vote for them. Incidentally, we would question the statement that Parliament no longer contains bosses or bankers.

Old-hat Appeals

But what is the inference behind all this mullarky about Parliament being “a sham”, “a show” and “a charade” (they used to call it the Gas Works too)? It is the old, old, antiquated, exploded, bankrupt notion that the workers can achieve their aims outside of, and therefore in opposition to, Parliament and the government. It is a popular idea with impatient frustrated workers who are not clear on the nature of Socialism and think (if it can be called thinking: “feeling” is more like it) that fighting “the day-to-day struggle” and “partial struggles for limited ends” in some way promote Socialism. They do not. No amount of marching, demonstration, strikes, rent-strikes, boycotts, etc., etc., makes the slightest contribution to the Socialist objective.

The workers can march the shoes off their feet, and in some cases literally have, for any reform they fancy from “ban the Bomb” to “lower rents” and “abolish the non-cohabitation clause”. It all does precisely nothing for Socialism. The very fact that they are doing this shows that they want the reform of capitalism.

If the International Socialists regard Parliament as a sham, what is their “revolutionary party” going to do? Are they going to refuse to nominate candidates and contest elections? If not, will their candidates fight on a straight Socialist programme? And will they then stop supporting the Labour Party at elections? If they fight the elections on the reform slogans in their present programme they may get more votes than the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Though “Nationalization of the Land, Banks and major industries” is a bit moth-eaten and many of the major industries — steel, gas, electricity — are nationalized already.

In a further article in the same paper for 18 November, Hallas expresses the view that the State machine will not obey the orders of a Socialist Parliament. The judges and police will not enforce laws repressing private ownership, the generals will not suppress pro-slavery rebellions. This is backed by the usual Marxist quotation employed by Lenin:

One thing especially was proved by the Commune, namely that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery and wield it for its own purposes.

From this Lenin concluded that the working class must smash the State machine. What Marx and Engels had in mind, obviously, were the bureaucratic excrescences of the French Empire. In other words, a parliamentary Socialist majority will dispense with those parts of the State machine that Socialism does not require.

When you think it all out, the end determines the means. If you think that the only way to get Socialism is to persuade a majority that capitalism cannot be reformed in their interest you must be in favour of electoral methods. What the workers will do with their political power when they take it, nobody can know in detail. Whether it will need the help of force remains to be seen. If on the other hand you stand for:

“A Minimum Wage of £25 a week.”
“Five days’ pay for five days’ work.”
“Equality for Women.”
“Against secret diplomacy.”
“Against Nuclear Weapons.”
“National Liberation.”

—and many other things, you are not International Socialists but National Reformists. (Anyway, probably the best way to alter those things is Parliament.)

Final Arbiter

The people who count in the end are the voters. If they won’t vote for Socialism, they won’t fight for it outside Parliament. Anti-Parliamentarianism, at bottom, is the old Anarchist-Syndicalist Direct Action nonsense, which leads directly to the prison cell and the firing squad. And the policemen and soldiers who will quell the riots, like the judges and warders who commit rioters to prison, are recruited, paid and instructed by a government department — headed by a Cabinet Minister, instructed and appointed by Parliament.