1970s >> 1978 >> no-890-october-1978

The Power of the Vote

The gaining of the vote by the working class in Britain, has provided a tool for its emancipation. In the past workers were destined to the political life of their masters’ choice; today, the vote gives us the power to determine our own destiny.

Historically, it is difficult to determine quite how the vote was won. Some historians see the working class franchise as being granted by class conscious radicals solely for their own interests; almost as if the working class was a political pawn in the plan of the ruling class. Other historians recognise the immense working class desire to influence the decisions of government, discernible from before the Chartist movement. Both views of the rise of political democracy contain more than a grain of the truth. What cannot be denied is that, having gained the vote, the working class has not significantly exerted its strength to bring about any change in its own favour. The ideological power which the capitalist class hold over the working class is such that, despite a change in the franchise from landowning minority at the beginning of the last century to full adult franchise today, there has been no corresponding alteration of the social system from one benefiting a parasitic minority to one benefiting all people. That the working class has not used the power of the vote is certainly contrary to the expectation of many of its early opponents, who believed that giving the right to affect political decisions to non-property owners would instantly lead to social revolution.

The worst fears of the opponents of the extension of the franchise did not occur; the parties of capitalism have successfully won working class support, election after election, by offering reforms in return for votes. The electorate, which overwhelmingly comprises workers whose political interests would best be served by the establishment of Socialism, have jumped from Labour to Tory and back again in a futile effort to use their votes to obtain the most they can out of capitalism. The choice of a party to vote for is seldom based upon rational judgement; this is even recognised as a necessary characteristic of electoral behaviour in a major survey of voting habits:

   There is nothing inherently wrong in the fact that electors associate the parties with images and not with politics . . .  if party support was entirely rational and solely based on policies representative government would become unworkable. The parties would never be able to count on some loyal support in cases of blunders and difficulties; nor would they ever be able to rally their supporters and thereby educate public opinion . . . voting is clearly partly an emotional affair. It is based on prejudices as well as on rational assessment . . .
(Jean Blondel, Voters, Parties and Leaders)

Blondel’s view is that most people vote for a party, not because its policies stand for their interest, but because parties set out to project images to draw voters into a mythical conception of that party solving problems. Workers vote Labour because “it’s the Party of the welfare state” or “the Workers’ Party”, or vote Tory because it is the thing to do if you have a mortgage.

One might conclude from all this that the vote is of no use to the working class. On the contrary, the vote is rather like the razor blade; you can use it to cut your throat or to have a shave. So far the workers have used the vote to register their consent to the present system. Each time an election comes around, seventy-five to eighty per cent of the electorate vote, mainly for the Labour or Conservative parties. About twenty per cent of the electorate regularly abstain from voting, although it is impossible to tell how many do so positively (as a conscious refusal to vote for the parties standing) and how many are negative abstainers (those who do not care). Even among those who do not vote many are confused or cynical. Many Labour voters may decide themselves that they want to see a social change in the interest of the working class, many Tory voters are looking for a party that will defend them from the omnipotence of the State, many Liberals are simply not voting for the others.

When the next election comes workers will once again be faced with the dilemma between voting for politicians to lead them into five more years of capitalism or not voting at all. But there is a third possibility, which is not voting for useless leaders, but considering the idea of Socialism and then voting for it. The Socialist Party of Great Britain exists to provide an alternative to those who wish to lead the working class. A vote for Socialism in the General Election is a vote in your own confidence to determine your future. If there is a Socialist Candidate in your constituency he will be conspicuous by not grovelling for your vote, but only asking you to vote Socialist if you understand and want Socialism. If there is not a Socialist Candidate but you want to cast your vote for Socialism, then write “Socialism” across your ballot paper. In every election it is power that is at stake; are you going to give a blank cheque to the parties of the profit system or will you use your vote in your own class interest?

The weapon of the vote is yours; you have only to use it.

Steve Coleman