Editorial: The vote and its misuse

The general election in Britain a hundred years ago this month was significant in a number of ways.

It was the first election to the House of Commons in which some (most but not all) women were allowed to vote and stand as a candidate. It was also the first parliamentary election in which all men had the vote, the belated achievement of the Chartist aim set out in 1838. In the war that had just ended, now presented as a war to preserve democracy, there was the ironic situation of soldiers supposedly fighting for this who didn’t have the vote (at least a third of them) lobbing shells at soldiers on the other side who did. But then, as we explained in last month’s editorial, the war was not about democracy but about conflicting imperialist aims.

Only one woman was elected – Constance Markievicz – but as she was a Sinn Feiner she did not take up her seat at Westminster but met with the other Sinn Fein MPs in Dublin in January 1919 to proclaim themselves the parliament of the Irish Republic (to be marked in Ireland by patriotic centenary celebrations next month). The IRA claimed legitimacy for its various bombing campaigns over the years on the basis that it had a mandate from the Sinn Fein MPs elected to the British Parliament in 1918, preposterously even up to eighty years later. To this day Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take their seats at Westminster as this would involve taking an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. That’s their choice though we have always said that this farcical act should not prevent a socialist MP taking their seat.

The result of the election was a landslide victory (outside Ireland) for supporters of the war-time Coalition led by Lloyd George, which the Socialist Standard of the time described as an ‘imperialist victory’. An election in France in November 1919 was to produce a similar result with a decisive victory for the war-time government – the Union sacrée – under Clemenceau. Even in Germany in elections in January 1919, with an 83 percent turnout only 5 percent voted for the breakaway Independent Social Democrats, the only party to employ an anti-capitalist rhetoric. Women there, too, were able to vote for the first time but most voted for the conservative Catholic and Protestant parties.

So Lenin was clearly (unfortunately) wrong in proclaiming that an epoch of world revolution had opened up after the end of the World War, his justification for the Bolsheviks seizing power in the name of socialism in a country that had none of its preconditions. But at least he recognised that socialism had to be world-wide.

The other lesson is that the vote is a weapon and like all weapons can be misused as well as used properly. In 1918 and 1919 workers in Europe, not to mention the United States, misused the vote to continue with capitalism and in Britain and France to return war-mongers to power. The Chartist pioneers must have been turning in their graves. In view of how the vote has been used since they still will be.