Which electoral strategy for socialists?

The Socialist Party stood two candidates in the elections to the Greater London Assembly held on 2 May, the same day that the mayor of London was elected. We stood in the constituencies of Barnet & Camden and Lambeth & Southwark. The total electorate of these four London boroughs was 860,000, which meant that those who voted (about 340,000 did) would have seen our name and emblem on the ballot paper. Members and sympathisers distributed some 15,000 leaflets — not enough, but the bulletin sent to all 6 million electors in London stated that we were standing even though not what we were standing for.

The results were:

Barnet & Camden: Lab 70,749. Con 51,606. Green 18,405. LibDem 12,335. Reform UK 7,703. Socialist 1,639.

Lambeth & Southwark: Lab 84,768. Green 35,144. LibDem 22,030. Con 21,121. Reform UK 8,942. Socialist 2,082.

The Weekly Worker (9 May), commenting on the results, noted:

‘The London Assembly is elected by a complex combination of a party list system plus constituency candidates. The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain stood in the party list element, while candidates from the Socialist Party of Great Britain and TUSC stood in constituencies. (…) The CPB ranked 13th at 0.4% (10,915 votes) – an improvement on last time, when it obtained 0.3%. (…) On the left, the two SPGB candidates both came in last, with just one percent of the vote. Among the TUSC candidates, in City and East Lois Austin came in 7th (after an independent) with 4,710 (2%); April Jacqueline Ashley in Croydon and Sutton was 6th with 2,766 (0.7%); Andy Walker in Havering & Redbridge was 7th with 2,145 (1.3%); and Nancy Taaffe in North East was 6th with 5,595 (2.7%). These results show TUSC polling in the same range as the SPGB, though ahead of the CPB’.

In other words, TUSC (‘Trade Union and Socialist Alliance’), appealing to trade-union-conscious workers with a programme of attractive-sounding reforms (what used to be called ‘the minimum programme’), polled more or less the same as us standing on a straight platform of socialism — the common ownership and democratic control of the means of living with production directly to meet people’s needs, not profit —and nothing but (what used to be called ‘the maximum programme’).

These different election stances reflected the different approaches of us and them. TUSC is essentially a front organisation for one of the fragments of the old Militant Tendency that calls itself ‘Socialist Party of England and Wales’, or SPEW. As Leninists they consider that workers are capable only of acquiring a trade union consciousness (which on Lenin’s definition includes support for legislative and administrative measures to try to improve the lot of workers under capitalism). So, when they contest elections they see no point in advocating socialism as that would be to cast pearls before swine and so only propose reforms within capitalism. Even when they do talk of socialism they mean nationalisation (state capitalism).

We, on the other hand, argue that workers can understand socialism — can acquire a socialist consciousness, if you want to put it that way — in fact must as a condition for socialism being established. No vanguard can establish socialism on behalf of workers; it is something they must do for themselves. Socialism can only be established when and if a majority want and understand it. So, when we contest elections, we don’t offer to lead or do anything for workers; we put before them the straight case for socialism to, at this stage, as we put it in our election leaflet, allow them to ‘send a message to your neighbours and colleagues that you want a world of common ownership and democratic control’.

We know perfectly well how few workers currently want socialism and were standing to publicise further the case for replacing capitalism with socialism as the only lasting solution to the problems capitalism throws up for wage and salary workers and their dependents.

What the TUSC vote shows is that there would be no point in us combining advocating socialism with advocating reforms, as some have urged. This would not make any difference to the number of votes a socialist candidate would get. But it would confuse the issue by encouraging people to continue to think in terms of getting a better deal under capitalism rather than to get rid of it, to try to mend rather than end capitalism. Not that appealing just to trade-union consciousness got SPEW very far. Workers who want reforms evidently prefer to vote for reformist parties they consider to have a chance of being able to implement some. Meanwhile we will stick to advocating socialism and nothing but.

Next article: Cooking the Books 1 – More pro-business than thou ⮞

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