Theresa May took the United Kingdom by surprise on the 18th of April when she called an early election for June 8th. She has, of course, said since becoming Prime Minister that no election would be held until 2020, and there are questions about whether parliament will allow the election to go ahead since the Fixed Term Parliament Act, introduced by the Coalition government in 2010, allows a General Election only once every five years. However, with the Labour Party so divided and the majority of its MPs willing to act against their Party’s interests to destabilise its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the election may indeed happen and it is more than likely, despite the desperate hope among Corbyn supporters, that the Tories will win if it does.
The next few weeks will likely revolve around a single major question: who will push through a Brexit deal? While all parties, from MPs to grassroots campaigners, prepare themselves for the major political engagements to come, it is imperative that the British left take a hard and sober look at itself and ask some tough questions about its own tactics, objectives and politics.
The Inadequacy of Labour
Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 (and again a year later, when challenged by Owen Smith) the parliamentary opposition has been thoroughly divided against itself. Two narratives about this division have been put forward; Corbyn’s opponents, those (somewhat questionably) referred to as ‘Labour moderates’ by the press, argue that Corbyn is too left-wing to be credible among the middle class electorate and are appalled by the shift of the Party leadership away from their own centrist politics towards a mild, social-democratic reformism. By contrast, Corbyn’s supporters challenge this narrative, suggesting instead that the centrist Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), termed ‘Blairites’ because of their alleged affinity to the politics of the Party’s former leader and pariah Tony Blair, is frightened of Corbyn because he threatens their comfortable and steady careerism, offering the only real chance of substantial, progressive change in the content and direction of British politics as well as in the field of the economy.
There are grains of truth in both these narratives, but both fall within an overarching ideological framework which is, at least, very problematic. Much as they claim to be polar opposites, both the ‘Labour moderates’ and the Corbyn camp are firmly committed to the strategy of parliamentary opposition whereby their ultimate objective is to acquire political power and influence by means of elections. While it is undeniable that all politics is reducible in the last instance to the struggle for and exercise of power, the left must ask itself whether parliamentary and electoral contestation is an effective strategy for the attainment of its ends and, furthermore, in whose interest power would be exercised if it were to be won.
Of course, even with its current internal divisions and lack of credibility among much of the Brexit-focused electorate (in spite of what Corbyn’s enthusiastic supporters would have us believe), it remains possible, even probable that the Labour Party will win governmental office again one day, if not in the near future. The more important issue is whether Labour is capable of representing a genuinely progressive alternative to the status quo.
Corbyn was elected Labour leader on the back of a wave of frustration among many young and low-income Britons (as well as nostalgic ‘Old Labour’ survivors) fed up with the monotonous life offered by late capitalism. Stagnating incomes, worsening inequality and what Antonis Broumas describes as “the destabilisation of societal structures by financial markets, starting from states and businesses and reaching all the way down to communities and families” had generated widespread dissatisfaction among many strata of the population, and while some turned to the proto-fascist far-right, others saw a left-wing challenge to the continuance of the status quo in Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership. Winning by a landslide against three other candidates barely distinguishable from one another, it was thought that Corbyn, McDonnell & co. would bring the Party ‘back to its roots’ in the working class with policies favouring state ownership, social investment & relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth.
There were, of course, several problems with this. Although many blue-collar workers had had a tendency to vote Labour before the scrapping of Clause IV, Labour was never a working-class or socialist Party in the proper sense. While the Party was once capable of offering some economistic comforts to working people, such as job security, relatively high wages and strong Unions, it never pursued the political power of the working class without which liberation from the systematic violence of market structures is impossible nor did it hesitate to suppress workers’ struggles when the power & profits of the bourgeoisie were threatened. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the traditional working class, centred around large-scale industry, which had formed the basis of Old Labour’s political strategy, has more or less disintegrated as a result of the outsourcing of industrial production to Third World countries with cheaper labour costs, and what remains of it can no longer be considered an effective collective agent of social change or the transcendence of the capital-labour relation.
It can therefore be argued that Corbyn’s appearance on the political scene, rather than the positive shake-up of the Establishment it was made out to be by his supporters, was in fact a negative and frustrating occurrence which prevented, or at least delayed, something which would’ve been much more progressive – the complete disassociation of self-identified socialists and progressives from the Labour Party. Let us be clear that Labour, no matter the rhetoric of its leadership, is a Party thoroughly integrated into the political apparatus of the capitalist State, and invariably behaves as such. The Party’s opposition to the very ‘austerity agenda’ it’s leadership claims to oppose has so far been ineffectual, with Corbyn ordering Labour councils to implement the budget cuts he claims to be so fervently against (Labour activists tend to claim that council officers will implement the cuts if Labour-controlled councils refuse to do so, as if cuts are somehow more humane when implemented by the Labour Party), and it is therefore difficult to believe, in the absence of complete self-delusion, that Labour, whether led by Corbyn or Karl Marx, could present a socialist opposition to capitalism.
Against Elections, For Struggle
There have been debates around the desirability of a new parliamentary Party of the left, but it is reasonable to argue that after decades of socialists and legal Marxists unsuccessfully attempting to utilise the structures & processes of bourgeois democracy towards socialist ends, the struggle against capitalism and imperialism must be centred outside the field of electoral or parliamentary politics.
As Lenin explained a century ago, the State, of which parliament and elections are an integral part, is not a neutral mechanism standing above the class antagonisms of society. On the contrary, the State is a product of the conflict between classes; its very existence is testament to the fact that the conflicting interests of the various classes cannot be reconciled unless and until the entire social formation which opposes classes to one another is transcended.
It follows that capitalism cannot be transformed into socialism by means of contestation of parliamentary seats. Participation in electoral politics (not to mention orientation of political strategy around elections) is counterproductive to those who seek an avenue for socialist and working class politics, because elections, far from being a valid method of contesting the power of the elites or “the 1%”, are in fact the principal means of restraining politics to the structures and ideological framework of the bourgeois State; their centrality to political discourse only obstructs the exploration of the alternative, mass-based political practices and forms of organisation, outside the bourgeois State, which the proletariat will require to overthrow capitalist-imperialism and build socialism.
This is not to say that elections can’t have their uses. Socialists & revolutionaries can permit themselves to work with progressive candidates over issues of mutual concern, as long as they continue to advocate a proletarian political line and do not subordinate themselves to parliamentary/electoral considerations. In addition, the appearance of particular progressive candidates in electoral contests has the potential to open a more general space for debate and the advocacy of more radical ideas which we would do well to exploit. However, our political strategy must never be centred around elections or parliamentary politics which are, in the last instance, a spectacle whose purpose is the remove politics from the arena of the everyday lives of ordinary people (where it belongs) and place it instead into the realm of Parties, States and high politics.
What Can We Do?
As I said above, politics and political power belong among the everyday lives of ordinary working people, and it is imperative of communists and socialists to build it there. There are those who, whether openly or implicitly, treat community work and political agitation among the people as nothing more than a compliment to electoral politics, the ultimate aim of which is merely to encourage people to vote Labour, Green, etc.
Treating the masses as nothing more than voters and approaching community work as an exclusively local, short-term concern is an inexcusable mistake for anyone who claims the title ‘socialist’. It is the sinful, victimised, flawed, imperfect masses of real proletarians who are at the centre of politics, not the parties, politicians and statesmen about whom we hear so much. Politics is ours, not theirs, as is the world and everything produced (by us, by our class) in it. It is with us, among us, in our daily interactions with one another, with our bosses, with our work, with our families and friends, that power is to be found. Work among the masses is neither a hobby, nor a pastime, nor a way of securing votes; it is a vital means of building an alternative, revolutionary, working class political power opposed to that of the bourgeois State.