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The case for an electoral party

In the first part of his series 'What sort of left party do we need?', Ben Wray argues for participation in elections, noting that without engagement in parliamentary politics, the left quickly descends into an 'echo-chamber'.

The only reliable and sustainable basis on which to build a left party is to orientate it towards the only democratic institutions that everyone can engage in and the only institutions that have democratic authority over society – parliamentary elections. In Scotland that means, most importantly, Holyrood.

Some leftists will recoil immediately, arguing that ‘parliament isn’t democratic, it doesn’t serve the people and the working class increasingly don’t trust it and don’t vote’. This is all true but it isn’t a convincing argument against engaging in parliamentary elections because there are no alternative democratic institutions which possess anywhere near the same democratic legitimacy in society as parliament does. Those who don’t vote aren’t setting up co-operatives to run communities or workers’ councils to run workplaces. Their process of re-engagement and democratic renewal will likely pass through parliamentary elections on their way to participatory democratic control of society, if we are to ever get there.

Millions of people vote and even those that don’t vote accept the democratic authority of parliament to make decisions over society. The quicker we wake up and realise that this is the only mass democracy we have and that we therefore better try to engage with it, the more likely we are to start winning people over on a mass scale. And when they are won over to the idea that change is possible, they are on a path which leads them to more revolutionary change, including going beyond parliamentary elections.

Yet what of the declining faith that the public have in the political parties and political process? This only raises the stakes for the left, as the parliament is vulnerable to a credible left challenge. Syriza is the optimal example of this – as the centre ground disappeared Greeks did not turn on mass away from parliament, but turned instead to the radical left in the form of Syriza because they were the only people putting forward an anti-austerity agenda through the call for a ‘left government against austerity’.

Elections provide a barometer against which to test our ideas on a societal scale. I have tried to build non-parliamentary political parties and because they have no society-wide barometer by which they can judge their activities, they quickly lose sight of who they are trying to win over. Yes, they can pick up pace when one movement or another gathers momentum or if a major strike action takes place, but not enough people want to participate in a non-parliamentary party on a consistent basis. Activism around strikes and movements is tiring when you lack the power or potential power to actually make decisions. The only way to be able to make decisions or even threaten to make decisions is if you have the democratic authority to do so through winning elections. Indeed, funnily enough, the left could do much more to help strikes and movements if it could be a voice for them in parliament, challenging the dull neoliberal consensus by using a platform by which the media and the general public can hear what we have to say. Most people on strikes don’t need to be told how right they are to do what they are doing – they need effective solidarity and that means political support.

What happens outwith parliamentary competition is the left judges itself on its own merits, and quickly descends into an ‘echo-chamber’: with no wider basis for assessing effectiveness, we judge our performance in meeting turnouts, facebook shares or, worse, plain self-aggrandising. The result is we begin to take much more seriously the minority concerns of activists than the majority concerns of the people we are suppose to be trying to convince/mobilise. This process culminates in faction fights and splits over issues most people wouldn’t have the first clue about.

Whilst we bicker over the finer details of the internal democracy of tiny groups, the big picture is that UKIP are winning working class support because there’s no anti-establishment alternative from the left to challenge them. The neoliberalisation of mainstream politics has created space to the left and right, but it’s only those on the right who are taking advantage of it. Surveys of UKIP voters show that whilst they often hold reactionary positions on immigrants and the unemployed, they hold left-wing positions on redistribution of wealth, taxing the rich, public services and opposing foreign wars. We should be fighting against UKIP for working class support, instead we’re fighting over the scraps of the far-left comfort zone.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not for becoming like the politicians. I believe representatives should take a workers wage; I believe they should be accountable to the community they are elected from and the party in that community; I believe they should take a stand on issues which may be unpopular with the majority of voters, in support for example of welfare claimants and asylum seekers; I believe they should try to highlight the plight of the most oppressed in their community and try to give them a platform to speak for themselves. We need all this and more – a real people’s politics – but we can’t get close to this unless we realise where the starting line is. And that’s a left party orientated on parliamentary elections.

Put it this way – what do you think the capitalist elite want us to do? Leave parliament to their mates and focus on extra-parliamentary activism, or challenge for democratic control over society? The question should answer itself.

In part 7 of this series – ‘The case for revolutionary reforms’ – I further develop this idea of challenging the system at its point of greatest weakness: the governmental level.

 

The introduction to this series can be found here

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