Paul Foot

Voting for our class

(June 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 99, June 1987, pp. 14–15.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Does voting make any difference? Should socialists vote at all? If so, which way should we vote? And what about tactical voting? Paul Foot looks at the arguments.

A NEW political epidemic is striking down political commentators on the left. It is called tactical voting. From Marxism Today to the New Statesman, all of which were healthy Labour supporters in 1983, a feeble cry has gone up that the only way to save us from ruin is to vote tactically. Former Labour voters are urged in the day before polling day to study the opinion polls (many of which will be commissioned by the same people who are asking us to read them), look which party is most likely to beat the Tories in your constituency, and vote accordingly. If the party is SDP, vote for it. If Liberal, vote Liberal.

Eric Hobsbawm, the former Marxist, tells us that the differences between voting Labour and Liberal are very slight. The most urgent need of all decent people, he says, is the removal of the Thatcher government from office. In the face of this need, why pay attention to old loyalties? What use is a Labour vote in a constituency where Labour cannot win, but where a decent-minded SDP candidate can?

Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that these new realists win the day, and that the Thatcher government is toppled by a combination of Labour and the Alliance. In what way will the new government improve the lot of the working class? Will they, for instance, cut down unemployment? They will try to do so. But every single example over the last ninety years of political history shows that they will not succeed.

In 1924, 1929 and 1977 Labour ruled with the tacit consent of the Liberals. In all three cases unemployment was higher at the end of the period than it was at the beginning: in spite of the sincere promises of both parties that it would be reduced. Will the new parliament build more houses, more schools, more hospitals? Will it rescue the National Health Service?

Will it do such things when, in 1967 and again in 1971, a Labour government, not dependent on Liberals and utterly committed to doing all these things, was thrown into reverse on all these issues and was forced to cut the housing programme, cut the schools programme and even levy charges on the sacrosanct National Health Service?

These are the “issues” which, the Hobsbawms of this world tell us, should guide our judgement and our advice on polling day. Yet in their heart of hearts they must know that a Liberal-SDP-Labour government is even less likely to improve the conditions of the working class than have previous Labour governments.

BUT wait, they might reply. Readers of Socialist Worker Review have been told over the years that electing Labour governments makes little or no difference to what happens in the economic and political field. That is quite right. Anyone reading this paper or Socialist Worker will be fed to the brim with the argument that the elected governments in capitalist society are not in control of that society.

However much they may wish to reform, however much they legislate for reform their wishes and their legislation are swept aside by economic tides which they do not control or even understand.

So although Labour may pass plenty of laws which look good for the workers, the economic movements which they do not control leave these laws like signposts in the wilderness, better than no signposts at all, but no use for anyone’s improvements. What use an Employment Protection Act, shoring up the trade unions’ role in the machinery of the state, if the whole of that machinery is flung into a campaign to restrict workers’ power on the shop floor and to restrain their wages?

What use Equal Pay Acts and Race Relations Acts if the tides of sexism and racialism are flowing because of an economic recession? Of course the laws passed by Labour governments are likely to be better than those passed by Tory governments, but if the economic conditions which govern people’s lives are worse nevertheless, what use the new laws?

All these arguments apply, of course, a hundred times more to a Lib-Lab government than they do to a Labour government. But do they lead, as our critics so often suggest, to an electoral abstentionism?

If we mean it when we say that the colour of the governments in office makes precious little difference to the lives of the workers, why bother to take part in the vote at all? Why not shout a plague on both your houses, burn your ballot paper or write “socialism” on it, or put up socialist revolutionary candidates who argue not for crumbs but for the whole bakery?

The first answer is that we live in the real world, not one we would like to live in. In this real world almost every worker who thinks like a socialist supports the Labour Party. The enormous majority of such people, including pretty well every militant trade unionist, believes that change can come through the Labour Party in office.

The second one is that the Labour Party came into existence to represent the working class (and no other class) in parliament. It was founded, and still is founded, on the trade unions. Trade unions in turn came into existence to improve the lot of working class people. They devised democratic constitutions which made their leaders and executives subject to some form of rank and file control.

Discussion and debate would be sheltered from the capitalist class and its media. Just as that ruling class resented the granting of the vote in the first place, so they doubly resented the formation and the survival of working class-based parties which brought the organised working class into the elections.

However much the ruling class were able to contain and corrupt such Labour Parties when they got to office, they never let up in their resentment of these parties’ existence, and have used all their mighty powers to replace them with “alternatives” which will not be subject in any way to the decisions or the debates of the organised working class movement.

Thus in 1931, although the power of the ruling class was able to humble a Labour government, split off its leaders, reverse all its policies and replace that government with fourteen years of Tory rule, they never forgot that the organised trade union movement could not stomach further cuts in the dole, and refused its consent to a Labour government to carry them through. Even such entirely negative control is enough to unite the ruling class against the Labour Party.

SO the issue of what to do in that split second in the ballot box every four or five years is not a difficult one for socialists who see the world clearly through its class divisions. It is a class issue. The Labour Party is founded on the working class. The Liberal Party is not. The SDP is not. If the Alliance replaces the Labour Party as the main anti-Tory Party the organised working class will be removed from its electoral politics, and that-will demoralise every class conscious worker in the land.

On election night, while the Hobsbawms and the Kellners are cheering every time Labour comes bottom of the poll and the Alliance candidate is elected on tactical votes, the militant worker who thinks a bit about politics will feel, from the same news, confused and disorientated. In his marvellous pamphlet, What Next?, Leon Trotsky denounced those who dismissed all the institutions of bourgeois democracy as though they were all part of some gigantic capitalist plot. He wrote:

“In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilising it, fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sports clubs, the co-operatives etc. The proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of the bourgeois democracy, but can do so only by taking the road to revolution; this has been proved both by theory and by experience. And these bulwarks of workers’ democracy within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for the taking of the revolutionary road.”

Trotsky probably overstated the case a little. He was talking, after all, about the urgent menace of fascism, and the need to unite all elements of the workers’ movement against it. And the educational, sports clubs, and co-ops have long since gone. But the basic point is as important now as it was in 1931.

The revolution he spoke of is impossible if the bulwarks built by the workers – including the trade unions and their political parties – are torn down by the rulers; and every defeat for the unions, every defeat for Labour at the polls, pushes the revolution back.

In the polling booths, vote Labour. The day after, keep up the effort to build a socialist organisation in the struggle at the point of production, where the working class has power, and not in parliament, where it hasn’t.

Last updated on 30 October 2019