Chris Harman


Is it propaganda? Or do we want socialists elected?

(24 February 2001)

What socialists say, Socialist Worker, No.1736, 24 February 2001.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“I am somewhat confused about the SWP’s attitude to elections and the Socialist Alliance,” wrote a reader in last week’s paper. “Is this really about trying to get elected or is just about propaganda?” The first thing to be said is our attitude is very different to that which has prevailed in the Labour Party for the last 100 years.

Its view has always been that elections are the key mechanism for changing society. This applies as much to Old Labour as to New Labour, to the Labour left as much as to the Labour right, to Keir Hardie and Aneurin Bevan as much as to Ramsay MacDonald and Hugh Gaitskell.

They claimed that once you had a majority of seats in parliament you controlled the state, and once you controlled the state you could gradually change the rest of society. Elections could achieve in Britain what revolutions were necessary for in dictatorial societies.

We think this view was always wrong. The state is not some innocuous body, waiting for MPs to give it orders. It is centred around institutions dedicated to the application of violence against people who cross their path-armies, navies, air forces, police forces, MI5 and MI6, the prisons system.

Its core consists of bodies of armed men (and these days a few armed women). Those who give the orders in these institutions are not elected representatives of the mass of people, but officers, police and secret police chiefs, judges and top civil servants. They come from very much the same background as the people who sit on the boards of directors of large companies, and usually end up working for such companies when they retire.

The generals, the chief constables and the judges all boast they are “above politics”. What they mean is they feel entitled to do and say what they want, regardless of democratic votes. Meanwhile, their friends and relatives who run the large companies and financial institutions can move money overseas at the touch of a button, and use the threat of economic chaos to “bring to its senses” a government they don’t like.

This happened in the last century whenever “Old Labour” governments in Britain hesitated about jumping to the orders of big business-in 1931, in 1966, in 1975-6. So socialists should not have the illusion that we can change society simply by winning votes. Indeed, some of the biggest changes have taken place despite high votes for conservative forces.

This happened immediately after the First World War. An overwhelming Tory majority in the Commons was terrified of the spread of revolution across Europe and so took important steps in establishing a welfare state. It was a Tory majority which took further steps in that direction during the Second World War because it saw, as Quentin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, put it, that “if you do not give people reform, you will get revolution”. More recently, mass agitation outside parliament, including the biggest riot London had seen for a century, forced Thatcher’s Tory government with a large majority to scrap its own poll tax.

What happens in the workplaces and on the streets is more important than the number of votes cast in elections. But this does not mean how people vote has no importance. It provides an expression of how large numbers of people feel, and this in turn affects their willingness to fight for a better society. When, in the 1980s, socialists found their friends and relatives accepting some of the crap pumped out by the Thatcherites, it demoralised them and made them less willing to fight back against the system.

By contrast, today, when socialist candidates have got votes of 5 percent in by-elections and as much or more in some local elections this has given a boost to everyone who wants to fight back.

People feel there is a clear focus of opposition to New Labour from the left, and this feeds back into willingness to engage in non-electoral forms of struggle.

That is why we do not see the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party interventions in the general election as simply a matter of making socialist propaganda, although this is immensely important. We also see it as a way of showing how widespread the desire for a different society is. The more votes the Socialist Alliance gets the easier it will be to turn the bitterness against New Labour into real struggle in the period ahead. This is why we don’t feel apologetic about going on the knocker to ask people to vote socialist.

Last updated on 9 December 2009