Peter Sedgwick

An Electoral Strategy for the Left

(April-May 1970)

Peter Sedgwick, Polemic: An Electoral Strategy for the Left, International Socialism (1st series), No.43, April-May 1970, p.11-12 (polemic)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The political standpoint advocated in Their Election and Us amounts to the first step in the reversal of the general line of the theory and activity on the Labour Party question characteristic of IS thinking over the last five years. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the International Socialists pioneered the strategic rejection of the Labour Party orientation which had been a central tactic of the revolutionary Left (including all the tendencies of ‘Trotskyism’) down to the later Sixties. (The syndicalists and the ILP centrists have, of course, always rejected the Labour Party perspective, but from a distinct standpoint whose weaknesses cannot be explored here.) Increasingly in these last years, and with growing consistency, we have analysed the trends within British Social-Democracy that have converted its party from a distorted expression of labour-consciousness into an open agency of capitalist rule. The composition of the Labour Party’s cadre is no longer working-class; its ideology has lost every tincture even of the most timid reformism; the lines which separated Labour’s ‘Democratic Socialism’ from a bourgeois-liberal creed have vanished without trace; the representation of the working-class interest, even for limited economic ends, has gone.

There can be no doubt that a worker who voted for Humphrey, for Poher [1], or for Lloyd George ‘to keep the other-worse-bastards out’ would have been expressing a limited and low-grade militancy (indicating ‘support for capitalist policies disguised to varying degrees so as to gain working-class votes’, to quote the editorial’s characterisation of the present labour vote). Equally, a revolutionary Left advocating abstention or independent candidature against ‘the two capitalist parties’ would be somewhat isolated, at the moment of the election itself, from the mood of large sections of the working class. I do not believe that, in Britain at the present time, this isolation would be anything more than very transient: the workers know, after all, that Wilson is a traitor, and will not condemn us for giving the opportunity of saying so frankly to as many of them as wish to enjoy this facility.

There is a further, more developed case for supporting the Labour Party lurking in the wings of the present discussion. It is the standard ‘Trotskyist’ argument for Entryism: the vision of a Labour Party permanently betraying in office, permanently radicalised again in opposition, and then attracting to itself a working-class anti-capitalist current which the conscious Left must move in on, double quick, membership cards and all. (Canvassing-returns and ward-secretaryships are, I believe, now regarded as optional.) This is not the time or the place to criticise this view at length: though Marxism is generally considered to oppose a cyclical view of history and to maintain that, surprising as it may seem, some lessons do get learnt by the working class. It is relevant to mention this standpoint, however, because it is present as a second or third line of possible action in the minds of many Socialists involved in the current discussion: the advocacy of ‘critical support’ or ‘critical non-opposition’ to Labour may serve as a junction-point for this reserve perspective. If so, then the perspective must itself be argued as part of the electoral case.

In the end, though, the whole issue comes down to simple consistency in political practice during Election Year. Those who advocate ‘Critical Support’ or ‘Vote Labour Without Illusions’ should surely be out there canvassing. Those who advocate ‘Critical Non-Opposition’ will find it a hard job why their statement that ‘The Tories are Worse’ is different from Wilson’s denunciation of ‘the skin-heads of Surbiton’. If they are saying only that ‘the workers think the Tories are worse’, what sort of basis does this form for Socialist activity in the election? We shall have to be talking, then, to workers, not about them. And if we do not say, openly and publicly, that this is an election between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, in which voting for either capitalist party will do the working class no good at all, what the hell are we in politics for?

Socialists in election year must be out there on door-steps, in thousands. The message they convey must be clear and unambiguous, and consistent with their previous course. Within this framework, there is room for argument over tactics: to abandon the framework itself is not a tactic, but an abdication of principle.




1. Such workers certainly existed: the results of the French Presidential election of May and June 1969, when the CP advised abstention from both the capitalist candidates remaining on the second ballot, are very instructive. On the first ballot, the number of voters following parties which advocated abstention in the subsequent Pompidou-Poher run-off shortly afterwards was about 5,8000,000 (4,779,539 for Duclos of the CP and just over a million for Rocard (PSU) and Krivine (FI) combined). In the second round, the number of abstentions went up from 6,282.000 to 8,907,000; the number of blank or spoiled votes by over a million (from 287,000 to 1,295,000). The total of ‘political’ abstainers and void-voters can therefore be reckoned as 3,633,000, (Our comparison omits, of course, those who were either so totally revolutionary, so totally counter-revolutionary, or so totally drunk, apathetic or ill as to abstain or spoil their papers on the first round. But clearly, over two million Left voters refused the abstentionist call of their first-round candidates. Were they supporters of the IS editorial line that opposition to the two capitalist candidates would only be justified ‘if there were anything like a credible Left alternative to offer’? Were they simon-pure ‘Leninists’, for whom a policy of abstention violates the tactical canons of electoral participation outlined in the early Comintern documents? More seriously, was the French Communist Party (and the groups to its Left) wrong in taking the risk that an advocacy of abstention ‘might accentuate precisely what differentiates us from most workers, not what we have in common’ (to quote the editorial’s anxieties over a British policy of ‘opposition to the two Tories)? The militant anti-electorate in France were a minority compared with those actually voting in the second round (just over 18½ million for Pompidou and Poher combined); this resolute 3,633,000 would be a minority even of the French working class. It is of course, all too likely that in this country an independent Left anti-parliamentary electoral campaign (around or away from ballot) would harvest considerably fewer supporters even than this: though it would almost certainly do better than Krivine did (200,000 votes) in his entirely necessary (if ineptly managed) campaign. But readers should try to apply the arguments of the editorial to the French case: how will they avoid a conclusion that is well to the Right even of the French revisionist CP.


Last updated on 28.2.2008