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Roger Protz

An Electoral Strategy for the Left

(April 1970)

From Polemic, International Socialism (1st series), No.43, April/May 1970, pp.10-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Well, yes – but now what do we do?’ is the response to the election editorial in IS 42. It seems at first to meet the problems head on: Labour has carried out ruling class policies, the Tories attempt to cultivate a law-and-order backlash, yet the class differences between the two parties, however muted, remain and a Tory victory will be an ideological defeat for class-conscious workers.

‘Yes, yes,’ we pant, anxious for the denouément. But the conclusions are not drawn. There is a brief flirtation with abstentionism and then the argument fizzles out indecisively. It is less than helpful for revolutionary socialists active in the Labour movement who are often listened to with more respect and attention during an election period. Parliament can be dismissed as a fasade, Labour’s record can be exposed in every grisly detail, the need for a real workers’ party can be thrashed out, yet on election eve we will be forced to make a firm recommendation that will not cut us adrift from our audience.

The refusal to call for a vote for Labour (albeit without illusions) is in sharp contrast to IS’s approach to the 1964 and 1966 elections. We said then that Labour, with its flabby rhetoric about the ‘technological revolution’, would seek to rationalise an ailing capitalism at the expense of the working class. We fostered none of the illusions of other left organisations but called for a vote for Labour because of the class differences between the parties and the need for workers – whom we expected to move to the left under the impact of Labour’s policies – to analyse our ideas in the light of their experiences under Wilson.

Indeed, important sections of the working class have shifted and questioned the role of the Labour Government and their allegiance to it. As I write, 30,000 dockers have struck work for a day to demand wholesale nationalisation of the ports with a degree of workers’ control, in protest at Labour’s refusal to honour its pledges to them. Airline workers in a bankrupt private concern scornfully reject the Government’s commitment to ‘competition’ in the air and demand their incorporation into BOAC. In spite of the obvious contradictions, these are important examples of a heightened political awareness, yet because of the absence of any credible socialist alternative, it is sections like these which will turn out (however reluctantly) for Labour on polling day and which make no protest as record donations arc made by their unions to the party’s election funds.

If IS is confused about its election strategy, it is because it has failed to consistently apply its analysis of 1964-66. The theory of the decline of reformism has become distorted into a suggestion that no reforms are now possible under capitalism. Labour is certainly no longer a classical reformist party, yet on occasion it can still pass fairly progressive reformist legislation which does not change its role as the rationaliser of capitalism. The reforms are used as an alibi for its overall pro-monopoly policies – but the reforms exist nonetheless. Marginal though the improvements in the Rent Acts, and homosexual, abortion and drugs laws may be, they are steps the Tories are unlikely to take, particularly with their last conference committed to bringing back the gallows.

The class bases of the two parties are still clear and important. Labour in general does not have to make concessions to the petty bourgeoisie. It rests on the working class and big business, drawing its votes and cash from the former and making obeisance to it from time to time, but ultimately acting in the interests of the latter. The Tories’ mass base is in the petty bourgeoisie and its concessions to big business when in power do not always conflict with the ideology of that base. It is true that the Tories in office always turn on their base by carrying out policies that suit big business and consequently hasten the ruin of the petty bourgeoisie, but socially the party will still make serious concessions to that section on ‘law and order’, attacking the unions, shifting the burden of taxation further onto the working class, stepping up the racialist hysteria and cutting back even more drastically on council housing and public transport.

The law and order issue cannot be dismissed merely as an election vote catcher. Like a spoilt child, the more it is pandered to, the more it demands. Labour may make concessions to the backlash, though it is more likely that PC Callaghan will adopt a ‘reasonable’ pose and the party certainly will not go nearly as far as the Tories. The attacks on democratic rights and on scapegoats such as immigrants, students and trade unionists may not be as important as the overall economic attacks on the working class, but socially they would mark a dangerous shift to the right.

A Tory victory would represent an ideological defeat for the more militant workers. They would be forced back onto the defensive, guarding their organisations and paving the way for Labour votes without criticism. All the old illusions would remain and become entrenched as the Labour and union bureaucrats, aided by the official ‘left’, would reassert their hold over the movement. Revolutionaries would be forced to retrace many of the steps taken in the last six years.

The interests of the revolutionary movement are better served by Labour in power. Labour’s involvement in running capitalism drives some militants towards revolutionary politics but, while the Marxist left remains small, a Tory Government could be a serious impediment to its growth.

What strategy, then, for the election? Our propaganda must make no concessions to Labour. We must return again and again to the argument that Labour’s policies have paved the way for the return of a more right-wing Tory Government (a glaring omission from the editorial). Labour cannot solve the working class’s problems and, whichever party is in power, the attacks on their organisations and living standards will continue; both parties will attempt to solve capitalism’s problems at the workers’ expense.

Above all, we must stress that a Labour Government is the price we have to pay for the failure to build a real socialist alternative. Support for our own or other independent socialist candidates can be considered, but if we are to maintain a fruitful dialogue with the potential vanguard of the working class, we must advance the slogan: Keep the Tories out – vote Labour and prepare to fight.

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