Working class men and women fought hard for the right to vote. For many today, voting seems their only chance to have a say in how the system is run—despite often thinking that it won’t change very much.
Most people are disillusioned with parliament. This is reflected in the low level of voter turnout. Working class confidence and struggle matters more than elections, but who wins them, does matter.
Governments can raise taxes on the rich or lower them. They can invest more money in hospitals or cut funding. They can bring in laws to restrict women’s access to abortion, or they can liberalise the laws.
Nobody would say that if the fascist British National Party gets an MP it doesn’t matter.
If Nick Griffin is elected in Barking, every racist and fascist will cheer. Millions of other people will feel under threat.
These things have a real impact on the lives of ordinary people. At this election, Labour and the Tories are offering similar policies. But who wins can affect workers’ confidence.
A Tory win will demoralise many working people and boost every rotten element in society. It will make some workers feel less able to fight the cuts.
That is why the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) does think it matters who you vote for, and that sometimes it’s worth standing in elections.
Revolutionaries don’t think we can bring about socialism by electing left wingers to parliament.
But we can use elections to highlight the failings of mainstream politicians and the system they defend.
The election allows socialists to raise demands that challenge the ruling class’s priorities. They can do these things even if they don’t win.
The SWP is taking part in the upcoming elections as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which is standing in around 50 seats.
Even modest results could be a stepping stone towards broader left unity, and help create networks of resistance and solidarity.
If socialists get a good vote, or are elected, it can give workers more confidence. If they go on strike or campaign to save services, they know they have support from the many people who voted socialist.
And elected socialists can become a focal point for people fighting back.
Bernadette Devlin—a radical, anti-imperialist young woman in Northern Ireland—was elected to the British parliament in 1969. “I managed to touch a chord with whole layers of people,” she told Socialist Worker.
She said significant political developments were taking place outside parliament, but that after she got elected, “parliament was a megaphone, which meant that what we were up to had a bigger impact”.
This is how socialists should view elections—as a means to support the self-activity of workers, building the confidence of the working class.
Who holds power?
There are some real dangers for revolutionaries who are successful in elections. The current capitalist system minimises the role of the working class.
It’s based on a handful of unaccountable representatives acting on behalf of a passive majority.
Many elected intending to change this system instead find that it changes them. The experience of working within parliament distorts how they see the world.
Standing or electing a socialist cannot be a substitute for workers’ activity, and does not guarantee a rise in struggle. The reality is that power does not lie in parliament.
It lies with a class of unelected bosses, judges, generals and bankers who make the decisions that affect the rest of us.
We don’t get to vote on whether a factory opens or closes, what it produces or how, or how products are distributed. The police and the state are completely unaccountable.
The ruling class pressures all governments to introduce policies that maintain its wealth—like the anti-union laws, tax laws, and even urging them to go to war to protect capitalist interests.
If governments interfere with their interests, the ruling class is prepared to use violence. The way to get real change isn’t by relying on MPs—we need class struggle.
The most important question is the organisation of working class people, our fighting unity and our confidence.
We are the force that can fight for reforms—and a different society. In order to achieve genuine liberation, we have to move beyond parliament to building independent working class organisation strong enough to overthrow the capitalist ruling class.
Can workers run the world?
Socialists argue that there is an alternative to the madness of the current system.
The people who do all the work should collectively control society’s resources.
Under capitalism, production is controlled by bosses whose only real concern is making a profit.
Workers are denied a say over what is produced or how it is organised.
Democratic planning in a socialist society would match resources to society’s needs, making sure everyone had enough food, decent housing and didn’t work exhausting hours.
Today, production is increasingly concentrated into fewer hands.
In 2008 just 2,000 multinational firms accounted for nearly half of everything sold in the world.
If workers ran these firms, we would have enormous power to reshape the economy and to produce the things the majority of the planet’s population need.
And workers know far more about how production is organised and functions than managers.
It is true that some vital technical skills are the monopoly of a minority of experts, who often benefit from educational opportunities unavailable to most workers.
But a society based on collective decision-making could put the resources required into expanding education, to end the stranglehold of a minority over these skills.
Under capitalism, workers have to labour just to get a wage.
Karl Marx called this a “dull economic compulsion”. If we work harder, we rarely see the benefit—the boss just pockets the extra profit.
It’s not surprising that many people hate their jobs and try to do as little as they can.
If the majority of people ran production and saw the benefits of any gains, it would be in our interest to be motivated.
And workers would collectively decide, through majority votes, the big decisions about how society’s resources should be allocated.
Workers, together with those who use their services, would figure out how to implement these decisions.
Gradually, waste on such things as war, weapons, advertising and the luxury wealth of the rich would be abolished.
More and more things could be provided for free, and the role of wages and money eroded.
Capitalism has created enormous wealth and advanced technological development.
In the hands of workers, these advances could serve humanity rather than just a rich minority.