Socialist Worker

Why socialists stand in elections

While socialists argue that only mass working class action can bring about radical change, elections are still important in building workers’ struggle, argues Nick Clark

Issue No. 2449

tusc banner on anti-racism demo

TUSC supporters march on the 21 March Stand Up to Racism demo in London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Socialist Worker supporters across Britain are campaigning for a left alternative to austerity and racism in the general election. We’re standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and supporting other left candidates. 

Revolutionary socialists argue that we can’t transform society through parliament. The present state exists to defend the interests of capitalists against workers. Only a mass working class movement from below can bring about a fundamental break with capitalism. But that doesn’t mean we write elections off.

They are an arena of struggle—particularly at the moment. They are a window of opportunity when activists  have “official permission” to hold political  conversations and people expect to be engaged in political argument. 

Since the dominant ideas in society are shaped by the ruling  class, socialists cannot squander this platform for our own arguments. 

Elections are an opportunity to put forward a socialist alternative. They give a chance to group together people who want change, challenge the main parties and lay a basis for the further development of a stronger left after the election.

Elections can be used to question the inequality, division, waste and violence of capitalism. They are a chance to encourage protests, strikes and mass action. If socialists don’t stand at election time the only voices heard are varying types of capitalist politicians. And if left candidates are elected it can raise the confidence and combativity of workers.


It would be excellent if we had a socialist voice outside Labour in parliament that encouraged strikes, supported those who are scapegoated, and denounced racism and British imperialism. 

Election campaigns and results will impact on how we build workers’ struggle outside parliament. When socialists are elected, it can make a difference to the struggle—and it’s a blow when the right win.

No one can seriously argue that it wouldn’t matter if the racist Ukip leader Nigel Farage became an MP in South Thanet in Kent. Ukip getting a good result would shift politics to the right. The drumbeat for a crackdown on Muslims and migrant workers would reach even more dangerous decibel levels. It would also signal that racism is “acceptable” and give confidence to racists and Nazis. 

Likewise, another Tory win would be hugely demoralising to everyone who wants to see the back of them.

When the radical left party Syriza was elected in Greece, it gave hope to millions looking for a break with austerity. Its difficulties in making this happen are a reminder of the limitations of seeking change through parliament. But humiliating the parties of austerity was a blow to bosses all over Europe. 

Christina Buchholz is a Marxist MP in Germany in the radical left Die Linke party. She was one of only three Die Linke MPs not to vote for the  rotten deal that German leader Angela Merkel and Europe’s bosses imposed on Syriza.

Christine has said, “My main priority is to support class struggle and movements in Germany and strengthen the left wing of Die Linke. But this is not easy. The logic of parliamentarianism is swallowing much of the energy of all MPs, including the left-wingers in the party. 

“We have to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity. I used my position to participate in sit-ins to block the Nazis in Dresden. For some MPs it meant their parliamentary immunity from prosecution was lifted. 

“The point is to serve the extra-parliamentary activities through your position as an MP —not the other way round.”


Revolutionary socialists must try to use election campaigns and parliament to further the struggle. They should raise socialist arguments with large numbers of people. We can highlight how mainstream politics and politicians fail working class people. Raising socialist demands can challenge the ruling class’s priorities. 

That’s what TUSC candidates are doing by going against the dominant narrative that claims working class people have to pay for the crisis. If socialists get elected, they can use parliament as a megaphone. 

A mass movement against water charges has mobilised thousands onto the streets across the Ireland. 

Socialist Richard Boyd Barrett sits in the Irish parliament as part of the People Before Profit alliance. Inside parliament he’s able to raise the movement’s demands, which can help them reach a broader layers. 

Meanwhile, being a leading member of the campaigns outside parliament can also give people confidence to fight. 

Richard wrote last year, “If you can use parliament as a platform to get in touch with different people, and to be a voice for people who are fighting back on the outside and to facilitate that struggle then that is useful. 

“But parliament itself isn’t amenable to change and it’s very clear to me after two and a half years in there that the only time the government are affected by anything we say inside the parliament is when we get huge numbers of people on the streets outside the parliament.”

There are similar examples in Britain. Phil Piratin was a Communist Party councillor in Stepney, east London, in the 1930s and used his position to help organise successful rent strikes.


However, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most famous examples involved a group of Labour councillors George Lansbury and the “rebel councillors” of Poplar in the East End. 

In 1922 the councillors refused to collect the rates—a kind of council tax—that were used mainly to pay for local services in richer London boroughs. The councillors were sent to jail for their refusal to collect. 

But they had built a mass movement of protests, which spread to other London boroughs and gained support from the TUC. This movement not only forced the Tory-Liberal coalition to release the councillors, but defeated its attempts to force the council to collect the rates.

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued against the idea that socialism could come through parliament. But his Bolshevik party still had six MPs in the Duma, the Russia parliament. 

When Bolsheviks MPs put  questions to ministers around issues behind strikes and protests, it was to expose the Duma’s failure to satisfy workers’ demands. By working in this way, socialists can also use the parliamentary system to expose its limitations.

In 1972 Bernadette Devlin, the socialist MP for Mid Ulster, famously punched Tory home secretary Reginald Maudling in parliament. Maudling had been trying to justify the Bloody Sunday massacre, when British troops murdered 14 Irish civil rights marcher in Derry. 

Devlin was condemned for her “violence”, but she exposed who was really to blame. Devlin’s work inside parliament was directed towards building mass resistance outside.

Speaking to Socialist worker in 2005 she said, “Parliament was a megaphone, which meant that what we were up to had a bigger impact”.

A radical approach to parliament doesn’t mean relying on a small group of people to make changes for us. Nor does it even mean trying to force through “radical” reforms with the passive backing of the working class.

The point is to use parliament to help build working class consciousness, confidence and organisation outside it. That can help create a movement capable of smashing the bosses’ state, and fighting for a socialist society that’s genuinely democratic and based on workers’ self-organisation. 

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