Half a century ago the American Marxist Hal Draper wrote a piece entitled “Who’s Going To Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?” His argument was simple. The choice between the two main parties in the US — the Democrats and Republicans — was no real choice at all. That did not mean the parties were identical, merely that “they tend to act in the same way in essential respects, where fundamental needs of the system are concerned”.
Draper was writing in a period when the vogue was for state intervention in the economy but, if anything, the pattern is even stronger in these times of neoliberal consensus. Increasingly British politics is evolving in the same direction. This poses a problem for socialists. Historically, much of the revolutionary left in Britain has argued for a critical vote for the Labour Party. That was not because of any illusions in Labourism. We are aware of the history of betrayals by Labour. Indeed, parties committed to parliamentary reform, rather than revolution, are necessarily bent to the needs of the system.
However, the best way to dispel illusions in Labour is for workers to experience it in government. We could cast our vote with them in solidarity against the Tories, while always being honest about the limitations of Labour. Moreover, there were clear distinctions between Labour and the other parties. Labour was organically linked to the trade unions, even if the link passed through the union bureaucracy rather than the shopfloor. Most important of all, the formation of the Labour Party represented a step forward for workers insomuch as it represented an aspiration for a class politics independent of the Tories and Liberals — even if Labour could never deliver on these aspirations.
Today these reasons for voting Labour are eroding. That is not to say that people’s desire for reforms will vanish, or that a partial rival of Labourism or the emergence of a new mass reformist party is impossible, but the argument for voting Labour is becoming ever less compelling. Of course, many progressively minded workers will hold their noses and vote for the malignant Ed Miliband on 7 May.
But there will be candidates standing in May who, on many issues, offer more left wing arguments than Labour. In Scotland the Scottish National Party (SNP) will likely do well in former Labour strongholds. In many places the Green Party will pick up votes from former Labour supporters, and other independent formations such as the National Health Action Party will also gain some support.
Lots of younger people simply do not feel the “tribal” loyalty to Labour that still motivates some older voters.
Unfortunately, we are not seeing the left vote cohere around some more radical alternative that can advance working class demands. What we are seeing is the fragmentation of the progressive vote into support for rival
pro-capitalist parties with a left face, or into abstention from elections altogether. This is a step backwards for the working class in political terms. We cannot afford to echo this fragmentation, obsessing over who is the “lesser evil” in any given constituency.
The tragedy of the current situation is the absence of a unified left alternative to Labour, one which reflects the aspirations of the most advanced workers while allowing revolutionaries to organise independently within it. Constructing such an organisation is the urgent task before us. It cannot be built by the SNP or the Greens or scattered campaigns in support of the NHS. It can only be built by left forces with a serious orientation on the struggles of the working class — including, for instance, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which the Socialist Workers Party is part of, and supporters of Left Unity.
However, if it is to be more than the sum of its relatively modest parts, such an organisation would have to draw in wider layers of workers who feel betrayed by Labour. The more unified the left is, the more chance it has of achieving this. Such an organisation cannot be forged overnight. The May elections are likely to prove punishing for left candidates, especially as the gap between Labour and the Tories in the polls is so narrow. Nonetheless, there will be credible campaigns in some localities. We will do our bit to make TUSC a pole of attraction for those who want an alternative to Labour and, where we can, we will ensure that its campaigns become a focus for wider forces.
At the same time, we will continue to argue for the different left forces to come together, without preconditions, to discuss a unified left challenge. While speculation on the exact outcome of the election is futile, it is likely a weak coalition or minority government will emerge, pushing through a colossal austerity drive in conditions of deep-seated discontent. If Miliband heads such a government, the crisis of Labourism will deepen.
We have to contest elections today, in difficult times, because, as that crisis grows, we want to ensure that the radical left can provide a better answer than the choice between “lesser evils”.
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