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Are elections a vehicle for change?

A combination of pressure from left wing MPs and a movement in the streets can't bring fundamental change
Houses of Common in parliament

Elections of MPs don’t bring about revolutionary change (Picture: Flickr/ Number 10)

Revolutionary socialists don’t believe it is possible to transform capitalism through parliamentary reforms or elections. Nor do we accept the idea that a combination of pressure from left wing MPs and a movement in the streets and workplaces can bring fundamental change. We understand that real power doesn’t lie in parliament.

It doesn’t even lie in Downing Street, as former Tory prime minister Liz Truss quickly found out. That’s one reason why the Socialist Workers Party always prioritises the fight away from parliament. We believe that workers acting for themselves, rather than relying on the parliamentary system, is a step towards revolutionary change.

Vladimir Lenin, one of the leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution, put it this way. “The action of the masses—a big strike for example—is more important than parliamentary activity at all times, and not only during a revolution or revolutionary situation.” But he went on to point out that this understanding doesn’t mean that revolutionary socialists can afford to ignore parliament all together. Just because the institution cannot be central to any strategy for change doesn’t mean it has no relevance at all.

For a start, parliament puts forward laws that materially affect working class people. Those laws might have the effect of improving people’s wages and conditions, or they might do the opposite.  Parliamentary votes can also become the focus of anger over wider issues, such as declarations of war, for example. Workers often fight over such “parliamentary” questions. And which party wins a general election can also have a big effect on the conditions in which struggle takes place. That’s true even when, in policy terms, there is little to divide the main parties.

Tory victories, for example, often confirm workers’ fears that fighting back is difficult or impossible because “most people are too right wing”. Labour victories, by contrast, are proof that at an elemental level, most people see class as the most important distinction in society.

So, in ways however distorted, elections represent a battle for working class consciousness. Millions of people—and for most of the time, most of the working class—have illusions in parliament. Revolutionaries cannot shatter that false impression by simply ignoring it.

General elections heighten people’s political awareness. They act as a licence to talk politics in neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. Revolutionaries should intervene in these debates to make propaganda about the system, the limitations of elections—and the socialist alternative to capitalism. Intervening in elections is an opportunity to tap into masses that could be drawn towards struggle.

For those same reasons, it can sometimes be useful for revolutionaries to make use of an election and themselves stand candidates. Socialists elected as councillors or MPs can, as Lenin described, act as “tribunes of the people”. That is, they can raise issues that pose the questions of class in the sharpest possible way and expose other parties as fake.

But there is a vital distinction between a left wing, reformist MP and a revolutionary socialist one. The main priority of the left wing MP is to use parliament to win changes. But in doing so they help reinforce the idea that elections, not struggle, are the way forwards.

That’s because they see change as fundamentally coming from the halls of power. In contrast, every day that a revolutionary sits in parliament, they expose its weakness and work towards its downfall. Revolutionaries in parliament should see their position as an opportunity to raise the level of struggle at every point. And any movement such as the mass mobilisation for Palestine on the streets in Britain, risks being tamed if its aims are pushed towards electoral glory.

The way to win isn’t to stand as many councillors as possible—it’s to build the struggle on the streets and in the workplaces. And, to unlock its potential, any left wing movement must be taken to its most radical conclusions.

  • This is the ninth part of a series of columns that discuss What We Stand For, the Socialist Workers Party statement of principles, printed every week in Socialist Worker 

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