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The Left and Elections: In Defence of the Vote
national | elections / politics | feature Monday December 01, 2003 17:38 by hs - sp (personal capacity)
From the newswire
There has been excellent coverage of the elections for the Assembly and criticism of the lack of interest shown by IMC-IE contributors in this topic. This has been attributed variously to "southern myopia" or to "anarchist anti-electoralism." In the essay below, written by newswire contributor "hs - sp", the importance of elections is discussed.
With elections coming in the south and just after the elections in Northern Ireland there have been some comments on indymedia on the idea of standing in elections and voting itself. But there has not been a full debate on the subject alone. This is an important question for activists in all groups and parties, especially as more have taken an electoral strategy. We also expect to see anti-bin charge candidates. Although we should remember that this is not the only reason everyone is standing. Hopefully this can begin a debate on the subject without falling into name calling such as “reformist" or “ultra-left”.
I will begin with the preamble that I am writing from my own personal opinion and experiences and do not represent the views of the socialist party or anybody else (and if anybody feels I have misrepresented their position they are free to correct). And I will add I am also someone who has been living abroad for the last few years so won’t be up to date on every detail of every campaign or comment.The leaders and the led
The main ideological argument I have heard against voting or standing in elections is that the electoral process itself divides people into “leaders and led”. This in some ways of course is true, obviously whether we like it or not Bertie Ahern is the Prime Minister. And this will also remain the case if we don’t vote. But the deeper implication of this argument is that once someone votes it means they are expecting the person they elected to solve their problems for them and even think for them. That he or she is the voters “leader”. And socialists by standing say the same thing.
Anarchists and socialists have made the argument that people would be better fighting to solve their problems rather than expecting a politician to do it for them. This is all very true except for one basic fact. I have never met anyone in my life who after voting for someone expected him or her to solve all their problems. Or that people stop being activists after they get a good politician elected (of course that’s not saying elected politicians should do nothing for constituents!). The argument from anarchists has often been a black and white issue, either you vote or you are an activist, either you are a sheep or an individual. But the issue is not black and white peoples opinions differ and also change. And as with everything in life there are many shades of grey. The idea that voting prevents other activity is simply not true if anything voting can be the first political activity many people take. It may be a passive activity for the majority but that is also true of non voters. And the idea that a victory for a socialist candidate will solve all your problems is something I have never heard a single party or group make. Voting or standing in elections is not contradictory to campaigning.Leadership? No thanks!
The words “leader” and “leadership” have terrible connotations. When I think of the word leader or leadership I think of a George W. Bush speech or some arrogant politician with airs and graces. And anyway who’s going to let anyone tell them what to do? Anarchists are forever arguing against their perceived “little lenins,” yet in practice anarchists themselves have played a leadership role at times. For example there is the movement against the military use of Shannon airport and direct action. The IAWM as well as both the socialist party and socialist workers party were opposed to using direct action. But many of the rank and file of the IAWM did support the idea. Anarchists led by example and made the direct action and this in turn effected the IAWM, which because of pressure from below has now endorsed direct action. Now the anarchists did not go to the IAWM and argue the case they simply led. The anarchists played a leadership role, and frankly they were correct to do so. In my opinion and with the greatest respect I believe my own party’s position was a mistake and direct action is the correct strategy for Shannon. As long as it is organised democratically and with safety concerns, first aid, stewards etc. And with reference to the local community and airport workers. Call it what you like but the activists played a leadership role.
The same argument can be made for the bin tax campaign in Fingal. If the Fingal Anti-Bin Tax Campaign had not made such an impact at the beginning its doubtful it would have become such a big issue. Somebody had to suggest the idea of the blockades in the bin tax meetings and somebody had to argue the case. This does not make them “leaders” as such but it is a leadership role. And those elected to represent the different campaign groups are just that, representatives. A campaign of a thousand people let alone ten thousand can only be run well by delegated representatives. If there is no structure a leadership will emerge of that there is no doubt. But there will be no checks or balances or any way to challenge the direction of the campaign or replace the leadership.Voting and political activity
Another point often made is that it would be better organising people into activity than getting people to vote. As one commenter put it 20,000 people not paying for their bin tax is better than 20,000 people voting for anti – bin tax candidates. But this again buts us into the black and white position of either or. What about 20,000 people not paying for their bin tax and voting for anti tax candidates?
There is no proof that standing in elections is contradictory to activity and campaigning. For example we can look at Fingal again. Fingal is the only area in Ireland where there has been a consistent vote for the hard left recently, (Dublin North and West) yet it proved to be one of the most militant areas when it came to the bin charges.Why do people vote for socialists?
This brings into the argument of why people vote socialist at all. Ireland is different to many European countries in that we did not produce a mass communist or socialist party. Therefore unlike Italy or Spain for example you have very few people who describe themselves as communist or socialist or anarchist.
Generally I think you find in Ireland that you have activists but not so many supporters of these ideologies or even a general left position. Where for example in Italy someone will vote for Rifondazione Communista because they are a communist in Ireland people only vote for socialists for work they have done. Rather than for the party or ideology. This is becoming common across the political spectrum as we see more single issue candidates and independents and less committed FF and FG supporters. This can of course change with Sinn Fein gaining support and possibly the Socialist Party in Dublin. But up to now socialist candidates have received a personal rather than party vote.
The Socialist Party’s vote did not come because the people of Fingal took a sudden interest in the works of Lenin, Marx and Trotsky. The vote came from the activity of party members in the area because of work on local issues and campaigns such as the water and bin taxes. So in the Irish situation standing in elections is not contradictory to activity but in fact complimentary. And in truth essential, if you are not active in the community you will simply not be elected and if you do not continue to be you will loose your seat.
Another argument is that the party, which takes the electoral road, will slowly but surely become simply an electoral party and activists will simply concentrate on getting their people elected. True this has happened with some parties in the past but it is by no means obligatory. Again with my own party it did not become less activist after Joe Higgins won his council seat, if anything it became more. And again the only real way for a socialist to get elected is campaigning work not simply electoral work.
Why people don’t vote is another question, often in some areas the choice is very little FF or FG, even Labour by insisting in propping up both parties is rarely seen as an alternative. Sinn Fein are filling this gap in many areas. Socialist candidates too have to be credible or people won’t vote for them. And of course a lot of people are apathetic or couldn’t care less. A good socialist candidate who has worked in the area on campaigns can change this apathy. The truth is political support for socialist parties must be built from the grass roots up. Otherwise as we have seen in too many cases no one will vote for them. Program too is essential, even if you are a small party you have to offer something for people to support. And with the great rush to the centre in (or right) in European politics it is not difficult to stand out. But without the work on the ground it will make little difference.Elections and reformism
“Reformist” is one of the best insults in leftism, but often it is a word misused so I would like to define it to begin with. Originally reformism in the socialist or communist sense meant changing society to a communist society but doing it peacefully and by reforms (of course the current owners of production aren’t always in agreement!). But today reformism really means making reforms to make life a little better but there is no changing of society at the end. Some understandably enough have made the argument that all political parties who take the part in elections end up being reformist parties. I think they are referring to the latter more contemporary definition. As proof they point to many leftist parties in the past. This of course in some cases is true in some cases not so. For example Western Europe’s biggest post war communist party the Italian Communist party was reformist (in the original sense) to begin with. Elections did not make it reformist it was founded that way. Sharing power with the Christian Democrats after the war made it put a brake on mass movements, but there is a difference between sharing power with right wing parties and standing in elections. But it is true there is a risk that the electoral strategy can lead a party that way. But does that mean to reject it? If we’re not willing to take risks can we change society? I can just as easily argue that socialism or anarchism is a failure because it failed in every manifestation in the past, but do you just give up? Of course not. In short it has happened in the past but it is not obligatory and it’s a necessary risk that must be taken.Legitimacy
Another argument is the old one that taking part in elections gives legitimacy to bourgeois parliaments. Which in the southern Irish situation is simply not true. The Dail whether we like it or not is seen as legitimate by the vast majority of the people. There is of course many times when a parliament does not have legitimacy for example the old Stormont or the recent events in Georgia. But this is simply not the case in Southern Ireland now.
Or there are situations when there are two competing systems of government “dual power” as Marxists like to call it. For example during the Russian revolution when there was two centres of power one in the parliament the other in the workers councils or soviets. Or an example closer to home Sinn Fein's Abstention from the British Parliament after the 1918 elections. Remembering of course Sinn Fein in 1918 was a mass party with a huge mandate and it set up a rival system of power, not socialist but it still makes the point. Of course SF did take part in the elections first. Sinn feins abstention from Westminster in the recent period had more to do with tradition than organising a rival government and had little if any effect.
Now there is no rival system, there are no workers soviets or councils there are no centres of popular power. So in short when we are faced with a situation of two rival systems, soviets versus parliament for example, anarchists have a point. And, at the time parties and groups would need to argue whether to enter a parliament or not. But when we don’t and the left is miniscule I think the argument doesn’t work. And it separates the left from society as a whole.Voting in referendums and trade unions
Voting in referendums is another issue, of course it is very different to standing candidates and there are cases when and when not to vote. In some countries people are also free to organise their own referendums and even recall politicians (as seen recently in California). Legitimacy can come more to the point with referendums, for example the republican and nationalist movement refused to legitimise referendums in the North which they couldn’t win. In the south though it is a different situation. We cannot ignore them for the simple the fact that if we ignore the referendums they will simply go through. (In Italy for example 51% of the voting population must vote or the referendum is not valid, therefore abstaining is a political tactic used by both left and right) Of course as the Nice referendum proved the government will simply not except the “wrong” answer. But it does expose them somewhat. If the left had boycotted the referendum it would not have been noticed at all while handing the opposition position completely to the reactionaries.
On the issue of trade unions too there seems to be less disagreement with most parties and groups on the left (as far as I’m aware) willing to stand and support candidates now. Including the Irish anarchist group Workers Solidarity Movement. I would appreciate an clarification from a member of the WSM on this. Why is it all right to elect leaders in a trade union but not candidates for local councils? And does this include all trade unions (including right wing ones, which is a point in Europe). Is it only for delegates or is it also for positions such as president or general secretary? Do the WSM think that the unions in Ireland could be transformed? In Italy many anarchists have chosen to organise their own anarchist trade union rather than work in the mass ones. Others work within the small but militant rank and file unions. And the official trade unions in Italy are 100 times more militant than their Irish counterparts. And does the same apply for student unions?
My own opinion is that especially when there is no other options we should work and stand for elections in trade unions right wing or not.The councils/parliament have no power
The point is also often made that there is no power in the councils or even the parliament itself. That the real power lies within the board rooms of big business who will never allow a government to enact socialism. This is perfectly true, there would be a flight of capital, strikes and lockouts would follow and as proved in many countries the revolution could be derailed. In the end the movement outside the parliament is more important. This is pretty much agreed on within the hard left. But outside the hard left? In the general population it’s not the case. True or not it is a minority position, Simply saying that there’s no point is really not enough. Intellectual arguments aren’t enough. The nice referendum exposed the government’s hypocrisy much better than any argument could. If we had simply said, “we’re not voting in the referendum because the government won’t accept a ‘no’ vote anyway”, no one would have listened. Better to win the vote and expose the hypocrisy. If we say we are boycotting the parliament because it has no power the vast majority will pay no attention.
Activists know that the council’s power on the bin charge issue was removed and given to the county manager. So the arguments go, even if we had a anti bin tax majority in a council they would be powerless anyway. This is not true they would not be powerless; the fact of council being overturned would again expose the government and put them in a very difficult political position. Not to mention the massive publicity. A majority in a council would boost the campaign, which could go further than the issue of the bin tax itself. A left wing local council could have a huge political effect on the area and even nationally even without power.
The same could be said within a parliament (obviously we are nowhere near there). But nobody will change the system in Ireland unless the current system is seen to fail. And politics is more than numbers a left victory can rally supporters and help build strike and other movements. But even now it is possible to build a vocal opposition within the Dail which can give political support to strikes and other movements.A platform
The socialist party’s position is pretty well known so I won’t spend too much time it. That is to use elected positions as a platform for socialist ideas and to help build a mass movement as well as to voice opposition and question the government. This is just one part of the party’s activity along with community, youth and trade union work. The party doesn’t believe that a simple majority in parliament will create a socialist state but the real transformation will have to take place in the workplaces and communities. Representatives must live on the wage of a worker therefore keeping his or her feet on the ground this is also the rule for trade union positions.
I don’t know the position of the socialist workers party or others who may stand and will leave it to them to put their positions forward.Socialist disUnity
We cannot talk about elections without mentioning unity or lack of. As is well known the Socialist Workers Party have called for an electoral pact or alliance. I’m not really sure which, a pact being simply endorsing each other’s candidates, an alliance or pact where each party puts candidates forward on a single list or an alliance where candidates would be chosen by members of the alliance (including those not belonging to either the SP or SWP). They are all very different things. In reality I don’t think an endorsement makes much difference as long as we don’t stand against each other. As I said before, people vote for the candidates rather than the party. There is also the problem of the last attempt to set up and Socialist Alliance in Ireland and frankly rightly or wrongly many people in the socialist party don’t trust the SWP to stick with it. (But stranger things have happened!) If there is community candidates on issues such as the bin tax. The socialist party generally supports the community candidate. A wider alliance needs to be more than the two parties or I don’t see much point. If the majority of an alliance is made up with members of just one party I don’t think it would work.Not Sheep
In conclusion voting doesn’t mean you are a sheep, that you are legitimising "evil bourgeois parliaments", that you accept the status quo or that you have given up on community, workplace or political activity. It is just another way of voicing your opposition without preventing you from doing anything else. Standing for an election doesn’t make you a dictator in waiting or mean you think you have all the answers. We have to make a challenge wherever possible whether in our workplaces in our communities, culturally or politically. The left must move out of the political ghetto and become a mass movement. Elections are not the only way to do this, campaigning work is always better but elections can be complimentary to the process and also help the left to move beyond single issues such as service charges and the war in Iraq and into a more generalised movement. And something we must always remember just because we decide not to vote and stand in elections does not mean our opponents won’t. In many European countries where the left failed to offer an alternative extreme right wing parties have stepped in often with stunning success. But for a less dramatic example we can be pretty sure lots of pro bin tax candidates will be standing in the local elections so why shouldn’t we support and vote for those who oppose it?