In last year’s US presidential elections Ralph Nader, standing in favour of a more ‘green’, less corporate, capitalism, persuaded more than 2.5 million people to vote for him, including many who would not otherwise have bothered turning up at the polling station. In Britain, the ruling class is also concerned about the growing lack of interest in capitalist politics. Learned professors from Essex and Sheffield Universities are concerned at the results of their research which “if this is confirmed by actual turnout in a few months’ time, electoral participation will look like it is in long term decline” (Guardian 1/3/01). They suggest that “the 2001 general election is set to have the lowest turnout of any since Lloyd George went to the country in 1918” (ibid). In this context the Socialist Alliance has just launched its general election campaign. Supported by celebrities such as Harold Pinter, Ken Loach, Linda Smith, Jeremy Hardy, Rob Newman, Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Ricky Tomlinson and John Pilger, the SA exists because today, with discontent and suspicion in the working class, there is the possibility that beyond apathy with elections there lies the potential for a struggle against the whole capitalist system. Following on from the Nader example, a report from its opening press conference says that “the SA campaign claims that it will attract disenfranchised voters who would otherwise not vote at all - at least 100,000 overall” (Guardian 2/3/01).
The SA was originally a loose alliance established in 1997. Increasing numbers of groups became interested in participating in it. Candidates stood in the 1998 Euro elections, in the May 2000 elections for the Greater London Assembly, and in various local elections. The groups now involved include the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party of England and Wales (ex-Militant), the Alliance for Workers Liberty (Workers Liberty/Action for Solidarity), Workers Power, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Weekly Worker), the International Socialist Group (Socialist Outlook) as well as other groups and individuals. While all these groups are proud of their particular identities, one thing they’ve always had in common has been support for the Labour Party at election time. Indeed, while their current plans are for at least a 100 candidates, (and supporting the 72 (ex-Militant) Scottish Socialist Party candidates in Scotland) elsewhere they will be recommending staying in the Labour fold. One of the SWP’s election slogans, for example, is “Keep the Tories Out” (“we still prefer a Labour victory to a Tory” - Socialist Worker 3/3/01). So why are they standing, if they don’t even want a change in government?
Mopping up discontent
At an SWP conference last November leading member John Rees said that “People’s disillusion with the electoral system - shown by low turnouts - and New Labour should not be left to others to exploit. We want socialists to gain from the anger in society” (SW 18/11/00). John Nicholson, a former deputy leader of Manchester Council and a leading member of the SA was reported as saying that “millions of working class people felt betrayed by New Labour and were looking for an alternative” (SW 7/10/00). Because of this “we have to make sure that alternative is a socialist alternative - otherwise the right wing, the Tories and the Nazis can gain from disillusion with New Labour” (ibid).
In fact the elements who constitute the SA know perfectly well that workers’ disillusionment can go in a very different direction from “the Tories and the Nazis”. The real alternative is to struggle as a collective class against the attacks of the Labour government, rather than the atomisation of the passive isolated individual in a polling booth. The SWP, for instance, published an article in Socialist Worker (28/10/00) on the question of elections and made a point of attacking the “‘left’ communists in Germany who were opposed to socialists contesting elections”. The article was headlined “Part of shaping anger with Blair” - that is, giving workers’ anger a shape which will be no threat to capitalism, and no benefit to the working class. The SWP say that: “Now you can hit back at Tory Blair” (SW 3/3/01) by voting Labour and surrendering to the charade of bourgeois democracy.
Propaganda for state capitalism
While the main reason for the SA’s existence is as part of the democratic charade, the detail of the points they’re standing on can’t be ignored. When Lenin mistakenly put forward the idea of (that contradiction in terms) ‘revolutionary parliamentarianism’, against the German Left Communists, he at least had the merit of wanting to make propaganda against the capitalist system. The various items agreed by the groups of the SA are all policies for the capitalist state to follow: changing the way hospitals, schools and council services are financed; ensuring state control of council housing, the London Underground, air traffic control and the Post Office; boosting local government; renationalising the buses, railways and water industry; changing the tax and welfare system.
In the SA there is an “80/20” formula, where they campaign on the 80% that they agree on and avoid debating the 20% they disagree on. The 80% are state capitalist policies. The 20% includes such details as the Weekly Worker’s request that the minimum wage “be decided on the basis of what is needed to physically and culturally reproduce the worker and one child” and that in prisons “cells must be self-contained and for one person alone” (25/1/01). The 20% also includes the fact that, during the war in Kosovo, some of the SA’s constituent groups supported the Serbian war-drive and others the NATO bombing. Their only difference was on which group of capitalist gangsters workers should die for.
One final point should be made about the SA campaign. It is curious that, after literally decades of disputes between all the different tendencies in the SA, the main leftist groups should finally have come together, for the first time since 1951, at this particular historical point. The explanation to this can be found in the current state of class consciousness. Over the last ten years workers have been disorientated, without even, in some respects, a sense of basic class identity. The confusion in the working class is accentuated when a unified force like the SA (claiming to be ‘revolutionary’ etc) insists that political life can take place in the framework of bourgeois democracy, and that the alternatives are nationalisation or privatisation, Left or Right. The reality of capitalist society is of the struggle of class against class, the working class against its exploiters.