On 7 May this year, amid much hype and fanfare, ‘the country went to the polls’ (except, of course, for the forty percent of workers who stayed away). And, surprise, surprise, the result was a resounding victory for the ruling class.
We do not refer to the fact that the Conservative party surprised commentators (and dismayed Labour supporters) by managing to scrape a (barely) workable majority, thus obviating the need (for now) for the much-anticipated rounds of haggling over a coalition. A Labour win, or a LibDem win, a Ukip win or any combination of the above would have been greeted by us in exactly the same way. (See elsewhere in this issue for our evaluation of the SNP victory in Scotland.)
Nothing much has changed, and no amount of hand-wringing by the liberal intelligentsia and the various irredeemably Labour-tailing idiots (Trotskyists, revisionists, trade-union bigwigs, Uncle Tom Cobley and all) will convince us that the attacks on the working class that are to come will differ in any serious way from what would have taken place had any of the other main bourgeois parties been elected.
That being the case, there is really not that much more to be said than we have said before: the class struggle continues, and the only way to stop cuts, privatisation and war being perpetrated by any government that serves the capitalist ruling class and works to preserve the exploitative capitalist system is to organise ourselves en masse to harness our strength, to change the balance of class forces and to shake the power of the ruling class.
We must organise first so as to resist and sabotage the ruling class’s plans to make workers pay for the economic crisis of capitalism through cuts and war. And, finally, we must organise ourselves to overthrow the system of exploitation altogether and put a planned, socialist economy in its place.
Still, with the election still fresh in everybody’s minds, there are a few things workers can learn from all the post-election moaning and groaning.
The first and most important thing to notice about the election was not that the Tories gained a slim majority of seats in parliament, but that, despite a massive propaganda campaign aimed at encouraging people to vote, and despite all the hype about possible coalitions etc that was meant to make people feel that choosing between Labour, Ukip, LibDem and Tory was a life-and-death, now-or-never moment for us all … four out of every ten British citizens of voting age stayed away from the polls.
To be precise, some 30,686,268 people cast their votes from a registered electorate of 46,424,006. This means that even of the registered electorate, some 15.7 million people decided not to vote. A further 4.5 million (around 9 percent) are unregistered, many of them young people – again, this is despite a massive campaign to try to convince young people to register and to participate in the election.
We have written at length in a previous issue about voter apathy vs activism, but let us be clear. While there is certainly plenty of apathy (‘why bother’/‘what’s the use’), there is also a significant level of active antipathy among workers regarding the specific choices (or lack of real choice) on offer. (See ‘Least worst’ vs ‘don’t bother’, Should workers vote?, Proletarian, April 2015)
Many of those who refused to vote did so after consciously weighing up the options and correctly deciding that, as one young commentator (Gareth Shoulder from Merseyside) told Radio 4:
“There’s nothing I agree with to vote for. Currently, none of the corporate-funded main parties, there’s nothing they can offer me that would encourage me to vote for their silly little policies.”
Asked if this was a phase of youthful rebellion, Gareth replied: “There’s nothing to grow out of. Just look at the state of the country at the moment. There are a million people using food banks, there are 700,000 people that are on exploitative zero-hour contracts, bankers’ bonuses are being protected. Is that the sort of country we want to live in?” (The Listeners’ Election, 30 April 2015)
Electoral system in Britain
Another significant fact that has been brought home to many people by the results charts is the huge disparity between votes received by the main parties and the number of seats that each party has actually won.
For example, although Labour lost 26 seats and Ed Miliband resigned in disgrace at what has been presented as a great failure, it is actually the case that Labour slightly increased its vote compared with 2010 – both numerically and in percentage terms. On the other hand, being one of the two biggest parties continues to act in its favour: with 30 percent of the votes, Labour won 36 percent of the seats.
Meanwhile, with just half a million more votes than last time around (an increase in vote share of less than 1 percent), the Tories gained 24 extra seats (an increase of 3 percent). As a result, with just 36.9 percent of the votes, the Tories ended up with 51 percent of the seats.
Even more starkly, the SNP’s extra million votes (up from 0.5m to 1.5m) took them from six to 56 seats, while Ukip’s extra three million votes (from 0.9m to 3.9m) took them from no seats to one.
The table below shows the share of votes compared with the number of seats obtained by each party in this election, and compares the seats gained with the number each party would have been given if the numbers were allocated exactly in accordance with number of votes received.
Of course, strict proportional representation (a literal translation of vote share to seat allocations) is very rare in the bourgeois parliamentary world, but for discussion purposes the numbers are certainly illuminating.
And this stark contrast between how people vote and how the seats end up being allocated is making itself more obviously felt as the old two-party consensus breaks down and more ‘alternatives’ are emerging to catch those disillusioned with the traditional parties of government. In short, the ‘first-past-the-post’ system is losing what little credibility it had left, and the huge discrepancies in representation following this election are likely to add to the momentum for some kind of reform of Britain’s electoral system.
Table two shows the percentage of votes received by the main parties if the whole adult population (around 51 million people) is taken into account, as opposed to just those who voted:
Party % of vote % of all adults % and no of seats
No vote unknown 40% 0% (0)
Conservative 36.9% 22% 51% (331)
Labour 30.4% 18% 36% (232)
Ukip 12.6% 7.5% 0.1% (1)
LibDem 7.9% 4.5% 1% (8)
SNP 4.7% 3% 9% (56)
Green 3.8% 2.5% 0.1% (1)
Once again, the ‘non votes’ are equal to the vote share of the two biggest parties combined – hardly a ringing endorsement of bourgeois politics.
Since the ruling class wishes us to retain our faith in the system of bourgeois democracy, there is a chance that reform will take place sooner rather than later. After all, plenty of European countries have what appear to be much ‘fairer’ systems of voting and parliamentary representation, where coalition governments are the rule rather than the exception, and the capitalists manage to maintain their rule perfectly well.
Still, any electoral reform will be welcome to communists for two reasons. First, because experience of a ‘fairer’ system would help workers to see that even the most ‘democratic’ bourgeois parliament will not be able to help them achieve their aims – the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the state machine will remain fully intact, no matter what method is used to count votes and elect parliamentarians.
The second reason is that, in a proportional representation situation, workers would feel far more comfortable about voting for small parties. Currently, many of those who do vote quite naturally see this as a wasted vote, since it so rarely results in even a single seat for any independent or small-party candidate. This would certainly bring closer the day when our own party would be able to contest elections in a meaningful way – although such an intervention would depend first and foremost on our building the party and deepening our connections with the working class. Still, there is no doubt that being able to stand in elections under the present conditions of struggle would help our party to spread its influence among wider sections of our class.
Some commentators have speculated that a desire to ‘keep the SNP in check’ will add to the impetus for electoral reform. It is certainly true that rivalries between the SNP and the main Britain-wide parties will work to that effect, but we are yet to be convinced that the ruling class as a whole (as opposed to various members of the group of career politicians who work for that class) is worried on this particular point. After all, the whole point of the SNP is to keep the anger of Scottish workers at the ills of capitalism diverted down a nationalist dead-end – the stronger the SNP, the greater the number of Scottish workers who can be kept away from revolutionary politics.
Immigrants and deficits
The patterns of voting during this election – with Ukip and Tory voters dominating in the English countryside and smaller towns and Labour in the big cities – would appear to show that the ruling class’s strategy of encouraging workers to ‘blame the immigrants’ for their problems has been most effective in those places where there aren’t that many immigrants to blame. The relative ghettoisation of immigrants in many towns and cities has also helped in the propagation of anti-immigrant sentiment.
In short, it would appear that people are more manipulable when their ignorance can be played upon. Workers will accept stories about ‘Somali gangs’ or ‘Romanians living in the lap of luxury’ more easily if they don’t actually mix with said Somalis and Romanians outside the school gates or at the local shops and cafes.
High unemployment was another factor pushing voters towards Ukip (since one of the carefully-inculcated popular beliefs is that ‘immigrants are taking our jobs’) – especially in areas that have been devastated by the loss of industrial jobs and left to rot. These areas have traditionally been Labour’s heartlands, but the absolute failure of the Blair/Brown governments to do anything to improve the lives of such communities has led to a mass turning away from the party by workers who live there.
In the last election, that disillusionment was manifested in a surge in votes for the apparently ‘progressive’ LibDems. This time, following the absolute exposure of Clegg and co, it led to the Ukip swing. Notably, Ed Balls lost his seat on the outskirts of Leeds to the Conservatives as a result of the surge in Ukip votes.
(In passing, we note that, while Labour have equally racist credentials as the Tories when in government, and certainly did their best to play the immigration card in this election, years of being told by all its left-wing hangers-on that Labour is a friend to workers has clearly led to a disconnect between many people’s perception and this reality.)
Similarly, the strategy of putting a ‘progressive’ gloss on reactionary nationalism has paid dividends for the ruling class in Scotland and Wales, with large numbers of workers clearly hoping that if only the pernicious ‘Westminster domination’ could be done away with, all would be well for workers in those areas.
Meanwhile, one of the reasons that the Conservatives have been able to hold up their vote share in England despite the unpopularity of the government and its austerity policies in the last five years has been the success of another of the ruling class’s propaganda pillars: the assertion that ‘austerity measures’ (cuts and privatisations) are needed to ‘balance the books’ and that there is no other way to return the British economy to a healthy state than to inflict these privations on the poor.
This line has clearly been swallowed by many workers. After all, no matter what stories Labour’s ‘left’-wing supporters like to tell us about the Tories being the party of the privileged and Labour being the party of the workers, the fact is that all the parties receive most of their votes from workers, just as they all objectively represent the interests of the capitalists.
This is perfectly illustrated by the reason given to one of our party’s members by his neighbour – a man who relies on benefits to make ends meet – for voting Tory. When asked why, he explained that “The country can’t afford all these benefits.” A perfect example of how our rulers’ propaganda persuades us to act against our own interests in order to prop up the very system that helps the rich to become ever more rich and powerful while keeping the rest of us poor and powerless.
The ‘If only Labour had won’ brigade
A groundswell of dismay greeted the election result from all those quarters where well-meaning better-off workers had been fooled into thinking that electing Labour would be Britain’s path out of austerity – that Labour would stop the wars, be kind to immigrants, save the NHS, build more social housing, reverse attacks on benefits and do anything and everything else that workers urgently need a government to do.
Despite Labour’s warmongering, profiteer-enabling record in office, and despite its continued support for war, privatisation and cuts while in opposition, the ‘progressive’, ‘left’-Labour machine has been in overdrive for the last year and more trying to convince workers that Labour holds the answer to all their problems and is just waiting for a chance to implement the policies on their growing wish-list.
According to the misleaders of our anti-war, anti-cuts and trade-union movements, the current cuts are driven by ‘ideology’ not necessity. In this narrative, the economic crisis of capitalism ceases to exist and the Tories become ‘the nasty party’ – beating up on the working class just because they can.
But this makes no sense. The fact is that, just like every other party, the Tories wish to get elected. They wish to have popular support and they wish to maintain social peace in order to preserve capitalist class rule. Like all the capitalist parties, they employ a variety of methods to trick workers into voting for them. Ultimately, though, they don’t cut public services and destroy public facilities just for the joy of doing so, but because these measures are demanded by their ruling-class bosses in order to try to create some avenues for profit-taking and thus prop up a system that is struggling to stay afloat.
It is capitalism in crisis that demands the policies that are pushing workers deeper into poverty and destitution. Neither the ‘nasty’ Tories nor the ‘workers’ friends’ in Labour have the will or the ability to resist these demands of a ruling class whose interests both parties were set up to serve. Ultimately, we have to understand that all the capitalist parties have the same one-point programme: Save British imperialism by any means necessary. Everything else is window dressing.
Still, this mood of anger and disappointment among those sections of our class who cherish illusions in Labour is very real, and, as usual, our ‘left-wing’ misleadership is jumping into action to make sure the anger is channelled down safe (for the ruling class) avenues. Which is why, at meetings up and down the country, concerned workers are turning out to be told what they already know (cuts are bad, people are suffering) and to be offered a ‘solution’ that in itself can be no solution (build for the demonstration on 20 June).
‘Action’ groups that follow up on these meetings are all aimed at this one event – mobilising for the demonstration in June, but one has to wonder whether those who attend them have been living in a goldfish bowl for the last 15 years.
Surely we do not need to have particularly long memories to have learned a lesson or two about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to protesting? Not only do we have the extremely pertinent example of the anti-war demonstration on 15 February 2003 to show us just how much difference a single weekend demonstration makes to government policy when not backed up by meaningful action or organisation, but we have now also had nearly seven years of an ‘anti-cuts movement’ that has produced nothing more than an annual Saturday stroll of dwindling proportions and an equally toothless talking-shop in the shape of the People’s Assembly against Austerity (PAA).
What none of the PAA’s meetings or action groups are doing is tackling the practical problem of how workers should organise themselves to defy anti-union laws, boycott the bedroom tax, overturn and beat benefit sanctions, abolish zero-hour contracts, save their local housing estates, schools, libraries and hospitals, etc, etc.
At its most militant, all this PAA-led ‘movement’ seems to be saying is ‘Wouldn’t it have been better if Labour had won?’ or perhaps even ‘Maybe if we make enough noise we can bring down this evil Tory government and get a Labour one installed instead’. No wonder the poorest and most marginalised workers – those that are suffering the most from the present austerity measures – continue to be conspicuously absent from PAA gatherings.
For communists, meanwhile, the task may not be easy, but it is necessary and clear: if we are ever to build a movement that is capable of taking on the ruling class and destroying its rotten, parasitic system, we must first expose the complicity of these charlatans who claim to lead our movement. Only when the cancer of social democracy (Labour and all its hangers-on, apologisers and prettifiers) has been cut out of the body of our movement will we be able to regain the strength and unity needed to fight the system and win.
A bit of light relief: the emperor’s new polls
The dismay of commentators and politicians over the inaccuracy of the polls that claimed to predict the election result was a classic example of how systems reinforce themselves when everyone working within them has a vested interest in their maintenance.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that polls were seen as just a rough indicator of how some people might be feeling about a particular topic. Polls are, after all, famously manipulable – the same person being polled on the same issue may give diametrically opposing answers depending on how the question is phrased. Essentially, they were understood to be a bit of marketing nonsense (‘8 out of 10 owners said their cats preferred it’, and other questionable statistics).
So why the change in how polls have come to be used and viewed?
It should be borne in mind at this point that, while the odd tiny corner of the corporate news media might be aimed at informing those who really need to know, most of the output that is labelled as ‘news’ simply exists to confuse and divert the masses; it is entertainment and propaganda dressed up as information. Now that we have 24-hour rolling news channels and constantly-updated websites pumping out this ‘news’ on an ever-increasing scale, the presstitute fraternity are becoming ever-more desperate for material with which to fill column inches and air time.
That is why, in this age of modern communications media and saturation coverage, the news is becoming ever more bizarrely self-referential. Essentially, what we are treated to much of the time is not news, but news about news. Idle and meaningless speculation has been turned into a serious business – ‘experts’ on everything from Royal Baby Naming to the Prime Minister’s Wife’s Feet are rolled out to offer their deep insights to the nation with all-too-predictable frequency.
It is not surprising, then, that polls have become the basis for so much frenzied supposition. But, as the snowball starts to roll down the hill, gathering momentum and gaining in size, this little ball of conjecture takes on a life of its own.
Before you know it, a bit of guesswork about how people might vote in an election has been transformed into the creation of endless hypothetical scenarios about which party or parties might make up the next government. Talking heads, pundits and politicians are all dragged into the game. It’s all so exciting that nobody seems to notice that all these castles in the air are based on nothing very much at all. As entertainment goes it’s much more fun than pretending to find solutions to the problems of the people, or answering the irritating questions of even the most carefully selected groups of electors.
It seems now, though, that not only the politicians but even the civil servants have allowed themselves to get caught up in this circus. So convinced were the planners in Whitehall that the election would result in a hung parliament that they had arranged for the Queen to be in Windsor on the morning of 8 May (safely out of the way of any unseemly post-election bargaining) and for the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, to be on hand to ‘advise’ Downing Street throughout the expected negotiations. (‘Not out of it, but above it’: how the Queen will engineer a royal retreat to keep out of a hung parliament by Nicholas Watt, Guardian, 6 March 2015)
The snowball effect was illustrated perfectly by the fact that the one last-minute poll that did predict the result fairly accurately was not published because the company that carried it out considered it to be an ‘outlier’ – that is, its authors were embarrassed to find that its results didn’t fit in with what everyone else was saying and didn’t want to be left looking silly if they had got it totally wrong. A classic example of how the herd mentality and self-censorship work together to keep people from questioning a given narrative. (This polling company claims it knew the general election result ahead of time but ‘chickened out’ of publishing it by Tomas Hirst, Business Insider, 12 May 2015)
So outraged are various media and political pundits at having been sucked into this virtual reality themselves (what do you mean, the emperor was wearing no clothes?) – as opposed to merely presenting it to their readers, which they are of course happy to do every day – that the ‘British Polling Council’ (yes, really!) has announced an independent inquiry into the cause of the industry’s ‘failure’. (Independent inquiry announced into what went wrong with election polls by Ben Farmer, Telegraph, 8 May 2015)