you can’t say that! ken livingstone as a barrier to working class organisation

25 05 2012

Ollie Sutherland was not impressed by the common call on the left for us to vote labour.

What always strikes me as bizarre about elections is the importance the left places on them. Every few years working people get the chance to choose which part of the ruling class they wish oppress them; as it’s always the ruling class in power after the elections, why do most of the left encourage participation in them? Elections are an ideological cornerstone of capitalist ‘democracy’: that people have control over who governs the country and makes key decisions about society. Therein lies the problem: they give people the illusion of control, when people’s lives and society are actually controlled by their workplace and the economic system – not parliament or City Hall.

The fact people are given a free choice over who rules them provides the illusion of popular control, but the choice is a false one: whether Labour or Tory, it presupposes the existence of capitalism, so the choices people are given are hardly different from one another – not much of a choice. A ‘nicer’ capitalism is still capitalism – we don’t want something mildly better, we want a revolutionary change of society. This is the problem of the left’s attitudes towards the recent London Mayoral election: by advocating voting for Ken Livingstone, they merely encourage a nicer capitalism, and not a revolutionary change. Not to mention that by encouraging participation in elections in general, all the left does is reinforce bourgeois-liberal ideology of which elections are a cornerstone.

But apparently, if the left does not encourage voting ‘to keep the Tories out’, it alienates the working class. Well then. The working class on May 3rd must have so eager to ‘keep the Tories out’, considering the numbers of them that came out in force to the ballot box – a whopping turnout of just under 40 percent.

What was Livingstone’s supposed appeal to the working class, then? His main platform was how he’d lower bus fares by a massive 8% – evidently significant and worth mobilising for. Sadly I don’t think many bought into this, as the last time he was in office transport fares increased. Furthermore, his plan to cut them with TfL’s budget only means TfL would rise them dramatically in the future to cover that budget deficit, as the tube upgrade isn’t yet finished – something Boris’ ‘sensible budgeting’ campaign was clever to exploit.

The idea of fare cuts was totally discredited by the fact Livingstone did nothing to oppose the mass of cuts already hitting Londoners, cuts accepted by his own party. Besides reinstating EMA*, the extent of Ken’s anti-cuts was reversing police cuts, as of course, the Met are an excellent thing for working class Londoners (especially ethnic minorities). His campaign was concluded by how much people saw he had working people’s interests at heart, when he was exposed to be a wealthy tax-evader.

The fact Livingstone is a fake-leftist isn’t the most important issue, however – things would be little different if he was genuine Old Labour. The problem of Livingstone – ‘Red Ken’ on the ‘left of Labour’, advocating ‘working-class interests’ is exactly because of those things – a bourgeois politician helping the poor, powerless workers. They cannot struggle for their interests and win on their own – they need bourgeois democracy and a smartly-dressed white man to do it for them. The problems here are numerous. Elected bourgeois politicians never have and never will pursue the interests of the class. Saying that the right people winning elections will improve working-class life makes people think the only political issues are those which are electoral. Relying on people at the top to pursue working people’s interests stops them struggling for things themselves, and therein building confidence in their power to change society. For example, Ken’s ‘fare deal’ policy stops people organising a grassroots movement to cut fares – which would probably cut them a lot more than 8%, not to mention build confidence in other anti-austerity movements. A reliance on ‘left’ leadership denies the working class its agency, acting as an invisible barrier to grassroots working-class organisation, and subsequently the development of ideas of alternative social organisation (socialism/communism).

This seems obvious – so why do most of the left still advocate support for Labour? One point is the union link – Labour is the party linked to the unions, thus it’s better to have them in power. This foolishly ignores Livingstone’s abysmal record on organised labour – be it the attacks on the RMT or siding with the bosses in the Sparks dispute (dining with them at the Ritz). At any rate, I wonder how many young, casual, precarious workers across London even know about the union link, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t care. Another point made is that even though the election is insignificant, we should still try to make life better for working-class Londoners – as detailed, Livingstone’s policies would have had little effect (even bad effect in some cases), and his existence as Mayor acts as a barrier to working-class organisation, making life worse for everyone in the long term.

Ken Livingstone and Old Labour aren’t the left; they are not the alternative. We cannot pretend that they are, or that we have no alternative but to vote for them (at any rate, most of the working-class doesn’t even vote). By obsessing over elections and the Labour Party, all the Left does is distract itself from the real operation of capitalism and the real working-class organisation that needs to be done.

*This is an excellent policy, but not for the reasons Livingstone’s campaign implied; rather, allowing working-class kids to buy and use more recreational drugs is a great thing within a system of exploitation that Livingstone had no intention of changing.

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9 responses

26 05 2012
Y en eso llego Fidel...

whiffed a bit of ultra leftism. ‘encouraging participation in elections in general, all the left does is reinforce bourgeois-liberal ideology’, this just isn’t true, elections aren’t going to change the world but It’s a chance for socialists to put their message to a large number, many of whom would otherwise be ignorant of it.

Also it’s a way of building on wider campaigns e.g. TUSC etc. which if elected can only be a good thing not least because if they’re elected they’d piss off the ruling administration e.g. (right wing example) UKIP getting MEPs isnt going to bring down the EU but they recognise that it’s part of building their wider/crazy campaigns.

You also seem to think there’s a contradiction between fighting for reformist changes yet still striving for wider revolutionary change, there isn’t (reasons for which are too long to put in a comment). Leftists in London that called for a ken vote did so mainly to give the tories a bloody nose, as you said it doesn’t matter who’s elected as nothing real can change, and thats the reason I’d advise people to vote even for a blairite zombie labour candidate like David Miliband because it would still be a massive middle finger to the Tories.

Like it or not, when most people come to politics the first thing they look at is which party represents them, yes, this is because of capitalism etc. but if when people first look to politics and find no socialist voice then they’ll assume there is no ‘socialist voice’ out there. Electoralism needs to be a (small) component for left activism. (sorry for the long comment lol)

26 05 2012
Y en eso llego Fidel...

Another point I’d make about the ‘pointlessness’ of elections. In Venezuela they’ve consistently elected Chavez (someone I’d compare to George Galloway in terms of mannerisms etc.), yes, chavez isnt perfect by a long shot (and I mean a really long shot) but at the end of the day under his rule poverty in Venezuela has exactly halved. Obviously that still isnt enough but you can’t just dissmiss these massive positive changes in the lives of some of the poorest people in the world as ‘an illusion’, furthermore, Venezuela doesn’t fit your (correct in other cases) assesment of ‘A reliance on ‘left’ leadership denies the working class its agency, acting as an invisible barrier to grassroots working-class organisation’, much of the changes under Chavez have been bottom up intiatives that have received state support (example here http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/6216)

27 05 2012
Ollie S

‘whiffed a bit of ultra leftism’ – you mean by refusing to ignore how abysmally terrible Labour actually is? And how the Left just goes round in circles by advocating participation in ‘democracy’? If that’s ‘ultra’ and not just something obvious, well, okay then.

So use bourgeois elections with ‘politicians’ the working-class totally distrusts to get the socialist message out, rather than actually talking to, building resistance with and engaging with the working-class themselves. Elections help sustain capitalism (that’s why the bourgeoisie first opened the vote up to the lower classes – to ‘quell the bitterness of the poor’ by giving them an impression of control over their lives/society). I have no idea how you see them as something that can be positive.

‘Leftists in London that called for a ken vote did so mainly to give the tories a bloody nose, as you said it doesn’t matter who’s elected as nothing real can change, and thats the reason I’d advise people to vote even for a blairite zombie labour candidate like David Miliband because it would still be a massive middle finger to the Tories.’ – this is totally worthless. Seeing the Tories as something independent and worth mobilising against (as opposed to the capitalist ruling class in general) is the total wrong way of challenging capitalism. We don’t challenge it on their terms (‘take down the Tories’) because that presupposes the legitimacy of their terms and system! We build an idea of an alternative – telling working people to vote against the Tories will get you nowhere in building ideas for an alternative to capitalism.

‘but if when people first look to politics and find no socialist voice then they’ll assume there is no ‘socialist voice’ out there’ – okay, so some revolutionary socialist parties/coalitions at election time run some candidates. Where has that gotten us for people knowing about socialism and an idea of an alternative? Not very far…

‘much of the changes under Chavez have been bottom up intiatives that have received state support’ – that’s the entire point: these positive (state supported) changes would never ever have happened without bottom-up, working-class pressure. Ignore Chavez – it’s what the working-class can get out of the ruling class.

27 05 2012
Ollie S

Interesting liberal commentary on Chavez – note the part on his attacks on unions: http://wingborn.hubpages.com/hub/Hugo-Chavez-Makes-Me-Nervous

27 05 2012
Ollie S

This is an excellent piece saying lots of what I mean: http://thecommune.co.uk/2010/03/25/should-communists-stand-for-parliament/

27 05 2012
Y en eso llego Fidel...

The anti Chavez article is completely flawed, the constitutional reforms that makes the writer so ‘nervous’ were (nearly) all passed via referendum, that doesn’t make it a good policy but it doesn’t make him a ‘dictator’ if the extensions to his power are all approved of directly by the people (and where all democratic rights are upheld). The bit about union busting is also flawed, when talking about the ‘strike’ in PDVSA notice how he didn’t mention ‘workers’? thats because it was a bosses strike and his ‘cuts’ were designed to purge the bosses of the company that were supporters of the old regime, the general situation of trade unionism there is really complicated as there are different unions many of which supported the US coup and right wing parties. Yes, the working class in venezuela do deserve the credit for a lot of the democratic initiatives but they were made possible because of state support e.g. the workers councils that were set up and sponsored by Chavez (in the article i linked to).

27 05 2012
Y en eso llego Fidel...

On voting, the vote wasn’t ‘granted’ to the working class to ‘quell’ dissent, it was fought for bitterly in campaigns that Karl Marx himself wrote pamphlets for and supported i.e. Chartism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartism). My overarching problem with the point you make (and which you reiterate in your comment) is that you seem to think that those on the left must EITHER take militant street action OR vote/stand for election, they’re not mutually exclusive, voting is just A form of protest and left candidates/parties like RESPECT are just protest parties, voting supplements and grows out of wider bottom up movements. I’d compare voting for Ken with meeting David Cameron and giving him a middle finger i.e. it’s not going to change anything at all but it’s a ‘cool’ experience that pisses off someone you hate and that doesn’t take much effort to achieve that you might aswell do seeing as you have the opportunity

27 05 2012
Barry

Chartism was a revolutionary movement which opposed the establishment of industrial capitalism. It pre-dated the accommodation to capitalism by Labourism , in its trade union form or parliamentary form. The plug riots, the scared month, drilling with arms on the moors, armed insurrection in Newport. This movement rejected capitalism,not looked to make the best of it. Political democracy could not have been granted at the time,it would have had revolutionary consequences. The vote was granted when it was safe to do so. This was when structurally economics and politics were separated. Trade union were for economic concession if possible and if the economy allowed and Later the Labour party was for political concessions if the system could afford it.

The anti Tory vote as a lesser evil, is a Leninist tactic which dates from the early 20th century, which was wrong in the circumstances of the time, and led to helping social democracy sink roots in the working class (local branches of the Labour party) and served to reduce the role of communists to a pressure group on Labour. These failed tactics have been reproduced unthinkingly ever since. Putting pressure on trade union officials or on pushing Labour left or looking to left labour candidates,does not strengthen communism but undermines it. It is accommodation to Labourism and working within the system. Many a Trotskyist leader might favour an independent rank and file movement, but tactically the time is never right. There is a stage where pressure is put on officials. So the practical politics,tactics, horizons are social democrat and do not aim beyond capitalism. Underneath the revolutionary rhetoric is the perspective of a left labour government seen as a workers government which can Historically represent the workers.

In real terms, Livingstone was not a lesser evil,nor more than Labour councils implementing cuts are a lesser evil. They are a false alternative. An anti Tory vote is a vote for an alternative way of administrating capitalism, it is social democratic.As sylvia Pankhurst said a long time ago,the problem with these tactics is they lack the courage of communist conviction and result in an historical detour away from communist possibilities.

15 06 2012
Ollie S

Look where the revolutionary left sucking up to Labour has gotten us: Blair/Miliband/etc, accepting all the cuts.




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