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In and against electoral politics

Attention to electoral politics creates an opening for socialists, argues Sabrina Huck – to redirect energy towards building truly transformative movements

5 to 6 minute read

Jeremy Corbyn stands surrounded by supporters as he campaigns for reelection in Islington North

The July 4 general election seems a foregone conclusion: Labour is maintaining a solid polling lead; the Conservatives are unable to turn their fortunes around. Rishi Sunak is stumbling from blunder to blunder. We can with almost total certainty expect to wake up to a Labour Prime Minister on Friday. 

When Starmer won the Labour leadership in 2020, he sold himself as keen to keep some of Corbyn’s progressive agenda and as valuing the unity of different party flanks. Since winning power, however, he and his team have made much of their ‘changed party’, ditched most pledges and expelled and blocked left-wing members and candidates. Labour has deselected Faiza Shaheen, attempted to sideline Diane Abbott, and, of course, removed the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, forcing him to stand as an independent.

Despite widespread public appetite for ‘change’ and total disillusionment with the Conservative Party, Starmer’s record implies that Labour voters might be in for a cold awakening. Throughout the election campaign, Labour has avoided any substantial commitments that would result in greater investment in public services. They do not back popular policies like ending the two-child benefit cap. On issues driving wedges through communities – including migration and trans rights – it plays lip service to the divisive narratives set out by reactionaries of all parties.

We stand in a paradoxical position: the country strongly wants change – and is willing to vote for it. Labour, however, is reluctant to deliver it. Aside from joining in with the schadenfreude of Tory destruction, it is hard to feel any excitement at the prospect of a Labour government under Starmer. 

The election nonetheless offers a window of opportunity for socialists. It is a political event that affect everyone – and most people will pay at least a little more attention to politics this week than they would otherwise. It is a chance to engage in the national conversation with our family members, friends and work colleagues, or as part of organised campaigns.

The limits of Labour’s challengers

In this vein, and in response to Labour’s reluctance to be bold, independent candidates have sprung up across the country. Some, such as Shaheen or Corbyn, are running as independents following rejection from Labour. Others, such as Andrew Feinstein in Keir Starmer’s consistency Holborn and St Pancras, or Leanne Mohammed in Wes Streeting’s Ilford North, were never seeking a Labour nomination, but are specifically standing as left-wing challengers on issues such as Gaza.

Green candidates are also pitching to progressive voters in Labour strongholds. They argue that a vote for them will not hand victory to the Tories – but rather send a message to Labour not to take their left-leaning base for granted. In Bristol Central, where Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Thangham Debbonaire faces the prospect of losing her seat to Green Party Co-leader Carla Denyer, this strategy could cause some upset for Starmer on election night.

It is a paradoxical position: the country strongly wants change and is willing to vote for it – but Labour is reluctant to deliver it

Socialists are involved one way or another in election campaigns – supporting an independent, a promising Green or even still backing Socialist Campaign Group members in Labour in their re-election efforts. Their desire to get involved in parliamentary politics again is understandable, given the prevalent anti-Tory mood and the opportunity it presents to discuss vital issues with people. 

For those of us who want to see a true transformation of our society, however, we must be cautious of what John Holloway described as the ‘state paradigm’ – a way of thinking where the state becomes the vantage point from which society can be changed. Throwing most of our efforts behind election candidates speaks to this approach, especially where we place hope in individual candidates to have a disproportionate impact in parliament rather than seeing campaigning as a tool, or means to identify and mobilise new supporters to specific causes. 

Resisting the state paradigm

While engaging with the election, we must remember that electoral politics are just one form of activity and political expression. Many other forms of organisation and struggle for a different, transformed society exist. 

The state is limited in its potential for transformation because of its historically entrenched importance in reproducing and protecting the capitalist mode of production. Whenever a government takes actions that harm the interest of capital, they will find themselves in an economic crisis that makes it difficult for them to cling on to power. 

Building a new society through the structures of the old – which are by design the wrong tool to unravel the material conditions of our economy – will not result in liberation. Renewed focus on electoralism and ‘taking state power’ can subordinate other, extra-parliamentary forms of struggle.

The state has limited potential for transformation because of it is entrenched in reproducing and protecting the capitalist mode of production

The Palestine solidarity movement in Britain has, with the notable exception of some groups such as Palestine Action, failed so far to substantially escalate the fight. While focusing on support for pro-Gaza candidates can be a useful propaganda exercise, their impact as actual parliamentarians within the Westminster system will likely be limited. 

Even if, after the election, a group of left-wing Socialist Campaign Group, Greens and Independents can form a loose network in parliament to work together on shared interests, it is not a given that they can actually find political agreement on the key battles we face.

If Labour MPs remain worried about the potential to have their whip removed, will they speak out in the new parliament? Is there a coherent political approach to the environment, to the rights of disabled people, migrants and trans people among all the Independent and Green candidates? Much more work needs to be done to stake out these political foundations before individual actors can pose a serious challenge to the incoming government. 

This election campaign should remind us that true social, political and economic transformation is not just about capturing power – and then hoping to construct new power relations within the same system. It must be about completely dissolving these power structures, in favour of a dynamic of mutual care, dignity and support, that does not rely on domination over one another. 

Sabrina Huck is a freelance writer and activist based in London

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