How should the left vote in the General Election?

Graham Campbell makes a case for how the left should vote tomorrow.

Picture: secretlondon123/flickr
Picture: secretlondon123/flickr

Here I will argue for a policy of tactical, selective and conditional critical support for anti-austerity candidates and for parties that revolutionaries don’t normally advocate voting for. I want to start off by advocating a multi-layered approach to the UK general election before going onto the rationale for voting Labour, Green, SNP or far left where appropriate.

Revolutionaries used to approach general elections prior to the 2010 dawning of the age of coalition government with either ‘vote Labour with no illusions’ or ‘Vote left where you can, Vote Labour where you must’ knowing there were really only two choices – a Tory majority government or a Labour majority government. In this context a policy of conditional support for a Labour government was appropriate – an approach which stood the test of time. From the 1950s to the 1990s revolutionaries largely avoided directly contesting elections.

Then came the era of neo-liberalism, the betrayals of Blairism and European social democracy and the emergence of anti-austerity, anti-neo-liberal and even anti-capitalist political movements across Europe which created broad workers parties or anti-austerity coalitions in which the far left played a major role (i.e. Respect and the SSP).

The experience of Coalition government these last 5 years has again changed all that. The loss of Tory support on the right to UKIP and of Labour support on the centre left to SNP has shifted the ground politically making space available to the Greens and Plaid. Most voters already know that neither main party is likely to form a majority government.

Many Marxists in Britain consider it a point of principle that you don’t vote for ‘bourgeois’ i.e. pro-capitalist or non-working class parties, But in reality voting in elections is a purely tactical question. Firstly, to choose which set of political conditions after an election are most favourable to the revival of working class struggles for emancipation. Secondly to address the illusions in reformism that working class voters actually have or are developing – not the illusions they used to have (i.e. Labourism).

While this election is a choice between Ed Miliband and David Cameron for Downing Street, it is often the case we vote Labour holding our noses despite what they now stand for. Labour candidates must be put to the political tests of where they stand on Trident, imperialist war, budget cuts and austerity. We can clearly give conditional critical support to the obvious stand-out Labour candidates e.g. in London, Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North), John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington), and Dianne Abbott (Hackney North).

Conditional critical support also applies where we need to defeat UKIP’s xenophobia by fully mobilising a mass electoral turnout for whichever progressive party is best placed to stop Nigel Farage. In Thanet South, Boston & Skegness, Clacton and Rochester to stop UKIP people will need to vote Labour.

Everyone agrees the treacherous Lib-Dems deserve a right good kicking to consign the duplicitous and patronising Nick Clegg to a mere footnote in British political history. I would certainly advocate a tactical and or critical vote for Labour, SNP or the Greens to get rid of them. But even where the Labour candidate does not adhere to the left wing demands an SNP or Green candidate might put forward we will need to say we want a change of government and in most places in England that will mean voting Labour.

It’s not easy being Green or voting Plaid

Now I want to move onto the thorny question of whether to and where to, and how to support the Greens. This will be a first for me. I have never advocated a vote for what I consider a petit-bourgeois (middle class) party in England and Wales. However the Green surge in England (over 10,000 members have joined in 2015) is a partial reflection of the anti-austerity mood in England,that we find across Europe and reflected in the SNP surge in Scotland. It is principled for revolutionaries to campaign alongside radical Green party activists in those selected areas where their vote has a serious chance of building an alternative local movement or even of winning. By and large these are university cities and towns where the Liberal Democrat vote will completely collapse, and where Labour is neck and neck with or being run close by the Greens. We need to see the return of Caroline Lucas in Brighton, and a critical vote for the Greens in Norwich South, Bristol West and other places where they have mounted a serious community based left wing anti-austerity challenge.

In England and Wales the prospect of the Greens and Plaid Cymru winning seats as part of a ‘progressive alliance for change’, as Nicola Sturgeon puts it, would be a welcome development that would take English and Welsh politics in a more positive direction. Departing from the neo-liberal austerity programmes supported by the three main UK parties is also a possibility that will change the circumstances of class struggle and democratic change in these islands.

The Scottish Greens have also put on over 7,000 new members with their left-led youth wing quadrupling in size since the September 18th 2014. There will be very few seats where the Scottish Greens can get a decent vote as evidenced from Michael Ashcroft’s polling locally and nationally which suggests that they will be firmly squeezed by the SNP with under 5%. Many Green members and voters have personally told me they are voting SNP tactically to get rid of Scottish Labour and get independence further down the line. In a Westminster election, and especially this one, voting Green is a wasted vote because of first-past-the-post. But as a springboard for the 2016 Holyrood elections the Scottish Greens will likely match or even surpass the seven seats they won in 2003-2007.

The battle for Scotland

The elevation of Nicola Sturgeon to First Minister and SNP leader in November 2014 led to the largest ever indoor political rally in Scotland. As 12,000 people listened to the glossy presentations and gold foil ticker tape, over 2,000 joined the SNP online during the rally. Despite the Scottish Government carrying out budget cuts in the form of efficiency savings and the loss of up to 50,000 public sector (mostly council) jobs since 2007 – the SNP are not getting the political blame for austerity.

In Scotland the battle is between the massively confident and expanded 107,000-strong Scottish National Party (SNP) and a rapidly declining rump Scottish Labour party. The SNP as the main recipient and beneficiary of the vibrant mass politics of the Yes campaign is now proportionately by far the largest political party in Britain (equivalent to a party of one million). Meanwhile Scottish Labour has slumped to just 7000 individual members and most of the trade unions that are nominally obligated to support it, are totally lukewarm to Miliband’s austerity-lite.

A significant break with Labour reformism took place during the referendum. This process of terminal decline for Scottish Labour has been consolidated by further loss of support under the new leadership of Blairite right-winger Jim Murphy. It is clear even Scottish Labour supporters have not forgiven its alliance with the Tories during the referendum. The clear trend, especially in areas that voted Yes in the referendum, is of transfer – in some cases haemorraging – of support from Labour to SNP.

It is significant that last weekend’s Glasgow and Edinburgh May Day marches took place with no Labour politician on either platform. Glasgow TUC was in the past notorious for its partisanship and excluding SNP, socialist and Green speakers from the May Day rostrum. Not now. The only Labour candidate distributing their leaflets at Glasgow May Day was Katy Clark. Glasgow Labour Westminster candidates were noticeable by their absence from an event that would in the past have simply been a tribal Labour rally. This year the SNP Trade Union Group stall was prominent in the hall next to the Scottish Green party, Scottish Left Review and the Scottish Labour left ‘Citizen’ magazine.

Reformism, nationalism and illusions

Many ex-Labour voters have swapped illusions in Labour’s UK unionist state reformism (now thoroughly tested to the limit by the referendum) for illusions in the nationalist reformism of the SNP (still largely untested) or the reactionary anti-immigrant politics of UKIP. Based on its relatively progressive stance in office in Scotland many voters will give the SNP a chance to deliver a more progressive Westminster government. Scots voters rather like the sound of the SNP holding Miliband’s feet to the fire. Many English voters wish they could vote for Nicola Sturgeon’s policies too.

I would argue for an SNP vote everywhere in Scotland except for the one incumbent Labour MP Katy Clark who has consistently voted against right-wing policies. Clark was the only Scottish Labour MP to vote against the £30bn cuts package passed at Westminster in January by Tories and Lib-Dems with the backing of Miliband’s front bench. But significantly nearly all Scottish (and indeed English and Welsh) Labour MPs many of whom represent some of the poorest constituencies most badly affected by the so-called welfare reforms voted for these cuts.

But conditional electoral support is not merely a passive policy, where we socialists will quietly vote for a party or candidate that doesn’t share our total understanding of socialism or our vision of radical change but may share aspects of it. We have to be prepared to back that up with taking up an active role in campaigns in order to put the case for socialism whilst working directly alongside the supporters of another party or candidate. I myself have worked closely alongside many SNP left-wingers – Yes campaigners who have kept their Yes and RIC groups going. Because I want to stop Trident, end austerity, keep the Yes flame alive, and express that progressive mood at the ballot box, I am lending my vote to SNP in Glasgow Central and have campaigned hard for Anne McLaughlin in Glasgow North East.

Left electoral prospects poor

Everyone realises that the far left groups standing in this election – Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and Left Unity (LU) – will get derisory votes. TUSC is the more serious electoral challenge nationally and has trade union and socialist militants involved there are only a few places where a vote for them represents a vote for a serious locally based candidate with roots in the working class movement. Coventry South West where TUSC Chair Dave Nellist is standing, in Bermondsey and Old Southwark where ex-Labour and Unite NEC member Kingsley Abrams is standing against the cuts and austerity; and most importantly Glyn Robbins a long time housing campaigner in Tower Hamlets. All these TUSC/LU joint candidates deserve our support.

Rather than put the cart before the horse, we need to be helping to build a coordinated trade union and social movement fightback against the cuts, against austerity and building coordination between them in every locality. This needs to happen first before we take into consideration future electoral concerns – offering our solidarity to struggles which emerge from below before embarking on any future electoral project.

In reality, whichever parties revolutionary and socialist activists vote or campaign for, or even if they do not vote at all, most of us can nearly 100% agree on what the tasks of our social movements are after these elections. Revolutionary socialists will work constructively with any serious political forces in the building of mass resistance to austerity and the building of a true socialism from below.


  1. Dear comrades James Walkling, Lina and Harry Blackwell – I had not realised there were replies to my articles until seeing them tonight so my apologies for appearing to ignore them, although I haven’t. Firstly to James – I take your point about safe Labour seats – but LU and TUSC did not manage to mount serious or long-lasting campaigns beyond elections but I researched the Salford Star to discover that Bez from the Happy Mondays stood as We Are the Reality Party – quite ironic given his very famous distance from said reality is a central part of his public persona. But Bez called it right and gained 700 votes (200 more than TUSC!) According to this article 40% of Salford voters did not vote at all and of the 60% that did vote only 6% voted for the Greens, TUSC, Pirate and Reality combined. In other words there was no significant mobilisation of any anti-austerity mood at the ballot box and what minimal upsurge there was, was divided between several formations of which the Greens were the biggest beneficiaries with 2000 votes in 4th place having not even stood a candidate in 2010. TUSC is clearly not a ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow” formation after 10 years and three general elections it has been around longer than most recent left formations but I remember David Henry who was TUSC-backed standing against Hazel Blears 10 years ago – did a lot better in 2010 with 700 votes. This shows the far left declining not growing, whilst the Labour vote grew massively in one of its heartlands – faced with a high UKIP vote. There’s a much better case for voting Green in safe Labour seats like yours. Now moving onto Lina – your point really is a call for leftists not to vote or take part in elections at all. If you really think voting for Jeremy Corbyn or any other left Labour MP is voting to legitimise imperialist war or bourgeois politics then we are not really engaging in a debate. You seem not to really care about the main point of my article – what we tactically and strategically should do in elections when the revolutionary left does not have the social base or support to stand independently. I’m with Lenin and not the Infantile Left wing communists when it comes to intervening in bourgeois elections. By intervening politically we are able to make the point about it’s illegitimacy as a very limited democratic format – when we can’t stand ourselves we have to advocate which is the best outcome to vote for. Finally to Harry Blackwell – you are seriously mistaken in thinking the SSP is a serious alternative. The working class has long since abandoned the party at the ballot box since its split with Solidarity and Tommy Sheridan in 2006. It now has well below 1% support nationally and is only still existing because it was used as left cover by the SNP leadership during the Yes independence campaign to show its multi-party make-up. It received a temporary boost since September 2014 but has long ceased to be an important movement of activists and has been eclipsed by other forces on the Scottish left in the RIC and now the Scottish Left Project which it has grudgingly agreed to support. It’s standing in Westminster elections was futile and was rewarded with the miniscule votes it deserved getting just 895 votes standing in just 4 constituencies averaging 224 votes a seat. This compares to 3,157 votes in 10 seats (average 316 votes) in 2010 – a 30% further loss of support. This is almost as few votes as I got as a TUSC candidate in 2010 where I beat the SSP candidate coming top of three left candidates on 0.6% of the vote! Needless to say I have learned from my own experience that such unserious candidacies can have little or no lasting impact in terms of building an alternative. They just serve too show the complete electoral impotency of the far left. Most of excellent socialists I have met during the last 2 years of referendum and election campaigning have been in or joined the SNP. I am not at all dismissive of trying to build something, I tried to do it myself but i am realistic about our prospects given some very noticeable facts about the political dynamics in Scotland. I agree with you that the Westminster electoral system is the key reason why it is difficult for the far left in England but remember PR exists in the Greater London Assembly, in Wales and in Scotland and still the far left is not present so it takes something more than the system to explain why. Assuming the Syriza (or even Podemos) model is a desirable goal – but let’s agree that a broad socialist or anti-austerity political formation that stands in elections but also marches in the streets is necessary – then what is the best way to get there? Most of us in Scotland agree that simply adding together the existing far left together is not the answer – they are part of the problem not the solution. A new left must be forged from the emerging generation of activists from the mass social movements against austerity, racism/police injustice and climate change – it must also be more democratically and horizontally organised.

  2. It is disappointing that you are not supporting candidates of Left Unity or the Scottish Socialist Party.

    However small their votes, these parties are a qualitatively different attempt to create an alternative on the left to that of the top-down sterile politics of TUSC, a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ formation if ever there was one.

    Your tone seems to be generally dismissive of the possibility of creating new broad left parties and because of that you fall into the trap of endorsing electoral positions that are not reflective of the work of excellent socialist activists on the ground (eg voting Green against Left Unity, SNP against SSP).

    Your tone seems to be generally dismissive of the possibility of creating new broad left parties and because of that you fall into the trap of endorsing electoral positions that are not reflective of the work of excellent socialist activists on the ground.

    The radicalisation around anti-austerity in this election has been expressed, in part, by the significant rise in membership and electoral support for both the Green Party and SNP (and possibly Plaid Cymru – which unlike either the Greens or SNP has for a long time defined itself explicitly as ‘socialist’, rather than just ‘nationalist’). In addition there is still a layer within the Labour Party that is campaigning against austerity (most obviously seen not just in the usual suspects like Corbyn and McDonnell, but also in figures like Owen Jones, Katy Clarke and Len Mcluskey).

    But none of these parties – Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid – is capable of creating a consistent and democratic alternative left wing party on the ‘Syriza model’. The key task for socialists after the election will be to explore the opportunities that exist for constructing such an alternative. .

    But while a vote can be justified in certain circumstances, none of these parties – Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid – is capable of creating a consistent and democratic alternative left wing party on the Syriza model. Those who do put forward such an alternative deserve support in the election and the key task for socialists after the election will be to explore the opportunities that exist for constructing such an alternative.

    A central feature of that alternative will be to highlight the appalling nature of the disproportional Westminster electoral system, which will be seen following this election as rewarding parties with seats in parliament in no real relation to their overall support.

  3. A vote for anything but the far left is a legitmisation of bourgeois politics.

    It’s a legitimisation of labours illegal wars in afghan and iraq and is spit in the faces of the thousands of corpses they helped to create.

  4. Would you not say that a far left vote is worthwhile in Labour safe seats? I live in Salford where there is little to no chance of Tory or UKIP winning, and would therefore argue that even a small act of defiance in the form of TUSC getting a few hundred votes could lead to a stronger opposition in 2020.


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