General election now?

Much of the left is tailing Sir Keir and the liberal media in promoting the poison of presidentialism. Kevin Bean presents the republican alternative

The revolving door in Downing Street (three different Tory prime ministers since early September!) has resulted in a chorus of calls for a ‘general election now!’ It was a central demand of the November 5 People’s Assembly demonstration in London and the slogan has now become widespread amongst the left and in the labour movement more generally.

It is no surprise that a bourgeois politician like Sir Keir Starmer should lead the chorus, arguing that the Tory prime ministers replacing Boris Johnson do not have their own democratic mandate. So, he says, let the people decide who should be the new prime minister in a fresh general election, not leave it to the small number of Conservative Party members or a few hundred MPs.

That is only to be expected from Sir Keir: a crass opportunist with the single aim of getting himself into 10 Downing Street. As leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition he is expected to call for a general election every now and again. Likewise, the official, house-trained Labour left - whose perspectives for achieving ‘socialism’ do not extend beyond hoping that a series of left Labour governments will do the job for them - have also joined in the call. Similarly, we should not be surprised that the Morning Star has joined them, given its commitment to the parliamentary road to socialism.1

However, those rallying behind this demand extend beyond the usual reformist suspects and include people who would describe themselves as revolutionary communists or Marxists. Of course, for some it is lodged in their political DNA. Counterfire has almost continuously been making the ‘general election now’ call. In June 2019, with the resignation of Theresa May they were demanding a general election so that “the electorate” get to choose the “next prime minister”. Then, in July 2019, Counterfire was saying ‘Boris must go - general election now’. Well, come December 2019, the comrades got their ‘general election now’ and what did we get? Boris Johnson and a thumping 80-strong Tory majority. And they are still doing the “general election now” call.2

Obviously the likes of Counterfire’s John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham learnt their politics on the central committee of the SWP. So it is no surprise that Socialist Worker reported the People’s Assembly march and its demand for ‘a general election now’ with clear approval.3 This followed an earlier editorial, days after Rishi Sunak’s coronation as Tory leader, which not only went along with the ‘general election now’ clamour but the pseudo-democratic presidentialism too:

Nobody voted for Rishi Sunak … he has no democratic mandate, as he pushes forward the cuts … We should protest and strike to force a general election. But we can also demand a real democracy, where ordinary people control society.4

We can see the dilemma here. On the one hand, they want to keep up with - or, perhaps more accurately, tail behind - the trade union activists who are calling for Tories out and a ‘general election now’: on the other, they do not want to abandon their ‘militant’ posture that strikes and street protests will defeat the Tories and open the way to a general strike and a revolutionary situation. Transitional method fantasies aside, the reality is that a ‘general election now’ - or in 2024 - will produce a Labour government. And, though Sir Keir is a former Pabloite, he will lead the most rightwing Labour government ever.

But one does not need the so-called ‘transitional method’ to buy into the politics of delusion. The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain is a case in point. Andy Bain, its industrial organiser, sees the current moment as “an unprecedented opportunity for class unity and political change”. He suggests now is the time:

for the building of a movement … that is strong enough to win a government for the working class and then to hold this government to account. A more class-conscious population will then see through the smoke-and-mirrors narrative that ‘the market must be obeyed’. Pressure for a quick general election is a step towards this.5

An approach loyally echoed by Helen O’Connor, a GMB official, who argues that, while the current strike wave should continue and “the labour movement should not endorse ‘Blairite neoliberalism’, calling for a general election now and getting a Labour government would put the workers’ movement in a better position to leverage our power”.6

Perspectives in favour of putting Labour into government and pressuring it, to gain some immediate concessions, are based on an obvious fallacy. There is no reason to suppose that a Starmer government would be well placed to grant concessions. Look at government borrowing, inflation, interest rates, the looming recession. Quite the reverse: a Starmer government might well demand ‘moderation’ from the trade unions in the name of restoring the British economy to health … and fighting the autocratic Putin regime and its invasion of Ukraine. Historically the trade union bureaucracy has a long record of being an active agent in imposing ‘pay restraint’. Towards that end they will certainly tell restive members not to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of letting the hated Tories back into government.

If the rank and file rebel there could be something like the 1979 winter of discontent. But, without a realistic alternative political party of its own, spontaneous anger can only but be directionless, sectional and eventually fizzle out into demoralisation. Instead of voting Labour, masses of workers will stay at home come the subsequent general election, and, on a wave of far right, media and petty bourgeois fear of overweening trade union power, the Tories will return to office looking for revenge.


It is true that the working class movement can provide a countervailing pressure to the bourgeoisie, but any concessions made will always be subject to the ‘realities’ of capitalism and can be reversed. That is what we have seen in Britain and elsewhere since the 1970s with the anti-trade union laws, the privatisation of the NHS, the end of council housing, the academisation of education, etc.

Arguments about the educative value of struggle for the development of socialist consciousness are also true, but for lessons to really be learnt we must go beyond the confessional sects and the broad front, and put the building of a mass Communist Party at the centre of our work.

In fact, the way that current calls for a ‘general election now’ are framed actually runs counter to the growth and strengthening of socialist consciousness in the working class movement. It is not simply that calls for fresh general elections have become the stale, everyday catch-cries of the parliamentary game: rather, it is that the rationale and assumptions underpinning this call, when made by the left, are positively wrong.

The stuff about Rishi Sunak’s lack of ‘legitimacy’ coming from the Morning Star, Counterfire, Socialist Worker, etc, focus on the prime minister as an individual. But what they promote is not democracy, but presidentialism, Bonapartism and the idea of an elected monarch. Of course, British prime ministers are already quasi-presidential, given their enormous powers of patronage, not least hiring and firing cabinet ministers.

Needless to say, Marx and Engels, and all genuine Marxists, have opposed presidentialism: both in the labour movement and wider society. Eg, Marx had no liking for the party regime of the ‘labour dictator’, Ferdinand Lassalle. As for Engels, he was quite happy to see an American comrade stand for election as US president … but only on a programme that promised to abolish the post of president. We favour party politics, we favour building trade unions, cooperatives, a mass Communist Party based on democratic centralism and a system of recallability and indirect elections. Committees should be elected and the officers of committees should be elected by, and be recallable by, those who know them best: committee members.

Neither the prime minister nor the Communist Party general secretary should be directly elected. That would give them the ‘legitimacy’ to act as a president on the one hand and a labour dictator on the other hand. Frankly, we do not give a damn whether Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were elected by Tory members or Tory MPs. What we do give a damn about is comrades on the left who prattle on about ‘legitimacy’ and promote the poison of presidentialism.

The internal machinations of the Tories over the last year, and the constitutional mechanisms that facilitated the removal of Johnson and Truss and the elevation of Sunak, should not be taken as a green light for the left to join in the moralising liberal media chorus about the parlous state of British democracy. No, the left should use these events to bring into question the constitutional status quo. The crisis of high politics would have been an ideal chance for the left to pitch its case for extreme democracy and republicanism.

We say: abolish the monarchy, House of Lords, MI5 and MI6, the standing army, the police and all anti-trade union laws. We say: self-determination for Scotland and Wales, Irish reunification, PR elections, a popular militia and a federal republic.

  1. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/suella-braverman-slammed-at-general-election-rally-over-attacks-on-refugees.↩︎

  2. Counterfire June 2019, July 2019, November 2022.↩︎

  3. socialistworker.co.uk/news/march-in-london-opposes-the-tory-attacks-now-build-the-fightback.↩︎

  4. socialistworker.co.uk/what-we-think/nobody-voted-for-rishi-sunak.↩︎

  5. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/unprecedented-opportunity-class-unity-and-political-change.↩︎

  6. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/labour-in-then-continue-the-resistance.↩︎