William Hogarth ‘Canvassing for votes’ from The humours of an election (1755)

Using every avenue

In what is almost certainly a general election year, Jack Conrad looks at the evolution, limits and possibilities of parliament. We don’t have to settle for Sir Keir’s Labour Party and the lesser evil

For communists parliamentary elections are a “secondary question”.1 Ranking different forms of the class struggle in terms of their importance, we would place routine economic struggles at the bottom and making revolution at the top. Elections come somewhere in the middle.

Tweedledum-Tweedledee elections, where voters are asked to choose who they might well consider to be the lesser evil, serve the ruling class to fool most of the people, most of the time. But, if we can get our act together, if we can form a real, as opposed to a fake, Communist Party, elections can become a very different matter. Instead of being of middling importance, they provide an antechamber to the very top. Hence we “consider it obligatory for the Communist Party” to stand candidates in elections, not least because we want to use “every avenue” to propagate our ideas, in the struggle to form the working class into a class for itself - a class that is ready to take state power.2

It has to be said that many on the left in Britain only pay lip service (if that) to this thoroughly orthodox Marxist approach to elections. Indeed, in the conditions which appertain today the ‘election question’ delineates the main divisions on the left. Many, maybe most, will automatically vote for Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, because that is the only realistic way to ‘get the Tories out’ (true) and because ‘the worst Labour government is better than the best Tory government’ (untrue). Meanwhile, they concentrate on what for them really matters: streets and strikes. Others will ‘lend’ their vote to the petty bourgeois Green Party, Plaid Cymru or the Scottish National Party, because they are more radical than Sir Keir’s Labour (not that this sets the bar exactly high). Then there are those backing what amounts to Labour Party mark two projects: the various ‘independent’ exiles from Labour, but most notably Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Yet, despite the absurd claims of this, that or the other confessional sect, there is, of course, no real Communist Party (certainly not the Morning Star’s CPB, the Brarite CPGB (ML) or the Woods-Sewell Revolutionary Communist Party).

While at the moment we - that is, the Provo CPGB - are barred by the election commission from standing candidates under our own name, that was not so in the recent past. Either way, we consider it necessary - resources permitting, real opportunities beckoning, substantial progress happening - for a genuine Communist Party to stand candidates, including in direct competition with the Labour Party. To answer why we put building a mass CPGB and enhancing the political consciousness of the advanced part of the working class above who administers Britain, we can best begin by examining things historically.

It goes without saying that we are not interested in creating a rosy image of the past. No, for us historical experience is our movement’s teacher. Learning from past events, including advances and setbacks, gives us a guide for current and future battles. As Franz Mehring put it in 1896, “The proletariat has the advantage over all other parties of being able to constantly draw new strength from the history of its own past, the better to wage its present-day struggles and attain the new world of the future.”3


Let us begin with parliament itself.4

Like the French États Généraux, Sweden’s Riksdag, the Landstände of Germany and the Spanish Cortes Generales, the English parliament had its origins in feudalism’s endemic contradiction between what was later called the “divine right” of kings and the barons’ “right of resistance”.5

During the 13th century this “right of resistance” grew to the point where baronial magnates could, through concerted rebellion or collective pressure, require “their kings to promulgate acts of self-limitation”.6 The Charter of Ottokar in Syria, England’s Great Charter, the Golden Bull in Hungary, the Pact of Koszyce in Poland all had the common purpose of ‘restoring’ the supposed ‘ancient freedoms’ of the nobles, and thus securing a greater share of the meagre surplus squeezed from the downtrodden peasants.

Dual power, though sealed and sanctified in meticulously drafted charters, proved inherently unstable. Between the irresistible barons and immovable kings there ran the ever-present threat of civil war. Both sets of heavily armoured thieves therefore had a pressing interest in courting the nascent class of merchants, guildmasters and gentlemen farmers. The wealth and power of these parvenus had grown such that they deemed contributions to state coffers “aid that they had conceded rather than a tax imposed upon them”.7

This swelling self-confidence fully explains the famous decision in 1265 by Simon de Montfort’s baronial party to summon to council for the first time representatives from the cities, boroughs and cinque ports - namely “the more upright and discreet citizens or burgesses”.8 Ironically the passive entry of the burgesses into the political arena worked to the eventual advantage of the individual aspect of the state.

Ranking as first in the land, holding the reins of central power, recognised by the church, in charge of diplomacy, the treasury and the mint, the monarch was able to offer a more reliable social contract than could any selfish baronial outfit - especially after their leading families fought each other, often to the point of extinction, in the Wars of the Roses. The stage was set for the Tudor and then the Stuart autocracies, and their creation of a new, much tamer nobility.

Constitutionally, integrating the burgesses into the state and widening the political ‘class’ had immediate consequences. Crucially it meant the bifurcation of the king’s council. One branch consolidated around itself executive functions through a permanent salaried staff and meetings of privy counsellors and judges in the Star Chamber. The other evolved as a broad, usually annual, two-house parliament: the upper chamber of peers, the lower of commoners.

It hardly needs saying that this last-named house was a plutocratic affair. A world removed from ‘one person, one vote’, the House of Commons consisted of and represented rich and well connected squires and merchants organised in highly oligarchic and exclusive corporations. Labourers and peasants did not get a look in.9 Lords, merchants, guildmasters and gentlemen farmers alike considered our ancestors fit only for toil, tithes and, if need be, the gibbet.

Despite its social base in the propertied classes, it will be understood that the feudal parliament had no right to direct policy, let alone the power to transform society. Criticism was tolerated - at least of the cringing variety. But the granting of extra tax demands, though expected, was sometimes withheld - the king wanted to fight wars, bestow generous gifts on courtiers and hangers-on, secure international alliances by marrying off sons and daughters. So the invention of parliament in medieval times was not the beginning of democracy that many modern historians would have us believe. This parliament had nothing to do with popular sovereignty - everything to do with the manoeuvring between crown and barons.

However, while in most parts of Europe the representative institutions which grew up with feudalism tended to decline or disappear with feudalism’s decay, in England it “only strengthened the position of the commons as the non-feudal part of parliament”.10

The English Revolution, beginning in 1640, saw Charles Stuart parted with his head, the abolition of the Star Chamber and the founding of the Commonwealth, but failed to fundamentally transform the country. It was the compromise of 1688, the Glorious Revolution, that opened up the road for capitalist development and created the parliamentary monarchy. Today the ‘king in parliament’ is the sovereign power of the land. True, the monarch has largely been sidelined for everyday purposes, but the House of Commons and the House of Lords function as “major constitutional instruments”.11

Throughout there were, of course, constant struggles from below: the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, the Lollards, Kett’s rebellion, etc. The Levellers - a movement of the historically doomed lower middle classes - demanded freedom of religion, frequent convening of a new parliament and a wide electoral franchise. Their Agreement of the people (1647 and 1648) excluded Catholics, those who served Charles I … and wage-earners (about half the working population). Eduard Bernstein reckons that to have extended the franchise to labourers would, under the circumstances, “have strengthened the reactionary party”.12 A questionable proposition. The Levellers wanted a petty bourgeois parliament, not democracy (considered akin to a swear word by their most prominent leader, John Lilburne). Nonetheless, there would be elections every two years for all right and proper men over 21 years of age (women, naturally, went completely unconsidered).

Yet, though dominating the New Model Army, the Levellers were unable to match the power of Oliver Cromwell, the upper middle class grandees and wealthy merchants. Having refused to champion the interests of the broad mass of the population, even on paper, they had too narrow a social base. Their leaders were arrested, many executed and their mutinies were suppressed with relative ease. Either way, there can be little doubt that the Agreement greatly influenced the American Revolution, the London Corresponding Society and the People’s Charter.

The 1838 People’s Charter marked the arrival of the working class as a real force for itself and was based on these six points:

Though confined to reconstitution of the House of Commons, if won, especially by the physical force wing of Chartism, the implementation of these seemingly modest proposals, would have amounted to a social revolution. Engels wrote that the six points were “sufficient to overthrow the whole English constitution, Queen and Lords included”. Whereas for the radical bourgeoisie the six points were considered a final goal, a finishing point, for the proletariat, he writes, they were “a mere means to further ends. ‘Political power our means, social happiness our end’, is now the clearly formulated war-cry of the Chartists.”13

A House of Commons that champions the will not of the landed aristocracy and industrial capitalists, but the broad mass of the people, would quickly dispense with the House of Lords, the monarchy and go on to decisively deal with the bourgeoisie by taking up the tasks of socialism.


Establishment historians often boast that, apart from annual parliaments, all the points of the People’s Charter have been fully realised. That is undoubtedly true, indeed since 1928, when women were finally given the vote at the age of 21, something like 96% of those legally defined as adults have had that right. But, while this gives the appearance of majority rule, the essence of our parliamentary monarchy is no different from any other form of the bourgeois state, including abominations such as apartheid, fascist corporatism or a military junta.

Although in our society the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas, this does not mean that there is no discontent. There most certainly is. Even in ‘normal’ times, times not characterised by economic and political crisis, huge numbers, surely the majority, are unhappy with their lives. Needs are never fully met. Low pay, price rises, long hours, sexual and racial discrimination, mass sackings, new tax burdens, war, pollution and global warming - all provoke movements which have the potential of going beyond the proscribed limits of bourgeois legality. But without their own party the working class is powerless to exert its will, let alone take up the tasks of socialism.

This is where the two-party system, with its ever-present alternative party of government ready in the wings, comes in.14 As Lord Balfour, Tory prime minister over the years 1902‑06, noted in his introduction to Walter Bagehot’s much quoted 1867 classic, The English constitution:

Our alternating cabinets, though belonging to different parties, have never differed about the foundations of society. And it is evident that our whole political machinery presupposes a people so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker; and so sure of their own moderation that they are not dangerously disturbed by the never-ending din of political conflict.15

Because of the two-party system, discontent can be safely syphoned off through the hope, and maybe the reality, of putting the alternative party into office. When that party forms a government, it does not, of course, mean the overthrow of the system and an end to its evils. All that happens is that the ideological veil changes colour: the capitalist reality remains as before, as does the inevitable, ever-present danger of economic downturn and war.

Yes, since 1900, we have had the Labour Party. Its voter base is in the working class, it is constitutionally linked with the trade unions and it has a working class name. However, the Labour Party is politically a bourgeois party. To confirm that old thesis of Lenin’s have a quick look at Sir Keir’s front bench. It cannot be seriously disputed that, when it comes to their given portfolio, Rachel Reeves, David Lammy, Yvette Cooper and Wes Streeting are barely distinguishable from their Tory counterparts. Alike they are pro-business, pro-Nato and pro-monarchy.

Indeed, the extension of the voting rights to the point of universal suffrage has been used to considerable effect by the ruling class, its politicians and paid persuaders in academia, the media and the arts. Capitalist states - well, in the so-called west - ie, those countries at the top of the imperialist pyramid and its exploitative pecking order - call themselves democracies and, as compared with the regimes in China, Russia and Iran, they can easily claim, for good reasons, to be better places to live (an approach with its origins in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution and which was taken to perfection during the cold war).

This ideology of ‘capitalism = democracy’ is widely accepted and serves wonderfully as a part of the dense thicket of mystification behind which the capitalist reality of the present-day state in Britain is concealed. Parliamentary elections and parliamentary votes are used to gain popular consent for what is, in fact, the rule of the many by the few. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the effective power of the civil service, the courts, army generals and MI5 far outweighs that of MPs, not least because of its own internal contradictions, big business, the mega rich, consider that money spent on lobbying, sponsoring, buying up, bribing even pretty obscure MPs is money well spent. Note, Sir Keir’s Labour Party now receives more in donations from high-net-worth individuals than from rank-and-file members or affiliated trade unions. Golden chains which guarantee that the Labour Party remains a loyal servant of capital, not labour.

First and foremost, however, parliament is a performance space, a talking shop, a sham. Effective power lies elsewhere … in the cabinet, in the civil service, in the army top brass, in the boardrooms, in the stock exchange. Understandably then, William Morris thought a fitting fate for Charles Barry’s rather fine building would be to serve as a “dung market”.16 Although most people take some interest in general elections to its lower chamber and even in the gladiatorial exchanges which characterise PMQs and set-piece debates, parliament does not empower the masses, that is for sure. Who “owns and controls the means of production is worth any number of general elections”.17 Marx was absolutely right then when he said that bourgeois democracy, an oxymoron, gives the mass of people the opportunity to decide “once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent” them.18

Civil war

The state is, as Marx argued, an organ of class rule, consisting of “special” bodies of people: ie, the armed forces, prisons, bureaucracy ... normally fronted nowadays by an elected chamber. The state exists for the suppression of one class by another and operates through legalising, moderating and organising the struggle of one class against another. Arising when and insofar as class antagonisms cannot be reconciled, the very existence of the state proves that class antagonisms are irreconcilable.

Before and after universal suffrage, the history of Britain shows there has existed a permanent, undeclared and incipient civil war in this country. For example, following the French Revolution, soldiers were barracked in every strategic industrial city and town. They were there not to save us from possible invasion, but to guard against possible insurrection. One hundred and fifty years later, Field Marshall Lord Carver owned up, in a rare act of official honesty, that until just before World War II the “army saw its main function as being to maintain law and order at home and regarded the fighting of foreign wars as its secondary role”.19

As shown by leaks from army manuals, little changed after World War II. Marked “restricted” on the front cover, the MoD’s Land operations, Vol 3 - Counterrevolutionary operations, part 3: Counterinsurgency (1970), provides a chilling insight into the extent to which the army has been trained to deal with “civil disturbances resulting from labour disputes, racial and religious antagonism and tension of social unrest which savour revolt or even rebellion”. In the event of uncontrollable social unrest the military would join the police and civil authorities in a “triumvirate”.

It would follow these six guidelines to prevent a successful revolution: “a. the passing of emergency regulations to facilitate the conduct of a national campaign; b. various political, social and economic measures designed to gain popular support and counter or surpass anything offered by the insurgents; c. the setting up of an effective organisation for joint civil and military control at all levels; d. the forming of an effective, integrated and nationwide intelligence organisation, without which military operations can never be successful; e. the strengthening of indigenous police and armed forces, so that their loyalty is beyond question and their work effective - this is often easier said than done; f. control measures designed to isolate the insurgents from popular control.”20

Brigadier Frank Kitson’s 1971 opus on civil unrest was to all intents and purposes a condensed version of the army’s counterrevolutionary plans. Written against a background of rising industrial militancy, economic stagnation and a revolutionary situation in the Six Counties, his infamous Low intensity operations was an attempt to garner middle class support for army action against “subversion”. Revealingly, by “subversion” he means “all illegal measures short of the use of armed force”, “political and economic pressure … strikes, protest marches, and propaganda … taken by one section of the people of a country to overthrow those governing the country at the time, or to force them to do things which they do not want to do”.21

Between the army, as a line of last resort, and the House of Commons, as the first line of defence, the bourgeoisie has a minefield of other establishment institutions, laws and traditions in place to protect its privileges. The House of Lords, the courts, the civil service, the Bank of England, the mass media, prisons, MI5 and the police are all available to ‘check and balance’ any democratic right. Moreover, the unwritten British constitution gives the perfect legal device to quickly change form. Using its prerogative powers, the crown can dismiss any government and dissolve any parliament at any time.22

After all, Britain is a monarchical state.23 Cabinet ministers, MPs, members of the armed forces, the police, the judiciary - all swear oaths of loyalty to the crown rather than the elected government or the people. That is why cabinet ministers constitutionally derive their authority from being appointed to the crown’s privy council, not from being leaders of the majority party in the House of Commons.

Frankly, had Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour Party to a stunning electoral victory in December 2019 - highly unlikely, true - he would have fallen at the first hurdle. The Parliamentary Labour Party, dominated as it was by the right, was hardly likely to agree a vote of confidence in him. Therefore he would not have been invited to Buckingham Palace to form a government. Even if the privy council had thought things too dangerous to choose any other prime minister, a counterrevolutionary storm would have followed: endless obstruction and delay by the House of Lords, a run on the pound, wall-to-wall media lies, army generals refusing to obey orders, MI5 black ops - all coordinated by American “pushback”.

Of course, the form through which the bourgeoisie chooses or is forced to rule is not crucial. What fundamentally concerns us is the fact that because of capitalism the mass of the population, being wage slaves, live in permanent dissatisfaction, while a tiny minority grows fabulously rich through the exploitation of the majority’s labour-power. That does not mean we are indifferent when it comes to demands for the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the introduction of proportional representation. Far from it.

Our purpose, though, in making such demands is not to modernise Britain, to complete the bourgeois revolution or some such nonsense - no, it is to take forward the struggle of the working class into the realms of high politics, in preparation for the “critical moment, the decisive combat”24 of taking state power: the salient from where alone we can expropriate the expropriators. That is exactly what our electoral work should be designed to achieve.


There is, therefore, the possibility - the aim, surely - of winning not merely a House of Commons majority, but a clear majority of votes. Because we do not suffer from that incurable reformist malady, parliamentary cretinism, we would expect the counterrevolutionary storm, a civil war. Communists would respond by threatening a revolutionary storm: mobilise the popular militia, split the standing army, disband the police and the secret state, abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords, nationalise the commanding heights of the economy and, above all, reach out to Europe, America and beyond to make our revolution an international revolution.

Though it might enrage some latter-day ‘revolutionary communist’ boycottists, Marx and Engels were very much of that view.25 They too considered communist electoral work obligatory. Indeed in his introduction to Marx’s Civil war in France, Engels praised in the highest terms the “astonishing growth” in the votes gained by the revolutionary workers’ party in Germany, the Social Democratic Party, after universal male suffrage was granted by Bismarck in 1866.

Yes, Bismarck’s democracy was a complete sham; however, so successful was the SDP’s electoral work that “the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than those of rebellion”. Thus, for Engels, the way the SDP had made use of universal suffrage to steadily increase its strength had “supplied their comrades in all countries with a new weapon, and one of the most potent, when they showed them how to make use of universal suffrage”.26.

  1. J Conrad In the enemy camp London 1993, p7. This little pamphlet should be read as a very flawed piece of writing - it is often hopelessly leftist. The only excuse I can give is the attempt to establish firm red lines against a pervasive background of ‘official communist’, left Labour and Militant Tendency soggy reformism. Despite that In the enemy camp does provide a useful record of our fielding four CPGB candidates in the 1992 general election and the historic background, not least in the early years of the CPGB.↩︎

  2. J Conrad Which road? London 1991, p97.↩︎

  3. en.internationalism.org/content/3076/contribution-history-revolutionary-movement-introduction-dutch-german-left.↩︎

  4. Until the 12th century ‘parliament’ merely meant a ‘parley’ of anybody from kings to lovers.↩︎

  5. M Bloch Feudal society Vol 2, London 1965, p452.↩︎

  6. JC Holt Magna Carta Cambridge 1992, p26.↩︎

  7. R Butt A history of parliament London 1989, p111.↩︎

  8. Ibid p110.↩︎

  9. There were a few places in Europe - Sweden, Denmark, West Friesland and the Tyrol - where the peasants did gain admittance to parliament. But even in these countries, where the traditions of primitive communism still lingered and the state was weak, “election was by a peasant elite” (AR Myers Parliaments and estates in Europe London 1975, p26).↩︎

  10. AL Morton A people’s history of England London 1974, p101.↩︎

  11. I Jennings The queen’s government Harmondsworth 1965, p67.↩︎

  12. E Bernstein Cromwell and communism London 1930, p87. A gloomy assessment echoed by AL Morton: “Their exclusion from the franchise was … regarded as necessary to prevent employers from having undue influence, and there is reason to think that this judgement was correct” (AL Morton A people’s history of England London 1974, p253).↩︎

  13. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 4, London 1975, pp518, 524.↩︎

  14. The “greatest contribution of the 19th century to the art of government”, said Harvard professor Lowell in his “pre-1914 treatise” on the British constitution, was “that of a party out of power which is recognised as perfectly loyal to the institutions of the state and ready to come into office without a shock to the political traditions of the nation” (J Gollan The British political system London 1954, pp19-20).↩︎

  15. W Bagehot The English constitution Oxford 1974, ppxxiii, xxiv.↩︎

  16. W Morris News from nowhere London 1973, p257.↩︎

  17. J Conrad Which road? London1991, p8.↩︎

  18. Sometimes translated as who will “represent and oppress” them in parliament.↩︎

  19. Interview by Desmond Wilcox, ‘Profile’, BBC TV, August 14 1979, as paraphrased by Tony Benn Arguments for democracy London 1982, p7.↩︎

  20. Extracts were published in Time Out January 10 1975.↩︎

  21. F Kitson Low intensity operations London 1971, p3.↩︎

  22. In 1975 Australia’s Labour prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was dismissed by the queen’s representative, the governor general.↩︎

  23. Until 1977 the Central Office of Information described the UK as a “monarchical state”. That is why Sir Ivor Jennings writes that what is thought of as state property in this country is often in reality crown property, why income tax demands are sent on Her Majesty’s Service”, why criminal prosecutions are made in the name of “The Queen”, and why there is no national flag nor anthem - only a union flag and a royal hymn (I Jennings The queen’s government Harmondsworth 1965 p32).↩︎

  24. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p522.↩︎

  25. The main butt of Engels’ polemics on this question were the anarchists - then led by Mikhail Bakunin, who advocated abstention from all politics that did not have as its aim the “immediate and complete” liberation of the working class. Engels ridiculed such pseudo-revolutionary posturing. “At quiet times,” he said, “when the proletariat knows beforehand that at best it can get only a few representatives to parliament and have no chance whatever of winning a parliamentary majority, the workers may sometimes be made to believe that it is a great revolutionary action to sit out the election at home and, in general, not to attack the state in which they live and which oppresses them, but to attack the state as such, which exists nowhere and which accordingly cannot defend itself. This is a splendid way of behaving in a revolutionary manner, especially for people who lose heart easily” (Karl Marx and F Engels CW Vol 23, London 1988, p583).↩︎

  26. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, pp515-16.↩︎