James Gillray ‘Monstrous craws, at a New Constitution Feast’ (1787): Queen Charlotte, George, Prince of Wales, and King George III ravenously ladle guineas into their mouths from a bowl marked “John B

Thinking through the options

Vote Labour to get the Tories out? What about the Greens and the various left candidates? Mike Macnair discussed the coming general election at the April 21 aggregate of CPGB members

This report is based mainly on my introduction, but incorporates material from the discussion. The second session was based on an introduction by comrade Jack Conrad on the history of CPGB’s electoral policies since 1991; this was mainly educational in character, but also introduced the debate we are going to have with the Spartacist League (Britain).1

We know the general election is coming, but we do not know when, or exactly what the shape of it will be. Hence, how we urge people to vote will have to depend on what actually shows up in the way of left alternatives to Labour, and what else politically shapes the election. So what I had to say was tentative and addressed to a general framework.

It is framed by three issues. First, the underlying principles. Second, the circumstances of this coming general election: in particular, the very large Labour poll lead on an absolutely negligible Labour Party ‘offer’. Thirdly, what is there in the way of left options?


To start with the underlying principles: the working class needs political action - action, that is, with the view to enforcing the interests of the class in a general form, including through legislation. Famously, Marx gives the example of the Ten Hour Day Act 1847, and the difference between defending the interests of the workers in a particular industry and an endeavour for the working class to impose its interests as a class on the society as a whole.

Further, the working class party needs to look beyond capitalism. It is no good just to say we will defend worker interests within capitalism, because if we commit to the continuation of capitalism, we return to defending the sectional interests of a particular group of workers within the frame of ‘British competitiveness’.

Secondly, pursuing the general interest of the working class and seeking to get beyond capitalism involves minimum commitments to oppose the present constitutional regime: no support for government office or budgets without clear commitments to immediate transition to a democratic republican regime, in which the working class would actually rule.

And, thirdly, the working class needs an independent foreign policy. This was the argument of Marx and others in the formation of the First International in 1864. In modern times, this is mainly, though not exclusively, a matter of disloyalism towards our own regime: that is, of defeatism in relation to our own government’s foreign wars. If we aim for the overthrow of the current constitutional regime in the interest of the working class, we have to be as disloyal to this regime as the opposition leaders who in 1640 invited the Scots to keep their army in northern England in order to force the king to the negotiating table, or those who in 1688 invited a Dutch invasion.

So the working class needs political action. And it needs in consequence a disloyalist party. It needs a political voice. And that means it needs organisation in order to create media that are not dependent on the capitalist class’s advertising-funded press. A part of this political voice is electoral campaigning, and potentially an even more successful part would be actually winning seats - in which case workers’ disloyalist MPs could act as ‘tribunes of the people’.

My final point on the underlying principles is that Georgi Plekhanov made the distinction between propaganda, meaning trying to get across many ideas to few people, and agitation, meaning trying to get across a few ideas to many people. In that framework, direct electoral intervention is necessarily agitation. It may appear to be ‘propagandist’, in the sense that you can stand on the basis of a full party programme. But, when the CPGB stood four candidates in 1992 on the basis of more or less a full party programme, this was nonetheless, actually an agitational intervention that was trying to get across one single point: that the Eurocommunists had not succeeded in liquidating the Communist Party, which still survived.

The Weekly Worker is unavoidably a propaganda organ. It does not pretend to be an agitational paper, unlike the papers of the rest of the left, which almost invariably are propaganda organs that pretend to be agitational papers. But it can recommend agitational tasks to readers. This is what we are doing when we recommend votes or support to electoral campaigns.

This election

The polls show the Tories around 20 points behind Labour. There is some rise of votes for Reform UK on the right. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are being given very little media space. So, fairly clearly, the capitalist media has roughly decided that the Tory government is coming to an end and the ‘second eleven’ under Sir Keir Starmer are to get an innings.

The Tories are still getting their agenda covered. The latest is the endeavour to use a provocation to enforce more pro-Zionist policing of Palestine demonstrations. The Cass Review of treatment of trans children has become a big stick with which to beat so-called ‘trans activists’. But none of these culture-war operations seem to be seriously hitting Labour’s poll lead. Much can happen between now and the actual election, but it looks as though the Tories have had it and Labour is going to be the next government.

Let me give some background to this. David Cameron did not actually win the general election in 2010, but achieved a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and then embarked on a course of fairly high-stake deployment of plebiscitary demagogy as an effective way to deploy the Tories’ 70% dominance of the press without actually facing elections. He comfortably won a referendum on electoral reform in 2011, defeating the Lib Dems. He won again on Scottish independence in 2014, but only fairly narrowly, and with a lot of help from the Scottish Labour Party. But then he was able to knife the Labour Party in the back on the day after the referendum by deploying English nationalist demagogy, and achieve as a result a Scottish National Party wipe-out of the Labour Party in Scotland.

These plebiscitary frauds - doing over the Lib Dems, who got nothing for their government service except opprobrium for the coalition’s ‘austerity’, and doing over Scots Labour - made the Tories pretty safe for the 2015 general election. But then the third plebiscitary scam, the Brexit referendum in 2016, was lost and, rather than seeing off the Brexit Party threat, what we got was a decision to leave the European Union, against Cameron’s wishes, who resigned.

Theresa May thought she was going to run a successfully Brexiteer-populist election campaign in 2017, but in fact lost the Tory majority, and struggled on for two more years, finally getting dumped in May-June 2019 in favour of the more overt right-populist, Trump-style politics of Boris Johnson. Johnson then won a thumping majority at the December 2019 general election.

But that was more or less immediately followed by the ‘managed’ economic crisis that was the Covid pandemic and lockdown. This in turn produced endless scandals around Covid management, largely about cronyism (which is the natural result of right populism’s appeal to the personal virtues of the ‘great leader’), both in the form of people escaping prosecution and of dodgy allocation of public contracts and related scams. And Johnson fell victim to that, and was dumped in June 2023. After the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss (July-September), we have had Rishi Sunak, and a succession of mini-political crises. So the Tories still have serious problems.

On the Labour side. Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Labour leader in 2007 against the wishes of Rupert Murdoch, who had wanted the succession to go to either a Blairite or directly to Cameron. In 2010 Brown was followed by Ed Miliband, also against the wishes of Murdoch, who wanted his brother, David Miliband, to become Labour leader. The party under Ed Miliband lost in 2015, and then the unexpected: the “morons” let in Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

There were a series of attempts to get rid of him; then the false hope given by the 2017 general election. But, at the end of the day, the anti-Semitism smear campaign did for Corbyn - together with Corbyn giving Starmer his head in relation to backing the Tory remainers’ parliamentary manoeuvres to defeat or mitigate Brexit. So that it was actually both May’s insufficiently populist style in Brexiteering and Corbyn’s willingness to allow the Labour Party to become a tail to the Tory remainers which then allowed the decisive victory of Boris Johnson in 2019. Following that, Starmer comes in as the security services’ man at the head of Labour in April 2020.

This is not a story of ‘Revolution is about to happen right now’. The rise in strikes and in left ideas is very tentative, not a case of “the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way” (Lenin).2 But there is clearly an underlying, serious destabilisation of British politics, because on neither side of the main party equation have we got a clear stability or a serious political ‘offer’.


Where is this structural problem coming from? The clearest symptom is Liam Byrne’s 2010 “I am afraid there is no money left” note3 - which, though slightly overstated, symbolises the underlying situation of all UK governments in the recent past: there is very little room for more than cosmetic change. We start with the general decline of capitalism and then, within that framework, the specific decline of Britain; and within the framework of the specific decline of Britain there are more specific phenomena. The first is the failure of the Thatcher project, creating chronic problems, and the second is the difficulties presented to the UK by the beginnings of a turn against globalisation by the United States.

In relation to the decline of capitalism, we can contrast the relative decline of Britain taking place over the late 19th-early 20th century (which gives birth to the period of European territorial empires, but also massive scales of investment in infrastructure and substantial industrialisation outside of the European core) to the relative decline of the United States, which we can say begins effectively around 1970. So the US enters into its imperial decline much more quickly than the UK.

Secondly, the form of the US decline is that the USA spreads nothing but destruction rather than creating a colonial empire that protects its interests through non-tariff barriers, and so on, as the British did. The USA creates Lebanonisation, Somalification, Afghan warlordism, ex-Yugoslavia, the substantial destruction and failure to reconstruct effectively in Iraq, and so on and so on.

It is true that there is a spread of capitalism in south and east Asia, but this takes statised forms. There was a lot more directive planning involved in South Korea and the so-called East Asian tigers of the 1980s-90s than in prior capitalist development. Equally and obviously in China and Vietnam. The underlying rate of profit in productive industry and agriculture has fallen over decades, and the overall rate of growth tends to fall to significantly lower levels, and large sectors of the economy become dependent on subsidies and planning.

Within this framework of the global decline of capitalism is the relative decline of Britain. Britain is a post-imperial power. It is driven - as Venice and Genoa were in the 17th century and the Netherlands in the 18th century - to financialisation.

It is mistaken to think that there is a global shift into financialisation. It is equally mistaken to think there’s a global shift into ‘knowledge industries’. The reality is that human beings still need to eat, have clothes, housing, infrastructure, water, electricity. Just a single example: the ‘large language model’ ‘artificial intelligence’ operations turn out to involve enormous consumption of electrical power for the server farms needed to run them. So the physical infrastructure and physical production remain present.

The dominance of finance in a country is actually always at the expense of physical production in that country, which is being done somewhere overseas; or appears as ‘excessive taxation’, because it cannot deliver the average rate of profit; or in some cases is not being done. For examples of the last, Biden’s ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ has been largely about rebuilding infrastructure that has begun to fall down. The water scandals here, or concerns about the electricity infrastructure being inadequate for ‘net zero’, are similar.

British relative decline entails actual dependence on income from finance to make up for a structural deficit in the balance of trade. So, to start with, 46% of the food consumed in this country is imported. And there is a quarterly deficit in material trade of £49.9 billion from October to December 2023. That is partly reduced by a £34.9 billion surplus in export ‘services’ - particularly financial services, legal services, and so on - but the £15 billion gap is made up simply by borrowing, which is possible because the UK is a tax haven.

The Thatcher government keyed into the movement in the 1970s in US policy to financial globalisation, human rights and so on, which starts with the Nixon administration breaking the link between the dollar and gold in 1971, and a bit later movement from financial aid to Third World countries, into loans conditional on market opening. In Britain we got deindustrialisation starting in 1980 and the financial ‘Big Bang’ in 1983: the open acceptance that Britain was going to live off the income from the financial services sector; that what we eat, and so on, is going to be paid for at the end of the day by the City’s income.

This model started to weaken globally with the East Asian crash of 1997, the ‘Long Term Capital Management’ crash of 1998, the Russian debt crisis of the same year, and the ‘dot-com crash’ of 2000. The response of the central capitalist powers was to bail out the losses by printing money on a very large scale and by cutting interest rates to the lowest possible level.

This in turn triggered, as is inevitable, Bonapartist political responses in the countries that were being done over by the money printing operations - because, of course, that externalises the losses onto other countries. Hence Putin’s administration in Russia shifting towards nationalism like the Koisumi and Abe administrations in Japan; the rise of the Modi Hindutva movement; Orbán in Hungary, in the early 2000s shifting from pure neoliberalism to nationalism, and so on.

In response to the 2008-09 financial crisis we get even more money printing, and the banks were leant on by government to keep ‘zombie businesses’ and ‘zombie borrowers’ afloat. And lockdown in 2020 was in effect a state-managed crash, which could be presented as being about dealing with the disease problem. But nonetheless it also involved massive money printing. If there had just been a financial crash in 2020 and money printing in response to that, the political legitimacy would have been much weaker than in response to Covid.

So we are now in a situation where the 1970s-1980s model of financial globalisation, deregulation, privatisation and financial engineering as a substitute for state action and taxation, is reaching exhaustion. And there are - in the United States in particular, but in number of other countries too - some significant moves towards reshoring of production, towards industrial subsidy, towards protectionism, and so on and so forth.

But the UK cannot escape, because the choice to accept full financialisation under Thatcher is irreversible. The old core UK industries are gone forever. There is no significant steel industry. The car industry is reduced to ‘maquiladoras’ - assembly plants for vehicles whose core is manufactured elsewhere. The shipbuilding industry is reduced to small specialist operations. The arms industry is chiefly aerospace, specialist and focussed on exports to the Middle East. And so on.

The consequence in the first place is Conservative Party chaos: because nothing that the Tory government or any government can do is going to deliver anything other than that the UK has unavoidably to cling to financialisation and low-tax to attract hot money. It cannot take the road of reshoring and reindustrialisation. Hence Brexit fails to deliver. Hence the fact that privatisation descends into cronyism in the Covid crisis. Hence Truss’s failed adventure. Hence the fact that no Tory leadership can obtain stable political authority.

But equally there is the fact that Starmer cannot offer a ‘politics of hope’ à la Tony Blair. Blair’s politics of hope consisted of full-throated acceptance of the financialisation and privatisation model, and offering constitutional gestures towards political democracy in the form of devolution, human rights, and so on.

So we have an upcoming general election in circumstances where neither of the main parties can actually offer anything. They cannot say ‘Brexit will solve it’, because Brexit has failed to ‘solve it’. They cannot offer Truss’s policy of driving down the pound in order to drive up exports (as happened after ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992), because we saw what happened when Truss offered that policy. All Starmer can offer is ‘We’re not going to be quite as bad as these bastards’.

Meanwhile, the United States is staggering towards breaking with financial globalisation - and ‘staggering towards’ is not a novelty. There were similar transitions in US policy in the late 1940s in the process of adopting the policy of the ‘containment’ of communism: there was political infighting in the United States about how to respond to the post-World War II world. The process of transition out of the ‘containment’ consensus of the 1950s-70s to the new policy of financial globalisation and ‘rollback’ of both communism and social democracy was an equally painful, not straightforward, process. And in the same way the USA is today painfully and not at all straightforwardly in transition towards reshoring, towards financial repression and towards increased centrality of the arms industry and war. Indeed, it is likely that great-power war or some similar crisis (like a new pandemic) will be necessary to overcome the political weight of the financial globalisation model in US politics.

The major step in this direction that we are living with right now is Ukraine. The pro-Ukraine war politicians and journos are now more or less open in admitting that this is a war between the USA and Russia, and authors in The Daily Telegraph, advocating British rearmament, say we are at war with Russia. They argue that Zelensky is right to say that, if we are prepared have the Royal Air Force shoot down Iranian missiles for Israel, we should be shooting down Russian missiles for Ukraine. This is not something that the US or British government is itself as yet willing to openly avow, because this is seriously dangerous stuff.

The package that was just passed on April 20 in the House of Representatives is two-thirds in favour of Ukraine: $61 billion, as opposed to $26 billion for Israel, and $8 billion for Taiwan and other US allies in the western Pacific. So the USA is shifting towards a war footing, as are its ideologues.

And the UK as a whole, and the Labour Party in particular, are unavoidably in lockstep with the USA’s war policy. This is partly because the substance of Brexit was precisely to say, ‘We dump any idea of an independent European policy in favour of dependence on the United States’. But it is far more clearly because the meaning of the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt was to force UK politics into lockstep with the US policy. The same operation, thanks to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, was used to force German and French politics into lockstep with the US policy: in fact, it started in those countries before it reached the UK.

Left failures

What does this background pose about the nature of the coming general election, and what agitational issues should the left be trying to insert into the campaign?

The first, I think, is (just as in 1992, but for different reasons) that communism exists; that communism is an alternative. This issue is now posed by the utter failure of Corbynism, and the plain uselessness of projects of Keynesian renewal of British industry, and so on. It is posed by the inability of any wing of the political establishment to offer a way forward, precisely because the Thatcher project of national renewal has failed, producing chronic problems and, on the other hand, there is no way to ‘return to the 1950s-70s’.

The second is the question of war and the US tie: the fact that Britain is in lockstep with the USA over Ukraine, over Gaza, over Israel attacking Iran, and has been dragged behind the USA over the ‘China threat’. These are, I think, the one or two issues that the left needs to insert in any electoral intervention.

In this situation, what is the meaning of a Labour vote? In the first place, where the option is only Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, Green or SNP/Plaid Cymru, there remains a case for voting Labour. Around 2003 a good many leftwingers imagined that a vote for the Lib Dems could be an anti-war or ‘left’ vote. The 2010 Con-Dem coalition showed what such a vote really meant. The Greens, equally, have become supporters of Nato and the Ukraine war; their record in local government includes openly anti-working class policies in Brighton. The SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007, and is similarly pro-Nato; Plaid is in the Welsh devolved government with Labour. As for Labour, it remains a bourgeois workers’ party in spite of the radical defeat of the left, and, where no actual left alternative candidate is available, voting Labour can still be a vote for the idea that there ought to be a working class party.

In the discussion following my opening, comrade Jack Conrad made the point that we should consider conditional support tactics, where we place demands on Labour candidates as a condition of urging a vote for them. Comrade Carla Roberts endorsed this tactic. Comrade Carl Collins thought that a significant part of the left would be supporting Green candidates, and we needed to find some way of engaging with them; comrade Farzad Kamangar argued that nonetheless, we could not call for Green votes - among other reasons for their pro-Nato stance. Comrade Kamangar also endorsed the use of conditional support tactics, and argued that this could also apply to left-of-labour candidates: as, for example, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain contains a pro-Zionist wing, so that CPB candidates needed to be questioned on Gaza, the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign, and so on.

So what about left challengers to Labour? It seems clear that these are going to remain extremely fragmentary, and in consequence, mainly feeble. I think there is a reasonable case for voting for candidates of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and equally for the Workers’ Party of Britain where it stands. There is also a reasonable case for voting for candidates of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, while smaller groups too may be supportable: thus, for example, the comrades proposing to stand as Communist Future in Manchester.

All of this can be condemned by Labourites as ‘gesture politics’. But actually political gestures are not always useless. The UK’s participation in US military operations is now merely gesture, given Britain’s military weakness, but such gestures are politically important (ones we communists disapprove of). John Brown’s 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry arsenal, or Fidel Castro’s 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks were political gestures, but historically very important ones. It would, however, be adventurist to suggest gestures of this sort in Britain today. But the left can, on a smaller scale and less adventurously, gesture in the next general election towards the Communist Party that is objectively needed.

What if in any constituency there are competing left challengers to Labour? My very provisional view on this is that candidates who are willing to use the name ‘communist’ are in principle to be preferred. This follows from the point above about the idea of communism as a central issue. Secondly, I think that the Workers Party of Britain is slightly to be preferred to Tusc. The reason is simply that, although both groups argue within the framework of ‘socialism in one country’, the WPB is stronger than Tusc on the question of anti-imperialism and anti-war. On the basis of the WPB manifesto and Tusc’s ‘draft core policies’, the latter is also weaker, surprising as it may seem, on the question of political democracy.

In discussion, comrade Roberts argued that it was problematic to prefer candidates who used the word ‘communist’ because some would be open Stalinists, and that the social conservatism of the WPB platform, and George Galloway’s long record of freelancing, made it problematic to prefer WPB candidates to those of Tusc. Jack Conrad made the point that it was unlikely that the issue would arise: the WPB and Tusc were likely to come to stand-down agreements. He also argued that all the left candidates would be standing on pretty appalling platforms, so that our calling for votes for them was a form of critical - highly critical - support. This point was generally agreed by contributors - as was his idea that CPGB comrades should involve themselves in whatever left campaigns were running in their own localities.

In responding to the discussion, I agreed with many of the points that had been made. I emphasised the point that left interventions in elections are about ‘few ideas to many people’, symbolism and gestures. It is for that reason that a vote for a ‘communist’ is a worthwhile gesture; and that a vote for the WPB has the merit of being clearly anti-war.

I reiterated that this is all fairly tentative, because we do not know who exactly will stand and where, what coalitions or stand-down agreements they may be, and so on.

  1. This online meeting will be held on Sunday May 5 at 5pm. To take part go to communistparty.co.uk/ocf-register.↩︎

  2. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch09.htm.↩︎

  3. www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/may/17/liam-byrne-note-successor; see also www.newstatesman.com/politics/commons-confidential/2023/07/liam-byrne-labour-apology-no-money-note.↩︎