Electoral reform and communist strategy

Nick Rogers discusses the democratic forms appropriate to the rule of the working class

Suddenly, democracy has taken centre stage in British political debate - primarily in the limited guise of electoral reform, but also in proposals for fixed-term parliaments and reform of the House of Lords. For communists this is an important opportunity. When the ruling class publicly debates any aspect of the way in which it rules the rest of us, a space opens up for communists to counterpose our democratic alternative - replacing the rule of the capitalist class with that of the majority of the society, the working class.

We are not on the brink of revolution. A hung parliament and coalition government brings that prospect no closer. Given the current malaise of the left, the key task is to take the first steps on the road to building a party. For only with a Communist Party can the working class challenge for political power. But the working class can only mount that challenge if it offers compelling answers to the main questions of the day.

The working class must provide answers that enable it to amass the weaponry to defend and advance social conditions. It must provide answers that explain why there is an alternative to a malfunctioning capitalist economy. However, most important are the answers we provide to the questions posed around the political system and democracy. It is these that have the potential to crack open the fortress of capitalist state power.

In this article I want to challenge the default position of much of the left, including the CPGB, in support of proportional representation. I believe that PR leads us away from the kind of participatory, direct democracy that should inform our political and democratic demands. In the course of the discussion I will refer extensively to recent contributions on these questions by Moshé Machover.

Electoral reform

Electoral reform in itself poses no significant challenge to the rule of the capitalist class. A glance at the constitutions of any number of states around the world demonstrates that capitalist political hegemony is perfectly compatible with a wide range of electoral systems - and, indeed, for long periods with the absence of elections.

On the British left, as illustrated by the chart in the Weekly Worker comparing the manifestos of left organisations,[1] proportional representation generally gets the thumbs-up. It is easy to understand why a marginalised left believes that a more proportional electoral system would enable it to establish a toe-hold in parliament and, from there, build a platform to advance socialist politics.

Indeed the experience of the Scottish Socialist Party with the additional-member electoral system in place for the Scottish parliament shows that PR does genuinely provide this opening - six MSPs elected in 2003. The trajectory of the SSP also warns that ultimately it is the credibility of any left challenge that weighs most heavily - zero MSPs elected in 2007.

For the Labour left, the question has always been more complex - and these days views on electoral reform are more diverse. The prospect held out by PR of perpetual coalition government has always threatened to reinforce the dominance of the Labour right and give to parties of the political centre the power of veto over pro-working class policies.

A ‘Labour government committed to a socialist programme’ becomes even more improbable under a system of PR. And conspiracy theorists see the introduction of PR across continental Europe after World War II - often at the behest of the two Anglo-Saxon powers - as a device to keep large, self-confident communist parties from forming governments.

In recent years the first-past-the-post electoral system, in which the winner of the most votes in a single-seat constituency is elected, has skewed general election results in favour of the Labour Party - the most recent election included. In part this reflects the lower registration and lower turnout of the registered amongst the poorest members of our society. FPTP in effect compensates for the political disengagement of the poor.

Moshé Machover has discussed in the pages of the Weekly Worker the merits of different electoral systems.[2] He identified two broad categories: district representation, in which representatives are elected for distinct geographic units; and proportional representation, in which representation is decided by the number of votes for parties.

Examples of district representation are the current FPTP system and the alternative vote electoral system proposed by the Labour Party going into the general election campaign - as a blatant manoeuvre to appeal to the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung parliament. It transpired that David Cameron was ready to trump Gordon Brown’s offer with a proposed referendum of his own.

Moshé takes a particularly harsh view of AV. This electoral system allows electors to rank all the candidates in their single-seat constituency. If no single candidate receives more than 50% of first preferences, the last candidate is eliminated and their second preferences redistributed. This process is continued until one candidate has more votes than all other candidates. The electoral system is designed to ensure that each elected representative has the support of a majority of electors in their constituency. No candidate can be elected with a little over a third of the vote, as is quite possible under FPTP.

Moshé points out, however, that AV does not necessarily guarantee the election of the candidate who most electors prefer over all others. To give an example, say, a Conservative candidate receives 40% of first preferences, a Labour candidate 35% and a Liberal Democrat candidate 25%. Under FPTP the Conservative would be victorious.

Under AV, by contrast, the second preferences of those who voted for the Liberal Democrat would be redistributed. Say those second preferences split 80-20% in favour of the Labour candidate. The Labour candidate would have 20% (ie 80% of 25%) added to their total, bringing them up to 55%. The Conservative candidate would get only an additional 5% (ie 20% of 25%), making a grand total of 45%. AV sees the Labour candidate is elected.

But let us examine the second preferences of the electors who voted Conservative and Labour. For the sake of argument, let us assume every single one of them cast their second preference for the Liberal Democrat - broadly speaking, not an entirely outlandish outcome. We can now see that while, as we have seen, 55% of electors prefer the Labour candidate to the Conservative, a whopping 65% prefer the Liberal Democrat to the Labour candidate (and 60% prefer the Liberal Democrat to the Conservative). It transpires that on this interpretation of the results the Liberal Democrat is the most popular candidate.

Moshé argues that no system of district representative can resolve this conundrum if more than two candidates stand. Hence he opts for PR, which has the additional advantage of giving small - possibly radical left - parties hope of representation.

Moshé discusses three methods of PR. The single transferable vote electoral system of multi-member constituencies, favoured by the Liberal Democrats, which retains an element of district representation, while producing broadly proportional results. The additional member electoral system, which combines FPTP seats with representatives elected by PR so as to ensure a proportional outcome in terms of the final tally of representatives in the assembly. Under AM you therefore have two classes of MPs - those representing a constituency and those elected from a party list.

The STV and AM systems are only as proportional as the number of representatives being elected in each respective electoral unit. Take STV, with, say, a five-member constituency. Any one party or individual standing needs a sixth of the vote plus one to guarantee at least one elected representative - although fewer votes may be sufficient, depending on how the votes of smaller and larger parties divide.

The same principle goes for AM. In a region such as Glasgow, with eight proportionally elected members for the Scottish parliament, a ninth of the party list vote plus one will guarantee a representative. Again, smaller fractions may be sufficient, depending on the division of votes among other parties.

Only a party list electoral system - the third of the methods discussed by Moshé - applied across a large region or a whole country will ensure representation for parties gaining just a few percentage points of the vote - assuming that no artificial minimum barrier (often set at 5%) is applied. This is Moshé’s preference. And an article by Jim Moody suggests that the CPGB leadership also backs the party list PR system.[3]

But for communists, elections should be about much more than measuring party votes. As the front-page headline of the Weekly Worker put it some weeks ago, we seek to “transform voting from an instrument of deception to an instrument of emancipation”.[4]

The CPGB’s minimum programme is intended to be genuinely transitional.[5] The immediate demands of the Draft programme aim far higher than the demands of most of the rest of the left. For the most part, the loyalty of these groups to Trotsky’s Transitional programme consists of labelling the demands raised in the course of any old reformist campaign as ‘transitional’. PR might as well qualify as ‘transitional’ on the grounds that it has the potential to gain the left group advocating it a representative or two - and that step would supposedly be a step towards the political big time.

The democratic demands of communists should point directly towards the political structures that the working class requires to establish its political rule. It is far from clear that proportional representation meets this ambitious standard.

It is the system of soviet democracy as lauded by the Third International that for most Marxists argue will serve as the basis of political authority both in the immediate aftermath of a workers’ seizure of political power and over the longer-term development of socialism (Marx’s “first phase of communism”) and the evolution towards communism (his “higher phase of communism”).

And for most Marxists there is a sharp dichotomy between the limited nature of their present-day democratic demands - ie, PR - and their vision of working class democracy. Moshé Machover also proposes different systems of election for capitalist society and for the communist future.

This article is not the place for discussing to what extent, once the state has withered away, democracy is negated. I am focusing exclusively on the type of political structures that would sustain a workers’ state and the building of socialism.

The council model

The English translation for ‘soviets’ is generally agreed to be councils, whether prefixed with ‘workers’, ‘tenants’, ‘neighbourhood’, or ‘consumer’. The positive aspect of this vision of democracy is that, in appearance, it is direct and participatory. Workers or citizens (in a geographic or functional role) meeting in relatively small grassroots assemblies reach decisions about the industrial, geographic or sectoral issues which immediately affect them. They are empowered to implement these decisions.

There is no question that such bodies will play a hugely significant role in the course of any workers’ revolution and in the decision-making processes that are set in place after this social transformation.

The question is whether such a system can form the basis of regional, national and supra-national assemblies. This requires a multi-tier structure. Grassroots councils elect delegates to a higher council. This second-tier council, in turn, elects delegates to a yet higher body, and so on. Eventually national, European or global councils are formed. Each council deals with the issues appropriate to its level in the hierarchy.

Stephen Shalom proposes councils at all levels comprising between 25 and 50 grassroots members or delegates. He argues that each council should be small enough to ensure all can participate in its deliberation, but big enough to ensure diversity of opinion. He calculates that 50-person councils could represent 625 million people with five levels.[6]

The strength of the council model is that it is founded on delegate democracy, where those elected take instruction from the lower council that elected them. Any council that loses confidence in its delegate - whether they conclude they have broken their mandate or simply are not competent - can recall them and elect another delegate in their place.

The problem is that the hierarchical nature of this structure attenuates democracy and, as I have argued before,[7] eventually undermines it.

Moshé Machover has taken up this issue in an important discussion of political forms in a communist society.[8] Moshé identifies a range of problems with the council model. It requires continual political mobilisation and activity by the majority of the population to be effective and accountable. When this falters, the democratic credibility of the system fails.

Councils created by popular activity will not all be of the same size; some individuals will have representation in more than one council - works council, a street committee and consumer distribution council, for instance. The principle of equal suffrage will be broken.

Moshé demonstrates that mathematically the possibility of any one individual affecting the result of a decision will be much more remote than, say, in a referendum of the whole population on the issue. The influence of individuals is diluted.

Furthermore, the principle of majority rule is not sacrosanct because it is quite possible that a majority in the higher council may not reflect the majority at the base (similar to the lack of proportionality in our FPTP electoral system).

These are powerful arguments. However, Moshé does not quite touch on the key problem - his description of the dilution of democracy comes closest. The crippling flaw at the heart of the model is that, once a structure of multiple tiers is created, there is an inherent conflict between the collective, participatory nature of decision-making in each grassroots council and the absence of any effective collective mechanism for holding the layers just two or three levels above to account. The lines of accountability become too diffuse.

This fault is intrinsic to the hierarchical nature of the council model. For its proponents, each council shares responsibility for holding to account the council immediately above it. But all the citizens of a socialist democracy have to live with the outcome of the decisions made at every level of the structure. Imbued with enthusiasm for popular participation, they will want to know how they might make an impact on those decisions.

As far as the council to which they have elected a delegate is concerned, the lines of accountability are clear. You mandate your delegate, question them about their actions and, if necessary, recall them.

The problems start at the council two levels above the grassroots. No single grassroots council can swing even one vote at that level. Still, you can rely on your immediate delegate to lobby the other delegates at the council above yours and at least you know who is voting contrary to your position. You stand a chance of changing things in the future.

However, once you contemplate attempting to influence a decision three or four levels higher than the grassroots councils in which every citizen and worker is represented, the possibility of figuring out how to change the vote of just one delegate in the higher council, let alone engage in the campaigning necessary to gather support, verges on the impossible. It would be necessary to understand which delegates at the district, regional or national body were representing councils narrowly balanced between opposing views and work out, in turn, which delegates of which grassroots councils were capable of influencing the outcome.

The problem is, the council system puts in place no horizontal structures to facilitate this kind of coordination between councils.

Founded at the base on bodies created by the self-activity of the working class, a multi-tier council structure, far from promoting direct democracy, becomes entirely indirect and opaque. In effect grassroots councils subcontract all responsibility for decision-making to the delegates elected to higher-level councils. There would be little point in the members of grassroots councils even discussing the activities of the higher-level councils.

Whatever might happen to the state as socialism matures, we can predict with a degree of certainty that, in a socialist polity that rested on the council model, democratic accountability would wither away. The tendency towards bureaucratisation and popular disillusion would be acute.

In practice this model has barely functioned outside of periods of intense struggle. In revolutionary Russia, three-monthly meetings of the All-Russia Congress of Soviets became annual from the end of 1918. Between July 1918 and February 1920 the central executive committee of the congress did not meet.

Councils will doubtless play an important role in the society of the future - as the struggle of the working class throws up a wide range of innovatory structures - but precisely to allow participatory decisions to be made within workplaces and in local communities. It is the hierarchical nature of the model proposed for regional, national and supra-national political structures that is at fault.

Moshé proposes that a council system of five (perhaps six) levels could serve as the upper chamber in a bicameral system. Given the severity of the flaws of the multi-tier council model, I see fail to see the justification for embedding such a system in the constitution of any democratic society.

As for bicameralism, Moshé explains the service it provides to the bourgeoisie in capitalist societies as a tool for forestalling radical change. What need would a workers’ state or socialist society have of such an institutional arrangement?

Commune state

What then is the model of democracy that should inform communists’ democratic demands - demands designed to challenge the political supremacy of the capitalist class? And what form of election is most suited to this model? Of course, we are not in the business of writing a blueprint for a communist constitution. We do have a responsibility, though, to set out the broad principles of political decision-making and accountability for which we are fighting.

The lessons Marx drew from the all-too-brief experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 are still valuable: “The commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men ... The commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time … From the members of the commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages.”[9]

The latest proposed version of the CPGB’s Draft programme, in commenting on a class constitution, attempts to put these principles into practice: “Supreme power in the state will be vested in a single popular assembly composed of delegates who are elected and recallable at any time. Pay of delegates will be no greater than that of the average skilled worker.”

A key issue then is delegate versus representative democracy. While calling into question the multi-tier council model, it is important not to lose sight of the form of democracy spontaneously formed grassroots councils embody - participatory and direct. Moshé Machover makes a sharp distinction between delegate and representative bodies. The lower assembly he sketches for his proposed bicameral communist constitution is a body in which ‘representatives’ are elected for a fixed term and are not recallable by electors between elections.

Moshé does not envisage the career politician of bourgeois ilk. He advocates frequent elections (every one or two years) and his proposed electoral system - a lottery weighted by votes received by individual candidates - is designed to ensure rapid turnover of representatives. However, if electors cannot recall representatives, the ability of electors to directly influence the outcome of proceedings in the assembly is blunted.

Of course, even the most tightly-mandated delegate has to take account of the debate in the assembly or council to which they have been elected - otherwise there would be no point in discussing anything there. They will also need to make tactical alliances with other delegates in order to come as close as possible to a decision that matches their interpretation of their mandate. To that extent that gap between delegate and representative is not necessarily huge - especially if elections are always pending. Nevertheless, a delegate is on all occasions bound by the principle that they must account for each of their actions to the people who elected them.

In addition to the direct accountability of those elected to their electors, a constitution appropriate to the rule of the working class would be governed by the following considerations (drawing again from Marx’s description of the mode of operation of the Paris Commune): an assembly that combines legislative and executive functions; no over-mighty executive; and delegate-representatives who do not enjoy a lifestyle superior to those they represent.

It is probably also important that a culture develops in which the roles that individuals play both in the political structure and administrative bureaucracy is rotated - to broaden the number of people who gain the necessary experience and skills and to curtail concentration of power.

What kind of electoral system might make this possible?

Moshé’s weighted lottery ticks several boxes, but does not cater for recall. His proposal - explicitly for a communist society - is that in each single-member constituency a lottery should be conducted weighted by the vote received by each candidate. A candidate with 50% of the vote would have half the lottery ‘tickets’; all the way down to a candidate with 2% of the vote receiving 2% of the lottery ‘tickets’. The candidate with the most votes would have the greatest chance of winning, but in some constituencies a candidate with a very small number of votes would be selected.

The electoral system has the merit of ensuring pretty close proportionality. A party which consistently achieved an average of 2% of votes across, say, 200 constituencies would most likely (the laws of mathematical probability being what they are) get close to four elected members in most elections. The system also makes it very unlikely that one candidate would be repeatedly elected, however popular they were.

The fundamental drawback of the weighted lottery electoral system is that a great many electors would be left nonplussed that the most popular candidate in their electoral district was not necessary elected. Confusion might turn to anger if they found themselves represented by someone with miniscule support.

It goes without saying that the weighted lottery cannot cater for the recall of unpopular candidates - if its objectives of proportionality and turnover of candidates is to be achieved.

It is worth noting that Paul Cockshott has advocated uninhibited lotteries for all elected positions - an extension of the jury principle.[10] It seems to me that this proposal has greater merit than weighted lottery, in that it explicitly sees political representation as a duty of all citizens. Such mechanisms may well play an increasing part in the decision-making processes of a socialist society evolving towards communism. In a capitalist society riven by class conflict or a workers’ state seeking to resolve profound clashes of interest, a lottery literally leave too much to chance.

It is the elective principle that best measures the preparedness of the working class for taking power and allows the working class to express its interests though institutions such as political parties.

What then of proportional representation?

There is a glaring problem. No system of PR meets the principle of direct accountability to electors. Since the entire point of PR is give representation to those enjoying only minority support, combining this electoral system with recallability would result in electors replacing minority candidates with those more popular.

Yet this is precisely the circle that the Draft programme attempts to square. As well as calling for an assembly of recallable delegates, it proposes that “elections should be on the basis of proportional representation”. Jim Moody suggests that after an election on the basis of party lists, political parties will be doing the recalling.[11] This entirely violates the principle of accountability to electors. We are advocating an electoral system for a working class constitution, in which electors - and by extension the working class - hand over all responsibility to a party machine. We are back to a political system in which the role of electors ends as soon as their vote is cast. What is emancipatory about that?

The CPGB’s draft rules accentuate fears about the desiccated nature of working class democracy envisaged by the CPGB leadership. The rules create an over-powerful central committee subject to party members at congresses only every two or three years. The CC is the only party institution that is in a position to recall communist assembly members. Yet the CC would be held to account less frequently by the membership of the CPGB than would assembly members by electors - assuming annual elections.

Recallability on this basis would drastically weaken the influence of electors. Any communist member of the assembly inclined to respond to the views of the electorate rather than the party would presumably in pretty short order be removed and replaced with a more loyal party member. It would be a more accurate reflection of political realities, and altogether less time-consuming, if we proposed dispensing with elected members of the assembly and sent along instead a representative of each party central committee casting a weighted vote.

In fact, any system of PR - focused as it is on party representation and the basis on which governments will be formed - tends to strengthen the power of the executive and undermine the legislative role of assemblies. It is not compatible with direct, participatory democracy.

One caveat to this conclusion. The single transferable vote in multi-seat constituencies does at least allow voters to rank the candidates presented by parties and add independents to the mix. Recallability, however, would undermine the proportionality of STV.

The role of the party is important and it will continue to make a vital contribution even in a socialist society. Parties will also provide horizontal coordination for those multi-tier council structures that do evolve. But the direct participation by the working class in political structures should be the overwhelming principle that guides a working class democracy. This means that the working class should be able to hold their delegate-representatives directly to account.

Our democratic demands should include citizens’ assemblies in every electoral district with the right to summon their delegate-representatives to explain their actions and receive mandates. These assemblies should be able to trigger a new election at any time. This would be a form of collective accountability that acted as a powerful adjunct to the individual ballot. It would truly be a way of transforming voting into an instrument of emancipation.

Smaller constituencies would help make a reality of popular participation - although not to the micro-level proposed by Stephen Shalom. The elections to the Paris Commune were from arrondissements on the basis of one councillor for every 20,000 electors. That ratio would require a national assembly in Britain of over 2,000 members. Pretty big, but, remember, we are proposing that assembly members receive a skilled worker’s wage and spend more time with their electors. That seems to me to be a better move than the Conservative proposal to reduce the number of MPs.

Annual election would at last fulfil all the demands of the charter. Elections are the ultimate sanction wielded by the population - even when participative structures have fallen into relative decline.

In this context, parties would be entitled to enforce party discipline. It would be appropriate for communist delegates to explain that they would follow the instructions of their party. If the party had the confidence of the working class electorate, this should present no problem. A party that encompassed a large proportion of the working class, was openly democratic and accountable to its members should succeed in gaining a majority of delegates in most bodies.

The party could propose that electors recall a communist delegate who had lost the confidence of the party (after perhaps expelling them). The party would refuse to endorse them in the next election if they insisted on standing in an independent capacity. It should, however, be the electors - taking the advice of the Communist Party as they see fit - who decide the fate of any delegate or representative.

In this way, the working class gains the confidence to rule itself and successively overcome class society, social divisions related to the division of labour, and the state form itself.

The precise electoral system is secondary to the principle of the fullest possible accountability. Some form of majoritarian system is undoubtedly the only way of asserting the rights of the majority.

An electoral system that took account of all the preferences of all electors would avoid the concerns Moshé identifies with the alternative vote. That electoral system has a name - the ‘borda count’. The Eurovision song contest is decided on the basis of such a count.

But would not such an electoral system offend most electors’ sense of fairness? If, in the example we discussed earlier, the Liberal Democrat candidate was elected, despite receiving only a quarter of first-preference votes, it might well appear to most electors that the electoral system entailed some sort of fix. At best, it leads to lowest-common-denominator outcomes.

For all its drawbacks, AV is probably closest to the sort of electoral system most working class organisations use to elect their officers and committees. Historically, most soviets and councils have probably adopted systems of elections very similar to this. And the right of recall allows electors to correct any gross discrepancies between results and their wishes.

No majoritarian electoral system is going to facilitate a breakthrough by the revolutionary left and communists in current circumstances. That is obviously why most of the left are proponents of PR. Current circumstances are that the revolutionary left and communists have not established any working class base. We barely deserve to be elected. For parties that do build a working class base, no electoral system is a hindrance to gaining support. That, after all, was the experience of the Labour Party when it broke from the Liberals.

Mike Macnair has pointed out that AV does at least allow electors to vote for their preferred candidate without worrying about wasting their vote - the need for tactical voting is avoided.[12] Whether we should consequently support a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum on AV is a tactical consideration.

Our prime objective in the current mainstream debate around democratic issues should be to open up the debate to the questions that really touch on working class power and control.

Ultimately, the struggle for working class rule demands that the sphere of democratic decision-making - of politics - is expanded to encompass all aspects of society - economic and social. And the challenge to the capitalist state needs to tackle the state’s monopoly of violence in the form of the standing army and the police force.



  1. ‘The left and the 2010 general election’ Weekly Worker May 6 2010.
  2. M Machover, ‘Proportional representation and Brown’s opportunist ploy’ Weekly Worker April 1 2010.
  3. J Moody, ‘Accountable to their party’ Weekly Worker April 15 2010.
  4. Weekly Worker May 6.
  5. I have suggested that more clarity is required about the purpose of the immediate demands - N Rogers, ‘The road to working class revolution’ Weekly Worker April 8 2010.
  6. SR Shalom, ‘ParPolity: political vision for a good society’, 2005: www.zcommunications.org/parpolity-political-vision-for-a-good-society-by-stephen1-shalom - cited by M Machover.
  7. N Rogers, ‘For democratic republican self-government’ Weekly Worker January 25 2007.
  8. M Machover Collective decision-making and supervision in a communist society: www.zcommunications.org/collective-decision-making-and-supervision-in-a-communist-society-by-moshe-machover
  9. K Marx The civil war in France: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/index.htm
  10. P Cockshott, ‘Democracy or oligarchy’ Weekly Worker October 8 2009.
  11. J Moody, ‘Accountable to their party’ Weekly Worker April 15 2010.
  12. M Macnair, ‘Government of the people, by corruption, for the capitalists’ Weekly Worker May 13 2010.