Voting - present and future
The electoral system we demand under bourgeois rule is not connected to the forms of democratic decision-making we advocate for the future communist society, argues Moshé Machover
I am grateful to Comrade Nick Rogers for his thoughtful and detailed article, ‘Electoral reform and communist strategy’, in which he responds to my contributions on voting and democratic decision-making. These contributions include an article, ‘Proportional representation and Brown’s opportunist ploy’, and letters published in the Weekly Worker, as well as an essay, Collective decision-making and supervision in a communist society, unpublished in print but available online.
This is a highly important topic, hitherto sadly neglected in the Marxist literature; so I am glad of the opportunity provided by Nick’s article to resume the discussion.
The title of Nick’s article would suggest that it is mainly concerned with electoral reform possible or proposed under the present social order, within a bourgeois parliamentary state (so-called bourgeois democracy), and the position towards this issue that communists ought to adopt. But the subtitle, added by the editor of Weekly Worker, tells a different story: “Nick Rogers discusses the democratic forms appropriate to the rule of the working class”. The editor was quite right to add this subtitle, because this is really what Nick’s article is mostly about. In fact he attempts to address both issues: voting in bourgeois parliamentary elections; and democratic forms of decision-making under socialism. He starts with the former, but is mostly concerned with the latter; and he sometimes conflates the two, as though they were intimately and logically connected, both aspects of the same topic: voting systems.
In my Weekly Worker article, I argued that under a bourgeois parliamentary state, the electoral system that best suits the interests of the working class and the political needs of the radical socialist left - especially where it is numerically and organisationally weak and struggling to make its voice heard - is proportional representation (PR), particularly in its most consistent form, the list system. In his opening remarks Nick responds:
“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 … 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.”
The reasoning behind this is that the electoral system we advocate now, in a bourgeois parliamentary state, supposedly ought somehow to lead or point us towards participatory, direct democracy. I am sure Nick does not believe that participatory direct democracy is remotely possible under capitalism. So what he is implying is that the kind of electoral system we advocate or support at present, in a bourgeois parliamentary state, ought to point towards or foreshadow the kind of democratic decision-making that will only become possible following a socialist revolution.
Later in his article he makes this clear:
“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.”
Here Nick is applying a general logic of revolutionary socialist strategy: demands for reform must be “transitional” in the sense that, while raised for the here and now, they at the same time prefigure what would become possible in a post-revolutionary society.
A well known and very useful application of this idea of transitionality is in relation to the so-called welfare state. In fighting to defend and extend public provision of services such as healthcare, pensions and education, we socialists make demands directed at the bourgeois state; but at the same time we are pointing towards the huge expansion of public provision that would become possible following the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production. Here there is a clear connection between immediate demands and their extrapolation, on a much grander scale, to a future society.
But the logic of transitionality is not applicable to every issue: in my opinion it is a conceptual error to apply it - as Nick does - to parliamentary voting systems. This is because, as far as radical socialists are concerned, the main aim of parliamentary electoral reform that we ought to advocate under a bourgeois state is totally different from, and in some senses even contrary to, the function of voting systems that will become necessary and possible in a communist society. There is fundamental disconnection between the two; and positing transitionality between them leads to confusion.
In a bourgeois state, radical socialists are, as a matter of principle, a force of opposition. We participate in parliaments and parliamentary elections not in order to take part in managing the state and ruling society. Participation in government, if offered to us, must be refused: it is a honey trap. We must reject any responsibility for running the present order. We use parliaments and parliamentary elections as a forum enabling us to reach the widest possible audience among the working class and its potential allies, and project our propaganda against the existing mode of production and state.
In contrast, voting in a socialist society will be a means of exercising the broadest participation and responsibility of the masses in running society and in making decisions on all social affairs - including those that are at present classed as ‘economic’ and are governed by the tyranny of private property and the anarchy of blind ‘market forces’.
So there is no reason to insist that immediate demands for electoral reform should foreshadow or point towards participatory direct democracy.
In order to avoid conflation of these two quite distinct topics, I have deliberately addressed them separately: my Weekly Worker article confined itself to immediate demands for electoral reform; and my essay on collective decision-making addressed only voting in a communist commonwealth.
Of course, there are some very general principles common to immediate demands regarding voting in bourgeois parliamentary elections, as well as to projected democratic decision-making in a future socialist or communist society. They include majoritarianism and universal equal suffrage. But these general principles do not determine the precise voting system to be used.
Let me also add that the logic of transitionality is very appropriate, and can fruitfully be applied, to decision-making - and in particular to voting systems - in present-day workers’ organisations such as trade unions, shop-stewards committees and workers’ parties. It is right to insist that the way these class organisations are run and the mechanisms used within them for decision-making ought to prefigure a future socialist society.
In what follows I will address Nick’s arguments regarding electoral reform in a bourgeois parliamentary state, especially as it would apply to the Westminster parliament. I will leave for a later occasion my response to his critique of my essay on decision-making in a communist society - which, as I have pointed out, is a very different topic.
Nick claims: “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.”
What this argument ignores is the fact that it is precisely the absence of PR that has served to keep the Labour left imprisoned inside the Labour Party (‘old’ and ‘new’), where it is dominated by the right. If the Labour left were to split and break loose of the right’s stranglehold, then under the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system it would find it very difficult to win any seats in the Westminster parliament. For these left reformists, it would be almost tantamount to political suicide. Under PR this disincentive would largely disappear, as experience in Germany and several other countries has shown.
Nick goes on to say: “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.”
This may or may not be true. But why should we worry about it? Do we really believe in a Labour government committed to a socialist programme? Do we think that states governed by large, self-confident Stalinist parties are so wonderful? What we ought to care about is giving an oppositional parliamentary voice to the radical left, which PR is most likely to achieve.
Further, Nick observes: “In recent years the [FPTP] electoral system … 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.”
Right. But this fraudulent ‘compensation’ is a strong argument against FPTP and in favour of PR, which would provide the working class and its potential allies, the poorest members of our society, with an option of voting that is not a futile waste of time and shoe leather, walking to the poll to cast an ineffectual ballot, but give a parliamentary voice to their angry grievances.
As I mentioned, the greater part of Nick’s article is concerned with decision-making in a workers’ democracy, which is an evanescent form of state, or in a communist society. But towards the end of his article he addresses an issue that is arguably also relevant to parliamentary elections in a bourgeois state: recallability and accountability of elected representatives. He correctly observes that under PR recallability is at best highly problematic.
In fact, this is also true for district representation (DR) systems, in which each geographically determined constituency elects one representative - or a small number, as under the single transferable vote system (STV). Under any DR electoral system, if there are more than two candidates it is always possible that a winner of the election is not the top preference of an absolute majority of the voters. Even worse, under many DR systems - including the alternative vote (AV, which is to be proposed in the referendum promised by the present UK ruling coalition), STV, and the Borda count system (used in Eurovision song contests) - a candidate who loses the election may be a ‘Condorcet winner’: namely, a candidate who would beat by an absolute majority any other candidate - including the actual winner(s) - given a simple choice between the two. So it would be possible, and indeed quite probable, that just after winning an election fair and square according to the rules of any DR system, the winner could be immediately recalled by a majority vote of his or her constituents.
In my opinion, recallability is not really applicable to parliamentary representatives, except in cases of gross malpractice. Recallability does make sense in the context in which it was originally discussed by socialists: a workers’ state, and specifically a structure of councils (soviets). A delegate (rather than a representative!) is elected by a grassroots collective to speak for it in a council, or by a council to speak for it in a higher-tier council. S/he is specifically mandated to vote for or against a proposed motion, according to the majority view among her or his electors. If s/he refuses or fails to act as instructed, s/he can be recalled.
In a parliamentary context, a feasible mechanism that comes close to recallability has an excellent radical English pedigree: frequent elections. The Chartists demanded annual parliaments - it is the only one of their six demands that has yet to be achieved. Since the process of recalling MPs and replacing them in by-elections (if it were at all feasible) would not last much less than a year, it would be almost pointless if general elections were held annually or even biennially.
Contrary to what Nick seems to believe, PR does not necessarily tend to reinforce the power of a party’s central leadership. For one thing, if a party’s list of candidates does not allow adequate representation to a minority faction within the party, then this provides that faction with a powerful incentive to split and present its own separate list. Second, a party with robust inner democracy will conduct a primary election process, involving all its members and possibly also close supporters, to nominate its list of parliamentary candidates.
In this context, Nick makes a strange assertion: “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.”
There are at least two fallacies in this assertion. First, the allegation that PR tends to “strengthen the power of the executive and undermine the legislative role of assemblies” is simply incorrect. Some of the western bourgeois states in which the executive wields greatest power vis-à-vis the legislature have the most disproportionate electoral systems. A prime example of this is the UK.
Second, as I have explained, the demand for a PR system in a bourgeois state is in any case not designed for direct, participatory democracy.
On the other hand, as I have argued in my essay on decision-making in a communist society, in such a society there will be a feasible form of PR which, while allowing proportional party representation, is definitely not focused on it, but gives ample opportunity to independent candidates. I will not pursue this point here, but leave it for another occasion.
- Weekly Worker May 27.
- Weekly Worker April 1 2010.
- Weekly Worker Letters, November 12 2009; December 3 2009; April 29 2010.
- Note that this meaning of ‘transitional’ may not be the same as several other meanings of this term, as used by various Trotskyist sects.
- Borda’s system is not only non-majoritarian, as it may not elect a Condorcet winner, but is also one of the most easily manipulable voting systems (as the Eurosong contests amply illustrate). When Condorcet pointed this out, Borda’s response was: “My scheme is only intended for honest men”.
- It was practised by the Paris Commune. The idea was enthusiastically embraced by Marx in The Civil war in France and seconded by Lenin in State and revolution.