Socialists and Elections: How can we participate?

By Maurice Carr

Every election, those of us on the radical left in Canada face the same challenge leftists face around the world. We, for the most part, identify and reject the limitations of what passes for democracy in this country. While a large part of the country does identify in some ways with this (as evidenced by the ever-increasing levels of voter non-participation in modern elections), the informal consensus is that elections are the be-all and end-all of democracy, forcing us to either participate in some sense or risk missing opportunities to connect with others.

This is an attempt to work out some of the problems associated with electoral participation for revolutionary socialists and other people with similar goals. It does not offer perfect solutions; modern Canadian politics does not allow us to participate in electoral politics in the way we would like to. Ideally, we would want what we do around elections to be an element of a larger political whole that would include robust extra-parliamentary political action and strong movements, genuine workers’ organizations (including parties), and a politically-aware public. However, we are painfully far from that ideal, and need to act in the present conditions as they are. Our participation requires an alternative to the rote ranking of party platforms, an alternative that acknowledges the long-term goals we have as radicals – but an alternative that also acknowledges the fact that many people do attempt to meaningfully participate in the election. The reason for this article is to try and reconcile these two goals, and as such, will hopefully serve as a guide for other genuinely left-wing people (regardless of their political stripe).

There are two basic questions radicals must struggle with during an election, broken down between individual and collective actions: the first is how we, as individual radicals, should act during an election (specifically in regards to voting); the other is how groups of radicals (such as those in formations like the NSG, but also including unaffiliated and otherwise-affiliated Marxists and anarchists) can work together to further our common goals during the election. Whether those goals will be realized or not is based upon a relatively short list of factors: the number and quality of political networks we can rely on in our organizing, specifically the existence of a strong, militant and anti-sectarian network of those on the left; the willingness of the public to be politically active in left politics; and the organizational strength of the NSG and other left groups. This wishlist of factors would allow us to make significant inroads in public consciousness, and should be kept in mind when organizing.

Individual Action

Radicals deciding how to vote during an election have few good options. Neither the pro-business Liberal and Conservative parties are particular attractive to anyone anti-capitalist; the New Democratic Party, while closer to us in some respects, continues to frustrate us by capitulating to some of the basic ideological foundations of advanced capitalist states. For those of us in Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois suffers from some of the same problems as the NDP, but their position as sole Quebec nationalist party on the federal level additionally means it is the natural home to the nationalist right as well as the nationalist left – a situation that has led to some internal divisions and resistance to the already-mild social-democratic leanings of the Bloc. The Green party, while connected to the ecological movement, has unfortunately had its ecological reputation with leftists tarnished by the eco-capitalist orientation of the party in both the previous and current federal elections as witnessed by their support for the creation of self-defeating carbon taxes and pollution markets; while there is a left-ecologist perspective in the Greens, it is in the minority and is not an organized force. There are a host of so-called ‘fringe’ candidates as well, all of which have essentially no chance at success. In addition, there is (as always) the choice of abstention or, far preferably, spoiling or refusing your ballot.

Who, then, to vote for? As an organized voting bloc, the radical left in Canada is woefully small; although we may have influence beyond our small numbers within the movements, it does not translate well into elections. We cannot expect to significantly influence the election with a coordinated voting plan, although our votes do count as much as the next person’s. Whether we vote NDP, Green, or for some smaller left party should largely be up to politics of the individual candidates in the riding. A progressive NDP candidate (i.e. one on the left of the party) should be supported; progressive Greens should also be supported. Likewise, a left-wing Bloc candidate should be supported. Of course, whether or not the individual candidate will be able to express and act upon their political beliefs in a Parliament tightly controlled by the political machines is debatable. The real benefit is in pushing these parties to the left, which helps to open up space for radical left politics (but is far from the only solution for this). As an alternative to mainstream party politics, smaller left parties or independents may also deserve our support depending on the individual candidate, especially if the ‘party’ candidates have particularly unattractive politics.

Strategic non-participation (as opposed to non-involvement) is another option. Since it really takes an incredibly small amount of effort to go and vote, if individual radicals genuinely feel that no candidate comes anywhere close to being progressive enough in their particular riding, the logical step to take is to show up to vote and to spoil your ballot in some fashion. This is, unfortunately, illegal under the Canada Election Act, and unlike in some provinces, there is no option to ‘refuse’ a ballot, or to vote for ‘none of the above’. This does not mean this is not an option, of course.

So-called “strategic voting” (really tactical voting) typically for the Liberals, has had some significance in this election. It can have a peculiar draw for some radicals, especially if they believe the electoral system is completely irreformable and so the only logical option is to vote in a way that tries to avoid the worst-possible outcome – in this election, a Conservative majority government. However, this (at best) may result in a few minor ‘victories’ at the cost of supporting the right-wing Liberals.

Collective Action

However one votes individually, our major influence as radicals will not come from voting – instead, we should attempt concerted, collective action that utilizes elections as a vehicle. In this election, there are two major goals: to build capacity for the post-election period (both within and outside organized socialist organizations like the NSG as well as other radical organizations) and to influence the debate in particular directions, regardless of the positions of specific parties. Building capacity for the future is important, as we should see elections as an interlude between periods of ‘real’ organizing.

Canadian elections inevitably result in ‘entertainment politics’ based on image and style (Layton’s mustache, Harper’s sweater vests, et cetera) instead of real issues – witness the lack of discussion of Afghanistan in this election. When people consider political theory and action outside of election cycles, it results in better political education without the election drama to dilute it. As a result, we are better off building capacity for the post-election period – especially when the new government inevitably disappoints, and new opportunities for showing the limits of capitalist democracy show themselves.

Capacity-building can take different forms: it can include organizing around election issues and building the experience and skills of socialists and their allies; it can also include building political relationships and networks with potential and existing allies; it can even result in recruiting new members. Whatever form it takes, it should be geared towards improving our ability to effect change and build for the future.

Likewise, influencing the political debate can also take different forms. These attempts should be collective actions, such as coordinating to ensure difficult questions are asked at election forums, direct actions targeted at particularly offensive candidates, or organizing public discussion events around electoral issues from a socialist perspective. These should be geared towards trying to get socialist perspectives ‘on the map’, so to speak, and to make sure the parties don’t get to set the tone of the debate themselves.

One form of collective action that would have been ultimately self-defeating in this election is running candidates of our own in the election. Neither the NSG nor any other radical organization in this country realistically has much reason to do so other than tradition. It would drain our resources without anything to realistically gain from it. Running genuinely left-wing candidates, be they socialist or otherwise, may be an option down the road – but for now it would be nothing but a waste of time.

Guiding principles for the electoral participation of socialists

Regardless of what is done, any political action should try and fulfill some basic criteria to ensure it is an effective use of limited resources. Any action planned should:

•    be geared to making a genuine impact and not done solely on principle – we need to be realistic about what we can accomplish and not needlessly overextend ourselves.

clearly represent the political beliefs of the participants, without making that the overwhelming focus – we want to be public and proud as radicals, but not beat anyone over the head with it.

•    support issues and organizations that are ignored or routinely marginalized by the various political machines – our struggles do not exist in a vacuum! Other groups and causes are ultimately tied with radical left politics, and their lack of attention is as much a problem for us as it is for them.

•    work towards the goal of continued political work post-election – socialism will never be voted in, and organizing must continue on October 15th.

•    incorporate both political theory and practice that are rooted in our politics – the NDP and their allies will sufficiently cover off the social-democratic style of organizing. Let’s leave them to it, and use the election to organize in ways that flow from our principles.

•    be wary of co-optation by existing mainstream political machines – critical support for a party does not mean we allow ourselves to be content to be used as expendable labour during elections only to be tossed aside post-election. By all means, participate, but do so with eyes wide open.

If we follow these basic principles, our actions will hopefully lead to some genuine progress, both as a movement and in the immediate future. The long-term goals mentioned above (political networks on the left, public militancy and interest in left politics, and organizational capacity of left organizations) are best accomplished through these guiding principles; they will not be accomplished by blindly endorsing and voting for a party, nor by washing our hands of mainstream Canadian politics. Involvement and participation are desirable – but on our terms.

Maurice Carr is a member of the New Socialist Group.