Members of the West London branch were out distributing leaflets at the Waterloo end of the constituency. Other members were leafleting the anti-war demonstration in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square. On the way there two members carrying the party speaker's platform were accosted at a tube station where they had to change by an individual who gave them a leaflet headed "The Case for a Boycott of the Next General Election".
Obviously, we're not for a boycott of the election in Vauxhall, but what about in other constituencies, where there will be no socialist candidate standing?
Basically, there are four options:
1. Vote for one of the candidates as "the lesser evil".
2. Just stay at home and not bother to vote at all.
3. Go to vote but cast a blank or spolit vote.
4. Actively boycott the election.
Obviously, option 1 is out. As the early American Socialist Eugene Debs once pointed out, why vote for something you don't want just because you can't vote for what you do want. Besides, which party would be the famous lesser evil? And is the way capitalist profit system operates affected by which particular party forms the government? Do parties control capitalism or is it the other way round? [Answers: "No" and "It's the other way round".]
The case for option 4 was set out in the leaflet we were given, which seems to have been the work of an individual rather than a group, not that that makes it less valid. Anyway, here's the argument:
"What a boycott will do. It will throw into sharp relief what contempt the masses have for parliament! If the turnout falls below 50%, in theory, the electorate could then deem the election null and void. It would create a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling class! It won't change things over-night but will create conditions for change".
Since only 59% voted in the last election in 2001, it would only takes another 9 or 10% of the electorate to abstain from voting and the leaflet's goal of reducing the turnout to under 50% would be achieved. But what would this mean? It would certainly create a mini-crisis of legitimacy for the ruling class (though this doesn't seem to be a problem in America), but would it show "what contempt the masses have for parliament" or "create conditions for change"?
There is no evidence that "the masses" (what a horrible term for our fellow workers!) do have a contempt for parliament. In fact, the leaflet itself quotes a worker complaining about there being no difference between Tory rule and New Labour rule by saying "we've been disenfranchised" and later denounces compulsory voting as an attack on people's "democratic right". Not voting certainly shows an element of contempt, but it's for the mainstream political parties which all end up behaving in the same way ("Labour, Tory, Same Old Story"). It's not a contempt for "parliament" or rather not for democracy and democratic decision-making. It's a protest at the lack of real choice at elections. People, rightly, value the vote and, if it disappeared, what alternative to winning political control to change society would there be other than violence (which people, again rightly, don't want)? Encouraging contempt for voting is the last thing those who want peaceful, democratic change should want to encourage.
Would a less than 50% turnout "create conditions for change"? That depends. If this was due to indifference or apathy the answer would be "no" and, in fact, there is no evidence that the 41% who abstained in 2001 were more opposed to the capitalist status quo than the 59% who voted. On the other hand, if the 51+% had abstained as a deliberate protest against the capitalist status quo, that would be a different situation. But if that was the degree of consciousness amongst people, would it not be better to have put up anti-capitalist candidates against the pro-capitalist Labour-Tory-Liberal Party? In fact, surely this would happen and there would then be a real choice -- capitalism or socialism -- at an election. But, unfortunately, we are nowhere near there yet.
So option 4 falls too. So, what about option 2 (not bothering to vote) and option 3 (casting a blank or spolit vote)? We favour going to the polling booth and writing "I want world socialism" across the ballot paper, ie casting a write-in vote for socialism. (But don't do this in Vauxhall since here you can vote for socialism). The leaflet is against this, saying "beware spoiling your ballot paper, and there will be many of those, will raise turnout". True, but a 54% turnout with 6% spoilt votes would have the same political impact, if that's what you want, as a 48% turnout.
Option 2 is the lazy option, but we can't be too critical of it as, to be honest, that's what some of our members do.