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The Labour Party and the Iron Cage of Electoral Realism

The iron cage of electoral reason traps us all. The bird inside sees only the space of the cage, there is the appearance of ample room to move, but flying is not an option. The bird inside thinks it is flying when it jumps around, but it has never experienced flight, so the concept does not match the objective reality The kind of debates that have surfaced on Twitter recently, among the British left, have been floating around since the times of Karl Marx and continued famously by Ralph Miliband in the 1960s. The two foundational questions at the centre of this debate are: What is the state? and What is the best strategy for emancipation? The concept of electoral realism helps us understand these questions.

The concept, as coined by Akin Aşkınoğlu, is in conjunction with Capitalist Realism. This is a cultural feeling and mode of thinking that is present in 21st century western societies. With the so called ‘end of history’ in 1989 and the fall of the only ‘viable’ alternative to capitalism, cultural theorist Fredric Jameson suggested ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism’. Mark Fisher, or as he sometimes known K-punk, took up this idea in his book, Capitalist Realism. He battled depression which he identified as having a causal relationship with the precarious nature of capitalism, sadly taking his life in January of 2017. This anxiety inducing and sped up life absorbs our attention, where we struggle to live right lives or ones of our own making. Projections of hope onto the future cannot be accomplished, for the future seems to creep up on us ever closer, the past even further away and with all this acceleration seeming to spin our minds into a perceived lack of present. In this head space, we cannot imagine a world without the commodification of everything. 

The British left in the 20th century failed. There has never been a successful revolution in Britain led by the working classes. Britain was always the bastion of freedom for the white man and servitude of the colonies. Britain was the empire; it ruled the waves and these sentiments to this day are looked back on with pride from the average person. The Blair government furthered this ideology through their neo-colonial pursuits in the Middle East and the Brexit debate highlighted this. Anyone who has gone to school in this country knows that we are not taught about the crimes committed by the empire, we are taught ‘socialism is bad’ and Britain, with America, saved the world from the Nazis. This ideology, that is so wedged into the core of the British way of life, has been invested in by the Left in this country as well. The Left has never really confronted our imperial legacy of colonialism. Some even celebrate it. The welfare state was founded on extraction of wealth from the colonies, but this fact is always surprisingly omitted in the praise of Clement Atlee and his government.

Capitalism, Imperialism and Parliamentarianism are the corner stones of what politics is, in the UK. To partake in politics, it is hard to escape these three aspects. Getting away from Capitalist Realism is imagining a politics, or even a way of life, outside these three pillars that seem so set in British political culture. Electoral Realism is part of this. What this basically means, or as I have taken it to represent, is that the British left are stuck in this circular movement of never escaping the pitfalls of this thought. Electoral politics is a beast. The starting intention is with good hopes, of wanting to help your community, emancipate people from oppressive forces that are active in this sick society. The machinery of parliamentary politics subjects you to its forces and you quickly get concerned with NEC elections, leadership debates, where the conference is being held and fucking PMQs. Before you know it, you are a spectator of politics, removing your own input unless it is at the bequest of the party. Party politics is dead. It is an old idea and if we are going to take on the challenges of the 21st century, it must be left behind.

There has never been a socialist government in this country and the state has done everything in its power to maintain this. There has also, shockingly enough, never been a leader of the opposition committed to decolonisation, until 2015. The only leader of the Labour party to be committed to this form of politics was Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn represented a break with a politics dominated by corporate interests and an ideology of empire. His moment in history was far beyond him as a person, it was about a movement that peaked in 2017 and then was destroyed by state institutions. Mistakes were made by the Corbyn team and they were sloppy. Before 2015, there was never a thought anyone with Corbyn’s politics would ever get near that position in the party. 

Concessions were made to the right of the party and the policies that were in place were developed by pressure from the liberal wing, that ultimately was paid for at the ballot box. These liberals probably joined the party to serve their egos and fiddle with income tax, never questioning the fundamental ills of a capitalist society. Their logic of the world could envisage mass support for Brexit, a vote that meant many things, but against the status quo would be something I would generalise it as. A friend of mine told me at the time, he wasn’t sure what the EU did but wanted things to change, so he voted Leave. The issue with party politics is that you have to make concessions and then, due to the nature of representation, it is centred on messiah politics where only egotistical individuals seem to succeed. 

Electoral realism is the state the British left is in. Similar to the mode of production it is hard to escape, however, you do not get rid of capitalism with more capitalism. Corbyn was a hope to us all but lessons have been learnt. The hostility that the state showed the socialist movement and the concern for the aesthetics of his presentation were the standard by which he was judged. A man who grows vegetables on an allotment, makes jam and hopes for a better world was turned into a monster by the mass media. He was undermined externally and internally by his own party. You cannot change this foundational narcissism from within. This is electoral realism, the only game in town is this brand of politics. You knock on doors, leaflet, argue on Twitter and vote. Imagine instead of knocking for a party that stands for ambiguity, you can offer that household something tangible through community action. To get past the cage of electoral realism, a new political culture has to be offered.

Due to the nature of the vote counting system, splinter parties do not work. So, you have a party where you have so-called Marxist-Leninists being in the same organisation as people who are members of the cult of Tony Blair. You think private property should be abolished while sitting in meetings with people who hold the belief that Iraq wasn’t ‘that bad’ and the EU is a model of greatness for a political institution. There is no integrity in this. Sir Keir Starmer is now in charge who appears to be ‘apolitical’ with little commitment to any ideology of any sort, but a reservation on issues for Trans kids and a silence on the treatment of WoC MPs that has been subsequently detailed. Liberalism has got its opposition back. 

We are all beings of finitude. Our attention and time are short. We must choose what to pay attention to and invest our energies in. The current world is torn between neoliberalism and fascism. So, after the failed project of Corbynism and in these unprecedent times, we might begin to imagine a world without capitalism, and therefore we must not be in servitude to its political arm. Our deals do not shape parliament and the party, they make you a subject to its will. Corbynism was a hopeful project and a major event in UK politics. We must acknowledge these events and admit it failed, as it was always going to. Do not get lost in electoral realism and step outside spectating and beyond what popular opinion calls ‘politics’. Do not waste your time on the Labour party and focus instead on non-bureaucratic unions and non-hierarchical organisations that are building a political culture to combat rising fascism. Organisation is vital in times like this, a formal party offers nothing. If we could divert this collective action away from the party, a lot could be achieved. To be productive about your negativity is to identify that we live in a society that by its nature is wrong, but to also produces something from negativity is to act on this. 

If you are unsure about leaving officially, then just do it in your actions. Stop engaging with wasteful internal debates and carry your politics not just in conversation but into the material world. To get beyond these ideological distortions through your own material movement, is to raise your consciousness and those around you. Only in direct action, beyond the party, will you understand the purity of your productivity. Never make concessions about poverty and don’t be led by the ego ideal of whoever you choose to respect. Create the events. Don’t be absorbed into the party machinery that doesn’t care about its membership, and by its design supports a status quo that is at odds with the socialist project. I do not write this from a position of virtue but as an argument of persuasion. If we are serious about emancipation, it is not through electoral politics, and must be in solidarity with the global south. The latter is something the British left needs to seriously consider. We should not let our collective action be absorbed by liberalism. It might seem counter-productive, but to escape the cage and fly, the bird must burn the cage to the ground first.

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