Proportional Representation versus “a workers’ state”, and Left Unity

ImageThe current edition (20 February 2014) of the Weekly Worker (the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain) includes a letter of mine. I disagree with quite a lot of their politics instead of a broad socialist party like Left Unity, they advocate a Marxist party, and set up the Communist Platform of Left Unity to argue for such a party and “communist” views in LU), but their letters page is open to a wide range of left-wing arguments. This issue is broader than just the CPGB, since the SWP and Socialist Party are in favour of some sort of “workers’ state” rather than a society where everybody is in control.

Although I have had a few letters published on the subject of proportional representation (which had some success in them supporting PR, albeit with a party list system which gives a lot of power to party machines, whereas I generally favour single transferable vote but am not particularly prescriptive nowadays), they have always previously cut out sections of my letters in which I argued for PR under socialism – rather than just something to advocate under capitalism to be replaced by some sort of “workers’ state” after a revolution.

My (fairly) minor gripe is that the section of the Communist Platform on “republican democracy”, that I praised wholeheartedly, was cut from the letter. [It is at and I had previously added a comment there on much the same lines, which had been approved by a moderator.] That section reads as follows:

Left Unity does not counterpose democracy to socialism. Democracy is much more than voting every four or five years. Democracy is the rule of the people, for the people, by the people. To make that aspiration real necessarily means removing all judicial, structural and socio-economic restraints on, or distortions of, popular control from below.

Left Unity stands for republican democracy. That means demanding:

  • Abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and a single-chamber parliament with proportional representation, annual elections and MPs’ salaries set at the level of a skilled worker.
  • No to the presidential prime minister. End prime ministerial appointment of ministers and all other forms of prime ministerial patronage.
  • Disband MI5, MI6, special branch and the entire secret state apparatus.
  • For local democracy. Service provision, planning, tax raising, law enforcement and funding allocation to be radically devolved downwards as far as possible and appropriate: to ward, borough, city and county levels.

The following is my letter, as published on this week’s letters page:

I really like many of the positions of the Communist Platform. In particular the agreed motion on democracy is great. I like that part of your programme largely because it doesn’t define socialism in terms of just workers being in control of society (using the term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which has been widely dropped due to it sounding extremely off-putting!

I also agree with “the working class taking the lead in the fight to ensure popular control over all aspects of society” – despite the efforts of middle class people like Russell Brand, the ability of workers to withdraw their labour by going on strike (including carrying out general strikes) will probably prove key to achieving socialism. Perhaps Syriza could win majority support in a Greek election, but under our very undemocratic, misnamed ‘first past the post’ electoral system, Left Unity doing so here is virtually impossible.

I have a question, though – regarding the CPGB’s ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ programmes, which the Communist Platform’s programme doesn’t differentiate between. Is your call for “republican democracy” part of your minimum or maximum programme, or both? It seems to me to be of great propaganda value in our present society, in explaining how undemocratic capitalism is, but that the chances of it being implemented under capitalism is essentially nil.

I am reminded of the Bolsheviks calling for a constituent assembly after the capitalist provisional government came to power in the February revolution in 1917 and failed to grant any form of democracy; then Lenin returning from exile and calling for “All power to the soviets” (with much higher representation for workers than peasants) and the subsequent abolition of the assembly that was set up after the October revolution when the Bolsheviks and their allies in the Left Socialist Revolutionaries lost in elections to it.

This must not be repeated – if Left Unity (perhaps aligned with other socialists) comes to power through a general strike or insurrection, it would be vital to hold a democratic election (which these days means by a form of PR) soon afterwards (as well as carrying out the other improvements in democracy your platform suggests). If we don’t win such an election, the revolution is doomed anyway and it’d be better to be in opposition for a while than risk another 100 years of people called ‘socialists’ and particularly ‘communists’ being regarded as undemocratic by huge sections of the populations of Britain and across the world.

Mark Fischer’s report of the LU transitional national council (‘Assume we have a tin opener’, February 13), which unfortunately took place simultaneously with the Communist Platform meeting, omitted one significant detail – it was agreed (by a large margin) to conduct internal elections by a form of PR (single transferable vote). This may make it easier for your platform to get members elected, and it also makes a very democratic future socialist society which includes PR more likely!

3 thoughts on “Proportional Representation versus “a workers’ state”, and Left Unity

  1. I belong to a small group of socialists in Mid-Ulster in N. Ireland, we are not aligned to any of the socialist parties. One of our members took part in the founding conferences of both The people’s Assembly and Left Unity in Britain last year. He and I have both been members of ‘Militant’ (now S.P.) at different times during the past 35 years, and are now members of W.I.N.

    The issues that Steve has raised here about democracy are also being discussed in Ireland, particularly by the group Left Forum in Dublin, whose meetings I have attended.
    Discussion has centred around two papers which propose that there is no need to ‘smash the state’, rather dismantle the worst parts of its apparatus and reform its institutions, in the interests of a democratic socialist society.
    It would follow from this that transformation of society could be achieved without resort to insurrection, hence there would be no requirement for a vanguard party.
    The Strategy of Attrition: Part I

    The Strategy of Attrition: Part II

    My own thoughts on this are still up in the air. I’ve always been reluctant to keep going back to 1917 as conditions pertaining now are so different, i.e. in 21st Century Britain or Ireland the peasants are not in a majority, and on a wider scale the working class have for the first time in history become the majority of the World’s population.
    This statistic alone would suggest that the only ‘democracy’ we should countenance is one where the starting point is workers’ control to the exclusion of the exploiter classes.
    What passed for communism in the USSR or China was nothing of the sort, at best it reached the embryo stage of a socialist transition before being consumed by cult personalities etc. and the lesson of this in my view is that we need to get the balance right between the rights of the individual and the rights of the collective. But I’m not convinced that democracy should include the right of the individual to exploit other individuals which is what we would be arguing for if we proposed allowing ‘capitalist’ parties to compete in elections.
    The idea of a ‘workers’ control’ is probably outdated in a World where we have the technical capability to reduce the time spend on ‘work’ to a fraction of the present 40 hour week. Almost everything could be done by machines except for education and the care of other human beings.

    Taking all of this into consideration, the very first transitional policy should be to implement a universal basic income, and I have yet to see this being propounded by any alternative left party!

  2. If you are on Facebook, you may like to visit (and perhaps like) a page I have just set up to argue for a socialist society, with what the Communist Platform calls ‘republican democracy’, including (of course) a form of proportional representation. [In case it wasn’t clear from the above letter, being part of the ‘minimum programme’ means it’s something the CPGB or Communist Platform will argue for under capitalism, and being part of the ‘maximum programme’ means they would argue for in a future socialist society.]

    Discussion of how it would work are of course welcome, on that page or as additional comments to this blog entry.

    It is at

  3. A very interesting reply, Michael – I have just read the first of the articles you cite. However, there is no mention in the article of what country they are talking about when the authors state that the battle for democracy has already been won. I assume, since you mention the Left Forum in Dublin, that they are referring to the Irish Republic, where there is a form of proportional representation (single transferable vote) that has enabled the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins to be elected to the Dáil and even the European Parliament, leading to the United Left Alliance winning further seats. I certainly agree in relation to that country.

    In N. Ireland, where you live, if a socialist candidate tries to stand, you are not just faced with the same very undemocratic electoral system that Left Unity faces in Britain, but the problem of sectarian parties (in the religious sense) that still dominate the political scene (at least electorally).

    The argument that the battle for democracy has already been won would of course be far further from the truth if you are referring to the USA. [And not just because of the domination by the two capitalist parties, the “Republicans” and “Democrats” (perhaps the term “Republican Democracy” is unfortunate in implying some combination of them!), but the actions of the secret state that Edward Snowden has revealed. Search this blog for his name or “PRISM” for more information.]

    I am not in favour of a minority seizing power through an insurrection. Left Unity has not adopted such a position and even the Communist Platform does not argue for this. However, an amendment I proposed and spoke to (which was passed) at Left Unity’s founding conference is in favour of general/mass strikes to win individual disputes and change society. See

    The issue of an insurrection could arise if the capitalist state attempts to violently suppress a mass general strike movement (using the police and/or army). I was in Militant (and the SP) too, and I know the arguments about neutralising those sections of the state by winning over members of their rank-and-file.

    There are lots of tactical issues, including what happens if there is another crisis in the eurozone (perhaps when quantitative easing by the European Central Bank ends) which may lead to a mass movement on the streets of the Republic of Ireland. If socialists argue that there is democracy so wait until election time, ordinary working and middle class people will suffer in the meantime, and socialists would be seen as selling out the struggle. Perhaps even fascists could come to the fore.

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