Sunday, 16 May 2010

On purple protests and revolutionary ghettoes

Yesterday, whilst in Liverpool City Centre, I stumbled across a Purple Protest. That is, lots of people - mainly students - holding a demonstration for electoral reform. I had rejected the invitation on Facebook,  but now that I was there curiosity got the better of me and I went over.

The protests are part of a burgeoning movement called Take Back Parliament. Their slogan is "no more broken elections, fair votes now," and they favour switching from the present voting system of First Past the Post (FPTP) to more proportional representation in the form of Single Transferable Vote (STV). Alas, no actual storming of parliament is involved.

My main objection to this kind of campaign is that it serves as a distraction.

All forms of voting within a parliamentary democracy amount to a way of choosing which element of the ruling class gets to run our lives. They still serve the interests of profit and privilege over working class people, and candidates who challenge that will either be utterly marginalised for lack of funding, promotion, and media exposure or, if achieving electoral success, compromised and drawn by "pragmatism" into the very system they were supposed to be an alternative to.

Being in the position of a councillor or member of parliament, just as being a bureaucrat at the top of a trade union or a senior manager in a business, gives you a position of privilege and creates a self-interest antagonistic to the interest of the working class. No matter how noble any intentions of "changing the system from the inside" may be.

Of course, there is a case to be made in pressing for reforms. However, the caveat is that this can only be successful if it is not done by those seeking power. Grassroots pressure groups, willing to take direct action to draw attention to their cause, will always be the most effective voices for reform. They will also be more effective if they do not lose sight of longer term goals.

As Mikhail Bakunin once said;
By striving to do the impossible, man has always achieved what is possible. Those who have cautiously done no more than they believed possible have never taken a single step forward. 
The Purple Protest falls into the latter category. However, it is not clear that all those who attended did.

One of the problems with political activism is that those involved quickly find themselves running in familiar circles. People getting involved in one particular cause may know each other from another. This allows people to build strong bonds of comradeship, trust and cooperation being vital to effective organising. But it also builds up an in-group which those new to activism may find daunting. Especially if they're just beginning to explore and develop their own social/political consciousness.

Events such as the Purple Protest, though flawed in a number of ways, offer them a way in. It may be easy to sneer at them from the revolutionary ghetto, to feel superior because they're promoting the "wrong" approach, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything.

Yes, electoralism is a dead-end road which draws time and energy away from more constructive actions, but you can't convince people of that by deriding them. You need to attend these events, to talk to people, and to spark up the dialogue about precisely this issue. Of course, there will be people who can't be convinced. You're not likely to make everyone throw down their purple banners and pick up a black-and-red flag. But those who have never done anything political before, who have no idea where to find an outlet for their ideas, may just be grateful.

If nothing else, you can give the inexperienced protesters a heads-up when some goons from the BNP show up to film and intimidate people.