We need a democratic movement that can break the Westminster consensus
The coming general election is about whether working class people should have a say in running the country through a victory for Jeremy Corbyn, or whether Theresa May will get a mandate to impose the will of the bankers and corporations. The British constitution, praised by the Tories over the last century as a model for the rest of the world to follow, is an increasingly grotesque affront to the will of the people. Westminster is a barrier to the democracy we want and desperately need – where our voices are heard.
Democracy and power
Representative democracy of the British kind was always pretty limited. Putting a cross on a piece of paper every five years is hardly government by the people for the people. The high percentage of people who simply stay at home on election day attests to their detachment from the political system.
Political parties elected to govern do not have power, they are simply in office. They recommend legislation concocted by civil servants who are in turn connected to the other spheres of the establishment.
When capitalism gets into difficulties democracy is a nuisance. Decisions are taken in boardrooms and the party in power is under pressure to deliver. The downturn in the world economy in the 1970s saw the International Monetary Fund (IMF) tell the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, to reduce social spending. This paved the way for Margaret Thatcher, whose role was to diminish union power and strip away any legislation that impeded profits.
National assets were sold off and the philosophy of neoliberalism, or pure capitalism emerged. Social services, indeed society itself, was sacrificed to the dogma that if the rich got richer, the wealth would trickle down to us at the bottom. The corporations were now sucking up the funds needed to maintain some form of social provision.
The victory of the neoliberals was sealed by the election of Tony Blair in 1997 who ditched any commitment to ‘socialism’ by abandoning Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution, which promised to redistribute wealth and power to the workers. Blair promised workers that he would ‘manage change’. And so began the political spin characteristic of today. He meant he was going to do what the corporations wanted, but he would manage it by calling it progress.
Wealth, and the political power and influence that comes with it, moved further from the poor to the rich.
The surrender to neoliberalism came at a terrible price. Blair undermined democracy. He upheld the Tory anti-Trade Union laws and this kept resistance to Neoliberalism at bay. Blair continued to privatise services, again diminishing the voices of those professionals who raised concerns, shrinking participation in local politics. He failed to constrain the role of banks and corporations and paved the way for the crash of 2007. He dutifully followed the world’s neoliberal attack dogs, Bill Clinton and George Bush, into an unending war for oil, for profit and for the increased domination of US capital in the world.
The price of Blair’s surrender to neoliberalism should be calculated in terms of destroyed states and the destruction of millions of lives.
In terms of democracy it was Tony Blair more than anyone else who made voting a pointless exercise. He reduced the Labour vote by seven million while in office. And along with his spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, he reduced political discussion in parliament to fact-free narratives where presentation counted for more than substance.
That the British constitution needs reform is widely accepted. A bloated House of Lords, overwhelmingly dominated by Tories and business interests does nothing to defend the poor from austerity.
The boundary changes which will come in after the General Election will reduce Labour representation in the House of Commons and the Tories could well be in office for a long time if the current party system prevails.
However, the tendency towards executive government has increased. Legislation passed under the last parliament to reduce pensions, sell off NHS services and further privatise (and cut) education have never been manifesto promises. Rather, the decisions are now seen as mere managerial adjustments to the running of the country. It is now the received wisdom of the elites that what is good for business is good for us all.
The British people are suffering from a huge democratic deficit. We have a foreign policy of sucking up to the US and the assorted tyrants and dictators who uphold US dominance in the Middle East that the vast majority disapprove of.
We have the policy of austerity which is proven over and over again to be wrecking the economy and people’s lives. No BBC interviewer ever says to a Tory minister that the national debt is now approaching £2 trillions, and rising at more than £1,500 per second. War and economic disaster have been normalised.
We need radical change – as the elites know all too well. As a result the political extermination of Corbynism and social justice is taken as a religious commandment by the mainstream media. Democracy is thus denied.
Working class people are alienated from the political system. The trifling democracy that they are allowed is often despised and ridiculed by workers who desperately need to have a say in their futures.
The media discussion of Jeremy Corbyn is producing the effect of saying that voting Labour is pointless. Every day on the BBC’s Daily Politics the presenters ask a Labour figure how their policies will be paid for. They continually jibe that Labour seems to think there is a ‘magic money tree’. Of course no Tory advocate of Trident missiles, or bombing Syria or lavishing money on the Royal family ever gets asked about the costs.
The Labour party itself, despite Corbyn’s highly successful rallies around the country, feeds the notion that little change is possible. Despite the evidence across the globe that ordinary people want wholesale changes to neoliberal capitalism the Labour right see advocating change as political suicide. It is impossible to see a Corbyn government that could command the loyalty of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and questioning Corbyn’s leadership is the gift that the Labour right have handed to the Tories.
Of course we already know that parliamentary socialism of any stripe will not be tolerated by those with the real power. The economic terrorism used against the Greeks for having the temerity to vote against austerity is one example. The destruction of the socialist government of Allende in Chile in 1973 is another.
Already Corbyn’s proposal of a fair tax system is being parodied. Businesses will just pack up and leave the UK – so the social justice which the majority of us want to see is simply forbidden.
A May government with an increased majority will mean more government by executive power. Workers’ rights and their standard of living will be attacked. Workers will suffer a more crippling democratic deficit and the means to prevent the crisis that brings us poverty and war will be further from their reach.
It is to the eternal credit of Jeremy Corbyn that he has gone beyond the narrow and restricted democratic norms of Westminster and the Labour party in the election so far. Jeremy has pointed to the value of democratic participation in a number of vital ways.
Rolling back the power of the corporations and strengthening workers’ rights; basing health and education policy on the values and knowledge of the specialist workers in those fields; engaging environmental activists around pressing issues such as fracking and green energy – these are all fantastic steps towards a democratic Britain we could look forward to.
However, getting Corbyn into Downing Street is going to be difficult. Overcoming the mass misinformation of the media alone will be difficult.
The crying need is for a Labour party that is prepared to spell out the extent of the crisis we are in and to present the outcome as either a new and terrifying era of corporate power or a new era of democratic possibilities. The former is where we pursue more wars for profit, stoke more racist scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims, finish off the destruction of all social provision and where the futures of our children have already been decided as mere resources for a capitalism unchained.
A Corbyn victory will extend democratic participation and bring our compassion and collective solidarity to bear on an economic system that shows no mercy to its victims.
The wider Labour movement
The NUT has been an example to the wider movement about how to campaign for a Corbyn victory. Excellent initiatives include: school assemblies for education, where teachers, parents and students come together to discuss vital issues; picnics for education where the crisis offered by the Tory cuts is weighed against the policies of Labour under Corbyn; and a Peoples March for Education which will go from Sheffield to Nottingham in early June.
This is how we build a democratic movement against the Tories. We educate, we organise and we mobilise. This breaks through the media blockade holding back progressive ideas.
Sadly parts of the movement have some catching up to do. The People's Assembly and other campaigning groups can make a fantastic difference. Holding stalls which spell out the problems caused by Tory cuts to a particular town get huge support, and again the myths about Tory ‘leadership’ and Corbyn’s presumed unsuitability to lead are challenged.
The election – whatever the outcome – will create the need for a genuine workers' democratic movement more than ever before in our history.
If Corbyn wins, the City of London, the capitalist media, and the establishment generally will seek to overturn the democratic mandate he has won. Memories of crushing hopes in Greece, Chile and Egypt will embolden the one per cent to take radical actions in the hope that the Labour right will eventually prevail in Jeremy’s promised changes.
If Corbyn loses the crisis will not disappear for the Tories. They will use their victory to claim they have a mandate to change far more than is in their manifesto. The elitism and authoritarianism already in open view will grow. A victory for May will mean the limited democracy we have will further reduce. The electorate will be denied the knowledge they need to make sense of it all and the continued attacks on trade unions and workers’ rights will be ongoing.
The question of how we can exercise democracy and get change will become the most pressing issue facing the working class.
The left in and out of the Labour party will need to react to this situation. We will need people's parliaments where real democracy can start to develop. We will need to take on the media by holding mass actions to expose the monumental lies and distortions we are told.
We will need to win an argument across millions of workers, their workplaces and communities that Westminster is a bastion against democratic change; that workers need their own democratic forums which will counter the Westminster diktat; and we need to mobilise the many against the few.
In addressing the glaring lack of democracy we have, and achieving some minimal steps towards a better one, some key demands could be made.
Let’s abolish the House of Lords completely. The very title suggests patronage and that workers should naturally defer to their alleged social superiors. We want an elected second chamber and should insist that it reflects the people who make up our communities.
The first-past-the-post electoral system is clearly adding to the democratic deficit working class people face. We need a form of proportional representation to break the two party system. This would have the benefit of stopping MPs taking their constituents for granted. From this comes a third proposal.
Our MPs should be accountable to the electorate they rely on. We need the power to hold our MPs to account, prevent them from selling out and then sliding across the floor of the House of Commons, and force them to stand for re-election.
Westminster will cheat our kids out of a future if we let them get away with it. We need a democratic movement that they can turn against their tormentors.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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