Recent events have demonstrated the inextricable link between democratic demands and the fight for socialism, argues Lindsey German
It’s been a good week to reflect on democracy. It’s 200 years since working-class demonstrators were cut down with sabres at Peterloo, as they protested against Old Corruption and a political system which gave MPs to rotten boroughs with a handful of inhabitants, while the major industrial city of Manchester was denied any representation.
While Britain is described as one of the oldest democracies, with its ‘mother of parliaments’, its ruling class has repeatedly denied democratic and civil rights to the people who produce the wealth in this country. The monarchy denied parliament even the most basic rights, leading to a civil war in the 17th century and the trial and execution of the king. Those Peterloo protesters were regarded as a dangerous threat to the status quo, as were the early trade unionists like the Tolpuddle Martyrs who faced deportation and imprisonment for demanding their rights. The might of the state – whether the judges or the army – was wielded to ensure that they stayed in their place.
So it was more than 100 years and one world war later before universal suffrage was achieved in 1928. And, as working-class people became more enfranchised, so the power of parliament diminished, with the real economic and political decisions being made elsewhere. While the fight for free elections and for the right to representative parliaments is still crucial in parts of the world, parliamentary democracy remains very far from the genuine democracy which would give people control over the important areas of their lives.
The limitations of parliament may not seem apparent in Hong Kong, where protesters have turned out in huge numbers and backed up demonstrations with occupations and strikes, or in Sudan, where mass protests have forced an accord between the opposition and the military government. In both cases they have been in conflict with brutal forces of the police and army, and in Hong Kong are threatened with military intervention by the Chinese army.
And the demonstrators there, as in Peterloo, are fighting for a level of democratic control which is being denied to them by force. They are right to do so, and show great bravery in their protests.
In Hong Kong they have been met with few concessions and the threat of military force; in Sudan they have achieved more, but in both cases, they will have to go further to secure permanent gains. This is because even parliamentary democracy, while a great advance on dictatorship or denial of democracy, is in itself limited in its ability to achieve real change for the mass of people.
Behind the edifices of such democracy, the parliament building, the legal system and the like, lie the real sources of power in capitalist society – the industrialists, the mass media, the money market, construction companies, the huge industry that lobbies for the interests of these groups - and it is these groups overwhelmingly who decide the really important issues. This is true about whether or not people have jobs, what their wages and conditions are, whether environmentally damaging projects such as road building or fracking continue, whether rents and fares are raised.
When the challenge to their rule gets serious, then the real force behind the parliamentary system shows its teeth, in the form of the state machine. This has been used to crush democratic movements, whether in Paris in 1871, as Marx so famously analysed, or in Chile in 1973, or in Egypt following the Tahrir Square movement. So the lesson is that we need system change, not just change of institutions, important though they might be. And the power in society will bide its time when under threat, and strike when the movement begins to decline, or when it thinks it has achieved sufficient change.
It was the French revolutionary Saint-Just who argued that those who half make a revolution dig their own graves. The British historian RH Tawney made a similar point, that you can peel an onion layer by layer, but you can’t skin a tiger claw by claw. You do enough to antagonise those ranged against you, but not enough to disarm them.
When the going gets tough, the extreme centre would rather go right than left
Here in Britain, we are seeing the profound weakening of even levels of representative democracy – a long term tendency dramatically accelerated by the Brexit referendum and its fallout. When the Tories and Lib Dems went into coalition in 2010, their first act was to pass the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – a complete affront to democracy as it makes it much harder to overturn an unpopular government, as we are now seeing. They did so precisely to achieve this outcome, because they were afraid of a bumpy ride for the coalition and its policies.
The installation of Boris Johnson as prime minister by a tiny and unrepresentative section of the population viz. the Tory party membership is a further element in this. Johnson has made clear from the outset that he is unconcerned about the records of his cabinet members, so long as they back his no deal Brexit. Johnson repeats ad nauseam that Britain will be leaving the EU on October 31st, regardless of the question. He has assembled a gang of like-minded thinkers to achieve this aim, and is increasingly channelling Donald Trump in trying to by-pass any democratic scrutiny.
This includes a total disregard for any constitutional niceties. It is astounding that someone who resigned in disgrace like Pritti Patel, or who was sacked like Gavin Williamson, should now be in lofty positions in his cabinet. It is also astounding that he can threaten an election days after October 31st, denying any chance of democratic say in what happens.
Johnson may well get his way, given the antics of what Tariq Ali has called the extreme centre. First Caroline Lucas, then Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson, have made themselves look foolish by calling for national unity governments which exclude Jeremy Corbyn, and which prioritise Remain over issues of policy, class and much else. Swinson, despite increasingly desperate support from the BBC, has ended the week looking as though she would prefer no deal to a Corbyn government – which she no doubt does, but it’s not a good look.
Jeremy Corbyn has been overwhelmingly elected twice as Labour leader, and his performance in the 2017 election gives him the (official) role of Leader of the Opposition. It is up to the electorate to decide who fills this role, not the leader of one of the minor Westminster parties, who herself joined with the Tories in coalition. It is up to him to try to form a government if Johnson is no confidenced, not nominees of Swinson or anyone else.
Corbyn did well to call the Lib Dems’ bluff this week but the price of doing so is that Labour is edging ever closer to being a Remain party. Johnson seizes on this as being anti-democratic and it will cost Labour votes. For Johnson to be able to pose as a defender of democracy where he is willing to ignore all democratic norms is pretty rich (and his calls for more prisons, stop and search and policing will certainly presage a crackdown on protest among other things).
Labour needs to step up in its fight against the Tories. We don’t hear much radicalism these days, let alone talk of socialism (compare this with Bernie Sanders and AOC in the US). Labour needs to highlight nationalisation, serious solutions to the housing crisis, mass injections of cash into the NHS and education service, and not just come out with Ed Miliband-type policies of the sort that didn’t cut in 2015. And it needs to go for Johnson as a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.
You won’t hear that from any of the other parties, and only a Corbyn government has a chance of delivering it.
I think a lot of people were hugely disappointed with Caroline Lucas’ call for a women-only national government which included Tories, the egregious Change UK, and the Lib Dems. It has been widely remarked that no black women were considered suitable, for which Lucas has apologised. But as importantly, there was absolutely no sense of class interests and of standing up for the poorest and most dispossessed. This group of women have in their majority supported cuts, austerity and attacks on working people. What exactly is there to like about it? And after Thatcher and May, do we really need to have illusions in Tory women? The Greens should be in alliance with Corbyn not fighting against him. As I’m sure most of their voters would prefer.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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