Britain: A Very British Revolution?

For an extension of genuine democracy

“A Very British Revolution,” thundered the Telegraph in the aftermath of the ejection from the House of Commons of Speaker Michael Martin, the first time this has happened since 1695. Jonathan Freedland followed on in the Guardian: “The Speaker exits with revolution in the air. I say, bring it on… These are indeed revolutionary times – and that radical, convention-breaking change is possible.”

Shades of ‘Jacobinism’ or just journalistic hyperbole? Not if you listen to the enraged voices of the ‘street’, on public transport, in conversations in workplaces or on Question Time on the BBC. Moreover, rather than abating, the tide of mass anger and bitterness at the naked greed of their ‘parliamentary representatives’ has grown with the daily revelations of MPs’ robbery of our money. Tory MP Douglas Hogg, who claimed thousands of pounds for clearing a moat, has now been ‘de-moated’, forced to stand down at the next election. One worker, summing up the general mood, declared to the Sunday Times: “The British electorate must envy Ali Baba. He had only 40 thieves to deal with.” Another commented: “From now on, I will consider ‘MP’ to stand for ‘money pincher’.”

New Labour MP Margaret Moran ‘flipped’ her property but has now promised to pay back money spent on her second home in Southampton. But this did not mollify a Sunday Times interviewee: “It’s simple. She should be arrested. They should all be arrested.”

As The Socialist has pointed out, the Telegraph’s revelations have utterly discredited the so-called elite ‘political class’, the leaders and the overwhelming majority of MPs in the three main political parties. In order to deflect attention away from themselves, these leaders have resorted to cosmetic measures – the resignation of the Speaker and the ‘disciplining’ of a handful of MPs, including resignations and a promise to ‘step down’ at the next general election. Gordon Brown promises ‘outside scrutiny’ of MPs’ expenses in the future. But only ‘scrutiny’ by committees involving ordinary working-class people could begin to effectively check MPs’. None of the measures proposed is likely to satisfy the mass of the people, utterly disgusted with MPs who claimed for ‘flat-screen televisions’ – the unspeakable right-wing New Labour MP Gerald Kaufman – or a ‘child’s mattress’ – Tory ‘culture vulture’ Michael Gove – etc.

In reality, the Telegraph has not called for a revolution – not even for a ‘political revolution’ within the framework of capitalism – but for minimal measures. While hurling accusations at MPs, the Telegraph’s owners and its journalists are not exactly clean themselves. Conrad Black, the former owner of the Telegraph – one of the most right-wing journals in Britain, if not internationally – is currently languishing in a Florida jail for a scale of corruption which puts in the shade even the shameful actions of British MPs. In effect, the Telegraph, the capitalist media and the leaders of the three main big business parties merely want to tinker with the system. They have blatantly used the sacking of the Speaker in order to evade their responsibility for similar shady practices; they also benefited from unacceptable ‘expenses’.

Little publicity has been given to the fact that Cameron’s mother-in-law supplied furniture to a Tory MP who, in turn, claimed the cost back from the House of Commons fees office! Liberal Democrat leader Clegg is also implicated, as is Gordon Brown himself. The main revulsion is felt particularly by former Labour voters – crushed by mass unemployment, cuts in living standards and wages – for the New Labour hypocrites.

There is an almost unspoken, tacit acceptance that you could not expect any different from the ‘fat-cat’ Tories. But many workers and middle-class people, particularly the older generation – despite the brutal experiences of Blair during the Iraq war and of Blair and Brown in attacking the rights of working-class people – vaguely hoped that New Labour was still somehow ‘different’. That has now been totally shattered as New Labour is revealed as no different to the Tories and Liberal Democrats, forfeiting the right to be considered as representing working-class people.

Most of the MP ‘miscreants’ in this situation – in reality, people up to their necks in corruption – are merely asked to ‘pay back’ for what they have stolen. But as one old age pensioner said if “he went into Boots and lifted a shampoo bottle without paying for it, he would not be asked to merely pay for it but would probably be arrested and fined.” Besieged by this mass rage, the government, abetted by the Tories and the press, including the Telegraph, wish to concentrate the discussion on merely ‘improving’ parliament rather than ending the blatant ‘democratic deficit’ of parliament in its present form. An ally of Gordon Brown told Seamus Milne, the Guardian columnist, “There is a dangerous void. If the governing elite doesn’t grab the opportunity, the people will overthrow them.”

But the urgent issue of changing parliament is now to the fore in the outlook of the British people. To replace Martin with any of the other candidates as Speaker of the House of Commons – unbelievably, a former hard-line Thatcherite, John Bercow, now on the centre left of the Tory party, has been put forward by some New Labour MPs – will not change the situation one iota. The mass revulsion felt towards MPs of all parties and even of parliament itself in its present form will not be cut across by paltry measures dressed up as a ‘revolution’.

The Socialist Party stands for the establishment of a democratic socialist society and a democratic workers’ state managed and controlled at all levels by working-class people. Notwithstanding these recent developments, the mass of the British people accept and support the concept of democracy, including parliament, in a general sense. But what we have in Britain is a capitalist democracy, in which the working class can say what they like – and even this is attacked by the ‘surveillance society’ – so long as the big capitalists and their political representatives make the real decisions.

Is this not what we have seen with three almost identical parties still defending the so-called ‘free market’ that is wreaking so much economic devastation against the people of Britain? Elections to parliament are periodic choices between which of the three main capitalist parties will be given the opportunity to oppress and attack the working class and the poor for the next five years. The ‘winners’ are rewarded with the main spoils of office: prestige, government limousines, huge salaries, etc. But even the ‘losers’ are in a ‘win-win’ situation as this ‘expenses’ scandal has revealed. Not content to be in the top 5% of wage earners in the country – on their basic salary alone – they have ‘topped this up’ through the disgusting malpractices revealed by the Telegraph.

We defend all the democratic rights acquired by working-class people through struggle, including voting for representatives in a parliament, which is the current level of understanding and outlook of the majority of the people in Britain. However, the reality is, as all serious commentators now admit, that the present parliament is mostly a talking shop and sometimes not even that. MPs are merely voting fodder for policies decided by a small cabal of the government and its army of ministers, junior ministers, parliamentary private secretaries – the ‘payroll vote’. The real business is conducted by the government and, increasingly, by a small cabal around the prime minister himself. They rule through the state including the civil service, who implement their decisions. But as history has shown, great social upheavals – and we are passing through such a moment now – sees the working class move to try to break down the gap between the separate ‘legislature’ and the ‘executive’ – the government and the state machine.

The answer to the present undemocratic situation is not to do away with representative institutions like parliament but to introduce a more generous democracy, an expansion of the means of involving the mass of the people in the formulation and implementation of decisions with direct control over their representatives. This would mean in the first instance in Britain the abolition of the House of Lords (read ‘frauds’) and the monarchy. These institutions have been kept in reserve not for decorative or historical reasons but as possible weapons to use against a radical parliament and government in the future that threatened the power of big business.

Under capitalism a bicameral system – two parliamentary chambers – is not a ‘democratic’ check on the main legislature. It can be used to thwart the popular will, particularly in a radicalised, revolutionary period by the use of an ‘upper house’ or ‘senate’ against measures in the legislature which threaten the interests of the possessing classes.

Therefore a single assembly is the answer in Britain which would combine legislative and executive powers. This should be elected by a widening of the electoral franchise, particularly by drawing in young people by giving them the vote at 16. Electing MPs for four or five years on bloated salaries inevitably leads to the situation that has presently scandalised the British people. A real, democratic form of proportional representation should be immediately introduced to break the monopoly of the three pro-capitalist parties and allow for a genuine voice of working-class people to emerge, particularly through the establishment of a new mass workers’ party.

The capitalists have no fixed fetish about electoral arrangements. They will switch, depending upon what form of elections will best serve their interests and parties. Witness the dizzying switch of the Italian capitalists in the past 50 years from different forms of proportional representation, then back again, and now Berlusconi’s attempt to create a British-style ‘two-party’ system. Their stand is determined not by ‘principle’ but whether it will give a majority to right-wing pro-capitalist parties. Equally, socialists fight for the best, most equitable form of expressing the views of the majority of the British people.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when the threat of a left Labour government – led by a figure like Tony Benn – was a real possibility, the capitalists were preparing to ditch the hallowed ‘first past the post’ system with proposals for forms of proportional representation. Most of their suggestions took the form of the Alternative Vote, aimed at bringing to power pro-capitalist coalitions, with a radicalised Labour Party permanently shut out of power.

We reject all undemocratic forms of elections like this, which is favoured by the Liberal Democrats and even by some capitalist commentators today. Elections conducted every two years would be an advantage over the present five-year period. Yet even a shorter term for parliament, even for a year – like the Chartists’ demand in the nineteenth century – would not overcome the glaring absence of day-to-day control over parliamentary representatives which this crisis has revealed. A big step forward would be MPs elected through democratically convened and elected local assemblies, constantly subject to the scrutiny and, if necessary, the immediate recall by their constituents who elect them.

There are provisions in other countries – even in the US but particularly in Venezuela – for the ‘recall’ of the people’s representatives, mostly through different kinds of referenda. But a more direct means of exercising recall is now needed, so out of control are the MPs and the present parliament.

MPs should also receive no more than the average wage of a skilled worker. It is significant that this demand, which has formed a central plank in the programme of the Socialist Party (up to now, for the labour movement but now relevant for MPs as a whole), is now finding an echo in sections of the capitalist press. For instance, Aditya Chakrabortty, in the Guardian’s feature ‘A New Politics’, writes: “The £64,766 salary puts them comfortably into the top 5% of all single earners. The median salary in the UK is £25,100; take into account pensioners and others living on benefits, and the average person lives on less than £16,000.” His solution “is to link MPs’ wages to average earnings. Put backbenchers on, say, two times the average wage and increase their salary in line with average earnings. That would remind politicians that their job is to represent their constituents – and give them an interest in improving the lot of voters.”

Two cheers for this proposal. His suggestion may not earn him many brownie points from MPs but certainly will find an echo amongst ordinary people as the stand of Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall did, and has since acted as an example. He is too generous in suggesting an MP should receive twice the average wage – as he points out most people are below the average wage – but he is heading in the right direction.

Our suggestions are to help facilitate the struggle of working-class people against the onslaught of capital, which can only worsen because of the organic crisis of capitalism. There is undoubtedly an element of an attempted ‘coup’ against the Brown government in the campaign undertaken in the Telegraph, and picked up by the capitalist press as a whole and the Tory leadership. The likely meltdown of Labour support in the June elections will be used to trigger not just the removal of Gordon Brown but a clamour for a general election, which could now take place well before this parliamentary term runs out in June 2010.

A Cameron government is now clearly seen as the best option for the bosses and their system. ‘Compassionate’ Dave is a thing of the past as Cameron sounds more like a reborn Thatcherite every day. Capitalist commentators openly speak of the necessity of a Cameron government being the only one prepared to conduct an offensive against the labour movement and the working class. This will be needed, they reason, in order to tackle the massive budget deficit, which is likely to be 12-13% of gross domestic product, £175 billion. They are forced to tolerate this at the moment in order to avoid an outright slump. But on a capitalist basis that deficit can only be realistically plugged by a brutal offensive, particularly against public sector workers’ wages and a widespread savaging of services.

As with Thatcher before she came to power, this is now the conscious aim of the British capitalists. Therefore, a Cameron government will be much worse in its intentions than was even Thatcher’s at its outset. This guarantees a head-on confrontation between the government and the classes it represents, and the mass of working-class people. Huge social conflicts, including a general strike, will be on the agenda.

We therefore fight in this present crisis for the widest possible form, the most extensive form of democracy, to enhance the struggle of the working class. But we also recognise from the standpoint of the working class and the labour movement there is no perfect ‘democracy’ or an electoral arrangement within the framework of capitalism. The US House of Representatives, for instance, has elections every two years but in no way does this body represent the majority of the US people. The mass of the working class of the US are facing more than half a million redundancies every month, an incredible number of house repossessions and the intention to savage jobs and services in the public sector, as can be seen in California at the present time.

But no real solutions are possible from either house of Congress in the US. US ‘democracy’ is dominated by huge capitalist machines around the Democrat and Republican parties, which in turn are in thrall to the billionaires and their ‘dollar democracy’ which acts as a bulwark of the system. As in Britain, the urgent need is for the creation of a new mass radical opposition alternative for the working class which can then seek to use this ‘theoretical’ electoral democracy in their favour.

The same task is posed in Britain. The working class did have a mass political voice up to the 1970s and 1980s, in the working-class base of the Labour Party, which has now collapsed into pro-capitalist New Labour under the baton of Blair and Brown. Therefore if even necessary democratic demands are to be implemented, the most urgent factor in helping to achieve this is the creation of a new mass workers’ party. Without this, all kinds of false prophets, irresponsible demagogues of the right and an array of ‘independents’ will step into the vacuum that exists.

Esther Rantzen’s attempt to unseat Margaret Moran – ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me A Seat’ – could foreshadow the emergence of many so-called ‘independents’ – Martin Bell is dusting off his white suit as well – showing the dangerous vacuum that exists. But they will only be able to do this if a new mass workers’ party or steps towards one are not undertaken urgently. That is why the ‘No2EU, Yes to Democracy’ campaign supported by the Socialist Party and the RMT, amongst others, is so important. Also the decision of the PCS to discuss fielding and supporting union candidates in elections is a further milestone in the creation of such a force.

New Labour has demonstrated time and again – and once more emphatically in this crisis – that it is firmly in the camp of capitalism. Alice Mahon hit the nail on the head when resigning from New Labour after 18 years in parliament when she concluded New Labour was ‘unreformable’. Therefore in this debate over parliament, socialists and workers must press for an expansion of real democracy by fighting for democratic reforms and also fashioning the political weapons, above all the creation of a mass workers’ party which can challenge against the capitalist parties and their system by fighting for real socialist democracy.

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May 2009