But re-define it first, writes John Tummon – and give only guarded and limited support to the campaign for STV
I must admit I am a reluctant participant in electoral work and regard it as a subsidiary activity, at best, to be considered tactically and never as a strategy; I have worried about the electoralism that seemed implicit in Left Unity at its inception, but joined because it was not yet clearly the point of the party. That is still the case but if it does become formally regarded as the most important activity of the organisation, I will leave LU at that point. I hope this article explains why I feel so strongly and am somewhat alarmed that my branch has invited a speaker from ‘Unlock Democracy’ to tell us about the importance of campaigning for STV (the single transferable vote).
While STV would be progressively ‘democratic’, in the same marginal way that compulsory trade union ballots are hailed as more ‘democratic’ after being tampered with by successive Tory and Labour governments, this kind of thing is, I hope to show, no more than shifting the deckchairs around. The main reason is that the internal networking of the oligarchy – both the international oligarchy and its British branch – is almost entirely outside the formal political processes STV hopes to amend.
Also, this is a strange time to be raising STV – 2 years after the mainstream debate. The chances of it getting anywhere near adoption are zilch, whereas the chances of building a strong movement of the unemployed, for instance, are better than they have been for decades.
Making a call for STV a major campaigning initiative would be to privilege electoralism as not only a strategy, but as THE strategy for taking LU forward.
However, I also believe that there has not been a better opportunity in several decades for the Left to make a bid to take over the mantle of democracy from the neoliberals, who have abused it as their false flag in waging the Bush-Blair war on terror. However, first, a little potted history:
1. The Left has a poor record in defining and promoting democracy as a key aspect of working class advance. The best thing I have read on this is here.
2. The Tories mounted an unending ideological attack on trade unions from the 1960s onwards based on the contradictions between trade union and working class political practices and the norms of representative democracy. This featured the ‘union barons’ mantra, the attack on the Labour Party’s bloc voting system for its TU affiliates and the alleged intimidation of the mass of trade union workers by militants, though the use of mass meetings to decide strikes rather than the secret ballot. Tory anti-trade union legislation in the 1980s came on the back of this long campaign that benefitted greatly from the Cold War background to it; a Cold War which saw so many examples of ‘democracy’ being used as a flag and symbol to distinguish ‘us’ from the Eastern Bloc societies.
3. In these ways, the right has, until now, monopolised and defined the democracy agenda and succeeded to such an extent that most people have come to understand that the political-economic system we live in is ‘democracy’, not ‘capitalism’. This has been a big ideological hurdle for the Left for many decades and the reason why we need to campaign to change this.
4. Since the credit crunch, however, representative democracy has experienced a significant unravelling of its credibility. This is not just about its various scandals, MPs’ noses in the public trough, the Cabinet of Millionaires or the familiar issues which make the headlines, but the rise of the Downing Street machine as an alternative to the civil service, with its finger in so many pies and its doors so open to the rich and powerful to influence policy and its implementation. The televising of PMQs every Wednesday and the regular snippets on TV news have not showcased what was hoped for, but instead exposed a bunch of sound-bite poseurs and their playground antics. Voter turnout is in long-term decline and the medieval imagery of Parliament has become symbolic of its seeming irrelevance to many among the younger generation, who show the highest rates of voter disinterest.
5. Representative democracy is still very new and only recently stabilised. From 1660, once monarchy was brought back, England and then Britain developed a system of government based on a narrow oligarchy of landowners, capitalists and bankers allied with the Crown, with strict property qualifications put in place to prevent the vast majority of people from being able to stand for parliament or even vote. For two centuries, until the 1867 Electoral Reform Act, this system functioned as the way the various sections of the ruling oligarchy negotiated the differences between them, so that by the time that the Labour Party started to get its candidates elected in the early 20th century, it was already set in stone – its rules, structures, networks and culture were too strong for a handful of Labour Party members to make an impact; instead, they mostly got sucked into its quaint ways of operating and came to share much the same political perspectives as the Tories and Liberals.
Unelected members of the oligarchy like senior civil servants, military commanders, judges and the Corporation of the City of London remained, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, in regular touch with government ministers, usually in the private clubs they both spent lots of time in. With some exceptions, like the Attlee government straight after the Second World War, the Labour Party, however many votes it got in elections, was no match for the power of this oligarchy.
Nowadays, the private clubs have mostly been replaced by the thousands of corporate lobbying groups buying time with ministers at invitation-only meetings, where they are able to exert incredible influence on government policy and its implementation. Governments make it their priority to get as close to media editors and owners as they can, as Leveson showed, and these media people are themselves powerful figures within the oligarchy.
The British political system is still a means of the rich and powerful negotiating their differences – that’s what it is for and, since the mass media grew in size and influence, it is also a way of talking at the people, presenting the oligarchy’s views and decisions to the people. That is why there are strict rules on which parties can have a Party Political Broadcast; it is why political parties are privately funded.
That is why I am an electoral sceptic and think the idea of the Left getting behind STV is the very opposite of LU’s policy that Left Unity has no interests separate from the working class. All that can be claimed for STV is that it would make it easier for left groups to get a couple of MPs; it would not move working class struggle to any improved prospects nor the decision-making of the state any closer to representing the interests of the working class. A couple of Left Unity members would become MPs, enter parliament, absorb its culture and become useless to the working class, that’s all.
I think much of the Left has steered clear so far of launching a campaign to reclaim democracy because it is still stuck in economic reductionism (a tendency to reduce all politics to material and economic motives and causes); my view, on the contrary, is that Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony is essential to a full understanding of why continued exploitation and oppression does not cause rebellion. Without naming names, I find it ironic that the same variants of Left thinking that are most reductionist are also those who habitually indulge in electoralism. Without ever putting forward their own theory of electoralism, these political tendencies, by implication, therefore agree with the classic social democratic, left reformist reasoning for being an electoral party. As I’ve already stated, I think electoralism, in its Left Reformist incarnation, was fundamentally flawed – the tragedy of left reformism is due mainly to its expectation that achieving formal control of the House of Commons could ever produce executive decisions that reflected a democratic mandate from the voters and the demand for STV repeats that mistaken analysis.
What prevents executive decisions of government achieving this kind of sovereignty within the state are the multifarious ways in which the constituent parts of the oligarchy come together to develop their own consensus on major issues and strategic decisions and the immensely powerful levers of state and of civil society which they have at their disposal, completely independently of MPs. I use the term oligarchy rather than ‘ruling class’ because ‘ruling class’ is used in two quite different ways and is therefore ambiguous – (1) it refers in general terms to the social class of a given society that decides upon and sets that society’s political policy, but Marxists also use it to mean (2) those who own and control the means of producing wealth and thus are able to dominate and exploit the working class, getting them to labour enough to produce surplus value, the basis for profits, interest, and rent. This mixes up two groups of people who are essentially, allies; the parts of the social surplus that go to the actual capitalists and major shareholders also supports a wider group – the oligarchy, the vast majority of whom are able to live entirely or mostly off interest and carry out various non-productive but politically and socially crucial functions in support of oligarchical domination, including joining the professional political class. That’s why I prefer the more inclusive term ‘oligarchy’ – because it provides a broader and more complete picture of what we are up against and who is up against us. The entire British and French empires were built and administered in precisely this way by the oligarchy (almost all colonial district officers came from one Oxford College – Balliol), so was the network of tax havens (based on Crown Dependencies) and the institutions of global capitalism such as the IMF, World Bank, GATT, the Bank of International Settlement and Central Banks; none of these was founded or grew or was sustained as a result of formal political decisions. Under capitalism, the economic realm, including the media, the monarchy, the judiciary and the church, has a firewall protecting it from formal democratic decision-making, irrespective of the electoral system used in any one state. Politicians (all career professionals nowadays) have no choice but to bow to the consensus achieved undemocratically by the oligarchy or find they are fatally undermined – for instance, the oligarchy had already moved towards supporting a welfare state in order to get out of the Depression before Attlee came to ‘power’ and made it happen! If he had moved independently from an oligarchical consensus (of which he was, anyway, a part), Attlee would have been fatally undermined, as Harold Wilson was. That’s why the Tories in the 1950s actually built far more council houses than Labour managed – because the oligarchy recognised this was necessary for social peace and to build consumer capitalism.
We should have no illusions in STV – all it can do is put British voting in the same formal position as in Europe, which would be only a slight improvement. If we sowed illusions in what else it could do, we would be doing the working class a disservice.
As for the industrial democracy practiced by the Russian and German soviets in 1917-1919, on its own, this would default to producers always calling the tune over the common good unless consumers and communities had their say on what is produced and how hard-wired into the rules of socialism. What I believe in is participatory grassroots democracy – popular meetings at neighbourhood level upwards, backed by carefully-controlled internet-based voting and decision-making processes. Nothing need be decided in the age of the web by ‘tribunes’ of the people in a legislature or National Assembly – it can all be done by the mass of people online, with executive implementation of decisions through an administrative cadre based on strict rotation, so we have neither a permanent political class nor a permanent bureaucracy. The communications revolution means there is no longer any excuse for ‘representative’ politicking!
If the Left is finally going to try to take democracy back, it won’t achieve this through a campaign on STV, but by re-defining democracy and arguing that participatory grassroots democracy and the use of the internet for making decisions is closer both to the spirit of the ancient Greeks (and to the open decision-making strike meetings of workers until the Tory anti-union laws) and to Abraham Lincoln’s famous dictum that democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.
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