by Chris Kane
“British politics is in trouble. The anger of the past fortnight has been frightening, even a little threatening. But almost as worrying has been the morose, resigned silence of the past decade, perhaps two decades. A gulf has opened up between the governed and those doing the governing.”
No this is not from a communist publication but from the new ‘Political Manifesto’ of that champion of British establishment The Times, itself a virtual institution of the upper class. Correctly The Times recognise there is a deeper problem with the political system manifested in the ever decreasing participation in elections and a “sullen, cynical lack of regard for politicians” and “all this even before the electorate discovered that Members of Parliament were engaged in a massive scam.
The Manifesto of The Times seems radical and democratic and strikes a resonance with the popular mood which some of the traditional left have not achieved.
This programme — open primaries, a recall mechanism, fewer but better-paid MPs, an end to the allowance system, a modernised and more open Parliament, a more civilised standard of political debate, looser whipping, less government domination of parliamentary time, fewer laws more carefully debated, a change in the conventions of collective responsibility, much more local democratic control of public services, elected police chiefs, more referendums with the power for voters to call them, better scrutiny of European laws — will require the full attention of political reformers.
There is they say a need to improve the quality of MP’s, some of whom “struggle to string together the words necessary to ask an entire question to the Prime Minister”. But the main thrust of The Times’ Manifesto is around accountability and selection. What they want, and this is being pushed by Cameron’s leadership faction of the Tory Party, is a system of selection of candidates like a US primary contest:
“Anybody who registers should be allowed to vote and anybody should be allowed to stand for the nomination. The aim should be to encourage many thousands of voters to select party candidates.”
As evidence The Times points to a recent Labour Party selection in Erith & Thamesmead where just 279 people from the local membership participated. Furthermore once elected the “MPs should be subject to recall by voters.” On appearance this sounds like the traditional position of communists as pioneered during the Paris Commune of 1871. But although this agenda being developed in the Manifesto of The Times and by some Tories may not reveal its class character, it does have one, and it is not as democratic as it appears.
The Tories have been discussing for some time now a major legal attack on the ability of the working class to organise politically. This involves tighter state regulation of how trade unions use their money for political activity such as funding the Labour Party. This agenda has been developed by Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Alan Duncan MP and Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly in Labour and the Trade Unions: an Analysis of a Symbiotic Relationship.
Djanogly and Duncan consider that despite making much of its “business friendly” credentials, under new Labour “in reality, employers have been faced with significant extra burdens and that the rights enjoyed by Trade Unions have been greatly strengthened.” This will no doubt come as shock to many members of the labour movement, but it should also give a warning of how much of a threat we face from the Tories! According to Djanogly and Duncan:
“The Labour Party, with falling membership rates, and with its base of new Labour entrepreneurs shrinking, is becoming more, not less, dependent on Trade Union funding. As Labour becomes more reliant on such funding, there surely needs to be more answerability, greater transparency, better accountability, and increased openness over the source of that funding. And members deserve full transparency over the political donations that are made by their Trade Union.” (Labour and the Trade Unions)
This is not simply about the Tories exploiting the vulnerability of their political rivals: it goes deeper, as no matter how capitalist the Labour Party may be in its politics, the Tories aim to diminish even further the capacity of the working class to voice its interests. Djanogly and Duncan’s concept of “transparency and democracy” echoes the language of Thatcher’s anti-union laws: their aim is to aims to weaken potential union influences and strengthen those of capitalists on the terrain of politics.
We should view the ‘Political Manifesto’ of The Times in the same vein; it’s an effort to knit back together the hegemony of capitalist politics in the 21st century. But whilst such demands as recall of MPs is a democratic advance, it is negated by the call for “open primaries” being echoed by Cameron. This system as run between the two big capitalist parties in the USA, Democrats and Republicans would not increase democratic participation but is an electoral charade, with the financial backers and media tycoons doing their utmost to ensure dominance and success of candidates safe for capital.
Parliament, says The Times, “needs urgent reform”, amongst them is the need for MP’s “to engage in a reasoned discussion” a requirements of which is that the “Politicians need to assert their independence from their own party and be more readily willing to co-operate with those from other parties.” This of course is entirely possible when politicians all agree on the fundamentals of how society is run – that is if they operate on the ground rules of a capitalist society. But what The Times is missing in its analysis is that this is precisely one reason Parliamentary democracy is so rotten in its decadence: the bulk of the politicians have been in full agreement on the fundamentals of the neo-liberal/new right concepts. With such consensus any disagreements and political debate are reduced to an ever more mundane and barren terrain. All this has started to unravel as the partial recovery of capitalism has hit a crisis with the ‘credit crunch’ and the fractions struggle to find means of coping with the recession. This crisis of democracy should be seen within the context of the wider structural crisis of capitalism, and as such the efforts of The Times and their friends should not be judged in isolation but on the basis of whose interests do the changes they propose actually serve.
On a number of times in the past the capitalist class has waged campaigns for constitutional reform, some have been more militant and revolutionary than those of the working class. At times they have used the social weight and threat of the working class to achieve reforms in their interests. In 1832 they allied with the workers for widen the right to vote, in a situation of near revolution the capitalists gained greater access to parliament in the Reform Act and abandoned the workers to their own fate. The working class considered it an historic turning point, after the Great Betrayal; never again would they be conned into an alliance with their class enemy. In response they launched the first national workers movement – The Chartists – and besieged the British state for a decade. The lessons of 1832 have great relevance in forming our attitude to the current calls for reform from The Times, Cameron or Brown. We need to safeguard our own working class interests, the most radical Chartists who became the majority made clear democratic reform was no longer enough in itself, they sought ‘The Charter and Something More’, a republic which was democratic and social, a red republic. In contrast none of the radical reforms proposed by The Times manifesto touch the social question, where more than anywhere there is a glaring democratic deficit, alienation of the governed from the governed.
Marx, so much in vogue as the prophet of globalisation and economic crisis once wrote that the English bourgeoisie “cannot avoid fulfilling their mission, battering to pieces Old England, the England of the past”; but when finally political and economic power and clearly united, “when, therefore, the struggle against capital will no longer be distinct from the struggle against the existing government – from that movement will date the social revolution in England.” This is the choice – reforms of The Times or revolution of The Commune.