Socialist Worker

How democratic is British democracy?

by Grace Lally
Issue No. 2198

If elections are the hallmark of a successful democracy, Britain isn’t doing too badly.

We can vote in person, by post or by proxy in regular elections to borough, county and parish councils, the London Assembly, mayoral elections, parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the European and Westminster parliaments.

Throw in Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor and we have a veritable orgy of voting going on.

But if we judge democracy on whether our votes make a difference, things look worse. Around four in ten electors will be so disillusioned that they won’t vote at all in this election.

Democracy isn’t just about voting. It’s also about all the other rights that people have won – the right to organise, freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial by your peers. These democratic freedoms, like the vote, are founded on the revolutionary principle that we are all equal.

Yet rich public school children grow up to be Tory judges who overturn democratic strike ballots to help the captains of industry – who are their family and friends.

The failings of British democracy aren’t due to people being naturally greedy or corrupt. Democracy will never flourish under capitalism because underlying economic inequality fatally undermines the formal equality between individuals.


As Karl Marx argued, when everyone has equal rights, individuals with the most power will dominate. He said, “Between equal rights force decides.”

Nominal equality is no match for the huge inequalities of wealth, power and violence that are deployed to enforce the rule of the rich minority.

When I stood for election at university there would always be some prim twerp standing against me who would declare himself the best candidate to “represent everyone”.

I used to explain that the point of standing was to gain support for my aims and represent those who shared them.

I wasn’t interested in representing racist, homophobic or anti-abortion students. An election without competing ideologies and agendas is meaningless.

So it sounded painfully familiar when I heard some political commentators recently talking about the benefits of a hung parliament that could provide a “broad-based” coalition government that “represents everyone”.

Nothing exposes the hollowness of parliamentary democracy so much as the prospect of all political parties working together in the “national interest”.

Consensus can exist in parliament while the dictators in banks and boardrooms continue sacking people and repossessing homes, and the generals continue their wars.

In 1931, during a devastating economic depression, Ramsay MacDonald dissolved his democratically elected Labour government and agreed to the unelected king’s suggestion that he head up a coalition government.

This was to reassure the bosses that there would be no opposition to public spending cuts and discourage them from taking their wealth out of the country.

Labour could have taken direct control of their factories, raw materials and land. Instead the “national interest” government put the interests of the rich and powerful ahead of the majority.

This sums up the problem with the cliches about making a “real difference” by voting for a “real alternative” – this election is about choosing who will manage capitalism, not about what kind of society we want.


The bosses want cuts in public spending and each party is offering up a timetable to deliver them. The media help us to understand our “choices” by running opinion polls on whether we would like the cuts a) now b) later and in a) health b) education or c) transport.

It’s fantastic when socialists stand in elections and expose the lies of the mainstream parties, but it’s not easy terrain for us.

Working people are not stupid. They know that electing a socialist won’t change how the system runs – so many will applaud the socialist, but vote to support the least worst party likely to form a government.

The advent of the NHS, council housing and comprehensive schools seemed to show the potential of Labour to democratise society. But under capitalism democratic gains are fragile.

The union leaders who reined in the industrial power of their members to ease Labour’s time in office have made excuses for the party as it rolls back the gains we fought for.

But the corruption of Labour Party politics is more endemic than the recent expenses and lobbying scandals.

It is the corruption of a million compromises just to “get elected”, of vanities flattered by pomp and prestige and of powerlessness in the face of the establishment.

At election time the dominant message hammered home is our lack of choice. That is one reason why some people vote for Nazis and racists who feed off despair.

If the Nazis get elected they will try to do away with all vestiges of democracy – which is why abstaining from voting is not an option.

Many workers will vote Labour despite their demoralisation. But overcoming that demoralisation will take more than voting in elections.

It will require masses of people actively challenging the power of the ruling class through our own actions.

Socialism in Britain will not come from voting for MPs to declare it, but from organising ourselves collectively to fight for it.

If we do that we will also create a democracy of a much higher order than capitalism can deliver.

Every time workers have significantly challenged the power of the ruling class they have set up new structures that involve people in the planning and running of society.

When class is abolished and we hold the wealth of the world in common we will have a democracy founded on debating how best to meet our collective needs as a society.

Marx summed it up as a society where each would give according to their ability and receive according to their needs.

I reckon, given the choice, lots of people would vote for Britain to be like that.

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Tue 20 Apr 2010, 18:02 BST
Issue No. 2198
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