Socialist Worker

Is struggle a threat to democracy?

Issue No. 1714

Is struggle a threat to democracy?

THE ENTIRE political establishment accused the fuel protesters of holding the country to ransom this week. They never talk of multinationals blackmailing workers and governments by threatening to shut plants.

None of the press or politicians are demanding that the government invokes emergency powers to stop Ford throwing thousands of workers on the dole at its car plant in Dagenham, Essex. They would scream if police and troops were mobilised to prevent the bosses at Coats Viyella in Nottinghamshire closing its factories.

Instead workers are told to make sacrifices to guarantee big business profits. And the government is meant to bend to the multinationals' every whim, usually doing so gladly.

William Hague, the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph and the rest of the right wing rabble say they agree with the protest organisers in wanting fuel tax cuts. But they denounce the militant tactics adopted by the farmers and lorry bosses whose interests they claim to represent.

The Tory establishment is petrified that workers might take heart from the blockades, and turn to their own methods of mass struggle to fight directly against big business and profit. So too is Tony Blair. He said on Tuesday that government policy would not be "dictated by illegal blockades, pickets or direct action".

Government ministers, such as Scottish secretary John Reid, described direct action as "a threat to parliamentary democracy". The Guardian said, "These protests ought to be policed no less firmly than other disruptive activities."

Across the political mainstream the message was similar-direct action is wrong and people should obey the law. But the law is geared to defend capitalist interests, and parliament is a mockery of democracy.

Bosses can appeal to the law to prevent workers occupying a factory to save jobs. There is no law to stop bosses sabotaging the economy by closures and price rises.

There is huge support in Britain for policies to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. The government chooses to listen to the big business elite instead. All the major parties are entwined with big business. Fat cats hold positions in the heart of government.

The bosses' ownership and control of the key sections of the economy are under no democratic control. Mass struggle outside parliament is how working people have won what little rights we have in a system which is loaded against us.

Struggle outside parliament, including confrontation with the police, won the right to vote, first for working class men and then for all women. The poll tax was introduced by act of parliament. The courts jailed those who could not pay.

A revolt by millions of people, culminating in a mass demonstration in London in 1990, finished off the tax and helped drive Margaret Thatcher out of office six months later. Such mass movements are infinitely more democratic than rule by a handful of unaccountable politicians and a few thousand families who hold positions of power in Britain.

Behind all the government's panicky statements this week lurks the vision of the workers' strikes and protests which shook the last Labour government in the 1970s. Commentators summoned up just those images to criticise the recent Scotland-wide council workers' strike.

Workers in the 1970s took to the streets for exactly the same reasons there is so much discontent in Britain today-Labour betrayed them. The betrayals of the 1970s demoralised Labour supporters so much that the Tories were able to get back into office in 1979.

James Callaghan's government caved in to the undemocratic pressure of big business and the International Monetary Fund. That did not need to happen. Major workers' protests against the Labour government pointed to an altogether different outcome where big business was made to pay for global recession.

But trade union leaders, while sometimes endorsing particular protests against Labour, refused to offer a socialist alternative to the government based on the democratic power of workers. They dampened down the struggle, allowing right wing forces to tap into people's despair.

We need what was lacking in the 1970s-organised groups of workers who will argue for socialist policies and action. That is central to furthering the struggles which the trade union leaders would prefer to keep within the limits of the law.

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Sat 16 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1714
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