Socialist Worker

What is real democracy?

Issue No. 1708

What do socialists say?

What is real democracy?

"THE LEVEL of cynicism about parliament and the accompanying alienation of many young people from the democratic process is troubling." That warning to MPs came last week from Betty Boothroyd, the outgoing speaker of the House of Commons.

It was a belated recognition of the gulf that now exists between official politics and not only young people, but the vast majority of voters. Boothroyd put cynicism with parliament down to the way the New Labour government, following Margaret Thatcher, has sought to avoid even the sliver of scrutiny the House of Commons is supposed to provide.

But the rot is far deeper and is part of a process that is happening across Europe and further. People feel that politicians are utterly out of touch. The incredible 14 week summer break MPs have just begun sums up the gap between their lifestyles and those of 95 percent of the population.

The New Labour/Tory consensus that the rich should not pay more tax is the opposite of what the majority of people want. Blair's circle have some sense of the cynicism about parliament. Of course, they don't propose a radical shift in policy. Instead, they are talking about "redefining" democracy.

New Labour pollster Philip Gould's leaked memo to Blair last month cited the view of a former adviser to Bill Clinton and said, "Politics has now moved away from representational democracy [parliament] to direct democracy, in which there is a need to win a daily mandate."

Direct democracy sounds like an advance on the remote world of parliament, and it should be. But New Labour's vision of direct democracy is typically trite. Gould's memo outlined what "winning a daily mandate" means. It amounts to tailing focus groups and opinion polls.

That would not be so bad if the government responded to what serious surveys of public opinion revealed. For example, somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of people want to see the railways and utilities renationalised.

But these are not the opinions that count for New Labour. Rather, it looks at polls and focus groups which ask people to give an opinion only on the highly restricted choices mainstream politics allows. We are asked to choose between Jack Straw and Ann Widdecombe, or between pro-euro bosses and anti-euro bosses.

Media moguls are subject to no democratic control and are free to shape what limited debate does take place. All this is a travesty of democracy, and for a very good reason. The radical extension of democracy is incompatible with capitalism, which depends on the rule of an immensely rich minority exploiting the majority.

Under capitalism we are allowed to vote once every four or five years for who will represent us in parliament. But we have absolutely no democratic say over the multinational corporations, police, army, judges, media, and other powerful institutions that control our lives.

Socialism is about deepening democracy into all these areas. The highpoints of workers' struggle against capitalism have shown what genuine democracy looks like. Workers seized power in Russia in 1917. The revolution established workers' councils-soviets-which have been a feature of other revolutionary upsurges.

Groups of workers, peasants and soldiers elected delegates to them. Unlike MPs they were instantly recallable. There was no fixed period between elections. If people felt their delegates were not representing their views properly, they could vote to replace them. The delegates were paid the average worker's wage. Local workers' councils sent delegates to wider regional bodies, which then sent delegates to a national council.

At each stage, delegates were subject to democratic control from below.

The councils meant ordinary people actively shaping society. Intense, informed debates took place within them. We see glimpses of such democratic institutions today. Strikes often throw up committees which are organised along similar democratic lines.

The Seattle, Washington and Millau anti-capitalist protests depended on thousands of people actively and democratically organising. Protesters in Seattle rightly chanted, "This is what democracy looks like!" Increasing numbers of people, far from being cynical with all politics, are turning away from parliament and Blairite spin in favour of far more democratic processes.

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Sat 5 Aug 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1708
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