Socialist Worker

Democracy: an ongoing struggle

In the light of Paul Foot’s last book, The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined, Paul O’Brien discusses the link between the vote and the fight for democracy

Issue No. 1940

Chartists meet at Kennington Green, London, to demand democracy

Chartists meet at Kennington Green, London, to demand democracy

This book was 15 years in the making and represents the culmination of a lifetime’s work. Central to Paul Foot’s politics has been the idea that democracy and socialism are inextricably bound up with each other. His book is the dramatic story of the long hard-fought battle for the vote in Britain, and the way in which the franchise was undermined by powerful forces outside the control of parliament.

This is not a history of “great men or women, kings or queens, imperialists or potentates”. Paul concentrates instead on the vital role played by direct action from below.

The Vote is a great historical narrative. It traces the battle to win the vote against the vested interests of the propertied class. In a chapter that could stand in its own right Paul tells the story of the Levellers’ battle for democracy during the English Revolution of the 1640s:

“Parliament, the Levellers argued, should not be an assembly of rich men, answerable only to the rich. The poor, too, and the ‘middling sort of people’, needed representation as much if not more than the rich.

“The lives of the poor were every bit as much affected by the decisions of the government as were the rich. The Leveller pamphlets of 1646 seethed with the bluff language of equality.”

The Putney debates would settle what sort of society would emerge from the revolution.

Rarely are the words of those “hidden from history” preserved, but William Clarke, the army secretary, recorded the debate as it ebbed and flowed. We can read the words of the great agitators, Edward Sexby and Thomas Rainsborough.

In majestic language they eloquently summarised the demands of the Levellers:

“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly sir I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.

“I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

The Putney debates threw up a vital question about the nature of democracy that has not been resolved—what happens if the aspirations of the people without property, expressed through elections, clashes with those of a propertied minority?

This is the question that concerns Paul Foot for the rest of the book. Over and over again the struggle unfolded — the debate over the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, the Chartists in the 19th century, the great reform movement of the 1820s, the founding of the Labour Party in 1900 and the fight for women’s suffrage.

At the beginning of the 20th century it seemed as if a real democracy based on the ideals of past reformers and revolutionaries was possible. The second half of the book covers the remorseless struggle between the unelected forces of property and elected Labour governments that dared to challenge them. Paul traces the history of the Labour governments of the 20th century and the long drawn-out retreat from their stated aim to transform British capitalism into British socialism.

The Vote is a powerful polemic arguing that the right to vote, like democracy, has been subverted and we had better do something about it.

Paul says, “Whatever its chronic weaknesses and paralyses, the parliamentary system and the thin gruel of democracy it offers us is indispensable to any agitation for progress.

“The mere fact, for instance, that this book can be published and these views circulated is evidence of the value of the ‘bourgeois freedoms’ many socialists deride.”

A mere glance at the voting figures since 1922 shows that the peaks of social democratic support were when Labour governments could do something, or at least try to do something, for the workers and the poor. Voting in elections has fallen from 84 percent in 1950 to 59 percent in 2001, as more and more people feel that elections have nothing to offer them.

Years of convergence between Labour and the capitalist parties along with “the corruption and cretinism” of parliament have taken their toll on public perception.

As long ago as 1938, the left wing historian RH Tawney argued that there was an essential contradiction between capitalism and democracy and that unless elected Labour governments challenged capitalism, and took control of it, capitalism would counterattack and the chief casualty would be democracy.

Tony Blair and New Labour have made their peace with big business and no longer even care about democracy. The narrow concerns of the middle class are scavenged over by a political elite whose only concern is their own survival. Paul Foot despised those who sought high office or personal advancement.

Forty years of political agitation and campaigning led him to the conclusion that, “Any future for an egalitarian socialist society rested not on what happened in parliament but on the resistance and determination of the workers and the poor.”

We are facing a general election in May. We need to convince people that they should vote, not to elect the time-servers who fill the government benches, but rather as part of a struggle to transform the world that we live in.

This is what Paul Foot fought for all his life and what this magnificent book argues for.

I leave the last word to Philip Townsend, a district nurse in east London who tended to Paul during an illness in 2003:

“When I told him about this book, he reflected: ‘Yes, my mother used to tell me it was our duty to vote, out of respect for the people who fought for it. I’ve always followed her advice, but now I’m not so sure’. I thank him for summing up in a couple of sentences what this book is all about.”

Paul O’Brien’s Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland (£11) is available from Bookmarks

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Sat 26 Feb 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1940
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