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Democratic deficit: parliament and democracy

This article is over 14 years, 10 months old
As the crisis surrounding MPs’ expenses exposes the level of blatant fraud in Britain’s parliamentary system Simon Basketter looks at why capitalist democracy fails us
Issue 2153

Britain’s famous parliament building overlooks the Thames, its gothic permanence supposedly representing the timelessness of the “mother of all parliaments”.

But it is a fake, just like the democracy it symbolises. It was built in the mid-19th century as a symbol of the British Empire and capitalism.

The eruption of a political crisis over MPs’ expenses has shone a light on the facade of British democracy, and the murky dealings of those who are supposed to represent us.

Parliament has been an instrument of the ruling class throughout its existence.

New Labour came to power in 1997 saying that it wanted to democratise Britain. Tony Blair promised the 1999 Labour Party conference that he would fight “the forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment”.

Ten years on from Blair’s pledge, the British ruling class is still almost exclusively white, male, over 50 and from a wealthy background.

The House of Lords is more dependant than ever on patronage, and the Commons has been revealed as corrupt.

New Labour has marked a new stage in the centralisation of government.

It is supine in its subservience to corporate power. The growth of privatisation and unelected quangos in the last 12 years have served to reduce democratic control.

Even New Labour’s celebrated Freedom of Information Act was more concerned to conceal than reveal. It was a leak to a newspaper that revealed the MPs’ expenses scandal not the act itself – which they had fought hard to exclude themselves from.

The ruling class’s hold on “democratic institutions” remains. Many MPs and members of the House of Lords have been to public schools, where pupils are taught to rule.

In the 1950s the establishment joked that a sign should hang outside the elite Eton school reading, “Cabinet makers to Her Majesty the Queen.”

Recently we have seen a slight move away from public school and Oxbridge cabinet members. However, a boom in private schools under Labour means we can look forward to a future generation of politicians and bosses who have never been near a comprehensive school.

And if Tory leader David Cameron wins the next general election he will become the 19th, of 52, prime ministers to have attended Eton.

Even the nature of Labour MPs has been altered over the last few years. The party’s rush to embrace free market economics means it has lost many of the links it once had with the working class.

For decades it sent people from working class backgrounds to parliament. While many of them did little for ordinary people, and others did more harm than good, there was an idea that they were there to represent workers.

But now Labour, as Peter Mandelson infamously put it, is “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. Its policies and the people who implement them reflect this.

Very few New Labour MPs come from working class backgrounds, with many coming from the middle class professions.

Labour was founded on the belief that capitalism cannot be replaced with a better system. It believed that there could be improvements and reforms when the system can afford it.

This view affected the party’s trajectory, policies and its representatives.

When capitalism cannot afford any changes, Labour acts for the system rather than the workers it is supposed to represent.

Multinational firms

Capitalism is built on competition. The rush for profits piles pressure on each company to gain an advantage by developing strong relations with the state while cutting out its rivals.

Historically these interests have used the political system to fight for dominance. The state has been used to repress any movement that has challenged our rulers’ power.

When a crisis hits, British institutions have appeared to embrace drastic reforms, while remaining basically unchanged. They are a facade behind which the real rulers can pursue their objectives.

In reality, the handful of people who control the big corporations and financial institutions take all the major decisions about investment and jobs. They have only one interest – profits.

Because this drive impacts on the lives of millions of people, who capitalists try to make work longer and harder to maintain their wealth, it creates conflict.

The state, including parliament, claims to stand above these conflicts and to mediate between different groups in the interests of society as a whole.

But ultimately they always come down on the side of the class that shapes society through its economic decision-making.

Partly this is because the judges, the police chiefs, the military top brass and the secret service chiefs all come from the same background as the people who run the top firms.

They are allowed to share some of the wealth of the system and they all maintain close connections. These people represent the core of the state machine. They will stop at nothing to preserve their power.

Where does parliament fit into this? Parliament does not control these

unelected officials, who often pursue their own anti-democratic agendas and have a big effect on government.

In the past representatives of the ruling class used to go to London to argue among themselves, and with the monarch.

Politicians were the members of the classes they represented. As other classes developed their own interests, they too engaged in politics.

During the 19th century, politics became the sphere of the professional politician rather than the factory or the landowner.

Even the great democratic surge of the 19th and early 20th century was contained by channelling it into the structures of the system.

The state is the instrument by which the wealthy rule. But it is not necessary for its members to be present at all the meetings.

Wealthy individuals and corporations no longer need direct representatives in parliament or government to safeguard their interests. There are still a few rich men in parliament, and some old money persists – such as moat-owning Douglas Hogg.

But most of the time the rich and multinational firms can rely on lobbyists and pressure groups to push their cases for reduced taxation, regulation or increased attacks on the poor.

This process has seen an enthusiastic acceleration under Labour, which has embraced neoliberalism.

In recent years big business has attempted to make the government the direct servant of its immediate needs. We can see this most starkly when companies get into trouble and then demand that the government bails them out.

But it is also there in the background with corporations asserting their control over the state. Thousands of private sector lobbyists swarm around Westminster jostling for access and influence.

History shows us that parties that people elect to shift power away from the minority to the majority invariably end up administering the system that they had hoped to change.

There is another reason why parliamentary institutions do not allow change.

We elect our MPs once every four of five years, with no control over them between elections and with no means of holding them to account.

Workers vote as atomised constituents, allowing them to be influenced by the propaganda of the corporate media and the state. Our power lies in our collective strength in the workplace, where we can resist the diktats of the bosses.

Under capitalism, real power is concentrated beyond our reach – at the heart of the state and the corporations.

After over 100 years of Labour politicians sitting at the ruling class’s administrative trough and failing to change the system in workers’ interests, its time we looked elsewhere to get real democracy.


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