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Do we live in a democracy?

This article is over 20 years, 11 months old
Colin Barker writes about who has power in our society.
Issue 1829

IT SEEMS as if we live in a democracy. After all, every five years we elect the government. That’s certainly better than not electing it. But then there are some questions. Most people in Britain support the firefighters, are against war on Iraq and oppose student fees. How does New Labour respond? It attacks the firefighters, threatening thousands of jobs as the price of a half-decent pay rise.

Blair will loyally follow George Bush (who stole the US election) into launching destruction on Iraq. Blair wants to raise student fees. How come? If we elect the government, surely we control it? There’s the rub. Once every five years, we enjoy a minute of power, if we bother to exercise it. We put a cross on a ballot paper. When the crosses are counted, we find we have an MP. Are the MPs then accountable to the people who elected them? In short, no.

Once in parliament they fall immediately out of our control. Indeed, there are legal limits to what we can do even to influence them. We mustn’t march with banners near parliament when they’re meeting. We can’t, even if they are union sponsored, demand that MPs follow union policy. If they’re not accountable to us, who gets to control them? The party machines control their MPs. But then who calls the tune in the party machines?

Not party conferences, for sure. Party leaders always ignored party conferences. Nowadays they hardly bother to pretend that conference resolutions matter. So where do the heads of the party machines turn for their policies? They look outside parliament, but not to popular opinion.

Why did Gordon Brown look so comfortable chatting to the CBI last week? Would he have looked so comfortable at a conference of pensioners, students or trade unionists? The bosses might have minor disagreements with him, but they know he’s their man.

The bosses don’t want to pay the firefighters more. They want to privatise more public services. They expect to profit enormously from any war in the Middle East.

What they don’t want is taxes on their abundant wealth. And Gordon will give them what they want. When elected government falls out of the hands of the people, it has to fall into someone’s hands. The capitalist class are well organised to hold their hands out and catch it.

These days, whatever the party labels say, the Tories always win the elections. There was a bitter truth in the joke that if you play Scrabble using the letters of ‘Tony Blair MP’ you can spell ‘I’m Tory Plan B’. It turns out that we don’t live in a very democratic country at all. Lack of democracy is even more apparent when we widen our question.

First, there’s more to the state than parliament. Who chooses the judges, army and police, or the senior civil servants who do a lot of actual policy making? These people often exercise far more real power than MPs. But they are appointed from above, within the state bureaucracy.

Second, there’s the world of work. Did you elect your boss? Your foreman or supervisor? Not a chance! Yet these people make decisions that affect our lives – investment, hiring and firing, work practices, discipline at work, and so on. Their rule is essentially ‘despotic’, as good old Karl Marx put it. The conclusions seem at first sight very dismal. But there’s a whole other side to the question. First, there’s another, ‘unofficial’ side to democracy. It’s not found at the top, in the CBI or the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. It lives down below, often rather dangerously.

Within tens of thousands of workplaces – in factories, offices and schools – is a network of perhaps 200,000 elected representatives, shop stewards, safety officers and the like.

Their relationship to those who elect them is quite different from MPs. They only hold office as long as their members want them. They can easily be recalled.

They don’t live a privileged life. They share the lives of those they represent. They are genuinely accountable. They have to be sensitive to the mood of those who elect them.

Second, every significant movement of resistance throws up the demand for just the same kind of democratic self organisation. The anti-capitalist and anti-war movements can’t function without democracy from below. Nothing else will motivate people to participate. Within opposition movements people carry out all manner of experiments in new ways of organising democratically – some don’t work, but even the failures provide valuable experience.

In popular revolutions there are veritable orgies of democratic participation. This is the kind of democracy that really matters. The fight to change society involves releasing democracy from below – really accountable, living democracy – and making it the vital principle of life.

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