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How we can win a real say

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Is this what democracy looks like? If not, what does democracy looks like? And who creates this democracy? Tomáš Tengely-Evans answers the vital questions
Issue 2652
A citizens assembly organised at Marble Arch during the Extinction Rebellion protest
A citizens’ assembly organised at Marble Arch during the Extinction Rebellion protest (Pic: Guy Smallman)

When people take action outside the parliamentary system, they can start to experiment with new forms of what democracy could look like.

From Extinction Rebellion (XR) to the Yellow Vests in France, movements have become a focus for deep anger in society. And many of those involved are looking for alternatives to the limited democracy in our society.

Many more feel that there is a gulf between themselves and politicians who make decisions that affect their lives.

Voting is an important right won by past movements for greater democracy. But under the present setup, political participation by the majority of people is mostly limited to elections.

Politicians are all too keen to emphasise that Britain is a “representative democracy”. After people cast their vote, they’re expected to let MPs get on with the “business” of running the country.

That makes for a very ­unrepresentative system.

One idea to make politicians more accountable is setting up a citizens’ assembly (see below). XR has called for the ­government “to create and be led by the decisions” of an assembly on climate justice.

We will need sterling resistance to stop the bosses’ sabotage
We will need sterling resistance to stop the bosses’ sabotage
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Instead of democracy being an individual right restricted to elections, it can become a ­collective process of coming to decisions together.

Ordinary people, who are told they don’t know enough to have a real say, can start to have an input into policy.

But how could politicians be made to implement the decisions that people want, rather than water them down?

Politicians aren’t just unaccountable because they’re out of touch with people’s lives. There’s also a question of ­economic power and class.

Many of the really important decisions in society aren’t made in parliament, but in the banks and multinational corporations that dominate British capitalism.

They make all the major economic decisions about where to shift investments and resources, or whether to drill for more oil for instance. It all comes down to what’s profitable, not what’s good for people or planet.

Business can also put pressure on governments to drive down workers’ and environmental protections or slash corporation tax. If banks threaten to move their money, even a left wing government can be brought to heel.

The setup of the state, and the way that it runs, reflects this.

Only a small part of the state is elected. The vast majority of the state machinery—from top civil servants to the police force—aren’t bound by ­democratic accountability and serve the interests of the rich.

So to stop democracy being so limited, we would need economic as well as political democracy. That means taking democracy beyond the sphere of “official politics” and driving it into every workplace, university campus, school and community.

This could be done through workplace councils. Who’s best placed to run a school or set the curriculum? The CEO of a privately-run academy chain—or teachers and the school ­students themselves?

The movement against the government and the military in Sudan has involved mass sit-ins
The movement against the government and the military in Sudan has involved mass sit-ins (Pic: @ikushkush/Twitter)

Faced with a widespread and coordinated movement demanding more control, the ruling class would be forced to fight to maintain its rule.

Such a situation opens the door to real revolutionary change—in which workplace and community councils could work together to plan how to use sustainably the Earth’s resources to meet people’s needs.

This would take economic power away from the banks, fossil fuel companies and agribusiness and put it into the hands of people.

That’s why bosses have always tried to restrict even the most basic forms of workers’ democracy.

Previously, union mass meetings in ­workplaces could be used to discuss how to respond to bosses’ attacks and workers could vote to strike with a show of hands.

Governments then enforced statutory ballots for strikes, taking away collective debate and decision making. More recent anti-union laws place even further restrictions on ballots, forcing them to have a 50 percent turnout.

Workers’ control of the economy would be key to a sustainable, socialist society. But democratic bodies aren’t going to spring up as part of a blue-print.

In the past, they have emerged in periods of heightened struggle and revolutions that have challenged state and economic power.

Often ­beginning as strike or neighbourhood committees, they grow to taking over the running of society in opposition to the state.

There were similarities between councils made up of ordinary people in the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

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While we’re nowhere near to setting up these sorts of bodies, when people fight back it can raise the question of democratic organisation.

XR has already shown a ­powerful antidote to parliamentary democracy—taking action, whether it’s marching on the streets or organising an occupation.

This activity begins to move people’s political participation beyond the ballot box. If you’re in an occupation, sit-down or strike, it all takes organisation.

And as a ­movement grows, it has to work out how to involve the largest number of people in a democratic decision-making.

During this process, individual’s ideas change too. As people change the world, their ideas change with it. Old, reactionary, right wing ideas belonging to the old system can become ­irrelevant and nonsensical.

In Sudan the uprising against former dictator Omar al Bashir and the military has involved mass sit-ins in the capital Khartoum. Hundreds of thousands of people have debated the way forward, along with bigger questions in society.

A recent article in the Financial Times newspaper said, “One cannot know for sure what Russia felt like in 1917 as the tsar was being toppled, or France in 1871 in the heady, idealistic days of the short-lived Paris Commune. But it must have felt ­something like Khartoum in April 2019.”

The Yellow Vests in France have also worked towards alternatives to representative democracy. It involves popular assemblies in towns. And last month an “Assembly of Assemblies” involved over 700 delegates from local groups across France.

This debated how to take the struggle forward, but also how to democratise society.

It has called for “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and is suspicious of leaders claiming to act on people’s behalf.

These struggles and ­movements offer hope that another world is possible.

We have to build the ­movement and deepen the struggles as part of a fight for a ­democratic society where ­working class people are in charge.

What’s a citizens’ assembly for?

Can the world go carbon free?
Can the world go carbon free?
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A key demand of Extinction Rebellion (XR) is setting up a citizens’ assembly.

The movement wants the government to “act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a net zero by 2025”.

And it wants ordinary people—through citizens’ assemblies—to direct politicians in making the changes to tackle climate change and make the transition.

At a mass gathering at Marble Arch hundreds of XR supporters debated how to take the movement forward.

XR nationally describes how a citizens’ assembly could work. “Citizens’ assemblies are a group of randomly selected citizens, from 100 to 1,000 in size, that represent a microcosm of society,” it says.

“They are brought together to make political decisions, particularly on issues that are too controversial for politicians to risk their careers.”

XR aren’t the only group taking up the idea of a citizens’ assembly and there aren’t set ideas about what an assembly might look like.

And there is a danger to that.

Quite often when politicians back or call for citizens’ assemblies, it’s a reactionary move.

Former right wing prime minister Gordon Brown has called for a citizens’ assembly on Brexit.

He sees it as a way to resuscitate ideas that back the dying, neoliberal status quo.

In Ireland the government set up a citizens’ assembly of 100 people to play for time on abortion law reform.

And last week the Scottish National Party (SNP) first minister Nicola Sturgeon recommended setting up a citizens’ assembly to discuss how Scotland should be run.

That’s partly an attempt to defuse growing calls for an independence referendum now ahead of a march of tens of thousands this week.

The key is whether people remain mobilised to make sure the politicians aren’t let off the hook and to win real change.

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