Assemblies can put real democracy on the map
By Paul Feldman
The Tories’ proposals that only MPs with seats in England should vote on laws that relate solely to England is more than just a political manoeuvre that they calculate will bring them electoral advantage over Labour.
Their plan is a further indication of the break-up of the current political arrangements. These are under immense strain from a range of internal and external processes which together constitute the end of democracy – at least as we have come to know it.
While the crisis within ruling circles mounts – the New York Times asks “Is Democracy Dead?” – anger is mounting where it really counts, among the majority. People’s aspirations for a democracy that provides more than an occasional vote is growing into an irresistible force.
And so the possibility, if not yet the opportunity, for turning the present system of state power upside down is greater than ever. Increasingly, ordinary people see that without a fundamental change in the political system, they cannot solve day-to-day problems to do with living standards, health, education, housing and climate.
“English vote for English laws” is an opportunistic ploy, of that there’s no doubt. But it is also a fumbling attempt to recognise and adjust to the momentous movement for democracy that made itself felt during the referendum on Scottish independence, which continues to this day.
Scots came extremely close to breaking away from the rest of the United Kingdom. They almost certainly would have done so without the intervention of former prime minister Gordon Brown and the Queen’s cryptic and unconstitutional intervention outside a church a few days before the poll, where she warned Scots to “think very carefully about the future”.
In the event, enough Scots were swayed by a pledge from the three major parties of a kind of devolution-max, embracing all sorts of new financial and administrative powers for the Edinburgh parliament. Effectively, this signalled the end of the 1707 Act of Union of England and Scotland, even though the referendum was defeated.
Taken together with the English votes on English laws plan, the notion that the Westminster parliament speaks for the whole of the UK is holed below the water line. With the SS Westminster threatening to capsize, the question is what follows next?
For the political establishment, the prospects are not all that jolly. The NYT headline referred to above was actually a slight exaggeration of the content of an article by no less a person than former prime minister Tony Blair. The man whose governments worshipped corporate and financial power above the political, now fears the demise of parliamentary democracy, which in some respects he is responsible for.
Blair, the arch-moderniser who transformed Labour into the free market New Labour, naturally sees the problem as a failure to modernise systems of government. For him, representative democracy is stuck in the past while the world has moved on.
Always an astute if sinister figure, Blair is not surprised that “we have seen the rise of far-right parties in Europe and a general sense of malaise and disillusionment with democratic politics. Suddenly to some, Putinism — the cult of the strong leader who goes in the direction he pleases, seemingly contemptuous of opposition — has its appeal.”
For Blair, as for many others, the task is reform the system. Yet you cannot fault the following:
The simple right to vote is not enough: Systems need to deliver results for the people. They do not at present. We should not leave voters with a choice between dictatorship and populism. If we truly believe in democracy, the time has come to improve it.
So the present system cannot hold. That is clear to Blair, Cameron and perhaps even Miliband. Can it adjust to new circumstances or, as A World to Win believes, is the form of representative, bourgeois democracy, past its use-by date? The form of democracy developed alongside capitalism itself is now undermined by the globalisation process that has consumed all before its advance.
Effective power in terms of the economy has been ceded to the major corporations, the financial markets, global banks and regional, undemocratic bodies like the European Union. The same EU is negotiating away what’s left by concluding a draconian trade and investment partnership with the United States. This will be enforced not by governments but by an appointed “Regulation Cooperation Council”. Corporations will have the right to sue governments that try to thwart the privatisation of all services, for example.
Ukip’s seemingly irresistible rise has thrown down challenges on the central issues of democracy, sovereignty and power that we ignore at our political peril. We cannot and should not leave it to Ukip to try and bring down a political system that is clearly in a precipitate decline and replace it with something much more menacing. As capitalism and real democracy are incompatible, it falls to us to come forward with something more progressive and democratic.
What we have now cannot be accepted as the last word in the history of democracy.
Scotland’s struggle for self-determination remains a massive, emancipatory movement. Opposition to the US-EU trade deal continues to grow. The plunge in living standards imposed by ConDem austerity measures has brought trade unionists into strike action for the first time in decades.
In London, growing homelessness, the threat of eviction by property speculators and unaffordable rents and house prices are leading to actions and much anger. Inaction over the eco-crisis and state-imposed fracking continues to mobilise thousands up and down the UK.
Some progressive forces are seizing the moment while the mainstream flounders. Occupy London are back in Parliament Square demanding Real Democracy Now!, the slogan of the immense M15 indignado movement in Spain that kicked off in 2011.
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett told the Occupiers last month:
Politics is changing and breaking wide open. That gives us enormous opportunities. Westminster hasn't fundamentally changed in a hundred years. The last big change was women getting the vote in 1918. It's too late to tinker with things. The fact is the whole system is broken. What we need to do is start again, have a peoples' constitutional convention.
Bennett is right. The time is ripe to seize the initiative and create a people-driven momentum for real democracy throughout the UK. Assemblies for Democracy planned for London, Manchester and Glasgow in spring 2015 can help mobilise people for this alternative.
The Assemblies are intended to bring the whole question of the future of democracy out into the open. The project is supported by a range of people, groups and organisations. They include John McDonnell MP, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, the Institute of Race Relations, Defend the Right to Protest, the Real Democracy working group of Occupy London, the Agreement of the People campaign, the National Community Activists Network, the Republican Socialist Alliance, A World to Win and others.
Dynamic grassroots movements in Scotland and throughout the UK have exposed our hollowed-out democratic process. The Assemblies for Democracy must be as diverse as the movement is in Scotland. Different standpoints, visions, the reformers and the revolutionaries have to be there to develop a way forward.
Assemblies working groups will work on proposals for change. Above all, we have to create a vision of a real democracy, how it could work and how we might achieve it. Then we could start to claim democracy for the people and make it the touchstone for everything that matters in society.
19 December 2014
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