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The eunuch of all Parliaments

When the leader of a major political party devotes 2,500 words in a national newspaper to the crisis of the parliamentary political system, he confirms that it’s not only New Labour that is in free fall. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is expressing the fact that the authority, legitimacy and role of the state itself is now being called into question by increasing numbers of people.

Of course Clegg has some self interest because without some change in the voting system, for example, his party is continually squeezed by first-past-the-post elections. But his article in The Independent reveals real fears amongst the political elite.

Clegg writes that the ceremonial aspects of parliament hide “a crisis in which the public feel ever more alienated from, and angry towards, the political class. And a crisis in which Parliament itself is neutered by the all encompassing power of the centralised Whitehall state”. He says that there is “a spineless abdication of scrutiny and accountability at the heart of our government” and claims: “The mother of all Parliaments has become the eunuch of all Parliaments.”

As evidence, he cites the fall-off in voting, where in 2001 and 2005, more people didn’t vote than supported the winning party, New Labour, or the fact that three out of four people say they think politicians don’t tell the truth. It is true, as Clegg writes, that “people have been locked out of politics for too long”. But what he cannot recognise, of course, is that this is how the system has always operated – except that the situation has clearly deteriorated rapidly in recent decades under Thatcher and then Blair/Brown.

Ordinary people have only ever been allowed a modest participation in politics through the occasional visit to the ballot box where they could elect representatives to govern on their behalf without any further accountability. Voters have never had a direct democratic voice or role, even after the franchise was extended nearly 150 years ago. Parliament has never had any effective control over what the government does since that time.

A number of processes have come together to discredit even this limited version of democracy. During the last 35 years of corporate-driven globalisation, the state has more and more abandoned parliamentary niceties to rule in a kind of managerial style that tries to imitate the transnationals. The British government, or the “executive”, itself is hardly in control, let alone parliament. For example, economic policy, large areas of law, environmental policy and so on are determined at European Union level by unelected and totally unaccountable commissioners or by global bodies like the World Trade Organisation. All the major parties, including Clegg’s, have embraced the market economy’s philosophy and only disagree about marginal questions.

So Clegg’s call to redistribute power within the essentially capitalist political system, to remedy what he calls “the imbalance of the system” not only misses the point but stands no chance of success whatsoever. No one is going to set up a convention of citizens to draft a new constitution for Britain to, as he puts it, “make power contingent on accountability” or give MPs real power over an executive which in turn is in thrall to corporate power.

The Lib Dem leader clearly feels, rightly, that time is running out and warns that the “greatest danger” is “the feeling that change is no longer possible”. To which we should add: Change is no longer be possible in the old way, through traditional institutions or political parties. So as parliament won’t and can’t yield, the time has come to create and extend direct democracy through mass action. In fashioning real democracy at every level, including the workplace, we would set out to break the capitalist monopoly of power. In doing this, we would be acting in the tradition that created the parliamentary state in the first place.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
21 May 2008

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