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For a new democratic politics

Some leading political commentators have suggested that the present crisis gripping Parliament over fiddled expenses will fuel what they term “anti-politics” and that this is dangerous because it could play into the hands of the far right like the British National Party.

Seumas Milne was at it in The Guardian, declaring that “the greatest danger of this week's parliamentary disgrace is the boost it will give to anti-politics: the roar of rage that they're all the same, the cynicism that nothing can ever really change”, while Steve Richards in The Independent has written that this week’s revelations have a “grisly simplicity that will fuel the existing anti-politics orthodoxy”.

The implication is that to be against “politics” as practised at Westminster is bad and dangerous. But surely Milne and Richards are making the mistake of identifying “politics” with democracy, confusing form with content. They are not the same thing. Politics is, according to dictionaries, the “art and science of governing” or “political activities” and opinions. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be “against” politics on these terms.

Democracy is a relatively newcomer in the modern history of politics and it is this side of the political equation that was struggled for in Britain by ordinary people who demanded a voice. The country was on the verge of revolution in 1832 when the ruling classes finally conceded a limited franchise. Chartists built a mass movement and laid plans for an insurrection in their struggle for the vote for working men.

If the disdain for Westminster “politics” has reached a crescendo, it is precisely because these historical gains which produced a representative, albeit limited, democracy have been undermined. Decisions at national and local level are made regardless of majority opinion – ranging from the invasion of Iraq, airport expansion, post office closures to bank bail-outs. When workplaces shut down because of the capitalist crisis we are not consulted. It is a fait accompli. In terms of “political choice”, the differences between the mainstream parties are slim to non-existent.

So to be against this kind of “politics” is healthy and to be encouraged. Of course the political crisis opens the doors to the right, as it did in Italy (where the reformist left also had their chances, only to blow them because of their subservience to the same system). But it also creates opportunities if we can raise our horizons beyond the narrow confines of the parliamentary system and how to make it work better. It is better to see “anti politics” as a form of antimatter, containing vast amounts of potential energy that could provide the fuel for a new political democracy.

The current system is narrow, inadequate and operates to mask the real centres of power in British life - the executive, state institutions and the corporations. No amount of fiddling (pardon the pun) with the issue of MPs' expenses will change that. If the contempt for Parliament has reached new heights, it is because large sections of the electorate have for some time felt alienated politically, restricted to electing "representatives" once every five years to a body that is itself toothless.

The anger generated by the expenses' scandal could be mobilised to create new, alternative forms of democracy that, for example, give people power in their workplaces and communities along the lines suggested in the People's Charter for Democracy. By advocating an extension of democracy we can spike the guns not just of the BNP and the Tories, but of the state within the state that is watching and plotting in case Britain should become ungovernable at a time of mounting economic chaos.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
15 May 2009

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