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How to make the right to vote count

May Day is international workers’ day, when the labour movement celebrates its social and economic achievements. Winning the right to vote is undoubtedly one of the landmark successes in the history of workers’ struggles against the employing classes and the state. So it is more than a little ironic that May Day in England and Wales coincides with local elections which the majority of the electorate will simply boycott.

There are a number of reasons why voters are increasingly disillusioned with the political process and decline to use their vote, which is a right they rightly cherish alongside the right to vote. In the case of local government elections, the councils involved have little independent power. Where once councils could raise funds locally and decide their own priorities – a principle established in Elizabethan times – today they are tightly constrained by spending and policy decisions made in Whitehall. In effect, they are the agencies of central government. This constitutional change was carried through by the Tories in the 1980s and has been reinforced by New Labour since 1997.

Furthermore, there is little to distinguish the mainstream political parties one from the other. So when it comes to real choice at the ballot box, there is not much on offer. This is reflected in low turnout at elections and a general disdain for politicians and parties, who have generally lost substantial numbers of members and in the case of New Labour hardly exist as a campaigning force. Many voters, understandably, feel disenfranchised by the way the system has evolved into a kind of mush of managerial “politics”, with the parties converging and competing for the privilege of managing the state in favour of corporate and financial interests.

Where new institutions have come into existence like the Mayor in London, they were created in an autocratic style around personalities who exercise enormous power with little oversight or accountability. During the campaign for Mayor, incumbent Ken Livingstone – trying hard not to be seen as the New Labour candidate that he is – and main challenger Boris Johnson, a populist right-wing Tory, spent time stealing each other’s policies and promising everything to everyone, including police officers in every school. It was not a contest to warm the political heart or drive you to the ballot box.

The democratic side of the British parliamentary state has to all intents been “hollowed out”, to borrow an expression used by Al Gore to describe what has happened in America. It is a state that, in any case, is incapable of tackling the major issues like climate change, inequality or even housing supply. As a consequence, the hard-won right to vote has lost what modest power it once had in terms of influencing what happens in public life. The words of the 17th century Leveller Richard Overton, who was on the left-wing of the English Revolution, are worth recalling in this regard. He was a great pamphleteer and in 1646, during the first of two Civil Wars between parliament and Charles I, issued a warning to those who had failed to represent the people’s interests:

“We are well assured yet cannot forget, that the cause of our choosing you to be Parliament-men was to deliver us from all kind of bondage and to preserve the commonwealth in peace and happiness. For effecting whereof we possessed you with that same power that was in ourselves to have done the same; for we might justly have done it ourselves without you if we had thought it convenient …”.
“A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens”

More than 350 years later, to echo and paraphrase Overton, it is time to justly do it ourselves and sweep away the farce that passes itself off as democracy in favour of genuine people’s power in an entirely new and liberating constitutional settlement. That would give a new, concrete meaning to the right to vote.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
1 May 2008

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