Tax credits and the case for a new democratic constitution
Those campaigning for a new, democratic constitution can take heart from the fact that the present one is crumbling in front of our eyes. The conflict between the Lords and Commons over Tory plans to scrap tax credits is just one of many breaking points.
The surest sign of a deepening crisis is that members of the unelected House of Lords felt sufficiently emboldened to defeat a financial policy passed three times by the House of Commons, ignoring warnings about constitutional implications.
When Labour shadow minister Owen Smith says the Lords had “spoken for the country”, where does that leave the status of the Commons, which has been a central feature of the parliamentary state since the late 17th century? The answer is that it’s all unravelling pretty fast.
This has implications not just for the constitution, but for the whole system of state power. After all, a constitution sets out how the state operates, both in relation to all its parts and to how it rules over its citizens. You can’t have a crisis of one without a parallel process going on in the other.
The present constitution has evolved through a series of conflicts and confrontations within the ruling classes and with the mass of people. It has grown “organically in response to economic, political and social changes”, says Martin Loughlin in The British Constitution – a very short introduction.
You would have to include Magna Carta, the Great Revolt of 1381, the English Revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Radical movement of the late C18th, the industrial revolution and empire, the Chartists, mass trade unions, the formation of the Labour Party and the Suffragettes as processes that have shaped the constitution.
During this period, feudal society and absolute monarchy transitioned through conflict into a capitalist society, and a representative parliamentary state with a constitutional monarchy. Yet as late as 1909, the Commons was struggling to assert its authority over the Lords.
The rejection of the Liberals’ so-called People’s Budget by the Tories in the Lords led to a general election. New laws were then passed that ended the power of the Lords over financial matters. What the Tories did to the Liberals over a century ago has been used by the government’s opponents today. The boot is indeed on the other foot, historically speaking.
The stalemate over constitution-state relations has arisen because the system of rule is patently failing to live up to its own branding. Representative parliamentary democracy, we have been told to believe, is the fairest system of government yet invented which will reflect the wishes of the voters.
Yet over the last 30-40 years, the state has adapted the way it rules, not in response to the demands of the electorate but other forces considered more powerful and more important in the scale of things.
As Loughlin notes: “We seem now to have reached an impasse. Continuing economic and political development – of which globalisation and European integration are particularly important manifestations – has required the overthrow of many traditional practices.”
As a global economic system dominated by transnational corporations, alongside financial markets that have no respect for borders or governments, became pre-eminent, the state’s practices changed. Always there to perpetuate the status quo of corporate property rights in the shape of shareholding, the state adapted to the new.
The institutions related to governing openly endorsed the new “paradigm”. More than that, they promoted its interests within the UK’s borders. To attract inward investment, for example, corporation tax was lowered and a low-wage economy sanctioned by successive governments.
The tax credits introduced by Gordon Brown effectively subsidised employers and made millions of workers dependent on the state to make up wages that you couldn’t live on. A minimum wage set so low it was laughable, reinforced this policy.
From a regulator of the financial sector, the state changed to a deregulator. The sector was allowed to float free and “self-regulate”. When the crash came, the state stepped in to bail-out the banks and impose the cost (and much more) on the majority in the shape of austerity.
In this and may other ways, the welfare state was transformed into a market state. From education to health, from access to justice to funding for the arts, market forces were given top billing. Within Europe, the Common Market became the European Community and then the European Union as it too was corporatised beyond recognition. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is the ultimate market-driven dream which the Westminster state supports.
As a consequence, the system of representative government became increasingly meaningless and whatever power the vote once carried diminished towards vanishing point. Mass abstentions at elections followed.
The state’s claim to protect its citizens has gone by the board. Vast inequality and a national housing crisis are just two areas where the inaction of an indifferent state has had shocking consequences. The imposition of austerity through draconian cuts to public services and living standards is a partisan policy carried through to appease the markets.
A constitution that cannot protect its citizens – and actually allows their conditions to worsen – cannot be considered democratic. And a government elected with the support of fewer than 25% of the electorate cannot be considered to have a mandate. Yet it commands the state to rule over us! Something is wrong, very wrong.
In tandem, the state has assumed surveillance powers over its citizens to monitor discontent and opinion in the name of the spurious “war on terror”. As Conor Gearty Professor of Human Rights Law at LSE says:
Successive governments and the Tories in particular have long had a problem with the rule of law. It seriously inhibits the security services in their desire to take national security wholly back – Cold War style – into the realm of the executive. It also inconveniently stands against the populist manoeuvring favoured by the dark side of both main parties.
The establishment is rightly concerned about a mounting constitutional crisis, although they would like to restrict it to the dispute between the two Houses of Parliament. What the Daily Telegraph in particular fears is that government will break down if the Lords continue their resistance.
What is undoubtedly disturbing the right-wing press – along with the Guardian – is the entry of the people into the middle of the instability at the top of the state.
First came the mass participation in Scotland’s independence referendum campaign, driven by a desire for democracy and self-determination. Now the social movement that swept Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership of the Labour Party has further disrupted the UK state.
Corbyn’s supporters voted for an end to the cosy neo-liberal consensus between the parties, which is positive. This leads directly to the questions of the constitution and the nature of state power itself. We need to look at Greece, where the state power in alliance with the Troika, thwarted Syriza. A Corbyn-led government would face the same challenges.
Next month, there’s an opportunity to reframe the debate in terms of working for a new, democratic constitution decided upon by the people themselves. It’s heartening that Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and Corbyn’s close ally, will take part. We are supporting this initiative, along with many others like Occupy Democracy and openDemocracy.
Here’s where you can find out more and book your place.