So that’s what “democracy” means. Every five years or so we vote – and that’s the end of it until the next election. Of course, having a vote is certainly better than not having one. But the hung parliament has led to backroom discussions – and we are all as excluded as the thousands of people who couldn’t get into polling stations after 10pm on election day. The truth is that what we voted for bears little resemblance to what we got. The Tories have far more seats than can be justified by the number of votes they got. In this situation, many, including myself, are calling for a change to the voting system, in the shape of proportional representation. The first-past-the-post electoral system, which allowed Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to win election landslides with just two fifths of the vote, is indeed unfair. The last time there was momentum for PR on the left was when the Tory election victories in the 1980s and 1990s looked like they would never end. Then it was out of desperation – a belief that only by changing the voting system could the Tories be beaten. Now it is out of frustration that all the parties are so similar. After the Second World War, the Labour and Tory parties completely dominated British politics, sharing around 96 percent of the popular vote between them. Last week they got just 65 percent between them. Yet parliament is still dominated by the two biggest parties.
That’s why socialists support electoral reform although we need proper debate about what form takes. The strongest argument is that it would help break the dominance of two increasingly unrepresentative big parties, opening up a space for the left – and this is true. Voting systems like multi-seat constituencies or alternative votes and a list system are more democratic than what we’ve got. But the left should not obsess over PR and get trapped in a debate about constitutional reform that in many ways serves the interests of the big parties. For example, Southern Ireland has a “fairer” electoral system – yet politics is dominated by right wing parties and corruption. The Northern Ireland Assembly was structured after enormous care and effort to provide proportionality and parity of esteem, yet it has copper-fastened sectarian division and put the bigots of the DUP in charge. Greece has PR – but this has not prevented the government trying to impose swingeing cuts. In Britain, the radical left is fragmented and electorally very weak. The collapse of the existing party system could even make things worse if the only alternatives come from the far right – racist parties like UKIP and the BNP.
The problem with today’s democracy, and with the dominant view of democracy in our society, is that it is far too limited. To address that we need to go far beyond which type of voting system we want. To make democracy truly relevant to the majority of working people, what is needed is not just political democracy but also economic and social democracy. The capitalist class can live with political democracy alone – the election of parliaments and governments – because the decisive levers of power are not in parliament. Control over society really lies first in the boardrooms of industry and the banks, and second in the permanent institutions of the state, above all the armed forces. The capitalists own and control the former directly, and the latter is bound to it by a thousand economic, social and ideological ties. By these means they can turn parliament into a talking shop and bend governments to their will. We got an insight into the real base of power when the media with demands to reassure “the markets” that the new government would be formed quickly. Marxists call what we have now “bourgeois democracy” – democracy that is based on and enshrines the rule of the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie.
To move beyond this to a system based on real power for the masses, it is necessary to extend democracy to production and work, and then other areas of social life. This means democracy in every factory, call centre, supermarket, school, university, hospital and post office. It means workers’ democracy. That cannot be achieved without overturning capitalist property ownership, law and the state – with a workers’ revolution that will enable the working class to run society. In the full glare of publicity the three main parties jostle and manoeuvre over power. But, in the background, there is a much more fundamental assertion of power.This is, of course, by the famous “markets” that hover threateningly over the politicians as they negotiate. The process began even before the general election took place. At the beginning of last week the Financial Times reported that the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange was planning to open at 1am that Friday morning, three hours after voting ended. This was to allow traders in gilts—British government bonds—to start buying or selling them as soon as the result of the election began to become clear. It was clear that there was only one outcome that was really acceptable to the bond markets—a majority Tory government that would immediately implement unprecedented cuts in public spending.This announcement amounted to hanging a sword of Damocles over the heads of the British electorate.
When the voters failed to deliver the result the markets had demanded, the latter’s spokespeople were absolutely furious. Sir Martin Sorell, chief executive of the advertising empire WPP, spluttered on Radio Four’s World at One on Friday last week that a hung parliament was the “worst possible” result. Alan Clarke of Paribas pontificated to the Financial Times that “the UK could lose its top triple A credit status because of its failure to deliver a majority government with the authority to tackle the country’s public finances immediately”. Arnaud Mares of Moody’s, one of the three agencies that rate the credit status of states and firms, said he assumed that “the incoming economic team could muster convincing parliamentary support for a fiscal adjustment that was no looser or slower than outlined by all three political parties during their respective election campaigns.” All this reminds us that Jimmy Carville, one of Bill Clinton’s advisers, said in 1993 that, “if there was reincarnation... I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.” Let’s remind ourselves of what’s really going on here. Less than three years ago, the banks, hedge funds, and the like precipitated the biggest financial crash and the worst economic slump since 1929. The ratings agencies were condemned only last week by the French and German governments for their contribution to this disaster by giving triple-A ratings to various financial instruments that are now mostly worthless.
To prevent a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s, states increased their spending. They found that money largely by borrowing. This was a good thing because it helped to maintain demand for goods and services. But, as a result, budget deficits have risen. Now all the banks and other financial institutions that were saved thanks to this spending and borrowing are denouncing the rise in deficits as an economic scandal that can only be expunged by the most savage cuts in public services. To get an intimation of the kind of suffering that this will cause, look at Greece. The austerity programme extracted as the price of the country’s “rescue” by the International Monetary Fund and the eurozone will slash wages, pensions, and services. As a result the Greek economy is projected to shrink by 4 percent this year and by 2.6 percent in 2011. In other words, slashing the deficit is economic nonsense. Its only justification is to increase the profits and bolster the power of the very forces that unleashed the crisis in the first place. But, at the same time as demanding austerity, these same forces are scurrying back to the state to rescue them again. Last Sunday’s New York Times anxiously reported: “The fear that began in Athens, raced through Europe and finally shook the stock market in the United States is now affecting the broader global economy.” The European Union emergency package agreed at the weekend is designed particularly to bolster the bond markets. The sacred “markets” that sit in judgement of mere voters and elected politicians are themselves deeply fragile, riven with deep fractures.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.