DIGITAL DEMOCRACY

Earlier this week the Speaker’s Report on Digital Democracy was published. The report from a group of MPs led by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, was prompted by falling voter turnout and recognition that Parliament and MPs are held largely in contempt by the public. This threatens parliamentary democracy and something needs to be done if we are not to lose our hard won democratic rights. The recommendations in the report are, however, an inadequate response.

This is not to say that the report does not contain some sensible proposals. Parliament’s procedures and customs are more suited to a public school or Oxbridge debating society than to a modern elected chamber. Such arcane practices as putting on a top hat to attract the speaker’s attention and the bear fight that is Prime Minister’s Question Time may provide a comfort blanket for the many MPs who imbibed their politics in these arenas, but they don’t belong in a modern elected chamber. Certainly, MPs should, as the report recommends, be able to vote electronically – provided they have bothered to attend the preceding debate and are present in the chamber at the time. Being herded like sheep through lobbies by the oh so appropriately named ‘whips’ belongs to the nineteenth century, not the twenty first. Of course, as the report recommends, Parliament should be more transparent to the public. Ordinary voters in parliamentary (and local government) elections should, as the report recommends, of course be provided with an electronic voting facility – but only if the widespread abuse currently attaching to postal voting is first eliminated and steps are taken to ensure such practices are not take up with e-voting. All these reforms are all quite possible, but not when political parties are funded by rich individuals and unaccountable businesses and when the regulator is the present rather feeble Electoral Commission. But, even in their entirety, they are not enough.

 There are several reasons why Parliament and MPs are held in contempt by a large proportion of the public: –

 a. The first past the post voting system is unfit for purpose. Most voters cannot cast a meaningful vote, i.e. one that will make a difference. The rejection by referendum of one inadequate alternative does not make first past the post acceptable.

 b. MPs are not representative of the people they are supposed to represent. Their earnings are a significant multiple of voters’ average earnings; their pension entitlement is much better than that of the average voter; and many of them have second jobs and well paid sinecures. Furthermore, most MPs are either drawn from the upper middle class, with professional qualifications or business backgrounds and Oxbridge educations, or they are upwardly mobile careerists from local government.

 c. the MPs’ expenses scandal. The public was sickened by the ‘we were only following the rules’ defences put forward by so many greedy MPs caught with their hands in the public till.

We must be on guard against attempts to undermine parliamentary democracy. Certainly the current system leaves plenty of scope for improvement, and these improvements will be supported by communists. But the siren calls for more power to be given to the establishment – judges, political appointees, spooks and the ubiquitous “Crown” – must be resisted. Such democratic rights as we have secured by struggle must not be thrown away. Communists recognise, however, that parliamentary democracy, under which we have a choice every few years to choose between two parties with similar policies, and perhaps a string of smaller parties with little hope of forming a government, is an inadequate expression of democracy – rule by the people. We need democracy throughout our society: in our local government, where adequate funding and a return to the Committee System is a prerequisite; in the workplace, where electronic voting for strike ballots would help level the playing field between unions and employers; and we certainly need to oppose the Tory proposal, if elected, to count abstentions in strike ballots as votes against striking. Most significantly, however, as communists we have a vision for a real, participative democracy in which ordinary working people discuss and debate and then take decisions without being bullied or misled by the rich and powerful and their servants.

BIG PHARMA

The threat to the NHS is not confined to the way it is being slowly privatised by the Tories and their Lib-Dem stooges – a process which was shamefully initiated by the last Labour Government and about which Labour remains largely silent in the run up to the General Election. The other threat is of even longer standing and relates to the way the big pharmaceutical companies, Big Pharma, operate. This was illustrated this week by two news items. First, it was announced that NHS England is to delay the introduction of Sofobuvir, a drug that can save the lives of people infected by the hepatitis C virus because the manufacturer, Gilead, is charging too much. In the US Sofobuvir costs $1,000 a pill. Gilead want to charge the NHS a still exorbitant £35,000 for a twelve week course or £75,000 for the 24 week course many patients will require.

The other news item is the report from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) that the price of life-saving vaccines has skyrocketed leaving some countries struggling to fully immunise children. MSF say there has been a 68-fold increase in prices between 2001 and 2014 and it  accuses Big Pharma of overcharging, especially developing countries.

When accused of over-charging, the response by Big Pharma is always the same: they say that their pricing reflects the cost of research and manufacture. These businesses are, however, almost completely opaque organisations, depend on states to afford them extended patents, research what is most profitable and spread this highly secret research, and their manufacturing and marketing, internationally, enabling them to play off one country against another and to take full advantage of tax havens. Essentially they charge whatever they can get away with.

A partial remedy would be provided by the tax reforms and more transparent accounting called for in a recent discussion pamphlet from the Communist Party From Each According to Their Means[i].Reform of the tax system and more transparent accounting would, however, not be a complete remedy. Capital will always find a way to secure its own interests, whether by buying the politicians or by outright deception. What’s wrong with the pharmaceutical industry is what’s wrong with capitalism as a whole: it’s run without consideration for the wider good and to benefit a small group of shareholders, especially those with significant amounts of capital at their disposal. It is not run in the interests of people who need the products and services generated, whether they be poor people in developing countries or the working people in developed countries like the UK.

The complete remedy is a democratic society in which investment, including pharmaceutical research, is organised and planned in order to meet the needs of ordinary working people, not the interests of the capitalist class – essentially the 1%. What’s this system called?  Socialism! Or, as we prefer to call it when it has been fully developed, Communism.

[i] Available from the Communist Party, Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD. £2.50 including postage.

TTIP: WHAT WE NEED TO DO NOW

On 19 December I commented on the threat to democracy posed by the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated in secret by the US administration and the EC.  Under the proposed Investor-to-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), it would allow US multinationals to override laws protecting the environment, consumer rights, workers and food standards by enabling them to sue EU governments and local authorities who dared to pass or enact legislation that stood in their way of making profits. This could prove the death knell for the NHS but has implications that extend to the entire public sector and provision of services by the state.

It is now reported that, after an unprecedented 150,000 objections across the EU, ISDS has been ‘set aside’ by negotiators. We thank everyone who themselves ‘set aside’ their legitimate doubts about whether anyone would be listening and registered their objections. We are also grateful to the few Labour Party MPs who spoke out in parliament against TTIP.

‘Set aside’ does not, however, mean abandon. When the US-EU talks resume next month, ISDS will not be discussed, but the European Commission will be in a position to decide after our general election whether to return to it. The Tories and their stooges, the Lib Dems, remain keen on TTIP in its entirety. UKIP is hostile to the EU for largely xenophobic reasons but endorses the pro-big business, anti-worker philosophy behind it. Thus if, after the general election, these parties are in government, they will undoubtedly work behind the scenes to get TTIP, including ISDS, adopted by the EU. The UK will then have no say in its implementation.

What of the Labour Party leadership? It has maintained a shattering silence on the matter.  It is therefore essential that we keep up the pressure on Labour Party candidates at the forthcoming general election, asking them to come out openly and oppose TTIP – and to commit to continuing to do this once elected. Local hustings and the forthcoming Croydon TUC statement of commitments asked of all candidates standing in Croydon at the general election can have significant roles to play here. Please make your contribution to seeing that this happens.

Democracy for sale

In the 2010 election campaign the Tories claimed to have spent £16.6 million and they received around 10 million votes. Labour spent £8m and received 8.6 million votes. That works out at around £1.70 and 90 pence per vote respectively. In reality, their costs per vote were significantly higher, not only because they are neither averse to concealing and artificially deflating recorded election expenditure but because they both benefit, especially the Tories, from extensive media coverage, none of which they have to pay for and much of which is pure propaganda. The Communist Party’s cost per vote is harder to estimate as, due to the cost of lost deposits, £500 per constituency, it cannot afford to stand in many seats. In those seats in which it did stand in 2010 it averages some 0.3% of vote. While this does not seem, at first glance, very impressive, it does correspond to 8,900 votes nationally. The CP raised £28,000 for the 2010 general election for campaigning, i.e. election expenditure other than lost deposits. Thus its cost per vote in 2010 was only 32 pence per vote. Who knows what could have been achieved if we too had resources equal to those of the big parties and a fair hearing in the mass media?

What will election spending be in the forthcoming general election? In the past four years the Tories have raised £78 million.  This is five times their 2010 spend and thought to be about three times what the Labour Party are thought to have – some £26 million. The Communist Party is, on the other hand, planning to raise only £13,000 from its members this time to fight the election. Clearly, we are heading to win the lowest cost per vote again. We can take some comfort from this, but it’s hardly a triumph for democracy.

Almost a third of the Tories huge election war chest has been donated by the owners of hedge funds. In return the Tory Chancellor has granted them huge tax concessions and turned a blind eye to their exploitation of tax havens. This is a gross distortion of our democracy.

How then should our democracy be paid for? Here are my views. For a start, only those who pay tax in the UK should be allowed to vote in UK elections. Then entitlement to donate to a political party should be confined to this electorate. The only exception should be the trade unions as they enable individual workers to act collectively to counter the influence of wealthy individuals. Equating the political donations of trade unions with those of businesses, as do the Tories, is risible. That a significant Blairite rump in the Labour Party appears to agree with the Tories on this tells us more about their politics than they would probably wish us to know.

The final reform of how we pay for our democracy should be an annual cap on donations by individuals equal to, say, 10% of average annual earnings. Not their average earnings, the average earnings. The donations by trade unions could be set at the same level but determined in aggregate using the total membership of the union other than those who have opted out of the political fund or who cannot vote in UK elections. This would still leave wealthy individuals with an advantage as they could most easily afford to pay up to the ceiling, but this advantage would at least be partially offset by the collective nature of donations by trade unions.

The predictable response of the Tories, UKIP, LibDems and Blairite Labourites to these reforms would, of course, be to demand state funding. How else could they continue to dominate and distort the electoral process? This should be resisted. The Communist Party asks for no such state support – at least this side of the revolution! If we can function without state support in a capitalist society, so can they!

After the revolution, the responsibilities of the Communist Party (and trade unions) would change. State funding for both might then well be required in order to reflect their new responsibilities. Roll on the day!

85th Anniversary of the Morning Star

This year marks the 85th anniversary of the Morning Star. The paper first came out on 1 January 1930 under the title, the Daily Worker. It changed its name to the Morning Star in 1966. The paper is the voice of organised labour. It’s the only paper that reports on the industrial and political issues that matter to ordinary people. And it will play a crucial role in this general election year as the political debate sharpens and we fight to get rid of the Con-Dems in May.

We need more people to buy the Morning Star to cover production costs and ensure the voice of socialism is heard. Please encourage your friends and colleagues to buy the paper by placing an order at your local newsagent or buying a subscription to the e-edition: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/subscribe