TEN WAYS TO IMPROVE DEMOCRACY?

The MPs expenses scandal and now the Brexit debacle have led to widespread dissatisfaction with parliamentary democracy. When working people wrest power from the capitalist class, building new, direct democratic structures will be part of our efforts to build a socialist future but, until then, what are the reforms we should seeking to our present democratic arrangements? Here are my top ten suggestions:

  1. Electronic voting for parliamentary and local government elections and national and local referendums.
  2. True proportional representation. This, of necessity, would include abolition of the House of Lords, chosen by the ultimate non-PR voting system; and while we are about it, let’s do away with monarchy, titles and honours in their entirety.
  3. Regional parliaments in England in lieu of the Westminster Parliament. These would meet in modern, circular debating chambers with electronic voting. Westminster Hall could be turned into a decent Peoples Palace but the rest of the grotesque Victorian-gothic monstrosity that is the Palace of Westminster can be bulldozed. Northern Ireland would be offered a referendum on either a regional parliament along similar lines or joining the Republic of Ireland. No more direct rule.
  4. Much, much lower limits on spending on elections and funding of parties, returning campaigning to unpaid activists, with corporate donations banned. Only individuals who can actually vote or their collectives (e.g. trade unions) should be allowed to donate.
  5. Abolish the Electoral Commission as unfit for purpose and form a truly independent election watchdog.
  6. Maximum possible delegation of powers to local councils with tax raising powers sufficient to meet 100% of the cost of services for which they are responsible.
  7. A UK Representative Council of delegates appointed by the regional and national parliaments to decide UK wide issues, interpret  the written constitution and agree an annual transfer payments between nations and regions to reflect disparities in revenue raising capacities.
  8. Members of the regional and national parliaments to be paid the average national wage. No second jobs, no second income, no private incomes or capital, no phony trusts to conceal wealth. If candidates cannot satisfy these stringent conditions, they cannot stand for election.
  9. Members of regional and national parliaments appointed for no more than two terms of four years each and subject to recall by voters. Being elected a member of these parliaments is an honour and a duty, not a career.
  10. Press and media, if they are to engage in anything other than strictly factual political reporting, must to be owned by readers/users or, in the case of the BBC, brought under democratic control.

 

You may disagree with some or all of these suggestions. If so, what would yours be?

Democracy

Democracy is more than the opportunity once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress us. That was how Marx characterised representational democracy, which is the form employed in parliamentary and local government elections; but, to have any validity, even representational democracy requires

  • appropriate rules for when an election is called
  • a comprehensive electorate without class, gender or racial exclusions
  • an unfettered choice of candidates or, where this choice is effectively restricted by the dominance of political parties, the democratic selection of candidates by these parties
  • a level playing field for election expenditure, with appropriate ceiling at both the local and national level and transparency over where the money comes from
  • the ability of candidates to communicate their manifesto (or personal statement) to the electorate
  • the ability of voters to recall an elected representative who reneges on the manifesto on which they stood
  • a voting system that affords fair weighting and importance to every vote
  • the honest counting of votes – no stuffed ballot boxes

 

Parliamentary democracy fails to meet almost all these criteria. The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 has enabled the Tories to cling on despite successive defeats in parliament. Turnout at general elections is low due in part to the successful exclusion of low income voters, especially students and others without a permanent address. Political donations are allowed from corporations despite their lack of democratic legitimacy and, as Channel 4 recently revealed, scams exist to circumvent the already over-generous spending limits. A handful of right wing Labour MPs elected on the 2017 Labour Party manifesto who have left the party to form an independent group in parliament have been able to ignore calls to submit themselves for re-election. Many votes under our first-past-the-post system are worthless and governments can secure a working majority in parliament with the support of only a small fraction of the electorate – the Tories secured a majority in parliament in 2017 with the votes of only 29% of the electorate – plus, of course, some bungs to the Democratic Unionist Party. Only for the last criterion, honest counting of votes, does the parliamentary democracy perform well. There have been few instances in recent years of ballot box stuffing. This, in our experience, is largely due to the excellent and impartial work of local government election officers and their staff.

Local government democracy fares no better against these criteria. Furthermore, once elected, successful candidates soon discover that even majority administrations possess few powers and even less revenue raising capacity. Peter Latham, a member of the Croydon Branch of the Communist Party, has described the situation with great insight and clarity in his book Who Stole the Town Hall? [i] which we recommend.

 

Winston Churchill, in a much quoted epigram, once said that representational democracy is the “worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. This really is a counsel of despair. We deserve better; and we must have better if we are to: defeat capitalism; keep it from arising again from the grave as it has done in Russia; and start out on the road to building a society which embodies the communist aim of from each according to the means, to each according to their need.

Direct democracy, the type favoured by communists, encourages the full participation of citizens, not a vote every few years. It doesn’t come pre-packed with a user manual. It takes different forms in different societies and at different points in these societies depending how far they have progressed on the road to building socialism. Work place councils (soviets), for example, played a crucial role in the early phase of the 1917 Revolution but were less important in its later stages. Some features are, however, universal. One is the need for real delegates who serve only one or two terms, consider themselves to be performing a public service not building a career and who can be recalled by the electorate, or those who nominated them, if they depart from their manifesto. Furthermore, these delegates should be drawn predominately from the working class and remunerated at a rate that reflects the average working wage and the level of benefit for those who cannot work (currently the Universal Credit benefit), not the inflated, professional-level salaries we currently pay to MPs. How else can the interests and experience of delegates be aligned with those who elect them? The argument we sometimes hear from MPs that ‘competitive’ salaries are necessary to attract and retain ‘talent’ should be treated with contempt. It is self-serving, delusional and demeans the skills and understanding of ordinary working people.

[i] Who Stole the Town Hall? Peter Latham, Policy Press, 2017.

The NHS and Democracy

A well-attended meeting at Ruskin House last night (13 September 2018) called by Croydon TUC was left in no doubt that there has been a covert strategy, intensified since 2010, to dismantle the NHS and feed it to US-based health corporations. Addressed by Dr Bob Gill, a Sidcup GP, and Sandra Ash of Keep Our St Helier Hospital (KOSHH), we learned that attempts to close St Helier were just the first step in the closure of acute and other facilities across South London (including Croydon University Hospital where a new Chief Executive, Matthew Kershaw, may have been brought in to achieve this) and across the country as part of a fattening up process. This was made possible by the Health and Social Care Act 2012  which freed the government from statutory responsibility for providing a universal NHS care and by continued under-funding that is intended, in part, to weaken public support for the NHS by generating more, high profile failures.

The meeting was attended by Joy Prince and Patsy Cummings, two of our most progressive Labour councillors in Croydon, but the absence of other Labour councillors and our two Croydon Labour MPs, Steve Reed and Sarah Jones, was criticised from the floor of the meeting. Are our local Labour politicians unaware that Croydon TUC holds open meetings every second Thursday of the month at Ruskin House and has done so for many years? Is their unfamiliarity with how the Labour Movement functions and the nature of the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party an excuse for their dismal absence? We think not.

Earlier this week Chris Williamson MP, the campaigning Labour MP and Corbyn supporter, addressed another public meeting at Ruskin House. Its aim was to call for more democracy in the Labour Party. This is an internal matter for that party and not a matter into which we wish to intrude, but we do very much agree with the basic principles that Mr Williamson was expounding:

  •  MPs and councillors are responsible to, and accountable to, the parties that select and nominate them (OK, Tories are an exception), not to an amorphous electorate that voted for them on the basis of their party affiliation; and
  • being an MP or councillor is not a job for life and should not be treated by those fortunate enough to be selected and elected as a career.

As communists, we would, however, go much further than Mr Williamson and seek to establish real democracy, not the present sham of voting every four or five years to determine which members of the ruling class are to administer their system in our name. A Corbyn administration would be very welcome and might just be able to halt the dismantling of the NHS (if the Parliamentary Labour Party allows it to), but we need real, direct democracy where our votes and our views have continuing significance between elections.

Saturday 24 June: discussion analysis and some modest celebration

As we pointed out on 22 May, we are living, in an age of political upsets. So it has proved. Well done everyone who campaigned here in Croydon Central and across the country for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, and shame on those in the Parliamentary Labour Party who campaigned over the previous eighteen months to undermine him. Without this disruption, Labour might well have won this election. But don’t let us deceive ourselves: as we pointed out in that same blog, we have been participating in a flawed process. The weight of the capitalist press, apart from the late conversion of the Guardian, was so biased that, if our elections were properly regulated, the cost of printing these disgraceful rags would have been charged as an election expense. The BBC’s coverage of Corbyn’s Labour was pitiful and continues to be biased in favor of the Right – just consider the coverage currently being lavished on Nigel Farage, the ex-leader of an ex-party. The Electoral Commission has shown itself incapable of controlling election expenses; Big Business continues to buy influence, even inside the Parliamentary Labour Party; and neo-classical economics retains its grip on economic theory and will continue to be palmed off in the mass media and on the BBC as independent and objective analysis.

Local government remains enfeebled. The NHS is still being dismantled. Education still faces cuts. We are saddled with a Tory-Orange coalition for which no one voted. If the LibDems couldn’t check the Tories in coalition, how much restraint can we expect the Orangemen to provide? So the battle now turns on building an alternative to the feeble ‘democracy’ provided by parliamentary and local government elections. The Croydon Assembly and Festival for unity, diversity and democracy at Ruskin House on Saturday 24 June is another step on in this direction. Communists, our friends and supporters and everyone who wants a real democracy are encouraged to register for the Assembly here and turn up on the day for discussion, analysis and some modest celebration.

Hypothetical Questions

At last, and after much hostile criticism, the Guardian has begrudgingly endorsed Jeremy Corbyn and called for a Labour vote on Thursday, concluding the editorial on Saturday with

 
…Mr Corbyn has shown that the party might be the start of something big rather  than the last gasp of something small. On 8 June Labour deserves our vote.

 

Well done, Guardian! It must have hurt to print this after so much carping ; but perhaps it has dawned on them at last that, as good as their arts and sports coverage is, much of their readership has been despairing at their politics and won’t put up with much more of the same.

The transformation is not, of course, total. In the same edition, in the Review Section, one Stephen Poole criticises Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to answer hypothetical questions. The example given was Paxman’s question on whether he, Corbyn,  would order a drone strike on a suspected terrorist. This, of course, was a simple ‘got you both ways’ ploy by Paxman: no possible answer can satisfy the questioner.

The trick in asking a hypothetical question is to imply one set of assumptions and then re-define them in the light of the response. It is the oldest trick in the book and Paxman should be ashamed for indulging his masters by resorting to it. To ask a hypothetical question fairly, the assumptions have to be both stated and comprehensive. Here’s an example of how one question put several times to Jeremy Corbyn should be linked with the assumptions surrounding it.

Question: Would you authorise nuclear retaliation – i.e. push the nuclear ‘red button’?

Assumptions: You are Prime Minister and have survived an attack on Britain with nuclear weapons. Tens of millions of people have been killed. The country is in flames and most of the surviving population are dying of injuries and radiation poisoning. Your military advisors tell you it’s obvious who launched the attack, but, as the first casualty of war is the truth, you cannot be completely sure of this. Similarly, you do not know the purpose of the attack. It could be accidental. You do know, however, that if you retaliate against the nations identified by your military advisers, millions of innocent people will be killed and the resulting nuclear winter will probably render all human life extinct in a matter of years.

Answer : Yes – this indicates you are either a psychopath or lying.

Answer: No – this indicates that you are sane.

But as you won’t have the assumptions stated before the question is asked, the best course of action is to refuse to answer hypothetical questions. Well done, Jeremy Corbyn!

Meanwhile, the best (albeit utterly chilling) advice on what to do following a nuclear attack is contained in the Introduction to Martin Amis’s 1987 book Einstein’s Monsters. There’s a copy to be found here but readers of this blog are recommended to buy a copy of the book which is still available in paperback (Penguin, ISBN 0-14- 010315-5).

The Power of the Capitalist Press

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The article by Peter Lazenby in the Morning Star yesterday Free-media? More-like-guard-dogs-of-the-Establishment neatly summarised the distortion and lies in the capitalist press about Jeremy Corbyn since the Manchester Bombing. To these we can now add today’s headline in the Daily Torygraph: Corbyn is making excuses for terror attack, says May. Not actually a lie, as Theresa May did say this, but constructively a lie as anyone who heard what Jeremy Corbyn actually said can confirm.

As Peter Lazenby pointed out, eighty percent of national newspapers are owned by companies controlled by billionaire proprietors. Given this skewed ownership, it’s not surprising that we get distorted news. The rest of the national newspapers (Morning Star excepted) are hardly more balanced – the Guardian’s coverage of the general election, for example, has been sour and disappointing. But are the days when our national newspapers dictated the result of general elections (It’s the Sun wot won it) over? With declining circulation, now only 7 million and falling, is their remaining influence now largely confined to the establishment itself?

Even if the power of the press is diminishing, there still has to be a reckoning if Labour wins – although there will be plenty of Labour MPs who associate themselves with the establishment rather than their own members and voters and who will resist any interference with our so-called ”free” press. Prohibiting anyone from owning, directly or indirectly, a newspaper when they don’t pay UK taxes or cannot vote in our elections would be a start.

The Age of Political Upsets

I joined Labour activists outside Croydon College today in a last ditch attempt to get students at the college to register to vote before the deadline at midnight tonight. While 1.5 million young people have registered to vote in the forthcoming general election since it was called, this still leaves, according to the Electoral Commission, 7 million people unregistered, a large proportion of whom will be young, first-time voters. But why was this last ditch and modest effort left to a few, idealistic political activists?

The truth is that the government is quite happy to see young people disenfranchised. Most of them face a working life in insecure employment, loaded with debt for college fees and unable to afford to rent, let alone buy a flat. They are not going to vote Tory. Even Tories understand that Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!

It’s worth taking a moment out from electioneering to reflect on what it would be like to participate in a truly democratic election. The government would, of course, have a legal responsibility to encourage young people to register, but it would feel very different in many other ways. There would be vibrant debate on every street corner; fly posters would be everywhere; the law requiring the BBC to be impartial would actually be enforced; there would be no election deposits to restrict voter choice; every vote would mean something; election spending would be drastically capped; and the mass media would reflect the views and interests of their readers, viewers and listeners, not those of a bunch of tax dodging billionaires. Finally, the parliament we would be electing would be drawn from ordinary workers, not a wealthy, privately educated elite, many already in the pay of big business or willing to join up once elected.

But enough of daydreaming! Back to the unequal struggle to get Labour elected in a flawed process. As the Tory wobbles this week demonstrate, including opinion polls published today in Wales, and contrary to what we are reading in the mass media, it’s not yet all done and dusted. We can win this unfair and undemocratic election. As the American and French elections demonstrate, this is the age of political upsets.

 

GO TO IT!

According to the Morning Star today (Tuesday, 9 May), the Crown Prosecution Service may not be able to defer their decision on whether as many as 20 Tory MPs will face prosecution for breaching election spending limits in the 2015 general election until after the election on 8 June. Does this mean we can look forward to a repeat of the sight Theresa May being bundled into the back of a car by burly policemen, last witnessed following the tragic incident outside Parliament on 22 March? Given our supine mass media and captured BBC, probably not, but we live in hope. The best explanation for why Theresa May called a snap election when she had a perfectly adequate parliamentary majority guaranteed for the next four years is not her need to negotiate ‘toughly’ with the EU or even an opportunistic attempt to destroy the Labour Party for ever, it is that this parliamentary majority could have been destroyed by such prosecutions. If she can increase that majority sufficiently, she will be able to ride out any post-election scandal with the support of the mass media and the BBC. One wonders whether waiving through Murdoch’s bid to acquire the rest of Sky TV could be part of such a strategy.

Meanwhile, we face a pending poster storm from the Tories, financed by huge donations from non-dom millionaires – all completely legal, of course, having been routed in ways approved by our feeble Electoral Commission. Fascistic calls for ‘strong and stable government’ and huge portraits of our reptilian leader can, however, be defeated. We can win the forthcoming election, but it will take unceasing grass-roots activity in the marginal constituencies. This isn’t democracy – everyone’s vote should count, and real democracy isn’t confined to putting a cross every few years on a piece of paper listing a restricted choice of candidates. But that is the current system and we have to go along with it if we are to defeat May and the big money backing her. This is why the Communist Party is calling on its members and supporters to assist Labour in this election. For Croydon CP, this means assisting in Croydon Central, doing the low profile jobs for Labour like leafletting. Go to it, Comrades! There is a world to win, and this could be the first step!

Can we have our votes back please?

Interviewed yesterday on Channel 4 News, Naom Chomsky identified global warming and nuclear war as the two greatest threats to humanity and criticised the presidential contenders in the US for ignoring both. While I’d be inclined to add two more – growing inequality and the threat to humanity posed by the potential collapse of anti-biotics – it has to be pointed out that these concerns did not feature in our last general election either. The only election I can recall where they were raised was that for Labour Leader, won decisively by Jeremy Corbyn. He, however, faces an uphill struggle to persuade the Parliamentary Labour Party. Most Labour MPs and many of their elected counterparts in local government cannot wait to unleash a coup to topple him, and to hell with the members and supporters who so decisively elected him.

The recent mayoral election in London was largely about personalities and race, not policies. The successful Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, promised to freeze fares and build more affordable homes. Neither appeared very likely, but the significant number of left inclined voters in London voted for him anyway on the grounds that he wasn’t Zac Goldsmith, the millionaire Tory candidate; and, if he failed to get elected, the Parliamentary Labour Party would use it as an excuse to try and unseat Jeremy Corbyn.

Having won on Corbyn’s coat tails, there were some immediate signs of trouble ahead. At his inauguration Khan cold shouldered Corbyn and, in his public statements then and thereafter, showed little understanding of why he had been elected. His acceptance speech was full of self-congratulation for his personal achievement as the “son of a bus driver” for having risen so far. He was now, he told us,  “living the dream”. He has, however, waited until today to reveal in the Guardian his true colours. He wants Labour to return to the policies Blair and Brown. In other words, he sees war, growing inequality, privatisation and protecting the rich as a fair price for a Labour victory at the next general election and the further personal advancement that appears to mean so much to him. He has fired the starting gun for the campaign to topple Corbyn.

The Guardian should be ashamed for giving him a platform for this act of treachery. He should have been politely directed to the Daily Mail or The Times where his true audience awaits. Meanwhile, can we have our votes back please?

 

Demise of The Independent

News that The Independent is to close in March, lingering on only as a phantom, digital only, newspaper, should shake any lingering view that we enjoy in the UK a free and independent press. But how significant is this development?

The Independent has long since dropped from its masthead the claim to be “free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence”. The former claim was always problematical – a free press in this country demands some political bias as a counterweight to that exerted in favour of the Tories by most of our media, including the BBC. The latter claim was clearly unsupportable after the newspaper was acquired in 2010 by the Russian Oligarch Alexander Lebedev who also, by then, owned the London Evening Standard. Although following Lebedev’s acquisition  The Independent never sunk to the level of anti-working class vindictiveness employed by the Standard, it failed to respond to the opportunity presented for progressive politics by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader and it has failed to take the lead in opposing the government’s attacks on working class interests such as trade union rights, housing, education and the NHS. With the Guardian mired in Blairite nostalgia, it has been left to the tiny (but perfectly formed)  Morning Star to lead on this. It could therefore be argued that the loss of The Independent doesn’t really matter. There is, however, another way of looking at its pending disappearance.

The Independent has around a 5% share of the readership of printed newspapers. Assuming this is acquired pro-rata by the remaining newspapers, it will leave 73%  controlled by four multi-millionaires: Rupert Murdoch (Sun and Times), Lord Rothermere (Mail and Metro) both with 29% each; Richard Desmond (Express and Daily Star) with 10%; and the Barclay Brothers (Telegraph) with 5%. Of these, only Richard Desmond lives in this country – yet they all exert tremendous influence over the UK government and its social policies and tax regime.

In any other situation where 73% of the market was controlled by four individuals, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), successor to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), would step in and the result would probably be enforced divestment. This would, however, require evidence of exploitation of market power and this is notoriously difficult to prove with newspapers as the benefit of ownership is not in the dividends received. Billionaires, even ones called Rupert, don’t make their billions from owning newspapers, they own newspapers to protect the billions they have made (or, in the case of Lord Rothermere, inherited). Lebedev’s closure of The Independent was not because it has not been yielding him sufficient monetary dividends, it was because it was no longer yielding him enough political dividends.

Regulatory agencies will never intervene to provide the truly free press we need. It can only be provided by government action to require national newspapers to be owned collectively by their readers. If the Morning Star can do it, so can the rest. But such government action will never be forthcoming under a Tory, or even a social democrat government. The remedy, as always, is a socialist government or, best of all, a social revolution led by the communists.