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.

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Note of our meeting on 20 October

Discussion on Housing

The meeting reviewed Jeremy Corbyn’s Housing Policy, published as part of his Labour leadership campaign, and concluded that it had much to commend it. In particular, the aims of building one million new homes during the next five year parliament and providing new safeguards for tenants in the private rented sector in the form of three year tenancies and blocks on “unreasonable rent increases” were welcome and politically attractive. The CP should certainly maintain its support for Corbyn and endorse these proposals. The meeting did, however, conclude that they would ameliorate but not eliminate the housing crisis. For this the fundamental problems with UK housing had to be addressed. It needed to be recognise that treating homes as investments benefitted home owners – those already on the so-called housing ladder, but Marxists understood that, outside the productive process, asset ownership and exchange was a zero sum game. The gains accruing to home owners from owning property – essentially land value – didn’t materialise out of the ether: they were transfers of value  from those who who didn’t own their homes to those who did. One solution would be a Land Value Tax. It also had to be recognised that land and houses were currently over-valued when they couldn’t be afforded by working people. A fall in prices should be encouraged and welcomed, not feared – but it had to be matched with restrictions on banks’ rights to foreclose and requirements on them to write down the amounts they could recover from mortgage loans. For too long banks had made essentially speculative loans secured on land and buildings. passing on the risk associated with these speculative loans to the borrower. The aim of housing policy, the meeting concluded, should be to separate the provision of homes – a basic human need – from the creation of speculative investment.

The anomaly of allowing home owners to build up a capital gain which was then appropriated by the private sector providers of care homes was also discussed.

The meeting went on to discuss how to support the Axe the Act Campaign and their wish to expose Gavin Barwell, the Tory MP for Croydon Central and newly appointed Housing Minister, for having no intention of addressing the housing crisis. Barwell had a majority of only 165 at the last general election having spent almost up to the statutory limit according to his election expenses returns. There were allegations that he had falsified these returns, but the police had now concluded their investigations without bringing a prosecution. The meeting was not impressed with this outcome. Barwell also had a poor record as a Labour Councillor on housing matters, appearing to be keener on sweetening his constituents than pressing ahead with housing development in the south of the borough. It was also noted that the Nestle Building in Central Croydon had stood empty for four years, mostly under his watch, and was not now scheduled for redevelopment until 2018 – probably for luxury flats. The similarity with Centre Point in Central London, left empty for decades while its value increased, was pointed out. The problems of empty property and second homes both needed to be addressed in any comprehensive policy on housing.

Other Business

Ben Stevenson was appointed our delegate to Party Congress on the weekend of 19-20 November at Ruskin House. Members were encouraged to attend as visitors, volunteer as stewards and offer beds for delegates on the nights of Friday 18th and Saturday 19th November. Please make offers to office@communist-party.org.uk

The Party’s Big Red Appeal is up and running. Members are encouraged to donate what you can – cheques made out to CPB and mailed to the Party at Ruskin House or by credit transfer to the Party account – details from the acting branch secretary.

Members were encouraged to attend the Croydon Assembly at Ruskin House on Saturday, 26 November

Next meeting

7 pm at Party Centre on Thursday ,17 November –our usual third Thursday of the month.