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.