Skip to Content

UK General Election 2005: That was democracy, was it?

It is great to live in a democracy. Fantastic that we are so free that 22 percent of us can elect a government that will rule for up to five years - and if we disagree with its policies we can be told, "You had a choice,we were democratically elected, after all." It isn't as if these democratic rulers aren't aware of the gaps in their theories. The famously defeated Foot led Labour Party of 1983 went into the election hoping for just such an outcome, to squeak into government on the back of a splintered national vote.

The gremlins of parliamentary party politics, though, simply refuse to go away. Politicians threaten and blackmail us - let us be bastards to you or find out just how much worse the other lot will be. The out parties can make great play of the high crimes and misdemeanours of the ins, and the great merry-go-round continues. They talk about resurgence, recovery, growth, and carve their faces into sombre masks to show just how seriously we should take them.

Of course, now we'll hear witterings about introducing proportional representation - Labour's trump card to keep the Tories out forever. Their manifesto hinted obliquely at the possibility - they promised a referendum on further constitutional change, without mentioning what that might be. That would not, though, make any real difference.

The whole system is set up to remove political power from the hands of the voters as much and for as long as they will put up with it. The Iraq war is an excellent case in point. We are always being told that elections are a time to hold governments to account. Yet, when the election came, Labour made it clear that voters would be cutting off their nose to spite their face if they voted Labour out and (the only likely alternative) the Tories in. Imagine if banks worked this way: you give us all your money, we spend it for you and you can sack us afterwards if you don't like the way we spent it. No one would buy that deal, surely, yet they do, at every election.

The vote was too blunt an instrument to express any opinion on the war, all it could ask was which of the parties seen to be in contention did voters want to see in charge.

In the old Soviet Union people could vote. They faced a fixed choice, though, either for or against the sole Communist Party candidate. Cold warriors, correctly, condemned this is a sham of democracy. Yet in Britain, where three parties receive blanket media coverage year round, and even during the election campaign, we are told we have a genuine free choice.

The impression that everyone else is going to vote for one of  these parties means that people become unwilling to vote for a fringe party. Effectively, the mass media is a free co-ordinating mechanism, sending signals between voters letting them know how their neighbours will vote so they can think of how best - pragmatically - to use their vote. Those not voting for the top two candidates in any given constituency may as well spoil their ballot, for all it effects the outcome of the election.

Mistaken identity

There are, though, other short cuts to this sort of co-ordination. Instead of building a community of ideas, a party may find existing groups and try and use them as a basis for building their vote. Thus wise the ill-named RESPECT coalition, of the erstwhile Trotskyists of the SWP and litigious ex-Labour bully-boy and friend of dictators George Galloway has tried to harness the anti-war movement and Muslim workers to their ends. Instead of appealing to them as workers, they appeal to them according to their prejudices, assuaging their mis-identification of themselves with their ideas rather than with their way of life. Other parties have tried a similar tactic - the BNP claim to defend 'White British Culture' from the depredations of multi-culturalism. This in turn is a response to both Labour and Tories trying the same trick with a multi-cultural identity of Britishness. All of them, leaders looking for followers.

Behind the swirl, smoke and bluster of identity politics and electoral nose counting lies the issue that dare not speak its name: class.

Class requires people to examine how they live, not how they feel. It automatically implies conflict and division, something that someone who wants to harvest all votes they can, come what may, would not care to invoke. You don't win friends by disagreeing with people. You don't change their minds by agreeing with them. What this masks is that we live in a society where a tiny minority

must protect its own interests from those of a vast majority. Democracy is anathema to the owners of property, because they want to retain the benefits of that property for themselves. No matter how little our say in government is, we have still less say over the use and allocation of wealth in our world - the real decisions that matter. Were the capitalist class to lose their tight rein on the state, it could become a threat to their position. Small elites and hierarchies are easier to manage than free flowing and open democracies.

Democracy is not about a constrained choice once every four years, in winner takes all elections. Democracy means having the opportunity to intervene in making proposals, amending them and finally deciding upon them - as well as in implementing them. The more people can exercise a say in those actions, the more democratic the process becomes.

Information must flow freely, so all can have an opportunity of reaching a decision, of judging the performance of delegates and appointees, of deciding to challenge the actions of one body in a higher authority; and in real democracy, the higher authorities are those bodies which contain more members of the community concerned. Everyday life must be the signalling system that lets people know what their fellows want, the way of co-ordinating votes and decisions.

A society of common ownership would have no need of constricting decision-making. We would share a common interest, and most people's actions and decisions would be immediately related to their day-to-day outcomes. Democracy would be an everyday process, just as the management of workplaces is now for the appointees of the owners. Just as appointees now are accountable to and removable by the owners, when we own all the wealth in common we will have structures to ensure that we retain control of all decision-making levels where we feel we have need to intervene, not ritualistically handing that control over to rulers periodically.

As it is, though, we continue with Tony Blair blathering about building a society of, er, respect - because that's all he can do, he has no control of the passing show in the hands of the property owners. This will last, though, only as long as the workers tolerate it. It's up to us to keep disagreeing with them.

PIK SMEET