Skip to Content

What price democracy?

Recent scandals about donations to political parties confirm that under capitalism some - those with money - are more equal than others.

Births - marriages - deaths - everything in capitalism, even that which currently passes for democracy, has a price, and last month the Electoral Commission, an independent body that oversees political party spending on elections, published its balance sheet on the costs of the last UK General Election.

Mrs Blair, the wife of the Prime Minister, who was not contesting any constituency, apparently spent £7,700 on having her hair done.  The acceptance of this by the independent commission presumably means that this woman’s hair was in some way related to the electoral system that is supposed to underwrite our alleged freedom of choice.

There were other serious items: £3,638 went on make-up for the then Tory leader, Michael Howard - an expense that failed utterly to disguise his loutish leer.  The Labour Party spent £264,000 on a bus and another £75,000 having it converted and yet a further £3,172 re-branding it as the Prescott Express - a somewhat tantalising sobriquet in the light of recent events.

And then there were the very serious items; very serious because the huge amounts involved were spent on providing personnel in the form of spin doctors and professional liars skilled in mendacity and obfuscation who it was calculated could con voters into parting with their votes.  £441,000 was paid to an Australian ‘political tactician’, while his short-stay accommodation in London cost the Tories a further £27,000.  Fortunately for Labour, there was no need to import political charlatans as part of the carefully choreographed Blair strategy was to cultivate their own indigenous species of con artists.

Why?

In total the infamous ‘three main parties’ spent some £40 million pounds buying representation in the House of Commons. That, it could be said, is the price of British democracy.  The Labour Party spent £18 million, the Tories roughly the same amount and the Lib-Dems £4.3 million.  Effectively, this is what it costs to ensure that the personnel staffing British capitalism’s political administration do not pose any threat to an economic order firmly based on the exploitation of the overwhelming majority of the electors.

Traditionally, rich and very rich people supported the Tories and when the Liberal Party was the alternative government of British capitalism it, too, enjoyed the influence and affluence of the rich and powerful.  It was unnecessary to ask why rich people and prosperous business enterprises supported these parties; their donations were investments in politics; investments that would encourage a healthy return in the form of ensuring that government would not pursue legislative practices harmful to the interests of its donors.  In other words, that politicians would not bite the hand that feeds them.

Labour Party spokespersons were once vociferous in exposing and emphasising this support of the landed gentry and the industrial and commercial magnates for its political opponents.  Labour’s then more frugal organisational and campaigning funds came largely from the trade unions, who also assumed they were promoting a political interest sympathetic to the cause of their members as well as opening avenues to career betterment for aspiring union leaders. 

That was before the Labour Party had demonstrated to the British ruling class that it had become the electable alternative to the Tories and could safely exchange places with the Liberal Party. Despite the occasional bit of leftist sloganising from its slow learners, experience had clearly shown that Labour leaders were now aware that in government they had to facilitate capitalism - a task they could frequently do more efficiently than the Tories because the fiction prevailed that they represented the working class.

Incompatible with genuine democracy

The media, which is supposed to inform us, didn’t raise a head of steam about the Electoral Commission’s report but did raise a fuss about the remarkable generosity of the millionaires clamouring to ‘lend’ money to the Labour Party under foot of reasonable expectations of titles of one sort or another.  The Tories, on the principle of honour among thieves, didn’t overly embarrass the government either - indeed Prescott’s sexual adventures received more attention than the scarcely covert corruption in both government and opposition.

The question is, where does all this leave the issue of democracy, that vague principle which the government have men and women trained to kill and die for and which we are told is the guarantor of our freedom? 

The politicians, the media and the rest of what are called ‘opinion formers’ insist that we have democracy, that we have free elections which allow us to choose whatever form of government we wish, unlike countries where a single-party dictatorship exists. 
Such dictatorships usually allow elections where the people may approve or disapprove of given candidates within the dictatorship but have not the freedom to vote for any other parties or for independent candidates.  In other words the people have imposed on them by force, corruption or the control of information a specific political regime and have not got the necessary democratic machinery to challenge that regime.
 
Dictatorship and bourgeois democracy

Looking at the vast sums of money involved in our allegedly democratic elections we can hardly claim that they are ‘free’!  In fact in most of the so-called democratic countries it could be said that the astronomical costs of challenging for political power have been deliberately manipulated in order to ensure that those who cannot attract rich backers will be denied meaningful access to the democratic process.

Effectively this means that in the same way as people in dictatorships are denied the right to make real political changes, in Britain and other allegedly democratic societies prohibitive financial restrictions are placed in the way of the working class organising politically to effect real economic change.

This does not mean that socialists equate dictatorship and bourgeois democracy.  Within the latter we are free to organise politically and to develop our support to the extent where we can eventually overcome the embargoes and impediments that capitalism’s restricted democratic forms impose on us, whereas in the former any Socialist work is necessarily clandestine and can invoke severe penalties.

What we can equate is the hypocrisy of bourgeois politicians, who rightly condemn those capitalist dictatorships where political freedom is denied and yet are willing participants and vociferous defenders of a form of capitalism wherein financial impediments exist that make a mockery of real democracy.
 
Consolidation

The recent debacle surrounding the revelations of enormous financial donations and alleged loans from the millionaires to Labour and the Tories (the Lib-Dems do not represent as promising a political investment as the others) may have caused some embarrassment.  It will, however, be a passing phenomenon because the very system that exposes them also protects them in that it excludes meaningful opposition from outside the ‘three main parties’.

That said, however, the evident chicanery of the whole nasty business requires some means of political sanitising that will shield the politicians while still providing the parties of capitalism with the financial means of maintaining their monopoly of power - without allowing any democratic access for cultivating meaningful opposition either to the system itself or its trusted political agents.

Various suggestions have been made but the front runner appears to be the state funding of elections.  Such a method, across the board and pertaining to every candidate in elections, might be a welcome widening of the political process, which is why it is unlikely to happen.  More likely is a scheme to allocate funds on the basis of the number of MPs each party has in parliament, which would simply perpetuate the present situation and consolidate the current undemocratic scheme while resolving the embarrassing issue of funding for the politicians and their parties.
 
Fair and free elections 

The idea of fair and free elections would give the ruling class political apoplexy.  Imagine a general election where socialists had a level playing field, an election that was in effect a plebiscite on the question of Socialism or Capitalism.  The traditional parties of capitalism would be united in telling us about the remarkable plethora of reforms they intended to introduce to ease poverty in certain areas, to reduce crime, to tackle the housing problem, help the aged, build nuclear bomb shelters, etcetera.

The socialists would not be offering any reforms of the old, failed system in which the vast potential of the planet is owned and controlled by a relatively small minority of people who allow the production of goods and services only when it holds the promise of profit for them.  On the contrary, we would be asking for a mandate to abolish the entire concept of ownership in the means of production and distribution so that everyone could freely participate in wealth production and everyone would be free to take from the common pool of wealth thus created in accordance with their needs.

Further, in the context of what we are discussing, we would be offering the establishment of an open and genuine system of participative democracy in a world where the massively destructive and ubiquitously corruptive power of money would no longer exist.

RICHARD MONTAGUE