1980s >> 1987 >> no-995-july-1987

Between the Lines: The democracy show

I watched the 1987 election on the telly. More than any previous one, this was democracy which you watched, like you watch Cagney and Lacey or championship wrestling. It was an election campaign devised for cameras, in which people with minds were temporary screen interferences, which existed to be watched. But that is not what the Chartists fought for over a hundred years ago. Those men and women of the working class who were depicted insultingly as “the mob”, unworthy of the right to vote, campaigned for the chance to participate in democracy. They were under no more illusions than socialists are today that the “democracy” which could be squeezed out of capitalism was mean, limited and only a means to a far greater freedom, but, like socialists today, they knew that once they were in on the political act they possessed a means to power in society. But there is a massive distinction which must be recognised between being in on the political act — being active participants in democracy — and having democracy turned into a television show, there to be watched by a passive electorate whose greatest possible function (if they are lucky) is to become invited members of a controlled studio audience. The Chartist movement did not struggle for that: our fellow workers today in dictatorships from the East of Europe to the South of Africa are not struggling for that. What must be recognised, because it has been more apparent in 1987 than it ever was before, is that the democratic election process has been appropriated by unelected, unaccountable media chiefs who have taken it upon themselves not to go as far as to deny workers the chance to vote, but to dominate what workers see before they vote. This gross erosion of meaningful democracy has not occurred as a result of the independent arrogance of the media bosses: they have been aided by the full collusion of the major capitalist parties who have decided to abandon the process of real public debate and opted for stage-managed imagery. In the process the intellectual debate which is fundamental to any kind of meaningful democratic election has been all but stifled. Theatricals have replaced polemics; images have been substituted for ideas; the condescending spectacles of red-rose rabble-rousing and leader-worshipping displays of amorphous masses have compelled even democratic socialists to wonder how seriously one can take a general election which is presented in the manner of The Eurovision Song Contest. What we are saying is that the extent to which the media has taken it upon themselves to lay out the electoral agenda, excluding as they do so all reference to the revolutionary socialist alternative, is a threat to the rights which workers have fought for — a threat which socialists, who regard democracy as an inseparable means and end, will resist.

The show itself
The real election took place away from the cameras. In Islington, where the only Socialist candidate stood, the battle was fought on the streets where literature was sold on stalls and at tube stations; in our manifesto and leaflets which were delivered to all households; on posters and stickers which clearly stated the socialist message; and at our election rally: ours was a battle of ideas. The TV Democracy Show was a prolonged. boring performance, virtually devoid of ideas and totally devoid of fresh thought. There was the torturing experience of endless Kinnock interviews, as the Labour windbag piled on alliterative negatives in description of the satanic evils of Thatcher. The demon Thatcher herself was interviewed rarely, leaving it mainly to Tebbit who looked like a man waiting for an urban riot to break out so that he could squash it. Healey came across, as usual, as an affable lout and Owen as an arrogant phoney. It was an election of characters, not ideas, and as The Socialist Party is interested in ideas, not characters, it all seems hardly worthy of comment. One moment on the election night sticks in this writer’s mind. It was when Robin Day, in the middle of one of those utterly empty studio debates which earned him his knighthood, broke off because he had been instructed to cross to David Dimbleby. the linkman. Dimbleby was unable to speak because his mouth was full of chocolate toffee (a Mars Bar. he splurted: “I can’t say anything because I’m in the middle of eating a Mars Bar”). Perhaps there lies a clue to the way to finally destroy the stream of banalities which characterise these BBC election specials: stuff their gobs with Mars Bars and give us all a rest. Perhaps the Animal Liberation Front has an historic role to play after all!

Steve Coleman