Caught In The Act: Back to Work
Back to Work
Parliament re-assembles this month to the accompaniment of the annual bout of puzzlement among the voters. Brought up to believe in the importance of Parliament as the intellectual power-house which runs the country and keeps all of us happy, well-fed and secure, they wonder how MPs are able to desert the place for so long. How are the Honourable Members able to go swanning off on holiday, or to jack up their wages with lecture tours and journalism, or to bring their diaries up to date for future use in their memoirs, if their work is so vital? The country seems to have been running alright—no more than the usual crop of “accidents”, the customary problems of people not having enough to live on. the accepted difficulties in access to medical care and social services. Things don’t seem any better or worse, whether Parliament is sitting or not. Do we really need the place?
Any sort of observation of Parliament— listening to its proceedings on the radio, waiting around in the Lobby, watching it at work from the Public Gallery—does little to damage the case for its abolition. To begin with, quite a few MPs often seem to have drunk too much over lunch and to be, in more senses than one, flushed and excitable. Some are excruciatingly aware of their own talents and. in case anyone is missing out on them, make regular checks to ensure that they are being admiringly observed from the Gallery. The lucky onlooker will see the House at its liveliest— larking about, rocked with forced laughter, bubbling with bogus animosity towards the opposite side.
Face-to-face contact with an MP is not necessarily more re-assuring. One Labour Member, an old-time left-winger who now does not by any standards know where he stands on almost any issue, will lug you down to the Tea Room and there stubbornly evade the matter you have come to see him about while he drones on about his current obsession. Every so often some gnarled fellow Labour MP will come to the table to exult over some alleged triumph in some staggeringly trivial matter. There will be a bit of mutual back-slapping and morale boosting, for these people carry a burden of shame about the betrayal of what they once called their principles but also a crippling doubt about their own effectiveness. Very likely they will assure each other that they will be at some meeting that evening where they will continue to massage their morale by colouring the petty issue into one of enduring importance.
It is not only the older left-wingers who behave in a frustrating and irritating way. There is one younger Member, something of a specialist in radical law, who was not popular with his constituency party because of his womanising. A visit to the Tea Room with him reveals that there is some substance to this, as he ogles his way along the corridor, gropes the hapless girl at the cash desk who is only there to take his money and leers from his seat at every passing female. Whatever else this man respects, clearly it is not womanhood; only occasionally does he rein in his obsession to give some time to the issue which is supposed to be under discussion. Then he scampers off to the chamber to ask some daringly radical question which will have all the lefty reformists swooning with admiration.
On the other side of the House, there is the Tory MP. one of Thatcher’s most ardent and tireless sycophants, whose hypocrisy is gargantuan. This man is notorious in his constituency not just for being a humbug but also for his relentless quest for publicity. Provided that there is a news photographer handy, he descends on an old people’s home to harrass some infirm pensioner into posing with him or he intrudes into local events where people have gathered with the innocent intention of enjoying themselves. A sort of male Mary Whitehouse, he rarely misses a chance to denounce what he calls permissiveness (his attitude towards gays and lesbians verges on the mediaevally persecutory) but he sees nothing wrong in entertaining in the Commons contestants for the Miss World title. This condoning of an event which is truly pornographic—which is not only designed to be sexually titillating but which deals in an unreal, distorted image of sex—is not inconsistent with this Honourable Member’s professed moral stance for he is only looking for yet another photo-opportunity and presumably works on the principle that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Of course there are also capable and conscientious MPs who do their best to help their constituents in their problems. It is fair to ask, however, why so many MPs rank so high in any league table of hypocrisy. stupidity or buffoonery. The answer is that they are unable to cope with their position of power—which brings us to the central point about the function of Parliament and whether, despite the antics of some of the people in it, it is a useful institution.
Whether MPs are good or bad, efficient or bungling, sincere or hypocritical, is beside the point. They operate in, and by their votes they control, the place where the power in capitalist society is to be found. Any failure to understand that can lead workers into disaster. Parliament controls the state machine and that machine—the armed forces, the police, the penal system and so on—exists to defend the whole set-up of class society. This means that it defends the privileges of the people who own the means of life and asserts the fact that the rest are condemned to lives of poverty and exploitation. Workers who get depressed about Parliament, who decide that it is no better than a talking shop and that real power lies somewhere else have often tried to by-pass it. They have always failed, sometimes at great cost to themselves.
A recent example of how the state is used was the coal strike of 1984-5 which was motivated by the strange idea that the coal mines should be kept open so that miners could work in them and earn a wage rather than that the coal should be cut to be sold at a profit. The miners tried to make their point by striking and then, on the sensible argument that there is no point in a strike if a lot of workers are still at work, by preventing any miner who wanted to go to the pits from doing so. We all know what happened, how the police blocked roads to stop pickets moving about, how they broke up the pickets and fought pitched battles with miners who, in their own estimation, were only struggling for the chance to be exploited as employed, working coal producers. As things were—as the economy of capitalism was operating then—the strikers hadn’t a hope. After their defeat one pit after another was closed; recently the last one in Kent stopped production. This is not because there is no use for the coal; it is because British Coal say there is no profit to be made from mining it. To assert this priority they are able to call on the state machine. The miners, if nobody else, should have learned from experience of the power of the state and of the way it is controlled, manipulated and applied through Parliament.
That is why, if we are to do anything significant about society’s problems the working class must organise with the objective of controlling the state through Parliament. At present it is a place where the trivial, the exasperating and the sickening are everyday currency, where the bungling, the hypocrite and the deranged pick over the inconsequential details of running a social system which at best must exploit and degrade the majority of its people. But it could and it must be used to bring the basic social change which will end not just our material problems but also those of morale—the cynicism, the conceits and the inefficiencies which are typical of a decadent society.
So who goes home?