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From The Socialist newspaper, 14 July 2000

Is Democracy Dying Out?

The establishment claims Britain has had a strong democracy for over 100 years. But as JANE JAMES explains, things are not as democratic as they seem. Many democratic rights are being eroded by Blair and New Labour. Turnouts in elections are at a new low and young people in particular are looking for alternatives to traditional "politics". How do socialists view democracy?

What Makes democracy?

SOCIALISTS FIGHT to defend and extend democratic rights that have been won by past struggles. Having the right to vote, to form trade unions and political parties, to hold meetings and demonstrate, which is banned in many countries, is a major advantage for our class. It allows workers to organise openly to improve conditions and struggle for a socialist society. Socialists and workers' organisations can gain influence by taking part in elections.

When foreign ministers and others met in Poland recently for a "World Forum on Democracy", it was estimated that 120 out of the 190 states in the world have "democracies", showing an increase in the past decade. But in the oldest democracies the turnout in elections is decreasing.

Democracy usually refers to the right to vote, a free press and free speech, among other rights. Many countries on their 'democratic' list are stretching the definition.

Russia, whose government elections suffer from ballot rigging and fraud, are included and countries like Turkey are breezily described as being "military-influenced". Nigeria is apparently defined as a presidential parliamentary democracy (transitional).

Corruption and undemocratic methods are rampant in all governments of the West.

For example, in Ireland, former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey faces allegations of accepting back-handers from businessmen.

This has been a factor in the Socialist Party gaining further support and an independent Left candidate recently winning a seat in Tipperary.

CAPITALIST DEMOCRACY has limitations. We may be allowed a vote every four or five years to have a say in which party is elected. But once elected, it is very difficult to bring governments to account.

Many voted for New Labour but few agree with policies such as privatising air traffic control or introducing tuition fees. There is no democracy in how the economy is run, what our wages should be, how many jobs are created or what is produced. These decisions are made by the bosses who only give concessions to head off struggles.

What little 'democracy' we have is being eroded. Blair and New Labour are 'reforming' many democratic institutions which means we will have less rights than before. Devolution is supposed to bring democracy closer to people yet the new assemblies and Scottish Parliament have very limited powers.

You don't even have to be elected to be to be part of the government. Unelected lawyers and individuals such as Lord Simon of BP and Lord Levy, the famous tax avoider, have been brought into the government. The Lord Chancellor, an unelected medieval relic, appoints judges in secret and is cutting legal aid.

35% of those appointed to government advisory task forces are business people and only 2% are trade unionists.

Local councils too have been left with fewer powers and that power will soon be wielded by fewer people. Many areas are now looking at directly elected mayors who will have powers above those of councillors. Cardiff County Council recently awarded its mayor 58,000 a year, abolished council committees and replaced them with a small 'cabinet'.

Home Secretary, Jack Straw is planning to take away the right to be tried by jury. Magistrates' courts will now decide if someone can have a jury or not.

Because New Labour has now been transformed into an openly capitalist party, there is no mass party that represents working-class interests. This has led to the situation where the right to vote, won by generations before us, is not being used.

In the recent Tottenham by-election only 25% of those registered to vote did so and the Labour candidate, David Lammy won the seat with 13.6% of the electorate voting for him. Many commentators say that people no longer want to be involved in the political process, reflected by low turnouts, not registering to vote and taking no interest in political parties.

But this is primarily a protest by former Labour voters, angered by New Labour's policies. When a Left alternative is offered, workers can be inspired to vote. In the recent local elections the Socialist Party gained a third councillor in Coventry and our candidate in Merseyside received 30% of the vote.

Some argue that a turn away from traditional politics is a positive process and that we need to look at new forms of protest and a new democracy with political parties being outdated.

Movements such as Reclaim the Streets have turned to direct action as a way of achieving things with an implicit hostility to politics and political parties. Alternative movements are referred to as DIY politics, bypassing the political process by building self-help groups and taking part in direct action. What could be more democratic than being able to freely exchange ideas on the internet ?

In a recent edition of Red Pepper, Colin Ward, a writer on anarchism, wrote of such groups: "None of them fits into the framework of conventional politics. They depend not on membership cards, votes and a special leadership and a herd of inactive followers but small functional groups which ebb and flow".

But "small functional groups which ebb and flow" will never be able to challenge the rule of capitalism. Workers and oppressed have to be organised to build struggles and confront the highly organised forces of those who control society with the aim of achieving socialism. Many involved in these groups are concluding that global capitalism is the enemy and some are open to the idea of a socialist alternative.

A new mass party of the working class will have to be more democratic than the past experience of mass workers' organisations like the Labour Party and the trade unions. When the Labour Party swung to the left in the late 1970s and 1980s, reflecting working-class struggle, Militant supporters and others on the Left fought hard for democratic procedures. We cannot accept workers organisations being run in an undemocratic way and Socialist Party members are the strongest fighters for democratic change in the trade unions.

As well as arguing for democracy within the working-class organisations, we also have to be alert to the attacks on democracy from the ruling class. Our lives are dictated to by big business and the rich and they would attempt to dismantle democratic rights if these became an obstacle to their power.

To stand in elections requires money and publicity while the media is controlled by the rich. This does not mean that the working class cannot build support and win power. But to achieve socialism requires an independent working-class mass party, embracing Marxist ideas.

Only under a socialist society can there be true democracy. Where production and distribution are owned and controlled by all then people can genuinely participate in running society.

The struggle for workers rights in Britain

UNTIL THE Reform Act of 1867 only a wealthy minority of the population had the vote. If these owners of big business, the banks and land could have continued to exploit the masses who created their wealth, without allowing them any role in the political process, they would have done so.

The struggles of the working class forced the ruling class to make some democratic concessions but never enough to threaten their dominant position. Not until 1928 could all men and women over the age of 21 vote. This was won through the struggles of the Chartists, trade unionists, suffragists and suffragettes - directly through campaigning for the vote but also by the working class demonstrating their industrial strength.

These early campaigners fought for the right to vote as a means to change their appalling conditions. While the working class saw representative institutions such as parliament and local councils as a means to implement change, the ruling class attempted to use democracy as means to divert struggle into safe channels.

The implication is that there is no need for fundamental social and economic transformation - ie a revolution - when change can be implemented through the ballot box. Although many reforms including democratic rights have been implemented by Parliament, it has been struggles outside Parliament that has forced this change.

Once the masses had won the vote, the ruling class planned to make it as ineffective as possible. Their biggest fear was the working class building its own party. Walter Bagehot in his book "The English constitution" in 1872 said: "A political combination of the lower classes, as such and for their own objects is an evil of the first magnitude."

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In The Socialist 14 July 2000:

We're Sick of the Greedy Bosses

Defend Council housing

Ryton Car workers set to strike

Northern Ireland: Parades crisis needs working-class solution to wider sectarian conflict

Northern Ireland: The Alternative to the annual battleground

Is Democracy Dying Out?

Nigerian workers' leader kidnapped


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