A Call To Action For Democracy, by John Sinha
This action has the potential to ignite a movement for democratic change in this country. Democracy and the way it is practised, has always been a key principle of the Occupy movement. We want to campaign for a genuine democratic government free from corporate influence.
We would like to invite all the movements that have been resisting the cuts to get involved. This event could comprise a huge peoples assembly for democracy and include a statement of demands. This should be the outcome of a democratic forum and, it should be open to amendment, modification, or addition, inspired by the Chartists six points, it could include a list of straightforward demands such as
End the revolving door between big business and government
Remove the Remembrancer from Parliament
For the right of electors to recall their MP and all elected representatives by petition
Stop MPs and Lords voting on any bills in which they have a financial interest
Ban all commercial confidentiality clauses in government contracts
MPs and ministers to be paid no more than the national average wage
A set of democratic demands on their own cannot undo the harm the massive transfer of wealth and power from the majority to a tiny minority that has done over the past thirty years. No system of constitutional checks and balances can undo that. But if we are to undo the damage that has been done we need the tools that will help us stand up to corporate power. The time for such a movement is long overdue
Some may ask why focus on Parliament when the puppet masters reside in places like the City of London, the focus of the Occupy movement in 2011? The reality is that Westminster, Whitehall and the City of London all represent the same interests. But Parliament claims to be sovereign. And so the question needs to be asked:
If Parliament is sovereign and represents the interests of those who vote, how is it possible that a government can make major policy decisions, such as privatise the NHS, triple tuition fees, or introduce the Bedroom Tax without any mandate from the voters? None of these policies were put before the voting public by the governing parties, indeed, in the case of tuition fees, it was a guarantee of the opposite that was presented to us.
The imposition of austerity in Britain is clearly devastating, but its democratic illegitimacy is often overlooked by campaigners and commentators. Austerity is not the sole or even the main problem. The problem is the Westminster system of representative democracy, which has allowed the government to get away with the largest assault on our individual and collective well being since the Second World War. It is this system that allowed the party leaders, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, to stitch up an austerity program which has no mandate. One can argue that coalition governments are sometimes inevitable, but if that is the case then it is even more important that our MPs and Lords are able to hold the government to account, acting as a democratic check on what the government does. Our MPs, irrespective of whether their party is in the governing coalition or not, should be there to defend us from the government. In this they have failed us.
The usual response from the defenders of the status quo is that an MP can always be voted out in a general election, but this state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory, and highlights one of the key problems with the representative system of parliamentary democracy. Some decisions are irreversible, such as voting for war. In the case of the NHS, the contracts signed with private companies are protected by clauses which would make the government liable for untold sums if they attempted to reverse the decision. In any case, the EU is currently supporting a secret trade deal with North America (TTIP), which would put such decisions in the hands of unaccountable arbitration panels that would have the power to override any law made in a national parliament.
MPs are elected on the basis of the promises they and their party make to the voting public. If these promises are broken there is little in the way of redress. This means that, once elected, the party leader is free to ignore the promises he or she made to the voters.
Not like us
Why do the vast majority of MPs put loyalty to their party leaders ahead of the promises they make to their electors? Maybe because the decision to enter Parliament for most MPs is a career decision, and voting against the decisions of the party leader can be a very bad career move. The career culture gives an MP an incentive to go back on the promises that got them elected.
One reason for this is that MPs today are increasingly unlike the people they represent. This is particularly true for government ministers. They have more in common with each other than the people they represent. They are drawn from an increasingly narrow social spectrum: MPs are much more likely to have a relative who has served as a politician, they are more likely to be from better off backgrounds, and most of the cabinet were educated at public schools (the leaders of all three main parties, including Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor, went to Oxford.) Too many have limited experience of work outside the Westminster Village. Most of the current cabinet (and shadow cabinet) worked as ministerial aides, party researchers or as lobbyists. This political class has interests which are different to those of the people they represent. And they see themselves as different from the people they represent. While most people have seen their wages stagnate since the recession, MPs awarded themselves an 11% pay rise. Only ten MPs saw fit to oppose this increase.
One of the quickest routes to a peerage is to become a donor to one of the main political parties. The going rate seems to be about £1.4 million. And many peers are former MPs who have served their time in the House of Commons. The furious response from many Conservative MPs at the planned cap on the number of peers, which Cameron soon abandoned, would indicate that the Lords is seen as a reward for putting the interests of the party leader above anything else.
The expenses scandal revealed a sense of entitlement from our elected representatives that is completely divorced from the realities of their constituents, who are struggling to pay the rent, the fuel bills or feed their families. Are we all in this together? Apparently not, as far as many MPs are concerned.
People power versus the lobby
The privatisation of the NHS went through despite an enormous campaign of letter writing, petitioning and demonstrating by individuals, trade unions, national campaigning groups, and local hospital campaigns. This mass campaign had public opinion on its side, but the effort was unfortunately more than matched by the lobbying power of the health insurance industry and management consultants who stood to gain from privatisation. The vastly greater lobbying resources of corporations can make MPs immune to the democratic pressure of campaigns like the anti-privatization one.
Added to this are the direct and indirect financial interests of Lords and MPs who stand to gain from NHS privatisation.
145 Lords and 70 MPs have declared recent or present financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare. The fact that they have to declare these interests does not make it any more acceptable that they are there.
Those who were involved in steering complex privatisation legislation can look forward to careers as non-executive directors in the industries they have privatised, or as consultants to the merchant banks who invest in such industries. Alternatively, they can trade on their political contacts and join a private hedge fund, such as the Carlyle Group, with a business model based on “access capitalism”.
The recent lobbying and transparency act will further reduce our ability to hold MPs to account at election time; and it will do nothing to curtail the influence big business has on Parliament and government.
NHS privatisation shows us that Parliament is increasingly less amenable to democratic pressure.
The tendency for Parliament to ignore mass movements is not unique to the current Coalition. On 15th February 2003 an estimated two million people demonstrated in London against Tony Blair’s plan to invade Iraq. Parliament chose to ignore the largest demonstration in British history and support Blair’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq. How many of those MPs would have voted for the invasion if they knew they could be subject to an immediate recall by their electors organised through such a mass movement?
Lobbying which goes beyond lobbying
Often big business doesn’t even need to bother with lobbying: Lord Browne is a government advisor to the Cabinet Office on business matters. He is also chairman of Cuadrilla, one of the main companies involved in Fracking in the UK. Fracking is being imposed as a “solution” to the UK’s energy needs without any public consultation as to its safety, whether it is compatible with the UK’s climate commitments, or whether it will address the question of fuel poverty. Or we have examples like Lord Blencathra, who is offering “consultancy services” to the Cayman Islands government, presumably to preserve its status as a tax haven.
Britain’s most powerful rotten borough
One of the achievements of the Occupy movement in London was to shine a spotlight on the highly undemocratic influence the City of London has on the UK Parliament and government. The City of London Corporation is the UK’s last remaining rotten borough; its lobbying power is institutionalised in the office of the Remembrancer. He is present in both the House of Commons and the Lords. With a budget of £3.5 million and and staff of six lawyers, his role is to ensure that no legislation threatens the privileges of the City. From this position he has direct access to all government ministers and officials involved in shaping any legislation of interest to the City.
In 2008 City’s banks threatened to shut down the UK banking system if the government did not bail them out. This crisis presented the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown with the greatest opportunity to reform the City, but he blinked first and, in a panic, he shouldered UK taxpayers with £500 billion of liabilities. The bailout was hailed as a great example of Brown’s leadership. He did this without any approval from Parliament. But he could have nationalised the failing banks without compensation and limited the guarantees on deposits. During the banking crisis, there was no talk of austerity from the elites who benefited from this enormous transfer of wealth from the rich to poor. But once the banking system was safely bailed out the demand for austerity from the same elites became deafening.
Whitehall centralisation equals corporate power grab
The shift in the balance of power in favour of big business is also present at the local level. In the Government’s drive to expand the fracking industry, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, has made it much more difficult for local communities to object to fracking applications in their area. The Education Secretary can now remove elected school governors and hand over control of schools to business. And this power grab from big business is manifest all over the planning system. Whether it’s the local pub being turned into a supermarket or the proliferation of betting shops on our high street, there is little local communities can do to resist these developments through the democratic process. In addition, even when local democracy does win, as was the case with the Lewisham Hospital campaign, Parliament granted the Health Secretary the power to close hospitals without any community consultation.
In the case where local communities are resisting developer land grabs, or privatisation, they are often hamstrung by the commercial confidentiality clauses our elected representatives are allowed to sign with big business. This has become a major issue for campaigners resisting corporate led “regeneration” plans like the Heygate Estate. A similar problem surrounds the Private-Public Partnership deals in the public sector.
Passive, atomised and misinformed – is how they want us
Given the state of our democracy it should not be surprising that increasing numbers of people are so disenchanted with our system of democracy that they are no longer bothering to vote. Our media and political system has conspired to create a parliamentary democracy that represents an increasingly narrow spectrum of opinion: those of us who question the need for austerity are effectively disenfranchised when all the main parties accept the narrative of its necessity.
Why the government has – thus far – been able to get away with it is another question. Passive, atomised and misinformed is the way the government would like us to be. Our ability to resist power has been drastically compromised as a result of the transfer of power away from the majority that has taken place over the past thirty years.
Firstly, the public is badly mis-informed. The BBC described NHS privatisation as a “bill to give power to GPs”. The government and the media have tried hard to play one section of society suffering from austerity against another, be it demonising families on benefits or whipping up a wave of hysteria about Bulgarian or Romanian immigrants. Nobody elected Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, yet people like him hold an extraordinary amount of power over the public’s understanding of certain social issues. And the consequences of a hostile media campaign targeting any minority group can threaten someone’s actual physical security!
Local democracy continues to be neutered as power is centralised in Whitehall.
The recent cuts in Legal Aid disempower us because they take away our ability to protect our rights through the courts and to fight miscarriages of justice. Would the Birmingham Six have been able to establish their innocence without Legal Aid? Would we have been able to uncover the extent of police spying or corporate collusion if climate activists had not been able to defend themselves with Legal Aid?
The best way for working people to defend their conditions of employment is through a trade union, but legislation introduced since the ‘80s has reduced the power of trade unions to defend their members.
And the democracy of the street, that is, our ability to protest, has been whittled down as successive laws restricting public assembly have been introduced. The police have become better at containing protest through tactics such as kettling. The main objective of the police is not to “facilitate” protest but to defeat protest through a strategy of boredom and fear. This was clearly evident with the student protests of late 2010.
The current laws on protest mean that the kind of protest witnessed recently at the Maidan in Kiev would illegal in Parliament Square. How can it be that in the Ukraine the right to protest is better protected than by the “Mother of Parliaments”?
It appears that the majority are not able to use the democratic process to improve, let alone protect, the basic necessities of life. And in turn, our increasing sense of powerlessness is mirrored by the increasing power of big business over our lives. It is time we took mass action to stop this.
It was our forebears, the Levellers, who first raised the demand for universal suffrage. The Chartist and the Suffragettes fought to extend the franchise by eliminating the property qualification and giving women the vote. Little could they imagine the extent to which corporate power has compromised the right for which they fought so bravely and sacrificed so much. Any movement campaigning for genuine democracy should draw inspiration from them and learn from their experience.
We want to bring alive a movement that is able to take action over all those who have power over us. The late Tony Benn had five questions of power:
1. What power do you have?
2. Where did you get it from?
3. To whom are you accountable?
4. In whose interest do you exercise it?
5. How can we get rid of you?
Of these the fifth is most important. Benn noted that thosewithpower do not like democracy, and that is why every generation must struggle to win and keep it.
We need to start demanding answers.