A Call To Action For Democracy, by John Sinha
A call to action for democracy – the case for reclaiming the power
Note: The Occupy London General Assembly gave consensus for the formation of a Democracy Action Working Group (DAWG) on March 1st 2014. Amongst other aims and actions, this group was formed to organise a mass action, an event for democracy, with Parliament Square mooted as the location. The action will begin on Friday 17th October…
John Sinha says…
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. And reason as to why Parliament are many and what follows could be extended many times over.
The problem with Parliament
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. In the case of tuition fees, it was the clear breaking of a promise by the Liberals. How did they get away with it?
The answer must lie, in large part, in the nature of representative parliamentary democracy. The imposition of austerity in Britain has no mandate from the voters. But the democratic legitimacy of austerity is often overlooked by campaigners and commentators. Austerity is not the sole or even the main problem. The problem is a parliamentary democracy that has allowed the government to get away with the largest assault on our individual and collective well being since the Second World War. Parliament is the source of the government’s strength and legitimacy. It allowed the party leaders, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, to stitch up an austerity program which has no democratic mandate. One can argue that coalition governments are sometimes inevitable. But if that is the case, it is even more important that our MPs and Lords 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 is 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. It highlights one of the key problems with the representative system of parliamentary democracy. Some decisions Parliament makes are irreversible, such as voting for war. In the case of the NHS, the contracts signs with private companies are protected by clauses which would make the government liable for untold sums. This would it make prohibitively expensive for any government promising to reverse the privatisation. Added to that, the EU is supporting a secret trade deal with North America which would put such decisions in the hands of unaccountable arbitration panels, which could strike down 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. But once these promises are broken there is little in the way of redress. Once elected, the party leader is free to ignore the promises he or she make to the voters. 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. Voting against the decisions of the party leader can be a very bad career move.
Not like us
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. Too many have limited experience of work outside the Westminster Village. The current cabinet (and shadow cabinet) fits this mould. Most of the cabinet were educated at public schools and the leaders of all three main parties, including Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor, went to Oxford. Most worked as ministerial aides, party researchers or as lobbyists. 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 the increase.
Are we all in this together? Appears not, as far as many MPs are concerned. The expenses scandal revealed a sense of entitlement from our elected representatives that is completely divorced from the realities of their constituents struggling to pay the rent, the fuel bills or feed their families.
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 dropped, would indicate that the Lords is seen as a reward for putting the interests of the party leader above anything else.
People power versus the lobby
The privatisation of the NHS went through despite an enormous campaign of letter writing, petitioning and demonstrations, from individuals, trades unions, national campaigning groups, and local hospital campaigns. This mass campaign had public opinion on its side. But this effort was 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 government MPs immune to the democratic pressure of such mass campaigns.
Added to this is the direct and indirect financial interests of Lords and MPs who stood to gain from NHS privatisation. One hundred and forty five Lords and seventy MPs have declared recent or present financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare. The fact that they must declare these interests does not make it any more acceptable. Privatisation is also beneficial to the later career prospects of politicians. 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, its business model is 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.
The tendency for Parliament to ignore mass movements is not unique to the current Coalition. On 15th February 2003 it is 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?
In a victory for the mass grassroots campaign against airport expansion, the incoming Coalition government promised not to support new runways in the south east. This was in contrast to the outgoing Labour government. The campaigners against a third runway at Heathrow might have thought they had finally killed of the third runway. But not long after the election, the PR and lobbying machine of the air travel industry moved into action trying to swing the debate in favour of airport expansion. It did not take long for the government to execute the quickest U-turn possible with an “independent” commission on airport expansion, its brief was skewed in favour of expansion. It remains to be seen what choice the voter opposed to expansion will have if all the main parties end up supporting this supposedly independent commission. It remains to be seen how successful big business will be in bypassing democracy. It is a strategy based on the war of attrition, it hopes to gradually wear down campaigners.
Lobbying beyond lobbying
Very often big business does not 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. Some of the advisors at the Department of Energy and Climate Change are drafting key government policies on the electricity “capacity market” are seconded from companies running gas fired power stations. 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 which interests 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 = 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, Michael Gove can 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, Parliament has recently 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 problems 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 as Russell Brand has pointed out. Our media and political system has conspired to create a parliamentary democracy which represents an increasingly narrow spectrum of opinion. Those of us who question the need for austerity are effectively disenfranchised when the main parties all accept this narrative.
Why the government has (and it must be stressed – thus far) been able to get away with it is another question. Passive, atomised and misinformed is not the state we are in but the way the government would like us to be. Our ability to resist has been reduced as a result of a transfer of power that has taken place over the past thirty years. This transfer of power has occurred at all levels of government and in all spheres of our life. Our power to resist both individually and collectively has been reduced.
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; 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 have power over us. The consequences of a hostile media campaign targeting any minority group can threaten someone’s physical security.
Local democracy has been emasculated as more power has been 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. Added to that is the huge defeats inflicted on the unions in the 80s weighs down a like a collective nightmare on the trade union movement.
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 makes the kind of protest witnessed recently at the Maidan in Kiev illegal if repeated in Parliament Square. How can it be that in the Ukraine the right to protest is better protected than at the “Mother of Parliaments”?
Our political system is increasingly unable to deal with the consequences of a social crisis it helped to create. We are facing record homelessness, while many more struggle to keep a roof over their heads, record numbers are relying on food banks to feed their families and records numbers are facing fuel poverty as energy prices rise eight time faster than wages. Since it is probably safe to assume that nobody voted to be made homeless, hungry or unemployed, it appears that the majority are not able to use the democratic process to improve, let alone protect, the basic necessities of life. Our sense of powerlessness mirrors in an opposite way the increasing power big business has 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 reducing the property qualification and giving women the vote. Little could they imagine the extent to which corporate power has subverted the vote 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 the institutions that 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. The late Tony Benn noted that those with power do not like democracy and that is why every generation must struggle to win and keep it. We need to demand answers from them
Together we are powerful – get involved!