Britain’s unfinished democratic revolution

Chartist’s 2020 AGM, held in early December, was subtitled ‘For a new democracy, for a new economy’. Mike Davis spoke on the democratic part of “democratic socialism”. This is a slightly reworked version of his talk

Chartist is in its 50th year of publication. It is one of longest running left Labour journals, priding itself in being heretical, non-sectarian and independent minded.

The 19th century Chartists of the 1830s and 1840s were our namesake pioneers. They campaigned for a six-point Charter, of which universal adult suffrage and abolition of the property qualification to stand for parliament were perhaps the most significant demands. This movement for democracy was continued by the suffragettes in the early 20th century, securing women’s franchise in 1928. The struggle for democracy is far from over. For much of the last century it was a defensive battle, interrupted by wars or sidelined. We now need a democracy fit for the 21st century.

This feels like another world from this time last year. For the last few years Brexit has sucked the oxygen from politics, and now we are beset by the Covid-19 pandemic. The consequence of both is likely to be the worst recession since the 1930s.

Chartist has wanted to focus on democracy both because of the limited, broken form we have in the UK – with our antiquated capitalist state – and because of the threat facing even this limited form of democracy from right wing authoritarian populists in many advanced capitalist countries: Trump, Johnson, Orbán, Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin, Erdoğan. The bureaucratic Stalinist dictatorship in China is of another order.

George Monbiot has spoken of a civil war within capitalism, highlighting two types: ‘housetrained capitalism’ and ‘warlord capitalism’. The warlord form is represented by Trump, Brexit, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage, and seeks a small state, deregulated, low-tax and tax-avoiding, free-wheeling casino-style form. Many regimes in thrall to warlord capitalism have been thrown off course by the pandemic. This is certainly the case in the UK where huge state intervention has resulted in the immediate, short-term amelioration of the economic consequences of lockdowns and the slowdown in world trade.

Thankfully, Trump is on the way out but Trumpism, kicking and screaming, is not, as Paul Garver has written on the Chartist website.

The ‘democratic’ experience in Britain has been an enfeebled system that allows the victorious government a mandate to do what it likes between elections, without further reference to the people. This can include breaking international law, suspending parliament, curtailing the judiciary, politicising the civil service, attacking the Electoral Commission, invoking Royal Prerogatives, and making law and policy without parliamentary – let alone the peoples’ – consent. Along the way have come attacks on the civil service, the BBC and citizenship rights – exemplified by the crimes inflicted on the Windrush generation.

So what’s our answer?

It’s critical for the left to examine our own democratic agenda. Twentieth century European societies have been dominated by statism: the state capitalism evident in the war economies of the First and Second World Wars; and, more significantly, on the left by Stalinism – a form of bureaucratic state control/command economy – and Fabian-style, top-down, state control/public ownership. In short, a form of management by elites.

Thatcherism modified this model, adhering to a form of neoliberalism with economic deregulation and working to shrink the state through privatising public utilities and state-controlled industries, while reducing public welfare provision. This form of Conservatism exploited people’s sense of remoteness and alienation from bureaucratic, nationalised industries. Blairism continued the process but with a socially liberal programme, while ruling the Labour Party in top-down, neutered form.

At the heart of Chartist politics – drawing inspiration from our 19th century Chartist forebears – is a recognition that bureaucratic statism does not eliminate the inequalities, poverty, exploitation and injustices of capitalism. It can provide some amelioration at best.

What is needed are vibrant social movements, a workers’ voice in the workplace, greater trade union representation (especially of the agency, self-employed and zero-hours workers who make up the precariat), an end to restrictive laws on strike action, and stronger tenant and consumer voices. Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and school strikes have demonstrated the vitality of civil society. This needs to be built upon by any movement working for a democratic revolution.

The unfinished British democratic revolution also faces the challenge of the removal of monarchy, the replacement of the House Lords by an accountable second chamber, an end to the secrecy of the City of London and, perhaps most importantly, a fundamental overhaul of our unfit Westminster first-past-the-post voting system.

In the Labour Party itself, Miliband and Corbyn both embraced elements of bottom-up socialism, particularly with Labour Party organisation, seeking to put power back to members. Ironically it was Miliband’s ‘one member, one vote’ reform and empowering of supporters that saw Corbyn elected twice and membership boosted to over half a million.

We still have way to go in democratising the Labour Party. We need:

  • automatic OMOV reselections;
  • a change to the internal party culture which is uninviting to new members;
  • more support for parties to broaden LP activities – especially political education and cultural events;
  • members having a say in the leadership of Labour local councils, ending Executive mayors, etc;
  • more transparency on Labour’s NEC, creating a more functional democratic policy process with a sovereign conference at its heart.
Statists’ comeback

Sadly, in the last two years Jeremy Corbyn was surrounded by too many statists who saw little problem with old-style nationalisation. Allied to this was many trade union leaders’ resistance to exploring new ways of organising and developing democratic control in workplaces. State ownership was not seen as problematic. A top-down view of nationalisation – just take over from the old bosses, form is all, content does not matter – appears to be the norm for many.

Ex-shadow Chancellor John McDonnell did some innovative work in organising new economy conferences. A feature was trying to popularise the idea of democratic control, to explore what forms it could take: workers on boards, financial transparency, tax justice. Innovative though this was, thinking was not followed through to the wider labour movement. The TUC has also produced some new thinking, but much has remained words on paper.

The way to make real change is to engage the people. Here we’ll echo many of the calls made by Clive Lewis MP in his leadership manifesto:

  • Workplace democracy
  • Community – devolution/decentralisation
  • Housing estates – greater tenant powers
  • A democratic electoral system – proportional representation. The Tories got in on 43%. The majority voted left-of-centre in the last two elections. Labour must commit to change
  • A constitutional convention to create a written constitution, with maximum public participation
  • Recognition of the separate demands and democracies of Wales and Scotland. Not oppose a second referendum in Scotland, argue for maximum possible devolution of powers inside a UK to constituent nations. Democratic assemblies in English regions with real powers and budgets
  • Extend the franchise to 16-year-olds and all UK residents (it was a scandal that EU citizens had no vote in the EU referendum)
  • Establish a national mechanism to bring women’s and girls’ voices into government
  • On the media, retain all commitments to implement Leveson. Democratise the BBC but protect it from political interference. Create a system of localised democratic management with licence fee payers and staff electing regional boards. Set up a democratic British Digital Corporation on the same basis.
The example of local government

Scotland and Wales provide outlines of the possibilities for progressive change in local government. Certainly in the early phase of the Covid-19 crisis we saw a much better and sure-footed response from Mark Drakeford, the Welsh Labour leader. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham spoke up forcefully for empowerment of local councils, a stronger economic support package and consistency in lockdowns and restrictions.

Ten years of austerity have left local authorities strapped for cash. Most councils have endured up to 60% cuts in budgets. Despite this financial straitjacket, many Labour councils have shown the way. They have argued forcefully that when it comes to test and trace there is local expertise in public health and environmental health departments. GP services and schools know families and have more thorough contact details than a remote, private sector-organised system.

Similarly, when it comes to extending provision of free school meals and the campaign spearheaded by Marcus Rashford, councils and local school hubs are best placed to deliver.

The Tories talk of levelling up, but without untying local councils’ hands and a real devolution of resources and power this will simply be an empty slogan.

The paltry £4bn allocated to local councils comes direct from government in a kind of lottery system. The money needs to be devolved in an equitable system based on need.

We need to revisit the ideas of decentralisation popularised in Walsall and Islington in the 1980s. Local service users need to have a real voice in the kinds of services they have.

With unemployment rising to over two million in the new year, Labour parties and trade unions need to organise support to avoid demoralisation, particularly among youth. How about 21st century Unemployed Workers Committees? Labour and the TUC could take a lead in popularising such a movement.

Whilst being no fan of referenda, the Brexit vote happened. A second or confirmatory referendum was the obvious response from opponents. However, Labour took its eye off the ball with a confused response. It was all too little too late. Labour really failed to promote the democratic analogy from trade unions: put any deal to the members, in an affirmative referendum (or vote).

So Labour’s loss in 2019 was heavy. The lack of a clear position on Brexit played a significant part. Also significant was the lack of empowerment. We took voters in the North and Midlands for granted. Labour needed to win them. We failed to strengthen local Labour parties and build bonds with community organisers and community organisations.

A lack of a political strategy with democracy at its core to ‘take real control’ was a critical part of the problem. The right wing Brexiteers, with their slogan “take back control”, was a narrative Labour failed to counter with an alternative, richer democratic story. Labour’s manifesto had some brilliant policies but sank without a clear overarching narrative.

Democracy is not an optional extra but the beating heart of socialism. It is the oxygen of socialism.

A fair proportionate electoral system, accountable democratic institutions, freedom to debate, pluralism, social & political empowerment, solidarity: this is the route to a socialised cooperative economy based on need before profit. It’s the route to a safer planet, to prosperity, to a more equal and socially just world – socialism in a word.

These are the ideas Chartist will continue to develop with your support.


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