Clive Lewis on the slide into authoritarianism
How often have we heard the notion that somehow liberty is an integral part of the English character? That we fortunate few in this country are somehow different from the rest of humanity. Not for us authoritarianism, or autocracy, or god forbid the dark slide into fascism. No – that’s for other people. Other countries. Not us.
English exceptionalism is a dangerous fallacy. None more so than when it comes to the constant vigilance required of any democracy. It’s hubris of the first order – one I fear has infected successive governments.
The potential for a slide into authoritarianism and worse is, as history has clearly demonstrated, part of the human condition. That is the painful and bloody lesson we must learn from the 20th century.
Yet in recent years in Parliament, successive governments have eroded the public’s liberty, hollowing out the limited democracy we have.
Take, for example, the Elections Act which introduced the requirement to present ID in order to vote. Last May, in the first election where this requirement was enforced, the Electoral Commission estimates about 14,000 people were turned away from voting.
Then the government rushed through the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, undercutting the ability of workers to withdraw their labour as part of strike action.
The passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 saw the demonisation of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community, and enacted the criminalisation of trespass, restrictions on the right to protest, and a more expansive version of stop and search through new Serious Violence Reduction Orders.
Now, ongoing attacks on migrants provide a means of agitating for withdrawal from the Refugee Convention and the European Court of Human Rights, paving the way to tear up the Human Rights Act.
This democratic backsliding comes at the very same time that opaque vested interests, both individual and corporate, have seen their political power and economic wealth soar.
This is the crisis of democracy.
A proportionate response requires an acknowledgement from progressives that this crisis is as much about our economy as it is about our political institutions; that soaring wealth inequality depends on the deprivation of democratic ownership and worker power in the economy, and that concentrated wealth is wielded by the few to exert increasing power and influence over politics. Economic inequality begets democratic erosion.
A 21st century democracy would benefit from all those features we know enhance public engagement and accountability – such as proportional representation, and new models of governance that fuse direct and representative democracy.
But now, we need to go further. To build the biggest possible coalition – on which success for a democratic project depends – our vision for democracy needs to be rooted in people’s everyday experiences, and include a broad vision for renewal that is commensurate with the scale of the challenges we face in the century ahead, including growing scarcity of water and food, and more frequent and more disruptive climate events.
A 21st century democracy requires not just a full repeal of anti-trade union legislation so that workers are empowered to bargain collectively. Democrats also need to challenge increasingly commonplace workplace surveillance and management by faceless algorithms.
We should also make the case for democratic ownership of and direction over the resources and infrastructure that we all collectively depend on – from energy to our railways – which will be increasingly critical in a resource-scarce era of climate and ecological collapse.
Policies like wealth taxes should also be considered integral to democratic renewal. This is essential for bringing about a new social contract between citizen and state, in which the wealth generated by collective endeavours is fairly managed and distributed to advance the common good.
The crisis of democracy and plummeting trust in political institutions are being weaponised to undo the democratic gains of the past century, and continue the expansion of power by a small handful of vested interests, both corporate and individual.
A way forward for progressives is to go big on our vision for democracy in the 21st century, instead of retreating into the comfortable and familiar demands we have made in years past.
That involves recognising that political and economic equality are two sides of the same coin. So democracy in our politics requires democracy in our economy. That is a necessary foundation to lay, if we are to build a 21st century democracy in which our freedom and liberty can be realised.