Socialist Worker

What would real democracy look like?

Published Tue 11 May 2010
Issue No. 2201

So that’s what “democracy” means. Every five years or so we vote – and that’s the end of it until the next election.

Of course, having a vote is certainly better than not having one. But the hung parliament has led to backroom discussions – and we are all as excluded as the thousands of people who couldn’t get into polling stations after 10pm on election day.

The truth is that what we voted for bears little resemblance to what we got. The Tories have far more seats than can be justified by the number of votes they got.

In this situation, many are calling for a change to the voting system, in the shape of proportional representation (PR).

The first-past-the-post electoral system, which allowed Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to win election landslides with just two fifths of the vote, is indeed unfair.

The last time there was momentum for PR on the left was when the Tory election victories in the 1980s and 1990s looked like they would never end.

Then it was out of desperation – a belief that only by changing the voting system could the Tories be beaten. Now it is out of frustration that all the parties are so similar.

After the Second World War, the Labour and Tory parties completely dominated British politics, sharing around 96 percent of the popular vote between them.

Last week they got just 65 percent between them. Yet parliament is still dominated by the two biggest parties.

That’s why Socialist Worker supports electoral reform although we need proper debate about what form takes. The strongest argument is that it would help break the dominance of two increasingly unrepresentative big parties, opening up a space for the left – and this is true.

Voting systems like multi-seat constituencies or alternative votes and a list system are more democratic than what we’ve got.

But the left should not obsess over PR and get trapped in a debate about constitutional reform that in many ways serves the interests of the big parties.

For example, Southern Ireland has a “fairer” electoral system – yet politics is dominated by right wing parties and corruption.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was structured after enormous care and effort to provide proportionality and parity of esteem, yet it has copper-fastened sectarian division and put the bigots of the DUP in charge.

Greece has PR – but this has not prevented the government trying to impose swingeing cuts.

In Britain, the radical left is fragmented and electorally very weak. The collapse of the existing party system could even make things worse if the only alternatives come from the far right – racist parties like UKIP and the BNP.

The problem with today’s democracy, and with the dominant view of democracy in our society, is that it is far too limited. To address that we need to go far beyond which type of voting system we want.

To make democracy truly relevant to the majority of working people, what is needed is not just political democracy but also economic and social democracy.

The capitalist class can live with political democracy alone – the election of parliaments and governments – because the decisive levers of power are not in parliament.

Control over society really lies first in the boardrooms of industry and the banks, and second in the permanent institutions of the state, above all the armed forces.

The capitalists own and control the former directly, and the latter is bound to it by a thousand economic, social and ideological ties. By these means they can turn parliament into a talking shop and bend governments to their will.

We got an insight into the real base of power when the media with demands to reassure “the markets” that the new government would be formed quickly.

Marxists call what we have now “bourgeois democracy” – democracy that is based on and enshrines the rule of the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie.

To move beyond this to a system based on real power for the masses, it is necessary to extend democracy to production and work, and then other areas of social life.

This means democracy in every factory, call centre, supermarket, school, university, hospital and post office. It means workers’ democracy. That cannot be achieved without overturning capitalist property ownership, law and the state – with a workers’ revolution that will enable the working class to run society.


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Tue 11 May 2010, 17:13 BST
Issue No. 2201
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