Collective campaign for real politics

March 24, 2006

Modern democracy has mutated into a one-party system, writes Tony Benn, in the first of a series on challenges to the liberal state

When people won the vote, in the century between the 1832 Reform Act and the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, they used it to buy the services they needed but were not rich enough to afford. That is how education, municipal services, health and housing developed and was indeed the foundation of the welfare state. Representation transferred power from the marketplace to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot.

Democracy was a revolutionary idea because it offered a peaceful route to a political situation that was more equal than had ever been possible when only those with money could be sure of having what they needed.

Today, globalisation has brought into being more powerful forces committed to market-place politics. The big corporations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the European Commission are not elected - but they set the framework within which elected governments have to operate.

Free trade, the level playing field, limits on public expenditure and a host of other new laws have produced a shift of power in the opposite direction, since privatisation moves power from the polling station to the marketplace, from the ballot back to the wallet.

This complete reversal of power is presented as modernisation. But it is actually a throwback to the early 19th century, when the make-up of Parliament was determined by only 5 per cent of the population - all rich and all male.

As a result, the role of government to represent people and control the economy to meet their needs has been transposed into a management function.

Now government controls the people to bring them into line with the new global marketplace.

This development from representation to management has not gone unnoticed by the electors, who still believe they should be allowed to elect representatives but discover that they are allowed to choose only between two sets of managers. Political parties that once represented different economic interests and opinions are now huddling together - Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel form a coalition in Germany, Senator John Kerry gets close to President George Bush and David Cameron welcomes Tony Blair's legislation for much the same reason that Margaret Thatcher described new Labour as her greatest achievement.

In short, parliamentary democracy has produced a one-party state with two sets of managers who compete for the right to manage, both aware that global capital would not really allow them to do the job for which they were elected.

Here lies the cause of what is widely called apathy but might more accurately be described as a growing anger on the part of the electors that no one seems to listen to them and they do not really believe what they are told. Anger and mistrust are not the same as apathy, but it is convenient for the Establishment to label it so because they can then claim that people don't care what ministers decide and the media can dumb down on the grounds that no one is interested.

This, in turn, has driven real politics out of the parliamentary arena back to where it began - in a plethora of demands being made on the system by those who believe they are no longer represented. That was true of the campaign for trade union rights, for the Chartists and the suffragettes and, more recently, for the anti-apartheid and environmental movements. All forced their way on to the agenda of the powerful by being so strong that they could not be disregarded.

Three years ago, when Bush invaded Iraq, The New York Times reported that there were two superpowers in the world - the US and the world peace movement. It was a recognition of the importance of political pressure.

Whereas global economic and industrial power have strengthened capital at the expense of labour, the internet and communications technology have provided a means of informing people in a way that makes them less dependent on the media moguls who control the press, radio and television.

A combination of satellite television stations, Google and Yahoo, laptops and mobile phones have made it possible for the public to get an understanding of what is going on that is totally different from what they are being told. That is how the World Social Forum has come into being and why the campaigns against the Iraq war in the spring of 2006 came to be held on the same day in 40 different countries.

Looking ahead, the political conflict will remain much as it has always done - a struggle between those with wealth and power and those who depend for their survival on some form of collective action. If we want to re-establish representative democracy we shall have to do it ourselves - just as our forebears did.

Tony Benn is president of the Campaign Group of Labour MPs.

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