It’s time for some real democratic reform.
This piece first appeared in the new online magazine Discussion Point, which I suggest you check out.
I struggle to get passionate about the coming AV referendum. It’s not that I don’t think that the Alternative Vote is better than First Past The Post. It is. It will eliminate tactical voting. Election campaigns in marginal seats will be revolutionised: parties will have to propose policy rather than perfect bar charts putting them SO CLOSE in second place. Perhaps elections will even become an opportunity to debate – you know – how to run the country, rather than whether or not it is indeed a two horse race.
What I don’t understand is this: why does democratic reform refer to the system we use to choose those making decisions, but not which decisions they are allowed to make? Why have many on the British left focussed on the system used to elect our parliament, while ignoring the powers that Parliament has?
From 1945 until the mid 1970s, we elected Parliamentarians who, through the government, had powers over our main industries. They set economic policy. They regulated the rents people paid, and they defined the minimum standards for the housing they lived in. The mother of Parliaments was the seat of our nation. When a minister stood up and spoke, people listened. If they didn’t like what they heard, or what happened, then they could vote them out.
Today we have a rump of a Parliament. It doesn’t set an industrial policy, and so we can’t vote to support or reject one. It has no employment policy, and so we have no chance to feed into one. It barely has a housing policy, and so we can’t choose one. These decisions are made in theory by the market, and in practice, often, by corporate monopolies. Three decades of mass privitisation has handed economic decision making from the clumsiness of one person, one vote, to the kleptocracy of one executive, one vote. At best, if we have shareholder ownership, one pound, one vote.
The economic case for the increasing privitisation of our economy has not been made: salaries have barely risen in this country since the 70s. People in Britain are less happy, the poorest countries are getting poorer and growth has stagnated. Even if we measure the “ownership society” on it’s own terms, the poorest 10% of people are now much less likely to own their home than they were in 1979.
But, irrespective of the economic arguments, this is an issue of democratic reform. We used to have the chance to vote on the main issues impacting on our daily lives. One person, one vote. Now, we don’t. With increased corporatisation, economic decisions are focussed into the hands of the wealthy. So I will vote “yes” in May. But this must only be the start of a campaign for real democratic reform. Because AV will allow my answers to be (a bit) better heard, but it will do nothing to change the fact that none of the questions that matter are asked any more.
Of course, democratic reform of our economy does not have to mean empowerment through parliament. In a true democracy, decisions are made by those affected by them. And democratic reform in our economy could be delivered in many ways – co-operatives, mutuals, partnerships and municipalisation are in many cases more democratic, and more nimble than nationalisation.
This principle of subsidiarity is one with which we became familiar under New Labour. In the late 90s, we saw an expansion of democracy through devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. But they who giveth, taketh away. Democratically controlled financial institutions – mutuals – were forced through new regulations to become private banks. Not only has this been economically disastrous (Northern Rock, anyone?). It was also a retreat from the principle of one person one vote, to the corruption of one pound one vote.
And if democratic reformers are interested in a fairer distribution of power in the UK, then financial institutions are an excellent place to start. For the real power of the UK lies not so much in Parliament, as in the City. And that’s not how it should be. So the true fight for democratic reform in the next few years will not be the referendum on AV. It will be the question about what we do with the part-nationalised banks. We own 84% of RBS. Yet we do little to use this stake to guide the bank to act in our interests. We allow it to back some of the most destructive projects on earth. We do almost nothing to ensure that its decisions are in the interests of our national economy, and of the people of Britain.
Or, let us look at the true assault on democracy that is the mass privitisation of our public services. Local schools, for example, are currently accountable to the communities they serve. Will they still be if Michael Gove gets his way, and they are run by the likes of Rupert Murdoch?
Over the last 30 years, democratic reform has been one of the key interests of many progressive activists. Yet, while campaigning for electoral reform, we have lost sight of what it is that we are electing. And so, as we campaign to change our voting system this May, we mustn’t allow the illusion of an improved electoral system to shield the fact that voting is becoming an increasingly irrelevant way that we decide how we will organise our society. There are some decisions that are still made at the ballot box. But more and more are made by corporate executives. And until we reverse that equation, we are watching the democracy that our ancestors fought for slip from our fingers.