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Towards a Real Democracy

If Labour is to rebuild itself in the twenty-first century it has to commit to a fundamental transformation of Britain’s political institutions, argues Jon Trickett.

In an age dominated by cynicism about politicians and alienation from politics in general, it is much harder for parties of the left to win. This is because our aim is to win over the public to the idea that politics can bring about real change in their lives.

For hope to win over fear, Labour needs to show that we will radically transform our political system so that it becomes the servant of the people. But as we start 2020, we are a long way from achieving that goal.

Too often in Britain state power is used to promote the interests of big corporations and a golden circle of the wealthy. Even though our politics are described as democratic, the outcomes of governmental decisions are too often guided by narrow interests which do not reflect the wider society.

This crisis of political legitimacy can be seen everywhere. It is not a coincidence that in the US Bernie Sanders is calling for a political revolution, or that in France Jean-Luc Mélenchon gained ground in 2017 by arguing for new Republic. 

In Britain, Labour also went into the 2019 election with a manifesto which promised structural changes in the way we do politics. As the shadow minister responsible for political and constitutional change, it was my team which proposed the relevant section to the Clause V meeting. 

Unfortunately, these issues were hardly discussed during the election campaign itself. The background to the election — three elections in four years, tumult in both parties, rising nationalist movements, and the Brexit vote — showed that a political revolution was precisely what Britain needed.

The truth is that there is widespread alienation from political, social, and economic arrangements in Britain today, which are poorly adapted to the life of our country as we start a new decade. This problem lies at the heart of our dilemma. 

As we have seen with the Brexit referendum, the notion of popular sovereignty — that in a democracy the people rule — is highly contested. In fact, in the constitutional stalemate which followed the referendum there were three contending ideas as to where sovereignty should reside. 

The rhetoric at the time of the referendum was that the people would make the decision. But in a parliament comprised of MPs who largely wanted to remain in the EU, the referendum was frequently described as merely ‘consultative’. It ought not to be used to undermine the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

The conflict between these sovereignties gave rise to deep resentments. The notion that the Commons should have the capacity to reverse, ignore, or even modify a decision of the wider electorate was seen by millions as an affront to democracy.

The government, of course, had their own idea of where ultimate power should lie — they regularly advance the idea of executive sovereignty. They believed that it was their exclusive prerogative to interpret and then to implement their own form of Brexit. Parliament, they said, should not be allowed to get in the way but should merely rubber stamp whatever the government decides.

Some of these tensions were reflected after December’s election, when Boris Johnson announced that we now had a ‘People’s Parliament.’ The aim was to suggest that the election had aligned the sovereign claims of the people, the Commons, and the Executive.  

It is safe to say however, that the Conservative vision of Brexit has a particular character. The penny will soon drop that their policies are a far cry from what many people believed they had voted for. 

This latter reflection brings us to the core of the debate about where power lies in Britain today. In many ways we have a state which operates in the interests of economic powers which largely stand outside — and above — the reach of democracy.

Popular sovereignty, the idea that government is accountable to the people and should rule in their interests, has been replaced by corporate capture of the state apparatus. This process can be seen equally in the outsourcing of public services and the access of commercial lobbyists to key decision-makers. 

A huge part of our taxpayer-funded services are now handed straight to the private sector, inevitably to large corporations or their subsidiaries. In transport, in energy, in water provision, even in our hospitals and prisons, accountability to the people through parliament or local government can be made virtually non-existent.

Large concentrations of private economic power have a major impact on the way we live our lives. One of the developments in recent decades has been the undermining of the principle that where economic power is concentrated, and in danger of damaging the public interest, it should be subject to regulatory control.

Whether in older sectors of the economy such as finance, or in emerging sectors like tech and social media, major corporations are increasingly operating with minimal regulation. This allows for a domination of crucial parts of the modern world which occurs without any need for reference to democratic principles.

Constant deregulatory drives by successive governments undermined the idea that public supervision of corporate power is essential. Where regulators have not been completely removed, they have been enfeebled, and often we discover that the boards of regulators are populated and funded by the people they are meant to supervise.

The experience of state functions being inhabited by unrepresentative groups drawn from among the British establishment is another factor in the way in which popular sovereignty is undermined. The revolving door between the private and public sector and the use of non-executive directors in government departments have all contributed to the corporate capture of our state.

Recent lobbying legislation has freed up commercial operators to put often unseen pressure on government, while community groups, not-for-profits, and even charities are subject to tight controls. There is a gross asymmetry between the rights of those with money who can employ professional lobbyists and those citizens who organise themselves to pursue their common interests.  

At the same time as the expansion of corporate influence in our political institutions, we have seen the contraction of one of the central tenets of popular sovereignty: universal suffrage. Plans to introduce mandatory voter identification are only the beginning of what is likely to become a concerted effort to undermine democratic rights.

A detailed analysis of all these factors which have so fundamentally undermined our political system remains to be written. But the results are clear: large numbers of people have concluded that politics is not working for them. 

The elective principle is damaged, which itself contributes to bringing politics itself into disrepute. This process has undermined the hegemony of the British establishment but has not been translated into a progressive movement or a government capable of creating real change.

This is the task now facing Labour. Our economy is a rigged system, and people look to politics to put it right. But in order to do that, we must first convince voters that we will change politics itself.

Labour must make the case for a fundamental transformation in Britain’s political institutions. It should begin with a few key proposals: 

  1. Shifting the boundary between the market and a renewed public sphere.
  2. Breaking the grip which the political establishment have on our public institutions.
  3. Extending the franchise, reviewing how and where we vote, to ensure equality. 
  4. Extending democratic control to all the corners of our economy, including the boardrooms of large corporations.
  5. Replacing the House of Lords and ensuring genuinely accountable democracy.
  6. Ending the overcentralised character of our state, which leaves it insulated from the views of the majority of our citizens.

If we are to achieve this, it is necessary to transform the structures and culture of our own party, which remain hierarchical and distant in character. We need to be networked, horizontal, and in touch with local communites.

This is the spirit of our proposals for democratic transformation in Britain. They call for a political revolution. Nothing else will do.