Progressives on both sides of the Atlantic have rightly celebrated Donald Trump’s defeat. A viciously racist president, he never missed an opportunity to fan the flames of bigotry. Flirting with neo-fascism, Trump ordered brutal violence to repress Black Lives Matter activists and incited far-right supporters to storm Capitol Hill after his election defeat. If I had been in America, I would have organised like hell to get him out of the White House.
But it would be a mistake for progressives to feel triumphant. The result was hugely welcome, but American democracy is not in a healthy condition. The difference between Trump and Biden is marked, but in an election where campaign spending records were shattered, both candidates were in the pocket of the billionaire class.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the US was beset with crises. Working people in once industrial heartlands were abandoned in favour of the financial industry. The healthcare system costs more than twice as much per person than the NHS but leaves 27 million people uninsured. And its addiction to fossil fuels is pushing the planet ever closer to climate crisis, with no other country having higher per capita emissions.
The Billionaire Class
But will the new administration rise to these challenges? It is doubtful. After all, Wall Street donated $74 million to Biden’s campaign (compared to $18 million to Trump’s), healthcare executives handed him $47 million (they gave $21 million to Trump), and 150 billionaires backed him, donating $569 million (Trump had 108 billionaires, donating $250 million). Being so indebted to corporate America, it seems unlikely he will take them on. Biden himself reassured the super-rich at a fundraiser in 2019, asserting that ‘nothing would fundamentally change’ under his presidency.
Whoever won the election, the White House was guaranteed an occupant firmly supported by America’s billionaire class. Friend of Tribune, anti-colonial activist and president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere once quipped that ‘the US is a one-party state, but with typical American extravagance, they have two of them.’ That may not quite be true, but corporate America’s dominance corrupts the country’s democracy. As a result, it seems hard to believe the new president will tackle the root causes of Trumpism. The descent may be allayed, but it has not been vanquished.
Similar questions need to be asked about the state of democracy in Britain. In my first year as an MP, I’ve seen first-hand how corporations lobby parliament to get it to work for them rather than for constituents. I see this in little things like the food-hamper Heathrow Airport sent to each MP (along with a letter urging us to back a third runway), and the corridor below the House of Commons chamber, where big business wines-and-dines MPs. A sign outside these dining rooms, incidentally, instructs passersby that photographs are not permitted.
It does not stop there. Corporations offer MPs second jobs, like JP Morgan hiring former chancellor Sajid Javid as an ‘advisor’, and fund parliamentary trips abroad on ‘fact-finding’ missions. As Dennis Skinner once joked, it is always ‘Bahamas in the winter … they never go on fact-finding mission to Greenland in the winter!’ These companies aren’t stupid. They don’t throw their money away. Lobbying gets results.
In 2016, after dozens of meetings with ministers, Google secured a deal with the Conservative government to pay an effective rate of tax of 3 per cent on profits estimated to be more than £7 billion. This is a premium service that’s offered to big businesses and the super-rich, but not to working people. While not as extreme as in the US, be in no doubt: corporate donations corrupt our democracy as well.
In the months leading up to the 2019 general election, corporate donors flushed the Conservatives’ campaign chest with funds, raising nearly three times as much as Labour. Unsurprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to take on the super-rich and redistribute wealth and power scared off wealthy donors; instead, during the election Labour’s biggest donors were trade unions — representing millions of working people — and individual donors, with the average donation being £26.
Since 2005, one third of UK billionaires have funded the Conservative Party. And it is not just lobbying and donations. In countless ways and to varying degrees of subtly, the wealthy few exercise power far beyond their size. For example, just two men control more than two-thirds of the UK’s print newspaper market: Lord Rothermere—owner of the Daily Mail amongst others—and Rupert Murdoch — whose papers include The Sun and The Times. And even this does not account for the billionaire owners of The Telegraph or the Evening Standard.
In the last election, five of the top six selling daily newspapers endorsed the Conservatives, with many of these papers acting as little more than the propaganda wing of the Conservative Party, copying and pasting CCHQ press releases onto their front pages.
Capitalism Against Democracy
Billionaire press barons want to preserve and advance their interests. That is reflected in their papers. This ranges from direct interference—as the former editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans, told the Leveson Inquiry, explaining how he was often rebuked for ‘not doing what he [Murdoch] wants in political terms’—to more subtle forms of influence, like hiring decisions and the pressure to please superiors. This filters down, ensuring the owner’s class perspective is disproportionately reflected throughout the publication. Of course, it is reinforced by handsome salaries paid to senior staff.
And usually these roles are occupied by people who do not need much encouragement to see the world from the perspective of the dominant class. Nearly half of the UK’s 100 most influential editors and broadcasters are privately educated, compared to just 7 percent of the public. This shapes their understanding of politics, affecting what questions they think are important and whose voices are worth listening to.
The same is true for the professions across the board. 65% of senior judges were privately educated, 59% civil service permanent secretaries, and 52% of diplomats. Politics is no exception. The prime minister is an old Etonian, an Oxford Bullingdon boy, while the chancellor went to Winchester College, then Oxford University before becoming an investment banker. He is now the UK’s richest MP. He is in good company in the cabinet, two-thirds of whom were privately educated. The same is true for 41% of Conservative MPs and 29% of MPs as a whole.
None of this is an aberration. It is utterly predictable in a capitalist society. Fundamental to capitalism is the division between the few, who hoard wealth and power, and the many, whose labour creates the wealth. This division is unfair, condemning millions to poverty while a tiny minority enjoy grotesque riches. In Britain, six billionaires have the same wealth as the poorest 13 million people.
But it’s worse than just unfair. It is undemocratic, rigging the political process in favour of the super-rich and entrenching inequality. To be a democrat is to believe that everyone is entitled to an equal say over our collective lives. That is why we believe in one person one vote. But that is not enough by itself. There is no equal say when a small minority use their wealth to lobby relentlessly in their own interests, buy submission with campaign donations, monopolise the organs of political communication, and dominate the upper echelons of society.
It’s not as though this minority rules in the interests of everyone. Instead, they jealously guard their position, rigging the economy, scapegoating minorities, and savagely smearing anyone who threatens their power. Just remember what they did to Ed Miliband, let alone more radical voices such as Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.
An Unavoidable Battle
Some progressives think compromise is possible. They believe that if they lower their aspirations—aiming merely to tweak the system, not to overhaul it—this class will acquiesce to their demands. But this is not an option for socialists. And to be frank, in a world threatened by climate catastrophe, it is not really an option for anyone.
Socialists believe in ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people’, as Labour’s 1974 manifesto put it. We believe such a world is possible and that it is worth fighting for. And we know that this will always be met with fierce resistance.
We believe in a genuine democracy — where people’s right to a say over their lives, their communities, and their society is not determined by their wealth. This is why we believe in reforming a political sphere which is corrupted by the influence of money.
But it is also why we believe in democratising the economy, putting an end to the tyrannical powers of a small number of corporations and billionaires and instead empowering the working people whose labour creates the wealth in the first instance.
As a party, Labour’s hope lies not in wooing press barons or super-rich donors, but in inspiring that majority — the working class, in all its diversity. That can only be done with a radical programme, promising to improve people’s lives and empowering them to take control of their future. That programme can only be won through organising and building power in our communities, not taking anyone for granted.
This is the fight for a more humane world. It is the fight for a more democratic world too, free from the minority rule of the super-rich. It is a world where the people decide our destiny, on terms of equality. That is the call of socialism.