Labour Party: the sham of "one member, one vote"

Submitted by sm on 7 April, 2007 - 7:42

By John Bloxam and John O'Mahony

"After the rising of the 17th of June [the East Berlin workers uprising of 1953] the Secretary of the Writers Union had leaflets handed out in the Stalinallee in which it can be read that the people had forfeited the confidence of the government, and could only win it back by redoubled efforts. Would it not be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected another?"

Bertold Brecht, The Solution

One member one vote" has now become the main political rallying cry of the right, and their voice and base in Fleet Street (narrow base, loud voice!). The slogan is a misrepresentation of what they are actually proposing and of the issues involved—on a Saatchi and Saatchi scale.

The right have taken up this cry because their real principle—no vote for anyone but the MPs—has now been decisively rejected. They are trying to present themselves as more democratic than the democrats who defeated them. But their goal is to restore, on a new basis, the situation where the MPs are beyond the effective control of the labour movement. The essential point in their proposals would involve a move—or a first move—to institute something resembling the US primaries.

They are not concerned with ensuring that every party member has a vote' for of course all individual members and representatives of affiliated members have it now. What they are concerned about is that decisions should be made in a new and radically different way: postal ballots, perhaps extended to "mini-elections" of "registered" party supporters. Right now this is presented as a way to elect the Leader. The next step would be a drive to do parliamentary selections this way, too.

They calculate that with the help of the media they could then base themselves directly on members who do not now vote in party matters because they are not actively involved in the party, and thus they hope to swamp and effectively dispense with the activists (including trade unions delegates to GCs) who now, together with the affiliated unions at conference, decide party policy and (since Blackpool) control the MPs.

All this has less to do with voting rights than with the nature and character of the Labour Party and even, by implication (as we shall see), with the character and quality of democracy in Britain.
The right, like Brecht's very logical government, have decisively lost confidence in the people who have rejected them, and now they want to dissolve the Labour Party as it has so far existed and propose to have the media elect a new one for them. The socialist case against what the right falsely presents as an expansion of Labour democracy comes under a number of headings.

1. In the first place they have (in general, and for the Labour Party too) a sadly poverty-stricken, one-dimensional idea of what democracy is and must be for socialists who want to replace capitalist society with one that will be better in many ways, including in its democracy.

There is no evidence that those who demagogically play at being superdemocrats for the press understand that a central part of the socialist criticism of capitalism is that it reduces democracy to mere voting, essentially divorced from either direct or effective mass control of anything. They don't seem to have a inkling that a mass popular party must deepen and develop the existing British democracy if it wants to transform society. Instead they propose to diminish it.

Voting, some variety of effective popular franchise which really controls what is to be done and those who are delegated to do it, is essential to democracy, and without it there can be no democracy. But mere voting is not itself democracy, nor is it sufficient for democracy. It can be and is used against democracy. Where voting is an empty exercise to rubber-stamp a single list of candidates chosen by another process or where it takes place with any real alternatives to the ruling power being suppressed, that is not democracy.

Even where real choice exists, together with freedom of expression and without serious repression, political democracy is incomplete and limited if the rulers can use their vast resources of wealth, their press, TV and pulpits, to gain a major advantage and bury their opponents under an avalanche of misrepresentation.

Voting can be divorced, by misrepresentation on one side or lack of resources on the other, from real choice and the possibility of real democratic control. (And of course we don't even vote directly on most of the things that determine our lives: for example there isn't even the democracy of a vote for workers in determining what happens to the industries they work in). Voting, unless it's to be a minimal action, needs to be done in the context of real awareness of the issues; of equal and free competition of the contending alternatives, and without repression; and in a situation where the voters have real power to determine by their vote what is going to happen.

The classic democracies of Greece were small city state democracies where the citizens (slaves, aliens and women excluded) knew each other and the issues and were directly involved in the affairs of the entity in whose decision-making process they voted. It really was, in Lincoln's fine definition, government of the people, for the people and by the people. This is what democracy meant to friends and enemies alike in the first half of the i9th century: government of, for and by the people. When the Chartists fought for a vote they intended to use it in the interests of the masses: they believed they were reaching for power, and that by gaining the vote they would inevitably destroy the power of the property owners. That is what their opponents thought it was about, too, and for that reason they fought it bitterly.

Perhaps the greatest political triumph of the bourgeoisie in the last 130 years has been to diminish democracy for the masses to mere voting every few years while leaving power over almost everything that matters in their own hands or of those who would serve them. And this has given a "democratic" legitimacy to their rule. This has meant separating the idea of voting from the complementary idea of rule by and for the people. The ruling class has tamed the democratic suffrage and shaped it into something the Chartists and other early working class democrats would not recognise as their goal. They have done it through a network of bureaucratic, procedural, parliamentary, and in the final resort military, checks and balances.

The demand that the Chartists first raised in the 1830s, for annual parliaments, that is, annual accountability, has not been realised yet; so Margaret Thatcher can rampage through our lives quite democratically for another three and a half years.

None of the above should be read as a dismissal of the existing democratic rights and liberties that the people of Britain have won; nor as a nod towards the idea that the Stalinist system is therefore better, or tolerable, or excusable. It is not better, nor tolerable, nor excusable, and it is no more socialist than it is democratic. Such pernicious ideas are a poison which can sometimes seep into the labour movement from Stalinism precisely because the socialist criticism of the limitations of the
democracy we have is valid.

Socialists have concluded not that we don't need democracy but that democracy must be defended, deepened and qualitatively transformed into government by the working people, of the working people, and for the working people. Today only socialists stand for democracy in the sense of Lincoln's classic modern definition. The "social democrats", like the Tories, believe on the contrary that everything is now for the best in the best of all worlds.

2. The second objection to the postal ballot scheme is that "plebiscitary democracy" in the Labour Party would actually destroy the very possibility of self-controlling democracy in the party.

The present system of multi-dimensional participatory democracy means that the participants have some possibility to think things through as a result of interacting and discussing with their comrades. It allows and demands some preliminary closing of ranks by people committed to the party and to what it stands for or could be made to stand for, against the pressures of the enemies of the party—who are entrenched and immensely strong in the society in which the party exists, and which it exists to change.

Remove the parliamentary element, reduce it to a ballot of mainly passive members and supporters who become involved only to the extent of casting a vote outside the process of party deliberations, and you give power, or at least the power to intervene strongly and directly, in the party to those who control the press and the media, that is, to those who directly express the interests and wishes of the ruling class and even of the Tory Party directly.

To the degree that it challet1ges them, they are implacably hostile to the party. Their power over people's minds does have its limits. Workers involved in struggle generally shrug it off. But they are a power to be reckoned with nonetheless, and the best way to ensure that they do not have influence is by members of the party listening to each other instead.

Remove participation as a condition of exercising the vote, and you remove the only check and counterbalancing pressure the party has against the pressure of its enemies. At present, the less active members are reached and mobilised at certain times (elections, special events) by the more active members. Under the right's wished-for new system they would be mobilised instead by the press and the media. The isolated parliamentary "stars" of the right hope the media will be their intermediary with the passive party supporters. Having lost the active party of the party, they want to substitute for it the inactive party: in fact the parliamentary "head" is demanding a body transplant!

3. The third objection is that insofar as it is a proposal to cut Labour Party democracy down to the one-dimensional voting and manipulation of the society around us, its implication is to push down further and degrade the level and quality of democracy in that society.

Socialists fight to deepen democracy in society as the only basis of working class democratic control of all the processes and decision-making in society. Insofar as labour movement democracy exists now, it is a higher

form of democracy than that in the society around us. The labour movement can therefore be a precious base for renewal, a deepening and a qualitative transformation of democracy in society, despite the admittedly inadequate, incomplete and unsatisfactory nature of its own participatory democracy. The right would snuff out all that, and destroy the great potential that exists. The party they want would internalise the one-dimensional democracy around it, and thereby render itself incapable of transforming it.

If the Labour Party were to follow their advice, Britain would have taken a giant step towards US-style "democratic politics". The New Statesman rightly commented on the recent Presidential Elections that the USA could scarcely be considered a democracy at all: "...America's claim to be a democracy is now only marginally credible." In such elections the media, the media-manipulating and media-manipulated politicians (which means moneyed politicians) dominate amorphous parties whose "democracy" is a sort of plebiscitary democracy.

Politics and personalities are got up as a commercial product to seek power: trimmed, designed, coloured, flavoured and packaged to sell, via the media, to a passive electorate and initially to passive party voters in primaries. Jimmy Carter, with his private pollster to sniff the wind and tell him what to say from day to day, epitomises the degradation and debasement of political life involved in this business—as does Ronald Reagan, the successful candidate for President, whose lips were sealed from unscripted comments by his packagers lest he actually reveal himself to the electorate.

Politics becomes emptied of real political content, personalised, and almost a branch of show business. Inevitably, little fundamental is actually decided in the election: it is therefore left to the direct decision of the ruling class behind the scenes. 52% of the electorate abstained on November 4th; people know that little is decided or even posed, and that they live in the politics of manipulation and money-fuelled political beauty contests. They see a yawning gap between what is said and what is done.

Now many of the features described above exist to some degree, even to an alarming degree, in Britain, where too much of what is done is not put to the electorate, for instance the scandalous example of the secret updating of Polaris (by a Labour government!).

But these features are not predominant—not yet. There is still some possibility of a party like the Labour Party working out politics and contributing to the education of society for such politics because the party itself still exists to an extent outside of the contamination of consensus politics and direct manipulation by the media. This is precisely because it has a certain initial narrowness of focus, or can have, before going to the electorate—that is, because it remains a political party in a meaningful sense. It may be a broad church, but it is not diffuse and amorphous to the point of having no distinct political identity and no purpose other than to win elections; and still less, to win elections merely for personalities totally beyond its control and manipulating it in primaries via the media.

Thus it is a force to resist and reverse the powerful trends towards the Americanisation of British politics. And the right are the vanguard of such politics when they propose one-dimensional votes-only democracy for the

Labour Party. In a certain sense theirs is a consistent response to the Brighton/Blackpool abolition of the safeguards which have allowed the ruling class to live with the Labour Party because the PLP had the right to do what it liked and was an effective buffer. They prefer to diminish democracy generally than to accept an advance of democracy which threatens their interests.

4. The fourth objection is that the proposal is inevitably a proposal to cut the party's organic link with the bedrock of the labour movement, the trade unions. The union vote represents collectively worked-out social and political aspirations. The right would abolish this, reducing union participation to the atomised votes of individuals.

There is nothing to idealise about the block vote system. But trade union democracy can be improved, the same as Labour Party democracy. To cut the links with the unions has nothing to do with democracy. Just like introducing one-member-one-vote in the party itself, it has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with the working class character of the Labour Party and with the fact that the right find this increasingly unpalatable.

Nor should we idealise the fact that only a small proportion of the party's members attend its meetings and take part in its activity and deliberations. But in no way does the right want to improve the situation in the only meaningful way—the involvement of the party in class and community struggles, in the movement for women's rights, in the fight against racism and gay oppression; and by the active and lively involvement of those engaging in those struggles in the participatory democracy of the Labour Party.

The right could even less live comfortably with such a mass participating membership than it can with the limited number of activists we have now. In the last analysis it was the anger of activists, and of the trade unions, with the last Labour government that fuelled the big drive for democracy at the last two annual conferences.

The right does not want a mass membership, if it has real democratic rights. Essentially now that the party has turned in the direction of a party of committed activists, pushing for democracy and accountability, they just don't want the party as it now exists. They want a radical new concept —they want to neutralise the party now that the PLP can no longer ignore it with impunity.

We must build a mass Labour Party membership, with as much active involvement as possible. We must fight like the plague the attempt to "Americanise" the Labour Party and to put it under the sway of Saatchi and Saatchi and the Fleet Street press barons.

This article first appeared in the bulletin of the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy in 1980.