From Solidarity 3/12, 12 September 2002
By Annie O'Keeffe
There are small incidents which light up a whole situation. One such incident is the attempt by Graham Allen MP to hire the House of Commons, or some other big building, so that MPs denied the right to meet as a parliament by the King, sorry, by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, can meet unofficially and discuss the Government's drive for war with Iraq.
What is lit up here is the state of parliamentary government and of democracy in Britain.
The Prime Minister is beating the drums for war. He has plainly entered into commitments with George W Bush to join him in a war on Iraq. But Parliament has no say in the matter.
The Parliament, the 659 MPs elected by the people, is tied hand and foot by the Government which in democratic theory it controls. It cannot act as a Parliament except on the initiative of the Government and of parliamentary officers who serve not Parliament but the Government.
When he is acting as Bush's public relations man, trying to soften the effect of world-alienating arrogance of the boor who is President of the USA, Blair makes much of Bush's willingness to consult the United Nations. But Blair himself has not consulted Parliament!
As if we were back 350 years, when Parliament had to struggle with King Charles to influence the way England was governed, MPs have had to look for ways to function despite the obstruction of King Tony. And even if Parliament is now allowed to meet, it will not control what happens.
The MPs who in bourgeois democratic theory constitute the ruling power between elections are, so long as they keep to the rules, as powerless to control events as if they were just a Saturday night crowd in a large pub. That is the condition to which parliamentary democracy in Britain is reduced.
It seems now, after the Conservative leader Ian Duncan Smith called for Parliament to reconvene to discuss the looming war, that the Prime Minister may in fact allow the MPs to meet in a week or two. A triumph for the MPs and for democracy? Parliament rules, OK?
Nothing of the sort.
The Government controls Parliament. MPs are so organised, drilled, whipped, marshalled, patronised, that normally Parliament is a rubber-stamp for the Government.
Most MPs, most of the time, do not express their own opinions. They let themselves be voting fodder for the Government or the "loyal opposition".
That has been true for many decades, but the Blairite New Labour Party has broken new ground. MPs function under such rigid discipline, echoing the Government line down to the punctuation, that their job could well be done by suitably indoctrinated speak-your-weight machines.
Dissent has been very much the exception. The threat of war with Iraq, and the gross affront Blair gave to Parliament by his obvious intention to go to war without even going through the motions of consulting Parliament, have shaken an unusually large number of MPs into protest. That is good.
And then? One revolt, though this may be a big one, will not change the basic situation. The zombie Parliament will slip back into its sleepwalking routine. The Government, with the collusion of the Tories, is certain to control a reassembled Parliament and thus to have its policy rubber-stamped.
Critics like Graham Allen - a disappointed careerist among Blairites, who says he is not necessarily against war - want Blair only to be less arrogant and to go through the motions of "consulting" a Parliament so structured, trimmed, adjusted and controlled from on high that it cannot be other than a rubber stamp for the Government.
The destruction of Labour Party democracy by the Blairites, and the acceptance of a Stalinist-style discipline by the Labour MPs, has done great harm to parliamentary democracy in Britain.
The prospect that MPs might have had to meet "unofficially" outside Parliament raised startling echoes from the past.
The first mass labour movement in Britain, the Chartists, did it in 1839, electing their own "People's Assembly", a parallel parliament elected by far more people than the one at Westminster. The Government banned a projected second People's Convention.
The United Irishmen had done something similar in the 1790s. In Italy, as the fascist dictator Mussolini consolidated his power in the early 1920s, anti-fascist MPs felt obliged to secede and set up their own parliament on the Aventine. It is historical episodes like those which Graham Allen's proposal to have MPs assemble unofficially to debate war calls to mind.
But, you say, we now have the universal suffrage in Britain which did not exist in the days of the Chartists, and Blair is not a Mussolini feeling his way towards fascist rule? Indeed. The point is that through we have the vote, things are now so organised that it is largely nullified as a democratic tool. The plight of the MPs is proof of it. The way those MPs normally behave is the proof of it.
Parliament cannot and does not do what in democratic theory it is supposed to do: scrutinise and control the government.
There is a lot of childish "yah-boo-ing" by the Opposition, but the two main parties agree on everything fundamental - like war with Iraq - and the Government operates a sort of Stalinist "party discipline" to control the majority of the MPs. By controlling the MPs and, outside Parliament, by stifling the Labour Party, they hope to limit and control political discussion in the population at large.
Blair is playing pup-yapping-at-the-heels to a US President, across the Atlantic, who was not democratically elected, and is President only because he was able to steal the election with a minority of the vote in the November 2000 poll.
Even the wretched system we have in Britain is better than any system of outright authoritarian or dictatorial rule, but it is atrophying. Parliamentary democracy in Britain today does not do the things which the old labour movement, fighting for "democracy", understood by that word.
It is a system geared to get pseudo-consent for government by the rich, for the rich - government serving the capitalists and the press lords, not the working people. We must once again win the democratic battles that earlier generations of the labour movement thought they had won for good.