“The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered for their aggrandisement. The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon.” — From the text of the first Chartist mass petition to Parliament.
Elections, according to Karl Marx’s famous adage, give workers the chance to vote every five years or so for which member of the ruling-class will misrepresent them.
While it would be puerile to dismiss the opportunities presented to revolutionaries by even a limited capitalist democracy like Britain’s, it would be equally foolish to pretend that it is anything other than a hollow shell of a democracy; a pluto-democracy, run by the rich and in their interests.
When the Chartists, the world’s first mass workers’ movement, fought for the vote, they did not simply fight for the right to express infrequent, passive, atomised support for individual candidates of a party someone else controls. They fought for the vote as an active process of political self-assertion through which the social majority — the working class — could exercise control over the people who were responsible for the political administration of society.
The original Charter (the document from which the Chartist movement takes its name) included the demand for annual parliaments — a demand which is as pressing today, with our four or five-yearly parliaments, as it was in the mid-19th century.
A labour movement that aspired to democratic working-class rule — a workers’ government — would place radical democratic demands front-and-centre. Against the backdrop of mass distrust and disillusionment in professional politicians, it is hard to imagine such demands failing to gain a significant hearing amongst ordinary people.
Such demands would include annual parliaments, the right of immediate recall of all elected representatives, and that elected representatives must only take an average worker’s wage.
In a climate where becoming an MP is a lucrative career choice (with a high wage, plentiful expenses and, if you’re Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon or Stephen Byers, plenty of lobbyists’ money too), the workers’ movement must demand that elected representatives are just that — representatives, meaningfully connected and responsive to the struggles of those who elected them — and not a caste of highly-paid self-serving operators cut off from the realities of day-to-day life.
Ultimately, we should aspire to something much more democratic than even an improved version of parliamentary democracy. A real workers’ government would be based on direct workplace and community democracy, with workers’ councils — responsible for the administration of their workplaces or localities — coming together to form a national body responsible for democratic central planning.
Participating in the life of workers’ councils and voting for delegates to them would not be an atomised process in which workers outsource the business of running their workplace or community to a layer of professional political administrators; it would be an organic process of involvement in democratically-elected bodies with direct control over the running of society.
The gulf between that model of democracy and the one currently offered by the British capitalist state is so unimaginably wide as to practically defy expression. But it is through fighting for the maximum possible democracy within the existing system (for annual parliaments, for MPs on workers’ wages, for the right of recall and other demands), through pushing capitalist democracy to its absolute limits, that the working class can develop the confidence to supersede capitalist parliamentary democracy and fight for a system of direct working-class democracy — a workers’ government.