If this is the people's parliament, where's the democracy?

Submitted by Anon on 21 March, 2003 - 2:10

By Gerry Byrne

Tony Benn, addressing the 'People's Parliament' on 12 March, said it was an historic event. The school students who addressed the meeting to a standing ovation would look back when they were as old as him and ask: "Were you there that day?"

So what did it feel like to be 'making history'?
Across the road, in the Houses of Parliament, Tony Blair was standing firm, making it clear that, whatever the will of the majority of the people, he was intent on following George Bush into a war crime which would cost many thousands of lives and make many refugees.

What we were doing was supposed to be the beginning of an alternative democracy, one that expressed the will of the people. So why did it feel like a rally, stitched up by the organisers behind the scenes, a feel-good event but hardly democratic?

I was a delegate from my trade union branch (Goldsmiths AUT), elected at a small meeting, I'm not sure how representative: I'm sure most of the members are more conservative than me. But it was a meeting that decided to call for (limited) industrial action on Day X and to support our members against being penalised for doing so. So we were putting our money (and possibly our jobs) where our mouths were. I reckon I was probably more representative than most of the people who were at the Assembly from who-knows-what self-proclaimed groups.

Point is, there was no real check. We can say we're more democratic, but actually MPs are at least elected, and by a process we all understand. Anything that claims to be an alternative, superior to the sham of Parliamentary democracy, must be transparent, accountable.

Of course, the assembly was called at short notice, as part of a rising tide of popular anger. You would expect its democracy to be a bit rough and ready. But, more worryingly, the original call for the assembly called for delegates from "mosques, churches and other representative bodies". Religions are not representative institutions. That's not how they work. A fundamental principle of democracy is the idea of separation of church and state, precisely because religions claim to be based on an authority that overrides the majority - God.

In the event there was not a large representation from the mosques. It was quite a white gathering. It looked to me like a gathering of the organised left, some public sector trade unionists and a smaller number of direct action activists and peaceniks.

The point about democracy is not just about making a rhetorical show: "We're more representative than Blair". It involves how we think we can stop the war.

There were a number of union leaders from the 'Awkward Squad', giving the nod to industrial action on the day war starts. The whole of the RMT national executive was there, apparently. But industrial action is a commitment that puts workers at risk of victimisation. It's one thing to make a speech in an assembly where everyone is with you, it's quite another to deliver where it counts. And workers have a right to know who elected this assembly, who it is accountable to.

We never really did debate what force could stop the war in its tracks. UN resolutions, direct action, subverting the troops, and strike action were all posed as equally valid. A nationwide work stoppage on the day the war starts would cripple the war effort, would make the government stop in its tracks. Anti-union laws or no, there would be no way to lock them all up. But that has to be built for, not just declared. Real democracy represents winning the argument in each workplace, not just making 'holiday' speeches.

There seemed a real fear of mentioning class. Like, we're all 'people', but some 'people' have different class interests from others. Soft Tories and Lib-Dems don't want working class action. But that is what will be decisive. The working class has the same interest as the working class and oppressed peoples of Iraq. Chirac, Putin and the anti-war Tory 'people' have the interest of their class, which is just worried about being excluded from the post-war oilfields carve-up.

The declaration called for Blair to resign, but gave no mechanism for how we would make that happen. We had George Galloway entertaining our troops, but no mention of what was needed to turn the revolt of the 120+ MPs into a permanent 'regime change'.

We need to talk about what real democracy would look like. Let's learn from this - even if it's only to question what 'people's', 'democracy', 'assembly', 'parliament' actually mean.

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