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Parliamentary Democracy and the Working Class

The following is a contribution to our pre-Congress debate. It provides background to our ongoing discussions around working-class participation in the economy, industry and the State, and is submitted by the editorial board of Labour Affairs with minor edits to take account of the original date of publication.

The UK is a parliamentary democracy. Two parties organised around different dominant interest groups within the state contend for and alternate in power. The Liberal Democrats do not fundamentally alter this feature of the British state. In theory such a system ought to give a voice to interest groups whose interests do not coincide and who seek to reach an accommodation with each other on how the State conducts itself. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries one party coalesced around the aristocracy (the Whigs), while another coalesced around the Crown (the Tories). In order to broaden their power base the Tories would seek alliances with the un-enfranchised peasantry and would, to a degree, further those interests against those of the aristocracy.

This process continued through the Nineteenth Century as sections of the Tory party took up the working class interest in basic welfare and security against the Whig support of unfettered industrial development and unlimited capitalist prerogative. This tendency of the Tories is well described in the Tory Prime Minister Disraeli’s political novel ‘Sybil’. However, Parliament operated as a select club with its own conventions which promoted a strong group identity within a system of conflicting interests. In the area of foreign policy there was and continues to be even less dissent. All the parties were agreed on the need for the Empire and they all now agree that any coherent European development needs to be sabotaged at all costs. A possible exception to this view were the Liberals, at least until recently. The clubability of the House of Commons strongly discouraged `unparliamentary’ (i.e. uncooperative) behaviour and informally encouraged debate to take place within quite narrow confines of disagreement about policy.

The rise of the Labour Party in the early Twentieth Century led to more direct representation of the working class interest, but the Tories and what remained of the Liberals saw to it that Labour parliamentarians were socialised into existing House of Commons conventions and their effectiveness as direct and blunt spokesman for the working class interest was considerably diminished. Only the Labour politicians associated with Ernest Bevin managed to rise above this clubable atmosphere and to inject some direct and unwelcome expression of the working class interest. Even a politician on the left, Aneurin Bevan, who had previously been associated with what we now call ‘gesture politics’ was co-opted by Bevin into worthwhile work, the construction of the NHS.

These politicians succeeded in bring about the most substantial period of reform in the working class interest that has ever been enacted within parliament. By the last quarter of the Twentieth Century however, the inability of Labour politicians or the Trade Union leadership to provide a coherent expression of the working class power that had grown through collective bargaining under considerable legal protection dating from the early years of the century, led to a failure to consolidate that power, to the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the steady decline of working class influence. It is important to realise that working class power was almost invariably exercised over economic issues and to resolve disputes within the working class. The idea of the working class becoming a potential ruling class was always alien to the working class itself.

The thirty year period from the publication of the Bullock Report on industrial democracy onwards also saw the decline of Labour politicians with direct roots in working class life through participation in union and agitational activity. Whatever the limitations of these politicians, they at least understood enough of the reality of working class life and the interests of working people to articulate them through a vague but real enough social democratic ideology. However, the failure of working class power in the 1970s unnerved Labour leaders sufficiently to lose confidence in that ideology and the increasing dominance of university educated professional politicians led to a realignment towards the dominant liberal economic ideology that was apparently so successful in resolving the conflict with the unions in the interests of capitalism. The Marxist outlook was regarded as a god that had failed and many communists and Trotskyites threw in their lot with the interests of finance capital, partly for career reasons and partly because they could see no alternative. A parliamentary system that did at least in some way give voice to the different major interests within the society gradually ceased to do so. Representative democracy ceased to be representative of competing class interests.

By the time of Blair’s accession as prime minister the UK had effectively developed a system of two and a half liberal parties disagreeing on a narrow ground of economic and social policy and more or less agreeing on everything that mattered in foreign policy, which was first, to leverage international influence through close alignment with US foreign policy and second, to continue to disrupt the development of the EU through transforming it into a broadly based free trade area.

The agreement of all parties that industrial policy was off the agenda and unfettered free trade was at the top of it, had catastrophic results for the working class interest. Industrial decline, already well under way from the time of Thatcher, accelerated. Whole areas of the UK became economic hulks while the political parties placed their faith in a deregulated City. The demoralisation of the working class that followed from an inability to understand what had gone wrong in the 1970s and the aftermath of the catastrophic miner’s strike of 1984 meant that virtually no resistance was offered to this process.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the economic and industrial devastation of regional Britain continued apace with Blair denying that there was such a thing as a north-south divide while Britain’s older industrial areas continued to decay. The MPs in these areas seemed content to let the slide continue. Even the rioting of 2011 seemed by and large to bypass these communities who seem locked in passive acceptance of their fate. With no leadership offered to them is that surprising?

From the view of the working class, consisting of both what remains of the old industrial working class and large swathes of the vast majority of the population who need to earn a wage to live, there is no meaningful parliamentary representation. Pensions are trashed, what little employment security exists is under threat, the NHS is undermined and harsher social security arrangements are put in place. If the UK and England in particular is a democracy, it is a very unsatisfactory one.

The formal apparatus of a party system is in place, but the claim that it is a representative system is completely hollow. The interests of working people, let alone the old industrial working class, barely get a look in. One can only see further decline and decay in the regions and greater dependency on the City. The Labour Party will continue to exist as an alternative imperialist and finance capitalist party for the foreseeable future. Whether anything arises to take its place will to a large extent depend on how much the British people are prepared to put up with.

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