The current anger in Britain over MPs’ misuse of public money is more than outrage at the pathetic greed of public representatives. It is a fury over a deep-seated failure of public control of public money, that should now be the basis of a movement to complete the unfinished struggle for popular sovereignty, argues Hilary Wainwright.
The anger that now explodes in Britain whenever one of the 125 MPs caught feathering their own or their families nests or building their duckponds faces the public is more than outrage at the pathetic greed of elected representatives. It is a pent up fury over a deep-seated failure of public control over public money.
It is a fury that has mounted with growing evidence of financial waste and unaccountability, against the background of levels of inequality unprecedented in post-war years.(After 12 years of a New Labour government income inequality is wider than it has been for 40 years) The anger goes back to numerous parliamentary committees reporting on the poor value of privatisation schemes such as the Private Finance Initiative, on the millions of public money spent on exorbitant consultancies, and on the failure of mega projects from the Millenium Dome onwards – but with no effect.
Along the way has been the vast expenditure on the unpopular and calamitous occupation of Iraq. Then came the billions handed over to the private banks without any of the scrutiny imposed on the public sector for much smaller sums. The sight of a sizeable minority of MPs treating public money as effectively a source of private grants to maintain their personal life styles simply confirmed the public’s low estimation of their elected representatives and gave their pent up anger a vivid and specific focus.
Democratic control over public money has long been central to the concerns of reformers. ‘No taxation without representation’ was the slogan of the 19th century campaigners for the vote. Their victories in terms of extensions of the franchise – first to men of property, then to all men and finally to women – was always limited in terms of how far the vote was a means of exercising popular control. Westminster maybe the ‘the mother of parliaments ‘ as it promoted itself especially to the Commonwealth but it is very far from being the mother of democracy. For Britain’s 17th century revolution against monarchical rule produced a compromise: establishing the sovereignty of parliament rather than the sovereignty of the people.
The relationship founded by this compromise with the defeated monarchy is symbolised by the fact that MPs swear to be servants of the Crown (de facto the executive) rather than servants of the people. The notion is an anachronism, but it is one that MPs over the centuries have clung on to and indeed hidden behind, maintaining parliament as something like a gentleman’s club, resistant to reform, complacently closed to the outside world and all too able to seduce would-be rebels into it’s comfortable embrace. The atmosphere in the Palace of Westminster has given all too many MP’s a sense of being above the people.
More significantly, the notion and reality of parliamentary sovereignty has embedded in mainstream English political culture a false choice: between parliament as wise, independent-minded decision making; and the idea of popular power as not to be trusted, the ‘rule of the mob’, emotion as distinct from reason, and riddled with sectional interests (trade unions, ‘activists’ etc) – so therefore to be fenced in. Richard Crossman a Labour cabinet minister in the 1960’s for example, reflected with satisfaction in his diaries on how parliament acted as a ‘rock against the waves of popular emotion’.
What has been entirely marginalised is the tradition of Tom Paine , William Morris and (less radically) John Stuart Mill, whose concern was to adapt the principle of popular sovereignty to large societies. Forms of representation are necessary, they argued, but the institutions through which it should occur have to be designed to retain as far as possible the substance of popular power. Hence they urged proportional representation, with no representative serving more than two terms, fixed term parliaments – rather leaving the power to call elections in the hands of Prime Ministers, in the name of the Crown – and numerous other mechanisms of accountability and recallabilty between frequent elections.
A purpose of all these measures was to prevent elected representatives from acquiring independent power and becoming a self-perpetuating oligarchy. These radical democrats would have looked favourably on contemporary forms of radical democracy such as participatory budgeting where it involves sharing power between elected representatives and autonomous forms of democratic public power to strengthen popular control over public investments.
It is indicative of the distrust of popular participation built into the British political system that participatory budgeting becomes, in the hands of New Labour government ministers, ‘community kitties’, fenced in and dependent on the goodwill of local councils, who themselves have, after thirty years of centralisation, little autonomy to respond to the demands and needs of the people who elect them.
Against this background, it is appropriate then that the issue of public control over public money should now be driving the anger that could surely be the basis of a movement to complete the unfinished struggle for popular sovereignty.
We need initiatives that give new life to the radical traditions of constitutional reform in British history with a focus now on proportional representation to achieve a genuinely accountable parliament. At the same time it is necessary to connect constitutional reform with extra-parliamentary struggles for democratic control, such as the trade union led campaigns for democratic alternatives to privatisation of a kind we have recently seen exemplified in Newcastle but which are evident in international struggles against privatisation, for example over water.
We also need to make the connections between radical constitutional reform and the democratic potential of the new means of communication that were used, for example, to impose a basic accountability on the police during the G20 protests. (When citizens became journalists and their video cameras and mobile phones exposed the cover up of the police violence that caused the death of a bystander, Ian Tomlinson)
Action at all these levels is necessary for the present public fury to become a force to complete the democratic revolution. And this includes carrying the logic of popular control through to address the now blatant problem of private economic power and how to exert democratic control over the corporate dominated market.
In the midst of all the focus on the personal greed of Mps it will be important not to lose focus on what is to be done about the systematic avarice behind the collapse of the banks.
Economic issues must be brought into the debate about political reform: issues such as the hollowness of talk of ‘power to the power’ without a radical redistribution of wealth, including a maximum wage, taxes on inherited wealth and corporate profits; issues such as corporate power and the related issues of private property. Genuine democracy is impossible so long as economic power goes untrammelled.
The left has a responsibility to build the connections between these different fronts of struggle for democratic control, and in doing so stimulate open and widespread political debate and create conditions for the kind of political alliances necessary to act. A mere ‘cleansing’ of parliament and continuation of the depoliticised political culture will not bring about democracy, nor will counter the appeal of the far right to sections of the working class feeling powerless and insecure. That requires a political movement able to connect the transformation of our political institutions with egalitarian solutions to the growing problems of daily life – and to do so in a way that enables people to gain control and bring about change and self-realisation in the process.
Hilary Wainwright is a fellow of the Transnational Institute and a co-editor of Red Pepper.