No taxation without representation. This demand for democratic control over public money was the rallying cry of Britain’s 17th century revolution against monarchical rule. But the settlement of 1688 was a compromise: establishing the sovereignty of parliament rather than the sovereignty of the people.
The relationship founded by this compromise with the emasculated 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. It has imbued in all too many of them a sense of being above the people.
It is appropriate 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. For the explosion of anger against those MPs who have abused their personal stewardship of the money meant to enable them to carry out their public duties is the product of a pent-up fury.
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. It began with numerous parliamentary committees pronouncing on the poor value of the Private Finance Initiative, on the millions of public money spent on exorbitant consultancies, and on the failure of mega projects from the 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. Finally came the sight of a sizeable minority of MPs showing such contempt for the people whose interests they supposedly represent that without a second thought they could pocket capital gains from a house bought at public expense for public purpose.
The most symbolic example of the deeper problem we face has been the behaviour of communities minister Hazel Blears, treating a £45,000 capital gain as hers to pocket privately with parliamentary permission. That’s around the sum that, with such fanfare, she deigned to grant to neighbourhoods to allocate collectively, under intense public scrutiny, in the form of ‘community kitties’.
Her patronising and hypocritical approach towards the idea of greater popular control of public money is also symbolic of the way that parliamentary sovereignty has embedded in mainstream English political culture a false choice: between parliament as wise, independent-minded decision making; and any 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 for example, reflected with satisfaction on how parliament acted as a ‘rock against the waves of popular emotion’.
What has been entirely marginalised is the tradition of Tom Paine (see page 58, June/July issue), William Morris and (less radically) John Stuart Mill, whose concern was to adapt the principle of popular sovereignty to whole societies. Forms of representation are necessary, but the institutions through which it should occur have to be designed to retain as far as possible the substance of popular power. Hence we need proportional representation, with no representative serving more than two terms, and more mechanisms of accountability and recallabilty between frequent elections.
Popular sovereignty is now an urgent issue. We need initiatives that give new life to these traditions of radical constitutional reform, 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 discussed in the April/May Red Pepper, and the democratic potential of the new means of communication being used to impose accountability on the police (cover story, page 18 June/July issue). 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 problem of private economic power.
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 and cultural debate. A mere ‘cleansing’ of parliament and continuation of the depoliticised political culture will not counter the appeal of the far right. 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.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility