Without an overhaul of Westminster, Corbyn’s vision for the economy won’t last

Britain's institutions aren't designed for real democracy. Nancy Platts argues that we can't build socialism in a rigged system.

October 9, 2018
6 min read

Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major and former Liberal Party leader David Steel. Photo by
quixotic54 (Flickr)

The Labour Party’s Democracy Review has put the party’s internal processes at the forefront. The compromises agreed – while not meeting everyone’s demands – were a pretty successful exercise in negotiation and dialogue. They have undoubtedly strengthened members’ voices, not least in the selection of MPs. Jeremy Corbyn’s speech moved the debate from one of internal democracy to the economy:

“Inequality is not just a matter of incomes. It’s about having a real say too…We are not only determined to rebuild our economy, communities and public services, but also to democratise them, and change the way our economic system is run in the interests of the majority.”

The speech offered a sense of hope and vision that was absent from the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Now though, we need to see the guiding principles behind it taken further.

Barriers to real power

There are two hurdles to this democratic vision for our economy: getting Labour into power, and ensuring that the changes made are not just sticking plasters but fundamentally shift the debate.

The first hurdle is hard to overcome, to be sure. Proposed boundary changes are set to dramatically skew the voting system against Labour. The election specialists Rallings & Thrasher have worked out that, if the votes cast in the 2017 election results were cast in these boundaries, the Conservatives would have a majority of 16 – despite no votes changing.

And we are at risk of a ‘wrong winner’ election: earlier this year, Electoral Calculus projected Labour would win more votes but fewer seats than the Tories in a General Election. The rules of the game are rigged.

But we will have to overcome the bias in the system to win. It is the second hurdle which is arguably more difficult than securing office.  Unless there are significant political reforms, any policies introduced by a Labour government to democratise the economy could simply be reversed by subsequent governments. The British constitution is one built from feudalism, from monarchy, from empire: it does not respond well to radical change.    

As noted by Politics for the Many’s recent report, the UK has long suffered from a ‘see-saw’ effect – Labour enacting social change, the next government reversing it. It is partly a consequence of the First Past the Post voting system we use to elect MPs.

Lacking the need to build coalitions of support around policy change, single-party governments can rapidly undo the work of previous governments. The left lose out more from this: at elections, progressive majorities are time and again overridden by the relative electoral unity of the right.

And it is a dire situation when you can say Labour’s vote is clustered in the ‘wrong’ places. Votes surplus to those needed to elect an MP go on the electoral scrapheap. Under Westminster’s electoral system, it is not votes which count, but where they are cast.

The policy tug-of-war has badly affected the rights of trade unions in this country. Since 1980 there have been no less than fourteen employment and trade union acts restricting and then, only to a degree, clawing back union rights. The Tories recognise structures must be changed to make ideologies stick. They did that by undermining Labour’s social base.

A new Chartism

If we want lasting change, economic policy alone is not enough. We must fundamentally change the way we do politics. The journalist Neal Ascherson’s words from 1985 are more pertinent than ever: “It’s not possible to build democratic socialism by using the ancient institutions of the British state…It is not possible in the way that it is not possible to induce a vulture to give milk.”

With the internal battles over democracy largely settled, Labour must now move the debate forward. Nearly 200 years since the Peterloo massacre, we must carry on the legacy of the Chartists, with a new Charter for Real Democracy.

We need a fairer voting system, which reflect the voices of the entire nation and its progressive majority – not just voters in leafy swing seats. The unelected House of Lords, which represents the vestiges of aristocracy and unaccountable power, must be replaced with a democratically-elected Senate of the Regions.

Our 16 and 17 years olds must be enfranchised to inspire a entire generation of active-minded and engaged citizens. And we must take power away from the walls of Westminster and Whitehall to communities across the UK.

Such a vision would be popular: in a recent poll for the Electoral Reform Society by BMG Research, 75% of Labour supporters believed ‘democracy in Britain is in urgent need of reform – alongside two thirds of the general public. This view crosses many of the dividing lines in politics: 71% of Leave voters and 66% of Remain voters agreed with the statement.

Corbyn’s speech was right: “People in this country know that the old way of running things isn’t working any more. And unless we offer radical solutions, others will fill the gap with the politics of blame and division.” Economic equality will require political equality. Socialism will not last within the structures of a broken system.

Nancy Platts is Jeremy Corbyn’s former trade union adviser, and co-ordinator of the Politics for the Many campaign.

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