For democracy

Under Blair’s May 7 rigged referendum Londoners will not have the option of voting for an assembly without a mayor, or any say in the powers of the new London assembly

New Labour’s proposals for a dictatorial London mayor and a weak Greater London Assembly, announced in the House of Commons by John Prescott on March 25, are a travesty of democracy. They are also an integral component part of Tony Blair’s programme of reforming the United Kingdom constitution from above.

There is, of course, a complex and dynamic interrelationship between reform from above and discontent below. Undoubtedly, though, the crucial factor behind Blair’s programme has been the fact that popular identification with the UK state has been gradually slipping away since at least the late 1960s.

During the Thatcher years slippage became a slide. The Iron Lady defeated the ‘enemy within’, curbed union power, abolished the GLC and launched a neo-liberal offensive against the post World War II social settlement. There was a high price to pay however. Millions - in particular militant trade unionists and nonconformist youth, migrants and homosexuals, the unemployed and semi-employed, Scots and poll tax refuseniks - were thoroughly alienated. And not merely with the Tory government but to a considerable extent from the monarchical state itself.

That explains why Blair does not simply want to change the way we are ruled. He is determined to rewin popular identification with and acceptance of the state. The UK is therefore to be rebranded ‘cool Britannia’ and the constitution ‘democratised’ along the most undemocratic lines.

Scotland and Wales have already been chalked up as successes by the Blairites. The September 11 1997 referendum gave the government an overwhelming majority in Scotland and a week later a wafer thin one in Wales. By the year 2000 Edinburgh will have its parliament and Cardiff its assembly.

There are however many other planks to the programme. The House of Lords, some form of proportional representation for European and Westminster elections, the Church of England, the single currency, the extended royal family, the English regions and Northern Ireland are all “elements” in a wide “modernisation project” (The Times March 10 1998). Obviously so too is London.

The May 7 referendum in London is designed to gain a mandate for the Blairite version of local government. Other cities will in due course be given the London treatment, ie a dictatorial mayor and powerless councils. As the last leader of the GLC rightly notes: “If an executive mayor is introduced in London, it will become a blueprint for similar reforms in local government nationally” (K Livingstone ‘London into the new millennium’). In other words in the name of extending local democracy Blair is actually rolling it back even further. That is why Livingstone could not be more wrong when, with typical cynicism, he claims that the government’s proposals are “part of a process of bringing accountability back into public life” (ibid).

Strangely there are some on the left who want to believe that the government has no plan for ‘modernisation’. That the whole thing is an invention, not least by the Communist Party of Great Britain and its supposedly gullible polemicists. Perhaps the most determinedly blind is Alan McCombes, the de facto leader of Scottish Militant Labour (a semi-detached arm of Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party). McCombes ridicules the mere suggestion that there is an evolving programme “to reform and modernise the union.” According to our friend the idea is “hopelessly wide of the mark”. The only force for change McCombes deigns to recognise is “rising national discontent in Scotland” (A McCombes Scottish independence and the struggle for socialism p6).

Of course, comrade McCombes and the SML leadership have a factional interest in not seeing the bigger all-Britain picture. A completely one-sided and exclusively Scottish vision serves admirably to transform SML into the leftwing of the SNP and thus into a purely nationalist organisation. But this sorry turn and its accompanying ideology of parochialism hardly provides the working class movement, either in Scotland or Britain as a whole, with the political ammunition needed to meet the challenge of Blairism.

The same goes for those who respond to Blair’s constitutional programme piece by piece rather than in its entirety. On the defeatist basis that something must be better than nothing such a approach takes its advocates directly into the New Labour camp (virtually the entire spectrum of the left - SWP, SLP, SML, Socialist Party, CPB - backed Blair in Scotland and Wales and urged a ‘yes’). The situation cries out for a comprehensive alternative to Blair. A programme of far reaching democratic change from below. That is what the CPGB is committed to and why we opposed Blair’s Edinburgh parliament sop in Scotland. It is also why we communists are campaigning against his proposals for London.

No one denies that London is in urgent need of democracy. Since Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986, Londoners have been governed by some 60 shadowy quangos, 32 ineffective and squabbling boroughs and the City of London Corporation - behind which lie the narrow interests of the banks, insurance companies and the stock exchange. For London as a whole and its M25 environs there has been no elected body to coordinate housing, health, transport, environmental protection, education or other vital matters. Moreover neither the boroughs nor the quangos have fought for the people. They have been dominated by cabals of Labour and Tory politicians who, when not serving themselves, have carried through expenditure cuts ordered by the treasury. As a result services in London have deteriorated to the point of breakdown.

Blair says his GLA and a London mayor provides the answer. It is a blatant lie.

Blair’s London mayor will have executive control over a £3.3 million budget, and running Transport for London and the London Development Agency. The mayor will also make appointments to the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Fire Emergency Planning Authority.

The 25-strong assembly will in contrast be powerless. It can question the mayor at a monthly question time. It can look at issues it considers “important” for Londoners. It can “agree or suggest changes” to the mayor’s overall budget and “agree proposals for raising revenue” (Department of the Environment A mayor and assembly for London?). Yet only with a highly improbable two-thirds majority can the assembly reject the mayor’s budget. To say that the mayor will operate “almost free from control” by the assembly is no exaggeration (Evening Standard March 26 1998). He or she will therefore be an elected dictator.

Nevertheless it must be emphasised that the mayor will be all-powerful mainly when it comes to telling the people of London what cannot be afforded. Except for taxing drivers entering and parking in London the mayor is to have no source of revenue apart from government grants. Inevitably they are subject to strict limits and curbs. He or she will also therefore be a puppet.

For example the mayor cannot even switch resources between the police and transport (the two account for 95% of expenditure). Put another way, Whitehall not the mayor will decide how much is spent on core services. To all intents and purposes the mayor is to be, says Simon Jenkins, a “Whitehall agency” (ibid). Like every other ‘reform’ of local government since the 1960s it will surely not take long before general disillusionment sets in with the GLA and similar metropolitan authorities and another round of reorganisation becomes necessary.

Due to the ‘something must be better than nothing’ tailism by most of the left there is no mass movement in London which is committed to anything higher. That does not mean communists and socialists should meekly or even ‘critically’ accept Blair’s GLA. The very fact that the government is conducting a mass propaganda campaign in preparation for May 7 has revived vague, and it has to be said rather fond, collective memories of the GLC under Livingstone. This amounts to inchoate feelings of dissatisfaction about what is on offer. With conscious intervention, this can surely be given definite form and political direction.

The May 7 referendum is take-it or leave-it. In other words a classic catch 22. To vote ‘yes’ is to vote against democracy. To vote ‘no’ is to vote against democracy. Blair’s referendum is designed not to present and test a range of options but deliver the government its ‘yes’ result. Those on the left who stand for the maximum democracy under capitalism have no official opportunity to put their proposals forward and test their support.

What should communists, socialists and other democrats do? None of us has any truck with the present status quo. But Blair’s proposals hardly represent a genuine democratic advance.

For some the whole thing presents a dilemma. The Socialist Party, at the time of writing, is still to announce its position. Indeed comrade Taaffe’s organisation appears to be politically paralysed in the face of Blair’s programme of reform. So much so that Paula Mitchell, its representative at the last meeting of the London Socialist Alliance on March 21, actually tried to prevent a discussion contribution on the referendum being circulated in the Ad-Hoc Committee’s next mailing. The paper by comrade John Bridge - representative of the CPGB - argues that there should be a boycott. Comrade Mitchell’s justification for stifling debate was twofold. First, comrade Bridge had the temerity to describe SML’s Alan McCombes as “foolish”. Second, the Socialist Party was in general against boycotts and had anyway no position yet on the May 7 referendum. Thankfully comrade Mitchell retreated. Even better, the Ad-Hoc Committee of the LSA agreed to call a special meeting of its supporters to debate the whole issue.

The Tories seem to have learned from their trouncing on September 11 in Scotland. Their attitude towards the London referendum is probably going to be a ‘critical’ yes, ie the same as the pro-Labour left. The main concern of the two big parties of the bourgeoisie - New Labour and the Conservatives - is winning the coveted position of London mayor and stopping rouge candidates, ie Livingstone in the case of Labour.

While it is unlikely that there will be a serious ‘no’ campaign, under present circumstances a ‘no’ call from the left might be seen as support for the present system. That is why the best tactic is a boycott. The raw material for an effective boycott campaign undoubtedly exists. Both the CPGB and the Socialist Labour Party in London are for it. There is a good chance that the Socialist Alliances in London will take the same stance. If that happens no effort should be spared to form a united, or at the very least, a coordinated campaign. Others too must be approached, not least organisations such as the London Pensioners Association, the Direct Action Network, the Greater London Association of Trades Councils, etc.

Our boycott of the May 7 referendum should not confine itself to expressing moral outrage against the rigged nature of the referendum. It is vital to highlight what we stand for, ie the democratic alternative to Blair’s GLA and his reformed constitutional monarchy.

A democratic London Assembly mustbeabletoraise its own revenue. We communists are for a local income tax - tax the rich, no tax on the working class. The undemocratic City of London Corporation must be abolished. The London Assembly must have responsibility throughout the capital for transport, planning, economic development and policing (the CPGB is for the abolition of the corrupt metropolitan police and its replacement by an armed popular militia). All elections, including those to a GLA, should be on the basis of proportional representation. Those elected must be recallable. The leader of the authority should reflect and be chosen by the majority of elected representatives. Unlike Labourites, Lib Dems and Tories our candidates must pledge themselves not to live like fat cats. Labour wants their mayor paid an annual salary of £90,000. Certainly any communist elected would only take the average skilled workers’ wage - the surplus being donated to the movement.

Democratic local government is only possible in the context of a complete transformation of the constitution. Where Blair proposes to reform the constitutional monarchy system the boycott campaign should fight for the end of all hereditary privileges and undemocratic practices. That means the abolition not only of the House of Lords but the monarchy itself. There must be a federal republic. Let us replace the unity of crowns with the free unity of peoples. Scotland and Wales can then really have the right to self-determination - the right to determine their own relationship with the rest of Britain. They should have the democratic right to separate. They should also have the democratic right to voluntarily unite with the people of England.

Jack Conrad