Charter for a democratic republic
Peter Tatchell, Dave Church and Steve Freeman outline their vision for a democratic republic
On January 24 parliament held a debate on Iraq. This was the first time the House of Commons discussed the war in two years. Blair failed to attend. He addressed a business meeting instead and was criticised by MPs on both sides of the house. His absence was seen as a demonstration of his arrogant attitude to parliament and an insult to those who had lost their lives. MPs were unable to bring Blair to account. All they could do was fume and vent their frustration.
The significant aspect was not so much Blair's contempt for parliament, but the fact that any prime minister can behave in this way and get away with it. He stayed away because he has huge institutional power and parliament is largely irrelevant. It shows us the maldistribution of power between executive, parliament and people.
Today parliamentary democracy is seen to be failing the people. Government is not democratically accountable. Parliament is not representative of the voters. The constitution does not protect our rights 2and liberties. It is time for working people, trade unions and progressive organisations to campaign for radical democratic change - democracy being an essential element of true socialism.
More than any other event in recent times, the Iraq war symbolises the failure of parliament to make government accountable. It showed the danger of too much power concentrated in the hands of the few - the prime minister, security chiefs, and a few advisers and top civil servants. Blair was able to use the powers vested in him by the crown to conceal the truth, mislead the public and manipulate parliament. This lack of democracy and transparency proved very costly for people in Britain and a disaster for people in Iraq.
In May 2003 Clare Short MP resigned from the government. In her resignation speech to parliament, she complained that the cabinet had become irrelevant to political decision-making: "There is no real collective responsibility because there is no collective - just diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy initiatives that come from on high. The consequences are serious "¦ [and] leads to bad policy. In addition, under our constitutional arrangements, legal, political and financial responsibility flows through secretaries of state to parliament. Increasingly those who are wielding power are not accountable and not scrutinised."
Ms Short explained: "We have the powers of a presidential-type system with an automatic majority of a parliamentary system. My conclusion is that these arrangements are leading to increasingly poor policy initiatives, being rammed through parliament, straining and abusing party loyalty and undermining the people's respect for our political system. These attitudes are causing increasing problems with reform of the public services" (The Independent May 13 2003).
The lack of real democracy produces ill-conceived 'command' policies from 10 Downing Street, which adversely affect people's lives. Limitations on the right to trial by jury, the privatisation of public services, draconian anti-terror laws restricting civil liberties, student tuition fees, identity cards and road pricing are examples of policies rejected by a majority. Public opinion is ignored and government policies are imposed.
In Britain political power is highly centralised. It does not reside within parliament. It is vested in the hands of ministers of the crown and her majesty's civil servants. After every election, powers equivalent to those of an 'elected dictator' are transferred to the prime minister. Increasingly, prime ministers have adopted the style of an executive president, but without the democratic and legal constraints that exist in the albeit flawed US constitution.
The growth of 'presidential' power has further reduced prime ministerial accountability to cabinet and parliament. Thatcher and Blair have epitomised this presidential style of government. Such concentrations of power are dangerous. Decision-making is corrupted and civil liberties and freedoms are threatened. The poll tax and the illegal Iraq war are the most well known examples of government imposing decisions on the people against their will.
'Strong government' is often cited by our political leaders as something desirable, as opposed to 'weak government'. Britain is said to have strong government because it is centralised, bureaucratic, secretive and unaccountable. So-called strong government provides freedom for vested interests to influence political decisions behind the scenes. It covers up waste and inefficiency. It ensures that bad decisions are not exposed nor those responsible brought to account. It facilitates the spread of bribery and corruption - paving the way for backroom deals like 'loans for peerages'.
Parliament is a political fig leaf, which provides government with the appearance of democracy without the substance. The House of Commons acts as little more than a rubber stamp for the government of the day. The unelected House of Lords represents the residue of aristocracy and those rewarded for loyal service to the establishment. It has neither the democratic mandate nor the political motives to represent the people. Parliament is therefore unable or unwilling to control or check government. It has proved incapable of protecting us from the growing concentration of power into the hands of the executive and state bureaucracy.
People have lost confidence in parliament because it does not reflect their interests or meet their needs. Parliament is facing a crisis of credibility. People do not trust politicians or any of the major parties. Forty percent of the electorate did not think it was worth voting at the last election. Of those that voted only 35% voted for the Labour government. Labour secured the votes of only 22% of the eligible electorate.
The first-past-the-post voting system is rigged in favour of the two major parties. In the current parliament, Labour's minority electoral support was translated into an overall majority of 68 seats. This is political corruption on a monumental scale - worthy of the most sleazy tyranny.
It enables an unrepresentative government to part-privatise public services such as health and education, even though such policies have no more popular support than when Thatcher tried to force the poll tax on an unwilling population.
The old and outdated unwritten British constitution provides no defence against the concentration of power. It is, to all intents and purposes, a dead letter. Mostly unknown and unknowable, it offers little or no protection against unbridled prime ministerial power and government excess. What is needed is a written constitution that defines and limits state power, and which guarantees each and every citizen equal and inalienable rights and freedoms.
Today, the crisis of democracy is growing. The weaknesses and failings of the system are becoming more and more obvious. Yet, whilst parliament needs radical change and the people need new constitutional rights, the system is incapable of self-reform. Conservative institutions, supported by vested interests, are notoriously resistant to change. Radical change will need to come from outside parliament - from the mobilisation of the people in a new movement for popular democracy.
Many people still see the current flawed political system as 'democracy'. This presents a danger that the failings of the system and the impact of bad government could be blamed on too much democracy. Authoritarian solutions might seem more appealing to some and could be manipulated by those with malevolent agendas. The crisis of democracy, combined with a new oil crisis or climate devastation, could create a major economic downturn and prompt the imposition of draconian restrictions on the rights of working people and progressive social movements. The emergence of a new form of fascism is plausible and possible.
A draft charter
Britain's democratic deficit needs to be remedied. This means creating a new and more extensive democracy, including a new, written constitution based on the democratic principle of the sovereignty of the people - government of the people, by the people and for the people. In other words, an entirely new, transparent and accountable relationship between the people, parliament and government.
In the early 19th century, the Chartist mass movement for democratic reform was built around the People's Charter. A national petition to parliament mobilised mass demonstrations and other forms of direct action. We should take inspiration from that movement and begin to organise for democratic change today.
Nearly two centuries later, we believe there is a need for a new Charter for a Democratic Republic, to remedy the flaws and failings of Britain's political system. Accordingly, we offer some provisional proposals, as the basis for a wider, ongoing discussion which, we hope, may eventually lead to the formation of a political reform campaign. We have limited our proposals to six points, in recognition of the original People's Charter.
So far, the left has failed to recognise the seriousness of the crisis of democracy and to realise that it is a major impediment to the achievement of a free and just society. It is our belief that socialists, greens and other progressive people should be spearheading the fight for a popular, 21st century democracy. We want to connect the fight for democracy with progressive and working class movements and ultimately to the mass of the people, without whose active support real democratic change will not happen. We invite you to join us in a dialogue and debate on our draft proposals: a Charter for a Democratic Republic.
Dave Church (Socialist Alliance)
Steve Freeman (Revolutionary Democratic Group)
Peter Tatchell (leftwing member of Green Party)
Our six provisional proposals
The Charter for a Democratic Republic proclaims the sovereignty of the people. To this end we seek the establishment of a democratic, secular republic based on:
l A written constitution with a Bill of Rights
l Abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords
l Proportional representation
l Annual parliaments
l MPs subject to recall by a vote of their electors
l Devolved power to community-based local government.