Spin on this, Brown

Gordon Brown should not have the right to dedice when the electorate get to vote. Jim Moody calls for annual parliaments

Gordon Brown kept the whole country on tenterhooks for weeks up to the weekend. At last, he deigned to let us know that he had decided not to call a general election right now after all. And then proceeded to lie through his teeth to general disbelief, denying opinion polls had had anything to do with his decision. While a great deal of comment has centred on whether or not he was wise in his decision and whether he bottled it, his right to decide when the electorate get to vote received much less attention.

For any democrat it is an outrage that sitting prime ministers should take such a decision - almost exclusively, if not solely, on the basis of perceived advantage for their own party. The fact that they often get it wrong - delaying too long when an earlier poll might have proved more beneficial and vice versa - does not invalidate this shameful overriding of democratic principle. But then again the UK constitutional monarchy system has all sorts of similarly outrageous anti-democratic features - the monarch's prerogative powers, the right of the second chamber to delay or reject legislation, the premier's right of patronage, the secrecy of the government apparatus, the privileged position of the Church of England "¦

Brown's 'Will he, won't he?' games at least brought the possibility of fixed-term parliaments under the spotlight, with the suggestion of four years being the most popular - Brown himself touched on this possibility at his disastrous press conference on October 8. This would, self-evidently, remove part of the governing party's inbuilt advantage, but would make virtually no difference in terms of either the frequency of elections or the accountability of MPs. While the current maximum between elections is five years, the last three have all been separated by around four years in any case.

However, the nub of the issue is the lack of accountability and responsibility of MPs, the House of Commons and the government to the electorate - around 80% of which is made up by the working class. Despite piles of textbooks on constitutional law, there is currently no discussion in mainstream academia or anywhere else about how this situation might be changed; rather, as is usual with such areas of discourse, the ideological schema are made to fit the present situation, which the past conjunction of class forces has produced.

Subsequently, rights achieved as the result of class struggle are denied their provenance and instead we are told that we are witnessing the effects of 'progress' or some such nonsense. This is the Whig approach: progress moves society inevitably in an unwavering line towards a better and better parliamentary democracy.

Worse, some alleged Marxists suggest that democratic rights under capitalism are inherent to bourgeois rule itself, thus at a stroke denying the overriding role of the working class in achieving democratic gains.

As things stand, those who elect MPs to parliament, and thus indirectly put the government in place, have no constitutional means of holding them to account during their term as members. The electorate has no way of recalling and replacing MPs, however much they may have betrayed voters' wishes, broken their promises or simply stopped representing them. No doubt constitutional lawyers and bourgeois politicians would be aghast were the mass of the population even to discuss such a basic democratic right. It would be regarded as diametrically opposed to the countervailing right of the bourgeoisie to rule. That is what is at stake in this democratic question, crucial like so many others, especially when pressed as it needs to be by a well-prepared working class.

The toing and froing over recent weeks has had nothing to do with what voters wanted: in fact, there was an overwhelming majority in all polls against holding a general election this year. That majority opinion was ignored by Brown and co. The mass media and most of the left press is not particularly bothered: the question has evaded their consciousness.

One example on the left is sadly quite typical of this gap in understanding. All that this week's Socialist Workers Party newspaper could come up with was a passing mention of Brown's failure to call a general election. A leader article, presumably written by editor Chris Bambery, commented: "Millions are disillusioned with a political system that cannot address their basic concerns over the war and privatisation. While Brown dithers over calling elections, he has no hesitation in his determination to attack workers" (Socialist Worker October 13). Not the slightest allusion do we see here to the undemocratic nature of how a general election is called, let alone any other associated constitutional questions. The SWP considers such things above the heads of the workers who read its paper.

Radical and revolutionary sentiments were swirling around Britain toward the end of the Napoleonic wars over 200 years ago. As early as 1815, Scottish secret societies were calling for "free and equal representation and annual parliaments". For the working class movement, indeed, recallability of MPs, MPs' pay and annual parliaments have been central questions dating back 170 years, ever since the Chartists first listed their demands.

The six points of the 1837 People's Charter were as follows:

l Universal male suffrage at age 21, except for the insane and felons.

l Equal-sized constituencies.

l Secret ballots.

l Annual parliaments.

l No property qualification for MPs.

l Payment of MPs.

With one glaring exception, those demands have been won (point 1 has been exceeded and point 2 for the most part achieved in practice). Yet they were fiercely resisted - democracy was most definitely a dirty word in the early 19th century when the People's Charter was devised: most British politicians of the time saw it reeking of 'the mob' and the loss of ruling class privilege.

So the Chartists' six points were barely short of sedition for the vast majority of legislators. Working class struggle forced Britain's bourgeoisie to grant some of the Chartists' demands, but piecemeal and with heels dug in. Only during high points in the class struggle, when social peace was threatened, were some portions of rights that were demanded conceded in order to head off greater trouble for the ruling class.

Although clearly of its time in leaving out half the adult population, a distinctly major flaw, the Chartists nonetheless raised the banner of democratic rights and the revolutionary fight for them, gathering round them mass support. Even today, though, there is one demand that still has not been met by 'bourgeois democracy': annual parliaments.

Brown's embarrassment of the last week brings this issue to the fore once more. We need to raise the call for annual parliaments, together with the other demands of extreme democracy on the back of these bourgeois parliamentarians' public loss of confidence and, for once, inability to spin to their advantage.

As extreme democrats, as communists, we constantly put forward demands for what is needed now, for what the capitalist system is capable of providing, but which it will be forced to bear at enormous political cost. So, as part of our immediate programme, we place a priority on demands that are reiterated here:

We are for:

l annual parliaments;

l accountable and recallable MPs paid the equivalent of a skilled worker's wage;

l abolition of the monarchy and the second chamber of parliament;

l abolition of the privy council and all state secrets;

l separation of church and state;

l the right of self-determination in a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales and a united, federal Ireland.

These demands have nothing whatsoever to with 'completing the bourgeois revolution' or any other such nonsense. No bourgeois regime has ever granted anything to the working class out of the goodness of its heart. Everything that has been won, every democratic right over the centuries of struggle, was torn from the grasp of our rulers. They begrudged us and still begrudge us any encroachment on what they see as their right to exploit and every political and constitutional device that helps them set the seal on their exploitative system. They try to bamboozle us with deceit and tricks of the parliamentary trade.

We, on the other hand, seek the overthrow of their system and of the master - profit - that they serve. We need annual parliaments to keep a constant check on those purporting to represent their electorates, just as we require the right to recall MPs, to bring them to book when necessary and force them to answer for the way that they act in parliament.

Just like our Chartist comrades of 170 years ago, communists call for the abolition of the House of Lords and the end of all privilege and their trappings. We call for the overthrow of prime ministerial prerogative in deciding when within the current five-year term of a parliament s/he might like to call an election to serve party advantage. Instead, we are as one with those forerunners of extreme democracy in demanding annual parliaments.

And in those parliaments, we too are adamant that each of our MPs shall get no more than the average skilled worker's wage for their work as representatives. They should be there to serve us, not enrich themselves.

Crucially, we demand a democratic republic, in which the people have the right to bear arms, establishing militias in place of the police, armed forces, MI5, MI6 and the whole system of coercion, open and secret.