30 September 2006

The people are needed for democracy

By Jacqui McCarney

The Labour party conference has been a strange spectacle. Once the party of the people, it now seems to be a media circus at which cabinet ministers fight and jostle for position. We are left wondering what it has got to do with us – in truth not a lot.

At the start of the conference last weekend, thirty thousand people demonstrated outside the Manchester conference hall against Mr Blair's foreign policy and his determination to leave this country a legacy of another generation of nuclear weapons. Inside, there was no debate allowed on the renewal of Trident, nor on the position of our armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

People want democracy from their government, and activists want democracy from their party. That democracy would be a good thing. Yet, poll after poll bears witness to an electorate disillusioned and cynical about politics and politicians. So where's the problem?

Democracy requires the devolvement of power from centralised governments to the people - from its Greek origins, Democracy – "rule by the people" to Abraham Lincoln's – "government of the people, by the people, for the people". People power is where our elected politicians and the electorate part company.

The political economist Joseph Schumpeter defines the roles of people and leader: "Voters must understand that once they have elected an individual, political action is his business and not theirs. This means that they must refrain from instructing him about what he is to do". This well describes the mess of our current system and the erosion of democracy under the premiership of Tony Blair.

When elected dictator Tony has said "Trust Me", he's known that he will do what he wants anyway – sadly this is far from "rule of the people".

The hole left by voiceless people has been quickly filled by business interests. Large donations to political parties ensure that politicians are beholding to corporate interests.

In Labour's case, the immoral Iraq adventure left powerless party members tearing up their membership cards en masse, party democracy destroyed. The resulting financial crisis, and desperation to win a third term, whether your party is with you or not, lead to seeking out rich donors and the ensuing 'Peerages for Loans' scandal.

Jon Cruddas MP launched his bid on Wednesday for deputy leadership against this trend. He highlighted that "the lack of a Trident debate is symptomatic of a general malaise in the party about policy development, and the role of the party". And, of course, it was Blair's likely successor Gordon Brown who had so casually indicated his support for Trident. We can expect Brown will be little different from Blair. As Cruddas added, Brown's reckless statement preceding any debate was "emblematic" of the party's problem.

It is difficult, then, to believe that Brown's talk of "empowerment and strengthening of local councils and local communities" means much as this government plans to railroad new nuclear power stations through the planning system and commit the nation to further nuclear weapons. Brown may have thrown the dog a bone in saying that he would provide "local budgets for local community facilities [that] can be voted on by local people". But the dog is hungry for more – for real parliamentary debate on the big issues where our elected representatives can represent our view.

In fact local democracy is about all that's left. There are active, engaged and informed people saving our local schools, stopping Tesco's from destroying local high streets, or protecting our children from the incineration toxins.

The good news is that this democratic urge isn't going away - many still hold to the belief that they should have a say.

This obstinacy was demonstrated recently at Mildenhall when the peace camp showed people around the world – and it was widely reported - that ordinary people did not agree with our country being used as a refuelling point for planes shipping weapons to be used against the people of Lebanon.

It is apparent around the globe when poor local people stand up against corporate interest trammelling over their lives. It sweeps the globe when people refuse to eat GMs.

Before western governments attempt to export democracy abroad, they need to take another look at its true meaning, learn from real local democracy, understand that it is a choice made by an empowered people, and allow that empowerment to seep upwards.

The UK malaise could be turned around by senior politicians actually taking the risk to really listen to the people about the big issues. They need to learn how to do this at home rather than trying to bomb other nations into 'democracy'.