Friday 11 June 2021

Eco-socialism, democracy and the case for proportional representation


Written by Claire Fairbrother

“It is not enough to be a revolutionary and an advocate of socialism in general. It is necessary to know at every moment how to find the particular link in the chain which must be grasped with all one’s strength in order to keep the whole chain in place and prepare to move on resolutely to the next link”. 

Lenin, Sochineniya, xxii, 466. November 2017.

There are no signs today of anything comparable to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in the UK. Nor is there any evidence that a serious dual power situation will ever present itself in this country, but for the General Strike when the Prime Minister declared a State of Emergency.  After 10 days into the strike and on 12th May 1926, three member’s leaders of the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street. They were swiftly challenged by Stanley Baldwin about their readiness to take power.  As they failed to grasp the strength of their position, they called the strike off.  

Much has been made since of their “betrayal” of the working class.  However those three formidable trade-union leaders, Robert Smilie (Miners), J. H Thomas ( Railways)  and Ernest Bevin (Transport) were solid social democrats. They believed in reforming capitalism gradually rather than overthrowing the state by revolutionary means.  

Having created the Labour Party to represent the interest of their members and of the working class in Parliament for over a century now, the trade union movement has played a key role in supporting social democracy in the UK.

To this day, the Labour Party depends almost entirely on trade union members’ political levy for the financing of its local and national elections campaigns. It is debateable that the Labour Party would be financially viable if links with its Affiliated Trade Unions were to be severed.

Although it has only been in power for 35 years since its foundation in 1900 and Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour administration in 1924, the Labour Party has been relatively successful in delivering on some of its reformist electoral promises to trade union members. The creation of the NHS by Clement Attlee’s government in 1945 remains its most enduring legacy as does what is now left of the Welfare State.

But the Labour Party has been out of power since 2010 and has suffered four successive electoral defeats. This downwards trend over the last decade culminated in its historical and humiliating crash in December 2019 when the Conservatives picked up 3.5 million former Labour voters and swept into power with an 80 strong majority.  

A review as to why the Labour Party lost so spectacularly in 2019  undertaken by Ed Miliband and Lucy Powell* commented  that in order to win a majority of just one under the existing First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system, Labour would have to win an additional 123-124 since Hartlepool byelection loss - at the next General Election.  This would need a uniform swing of 10.52%, larger than Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 and the post-war-election of 1945.

Sir Keir Starmer is determined to win, as he keeps reminding everyone since he was elected as the new leader of the Labour Party, but he is also acutely aware that this will indeed be “a mountain to climb”.  However, genuine concerns are being expressed by a growing number of Labour MPs, a few trade union leaders and grass roots activists that for the Labour Party to win an absolute majority under our existing FPTP voting system will prove to be mission impossible.  

Interestingly enough for a would-be future leader of the Labour Party and when asked by Make Vote Matters about his views on Proportional Representation on the eve of his successful re-election as Mayor of Greater Manchester  - with a 67.3% share of the vote -  Andy Burnham declared he had “come round to it” *.    

Although trade unions have seen a marked drop in their membership over the past two decades, they remain a strong voice for workers and are willing to continue providing critical support to the political party they created.

But the key question that is being raised is:  for how long? The dire prospect of a fifth electoral defeat in a row is concentrating the minds.

Always pragmatic rather than ideological, members from trade union branches and their elected officers have begun to express their concerns. They worry that Labour may no longer be able to deliver on their “investment”.

A suggestion was made recently by one of the candidates for the general secretaries’ post of a large trade union that his members’ £19 million paid into the Labour Party’s coffers could perhaps be put to better use by investing the money in a new TV channel.  

Whilst this is a long held dream from the left which will probably never materialise, others are turning their attention to the role played by our unfair and undemocratic FPTP voting system which is keeping the Conservative Party in power.

At the December 2019 General Election, the Conservative/Brexit Party electoral pact got less than 2 million votes than all the left/centre left and nationalists  parties’ votes put together.  But they still won a huge majority in Parliament because of the  voting system.

As a result, we are now subjected to the most authoritarian, criminally incompetent, and corrupt populist government this country has ever seen.

So why should eco-socialists concern themselves at this point “in the link of the chain” of events about something as bourgeois  as universal suffrage?  

Scrapping FPTP and replacing it with a fairer system where every vote counts is not going to lead to a storming of the Bastille, the Winter Palace or even the Mother of All Parliaments by the “working class” or the working classes.  

It will however put a significant break to the grip on power by the most experienced imperialist political party in the history of Western Democracies.

As evidenced in Scotland for Holyrood Parliament and the Senedd in Wales where members are elected under the Additional Member System (AMS), it is clear that such voting systems can achieve a greater level of consensus in policies and decision making and that voters welcome this.

We have also seen recently how some Conservative Ministers went into panic mode with a proposal to scrap the Supplementary Voting (SV) system used for the Mayoral elections as Labour made some considerable gains.

In this early part of our 21st century, we are facing an existential crisis.  As declared in the Paris Ecosocialist Conference of 2007, “Humanity today faces a stark choice: eco-socialism or barbarism”. The survival of humanity and all living species is indeed at stake. Time is fast running out and we all know it.

But our democracy is broken. This is the case in the UK in particular where we are facing the prospect of a permanent pro-capitalist authoritarian conservative /populist government elected with a minority of votes.

At this precise moment in time, people and young people in particular, are demanding that politicians take action against profit driven exploitative and polluting multi-nationals operating in the fossil fuel, plastic, genetically modified food and poisonous agribusiness sectors. 

Unfortunately, it is hard to see how the environmental catastrophe we are facing will be stopped with negotiated treaties or international agreements approved or implemented by entrenched pro-capitalist politicians.

This is because what is needed over the next decade is a radical transformation of the world economy. We need concrete and urgent reforms to drastically reduce greenhouse gases, fast-track the development of clean energy sources and anti-pollution clean-ups, build an extensive free public transport system, eliminate nuclear energy and nuclear bombs and redistribute of wealth to eliminate poverty and inequalities on a scale never seen before. 

Under our First-Past-the -Post voting system, our battered and fragmented Labour Party founded by the trade union movement over 100 years ago can no longer deliver a majority for government. It must commit to include PR in its next election manifesto as a pre-condition to any electoral deals to keep the Tories out.

With a fair voting system where every vote would count, together with the mobilisation of the Youth, the labour movement as a whole and its allies from the environment and social justice movements, such change could open the door – and minds – to the creation of a healthy,  participative democracy essential to laying the foundation towards a 21st century eco-socialist revolution.

Claire Fairbrother is a British ecosocialist activist and a co-founder of Get PR Done !

1 comment:

  1. Spot on as regards the need for PR. But I really wish the Green Party would stop calling any pro-PR pact with the NEOLIBERAL LibDems a 'Progressive' Alliance!! Since when has Thatcherism/ Neoliberalism been 'progressive'?! As it would be a pact for delivering greater democracy call it what it is: a DEMOCRATIC Alliance. Five years of ACTIVELY helping the Tories push thru' austerity - & then STILL refusing to apologise for it means the LDs do NOT deserve the 'progressive' label!