Parliament versus democracy

GLW #271 Wednesday, April 23, 1997 - 10:00
By Doug Lorimer

The lack of financial accountability of MPs revealed by the "Colston affair" highlights the fact that — contrary to the myths perpetuated by establishment political commentators in the capitalist media and in academia, as well as bourgeois politicians themselves — the parliamentary system exists to thwart rather than implement democracy ("rule by the people").

Public accountability of MPs is restricted to general elections held once every three years, or when the government of the day thinks it has the best chance of winning. In such elections, one MP is elected by an electorate made up of around 70,000 voters.

This makes it impossible for voters to meet together, collectively scrutinise the record and policy of the candidates, or collectively formulate what policies they want their elected representative to argue for in parliament. Throughout the election process, including in the ballot itself, voters select a parliamentary "representative" in the same way they buy commodities at a supermarket — as essentially passive, atomised customers.

The electorate — made up overwhelmingly of ordinary working people, of workers and small farmers — is forced to rely on the literature distributed by the candidates' parties, the advertising campaigns run by parties that can afford such campaigns and the extremely limited policy debates conducted in the capitalist mass media, to assess candidates' policies.

Once they are elected to parliament, MPs can easily renege on the promises they made during the election campaign. The size of their electorates makes it impossible for their constituents to meet collectively to review the performance of their MP, to discuss and demand any change in his or her activities and to replace the MP if they are dissatisfied with his/her activity.

The very structure of the parliamentary system excludes the vast majority of people from any real say in politics, i.e. in government policy and thus use of state power. This fact is unconsciously acknowledged by establishment political commentators whenever they refer to "politics": a person is said to have entered or left "politics" when they gain or lose a parliamentary seat.

Not only are the vast majority of voters excluded from involvement in deciding the operations of government, so too are most of their elected representatives. The administration of government policy is concentrated in the hands of a small number of MPs (the cabinet) and in the hands of a bureaucracy — the highly paid, unelected officials who administer the public service, the military and police forces and the judicial and penal systems.

These bureaucrats are provided with exorbitant salaries and lavish perks. They enjoy lifestyles very different from those of the vast majority of the population and therefore do not share the same social interests. Even if they are not recruited from wealthy families (which most are), the high salaries they are paid and the social connections they make as a result of their lifestyles enables them to enter into the families of the big capitalists and top structures of the corporations.

A genuinely democratic system of government, such as was first instituted by the working people of Paris during their brief rebellion in 1871 and by the Russian workers in 1917, would do away with the parliamentary system. It would be based on local assemblies of citizens, collectively meeting to elect delegates to municipal councils, who in their turn would elect delegates to regional councils, and so on, up to a single national assembly of delegates.

At each tier, the body that elected the delegates would involve no more than a few thousand voters — who would thus be able to hear and discuss reports from their elected representatives and replace them at any time the voters were dissatisfied with their work.

At each tier of such a delegated system of government, the assembled delegates would elect an executive body to implement their policy decisions. This would ensure that all the actual administrative work was in the hands of officials who were elected and accountable.

Moreover, all elected delegates and officials would be paid no more than the average wage, ensuring that public office was not a means of personal enrichment and that the lifestyle and hence social interests of those holding public office were not at odds with those of ordinary working people.

From GLW issue 271 - See more at: