The John McDonnell Column
Capitalism is facing an economic crisis but is not facing, in Britain at least, a political crisis. That is the paradox for the left. The political challenges that have taken place, whether trade union action or direct action like Occupy, may have released activist energies but they have not seriously challenged the political establishment so far. There are a number of potential reasons for this.
It may be that we are at the early stages of the implementation of the UK’s austerity programme and the worst of the suffering has yet to hit a majority of working class people.
It may be that there is a lack of belief that an alternative exists. The main opposition party is simply advocating a watered down version of austerity as the cure for the crisis.
It may also simply be timing. In the 1930s economic crisis there was an inevitable time delay between the initial shock of the crisis, the attempts by the existing institutions to tackle it, their failure, and the opportunity for alternatives to be mobilised and take serious hold in the popular consciousness. We may now be reaching the same timing in this cycle.
The effectiveness of austerity as a policy is now being questioned even among mainstream economic and political commentators. Polls show confidence is increasingly being lost in politicians who advocate austerity. The austerity measures and growing doubts about the political strategy being pursued by the government are creating an atmosphere for many of our people of both economic and political insecurity. They feel they have no control over their lives, no future.
This is the crisis of democracy. People are told they live in a democracy and yet are increasingly being taught by this recession that in reality they have no or little control over their lives.
Time for an Alternative Future
This is the time people are likely to seek an alternative future. The central question is how can people gain control over their lives? How can they overcome the precarious existence that they now experience? This is about redefining democracy from the narrow definition of an X on a ballot paper every few years to active, participatory democracy that enables people to take control of every aspect of their life.
If as socialists we want to convince people that there is an alternative to capitalism we have to demonstrate how each element of our system can be transformed so that we can take control of our lives. This new imagined future must convince people that daily life will be dramatically and, very concretely, different.
- Waking up will be different for many in new affordable good quality, environmentally sustainable homes that they will have had a say in creating through their local housing programme and via their local council or housing co-op.
- Going to work will be different as they use public transport for free, on an integrated system managed in common ownership by representatives of the workers who run the system, the passengers who travel on it and the wider community.
- Life at work will be different because firms will be in co-operative ownership, socialised and selfmanaged or as a minimum operating with full trade union rights and workers’ representatives on every board.
- For those that work at home with caring responsibilities there will be wages, not benefits, to ensure all work is respected and nobody lives in poverty.
- Using public services will be different because each service will be managed locally by elected representatives from the workforce, patients, students, parents or service users and the local community.
- Local decision making will be different as we break down the bureaucracies of existing councils and replace them with neighbourhood assemblies with direct democratic decision making.
- Parliamentary democracy will be different as MPs become accountable to local assemblies and local people have the right of recall of their parliamentary representatives.
We must ensure that every institution and every practice in our society is reviewed and assessed to see if they meet the basic democratic principle of restoring to people control over their lives.
Crisis of Representation
There is clearly in the UK what many have described as a crisis of political representation. While for a period the Labour Party had some programmatic adherence to transforming our capitalist society into a socialist one, this has no longer been the case since at least Blair’s arrival. Certainly Ed Miliband has repeated regularly that he believes in a reformed capitalism, a responsible capitalism, a one nation capitalism.
The demand for an anticapitalist voice in Parliament may grow as the recession continues and the austerity measures hurt even more people. We must overcome this crisis of representation in every forum we possibly can and campaign and struggle within every institution of which we are part, including for me at least the Labour Party, to develop and promote the discussion about an alternative.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.