Both New Labour and the Tories depended for their last General Election campaigns on millionaires giving them big loans under the counter. As for the Liberal Democrats, their 2005 accounts show £3.5 million of their £5.2 million income (other than public funds) from corporate donations. They got only slightly less in corporate donations than the Tories did, with £4.2 million.
Arithmetical proof that the vote now serves us mostly to choose between different sorts of millionaires’ governments, and leaves no choice for a workers’ government!
Blair has fended off the loans crisis by embarrassing the Tories over their millionaire lenders. Both the police and the Electoral Commission have started investigations. Blair and Cameron met on 4 April to discuss the issue. Cameron, deputy prime minister John Prescott, and the Lib Dems have all said that the way out should be to make what the parties have been doing until now illegal, and replace it by state funding for political parties.
That would turn politics into a choice between different sorts of... politicians’ governments. In the past, Tory MPs would be businessmen, bankers, lawyers, etc., and Labour MPs might be workers, or at least workers-turned-union-officials. More and more, “politics” — councils, think-tanks, jobs as advisers, parliament — is becoming a trade which people go into straight from university, without ever doing a “real” job.
State funding would convert politics even more into an affair of rival hierarchies of professional politicians, funded by the state, communicating with the people through the media, and with very little need for volunteer political activists.
The millionaires would not mind much. These professional politicians would move in the same circles as them and serve their interests.
For the working class, state funding would cut off the possibility of a political party financed by, controlled by, and drawing many of its activists and leaders from, the democratic mass organisations of the working class, the trade unions —- of something like the old Labour Party at its best. In Cameron’s proposals, for example, large collective donations from trade unions to political parties would become illegal.
In the USA, the Republican Katherine Harris has just signalled her determination to contest a Senate seat in Florida by saying she will “spend what it takes” to win the seat, putting in $10 million of her own money. Media comment revolves round the question of whether $10 million is really enough.
The US system is one way of sealing off politics from the working-class majority. Making politics a separate state-financed “trade”, and encouraging the atrophy of the grass-roots party structures through which working-class people might make their way to political prominence, is another.
When old Labour had lots of MPs from working-class backgrounds, however, that was not enough to make Labour governments real workers’ governments. The “worker” ministers were overawed by, seduced by, or intellectually conquered by, their new ruling-class surroundings. They pursued and propounded capitalist policies, only now in a working-class accent.
Karl Marx described the first workers’ government, the Paris Commune of 1871, in these terms: “The majority of its members were... working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class... responsible and recallable at short terms. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time... From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages...”
A workers’ government, then, requires worker-“ministers” — but worker-“ministers” who break up the entrenched hierarchies of privilege in the unelected state machine and operate under the control of an active and vigilant democratic workers’ movement. And, if it is to be a solid, effective workers’ government, it requires that the workers’ movement has a clear political programme, unabashed by the ruling-class “wisdom of the ages”.
How do we get there from here? If politics is dominated by the rich, then how can parties based on poor people ever prevail?
In the first place, by numbers. Trade-union financing of the Labour Party shows how working-class people, by building mass organisations, can develop a political party with at least the basic administrative structure necessary to challenge the parties of the rich.
In the second place, by developing the working-class press. The billionaire media can be challenged. The old Labour Party had a mass-circulation paper of its own, the Daily Herald, from 1912 to 1964. Now, sold off and reshaped, it is... the Sun! Then there was the anaemic Labour Weekly, until 1987, Then, nothing. Today, it is down to papers like Solidarity to reopen channels of working-class information and political education.
And thirdly, by the force of activism. The first Marxist party to win solid electoral gains, the German Social Democratic Party of the 19th century, did it when from 1878 to 1890 the whole Party was illegal from 1878 to 1890, and after 1890 it was illegal for state employees (rail workers, postal workers) to subscribe to party papers or attend party meetings. No amount of the influence of wealth could outdo the efforts of thousands of Marxist workers talking to and arguing with their workmates and neighbours.
Starting from here, our first tasks are to rebuild trade-union activism, to lever the unions into asserting themselves politically within Labour structures and fighting the millionaire clique, and to resist state funding of political parties.