Cassius: Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge leggs, and peep about...
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I Scene III.
AFTER the big Labour losses and Tory gains in last week’s local elections, there is a louder-then-ever clamour in the labour movement and beyond it for Blair to go, and go soon. But Blair refuses! He will, he says, go in his own good time.
The most important aspect of this increasingly grotesque Tony Blair saga is the mirror it holds up to bourgeois democracy in Britain and to labour-movement democracy as well. What the mirror shows is a truly horrible and shameful state of affairs.
Tony Blair is very widely discredited among the electorate. The once self-described “pretty straight guy” is now widely regarded as a shifty-eyed liar whose word is worth nothing.
If a general election were to be held now, he and his party would, by most indications, be voted out of office.
The only one still to be won of the demands for democratic reform raised in the mid 19th century by the first mass workers’ movement, the British Chartists, is the demand for annual parliaments. If we had a parliamentary election every year, then Blair would probably be dismissed now.
Blair himself felt obliged during last year's general election to promise the electorate that he would retire before the next general election. Elect me, but I won't stay long! A sizeable part of the Parliamentary Labour Party now wants Blair to go immediately.
Yet Blair still clings to the highest office in the land. His recent promise to the Parliamentary Labour Party that he will retire in good time to allow his successor to establish himself before the 2009 general election - that is, to stay for another year or two — is being touted as a huge concession to those who want him to go now.
Short of outright civil war in the Labour Party, the decision is Blair’s. Blair is entrenched. Blair's eager heir-apparent, Gordon Brown, does not dare attempt to force him out for fear that the ensuing conflict would fatally divide New Labour and thereby increase the chances of defeat for the Government (and Blair's successor) in the 2009 or 2010 general election.
Blair is virtually irremovable until he himself decides to go, or until the next general election in three or four years' time.
This is democracy? It is elective, time-limited, one-person dictatorship; elective monarchy; Bonapartism — whatever you like, but effective democracy it is not.
The problem now seems to be the problem of Blair, of a discredited prime minister defying the widespread desire that he should go. In fact the problem is not just Blair. The problem is the system we have evolved, which allows Blair to do what he is doing.
When Blair’s political other self, Gordon Brown, takes over, he too will be a virtual monarch. He is estranged from Blair not because he champions different policies, or a different conception of leadership and of what democracy in the state or in the Labour Party should be, but by the desire to be what Blair is now, pursuing pretty much identical policies.
For, of course, the prerogatives of his majesty Blair include the de facto right to dictate government policy. He says openly that he wants to stay so that he can lay down the future shape of government policy and of Britain.
Over the last hundred years or so there has been an enormous shift in political power away from Parliament. Parliament is dominated by party machines and party-regimented voting. The Cabinet of the governing party controls the Parliamentary majority. As we have seen a number of times recently, it can almost always control it even when a big proportion of the MPs of the majority party are openly opposed to Government policy.
The old democratic formula that Parliament controls the Government is neatly inverted. The Government has come to control Parliament, not vice versa.
Under Blair not even the Cabinet makes policy. The dictator, and those whom he chooses to consult, do.
General elections, now usually four years apart, allow the electorate to intervene and kick out a government. But even general elections now are, as in the USA, more and more political “beauty contests” — plebiscites about leaders — rather than an electoral choice of policies and political programmes.
The electorate’s rights are now little more than a negative right to throw out, after some delay, an unpopular leader. For them to be more, the electorate would have to be offered different options by the different parties. Without different political parties, offering different policies and representing different interests and classes, there is no effective democracy.
In an era in which the political differences between the three main parties are very slight and unstable, such choice is no longer a decisive part of the great majority of elections.
THE working class has been disenfranchised by the Blairites’ hijacking of the Labour Party. And so, to a great extent, has the whole electorate. Its power in voting is largely nullified by the sameness of the main parties. The enormous cost of a general election campaign – £57 million spent on the 2005 general election, much of it, as we now know, provided through loans from millionaires – has once again (as before the 19th century reforms which shaped the British bourgeois-democratic system) made effective politics the prerogative of people or institutions with large sums of money.
Even so, the general electorate has the possibility of an opt-out vote every four years or so. It is the labour movement - the affiliated unions, and the local Labour Parties, what’s left of them – who are confronted most starkly by the phenomenon of an incumbent leader with the powers of a quasi-absolute monarch.
Yes, the Labour-affiliated unions could do a great deal to unseat Blair were they so minded. But the whole system militates against them using their notional power.
And it is not only the Labour Party. David Cameron, once elected Tory leader, "did a Blair", and made a bonfire of the old policies of the Tory party, "repositioning” himself to the “left” of Blair (which is not hard!) Where Blairism has been characterised by a cringing across-the-board subservience to the profiteers and their god, profit, Cameron - Cameron, the leader of the Tory party! - dares to criticise them publicly!
And the Tory party in the country?
One may think it good that Cameron is ditching the old Toryism. And we should not pretend that the Tory party before Cameron was a democracy. Yet the phenomenon of personal power at the top of political parties, of a modern form of Bonapartism, which allows a party leader to make up policy at will and impose it on the party and, if the party has a parliamentary majority, on the country, is a gross outrage against democracy.
Whatever about the mechanics of Tory party management before now, there was some correspondence between rank and file Tories and their leaders. With Cameron there is as much of a gap between the leader and the led as between Blair and the rank-and-file of the labour movement a decade ago.
Sweet as it may be for socialists to see the neanderthals of the Tory party discomfited, we should recognise that the eruption of Blair-style Bonapartism in the Tory party is a symptom of the general political malaise.
“Focus groups” and all the rest testify to a political system in which initiative is held by political gangs who decide from above what to concede and how much and what can be “triangulated”. The electorate is transformed into a semi-passive consumer role. No wonder so many people don’t vote!
In the last fifteen or twenty years British politics has been dominated by a species of political leapfrogging. Blair's and Brown's New Labour followed Thatcher and moved on to Thatcherite political ground, politically gazumping the Tory party. Who, in the mid-1990s, would opt for the crusty, corrupt, moralising hypocrites and reactionaries of John Major’s Tory party when they could have Blair's and Brown's glamorous, fresh-scented and polished, uncorrupted, “straight” version of the same policies?
Who in 2006, or 2007, will not want to choose a Tory party washed clean, fresh-scented and polished, and led by a Blair clone with no political differences to speak of from 1997 New Labour?
The main parties jostle for pretty much the same political ground. Under Menzies Campbell the Lib Dems too gravitates towards the political ground of neo-Thatcherism.
This is a process of competition for the spoils of political office between gangs of careerist politics who agree with each other on all the big questions of politics and society but are ensconsed in the party machines of the historic British political parties which, despite the shift by New Labour away from the working class, still have traditional electoral bases and are well-rooted in British society. It is becoming more and more like the American system, a pluto-democratic travesty in which the billionaires nakedly decide, control, and rule.
The role of the press in British bourgeois democracy encapsulates much of what is wrong with bourgeois democracy. Millionaires own most of the press, and all the mass-circulation press – foreign billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, who controls mass media in many countries, and British plutocrats like Richard Desmond, whose Daily Express is a foul, chauvinistic, racist excrescence in British public life.
Even the “quality” press like the Guardian and the Independent are entirely with the neo-Thatcherite political consensus.
One of the most remarkable things in British public life and in the media in general, not only the press, is the extent to which all the assumptions of neo-Thatcherism have bcome the political norm, the dominant assumption, the standard against which everything is measured.
Bonapartist, dictatorial party leaders relate directly to the electorate by way of the media, largely bypassing the political parties, the old seedbeds of alternative views and policies and articulations of class interest.
The acceptance, indeed the worship, of the market and market forces is now the dominant idolatry. Much of what Blair and Brown do is driven by pure ideology, by blind political and social dogmatism - what they are doing to the National Health Service, for instance. The billionaire press is chief among the high priests of this idolatry.
Political leaders compete for their favour or scurry to avoid their wrath. Prime ministers, even those in waiting, fawn on the likes of Rupert Murdoch like Dark-Ages petty lords before a King of Kings, an Emperor, or a Pope.
All these things combine to neutralise democracy in the state and in the political parties. They hollow out democracy into an empty formalism, a ritual every four or five years to decide which gang of politicians will rule for the rich and powerful and maybe “do something” for the rest of the people.
One of the worst blows to general bourgeois democracy was dealt when the Labour Party was hijacked by the Blair gang over a decade ago. All the party's old channels of decision-making were closed down or heavily silted up.
The possibility of the labour movement shaping policy was drastically reduced. Even if a Labour government would then ignore most of that policy, the labour movement used to be able to know where it stood, and to judge Labour governments accordingly. Occasionally such things would happen as the 1944 Labour conference voting, against the opposition of the leaders, for a relatively radical programme of nationalisations, which was then put to the electorate in 1945 and became the guideline for a reforming Labour government.
The “reforms” of the Labour Party in the 1980s and early ’90s prepared the way for Blair to become “king”. “One member, one vote” seemed very democratic — or, at any rate, more democratic than smaller numbers of Labour activists deciding policy.
That was delusion. Putting only occasionally-involved formal members of the Labour Party “in control” meant that such people delegated their “power” not to the active members of the party, who would actually discuss policy, but to the elected party leader. The elected leader was raised above the party, with an authority derived from the passive electorate and not the active Labour Party members. When he became prime minister, he was further endowed with personal power of an inordinate kind.
The seemingly-democratic “one member, one vote” gave de facto power to one person and those he chose as his colleagues. In practice it led to Blair’s dictatorship. It played the same role as the occasional plebiscite in a state under Bonapartist dictatorships, like those of Napoleon III in late 19th century France, or De Gaulle in France after 1958.
Solidarity is a Marxist paper. We think bourgeois democracy is radically inadequate - a part-hollowed-out form of democracy which even in its best form leads to the de facto rule of the rich, of those who can buy newspapers and politicians and state officials.
We want a political system based on soviets - elected councils of recallable workers' delegates. But in that we are as yet an infinitesimal minority. Here and now we propose to labour-movement democrats that we join together and fight against the continued erosion of bourgeois democracy in Britain.
The first step in that fight is a drive to reclaim the Labour Party or, failing that, to get the unions to break with Blair and Brown and launch a new party of labour.