The electoral system is designed to serve the powers that be
First published by Morning Star on 24th May 2018
Royal weddings are an interesting time. It gives people the chance to think about how they feel about entitlement and privilege. If one can shut out the incessant clamour of the mainstream media’s sycophantic mass hysteria, we can take these sorts of opportunities to analyse and discuss exactly what kind of state we live in. For me, this couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. In the lead up to the recent local elections I was talking to a student studying A’ Level Politics about exactly this question. One of the areas the conversation stumbled into, was just how representative is the UK Parliament? An interesting question at any time, but doubly so in light of the quasi-medieval fanfare blanketing the country this past weekend.
So, does Parliament represent the population? In July 2017 the Houses of Parliament published a research briefing which showed that 8% of the members of both houses came from an ethnic minority background, while the general population was 13.6%[i]. At the same time, the BBC reported that only 32% of elected MPs were women[ii], while the World Bank was estimating the percentage in the UK general population at 50.7%[iii]. And on top of that, the Sutton Trust reported that 29% of all MPs educated in the UK went to fee-paying schools, while only 7% of the general population did. And of those that did, over 1 in 10 of them went to Eton[iv]. Based on these figures alone, one can categorically state that last year the Houses of Parliament did not reflect the general population of the UK in terms of our ethnicity, gender or class. And this isn’t a recent struggle.
In 1896, Mumbai born Professor Dadabhai Naoroji was the first south Asian to be elected to Parliament[v]. It took another twenty-two years for the first woman to be elected as an MP[vi]. A further four decades, and an act of Parliament, before a woman sat in the House of Lords[vii]. And over two more decades more before a woman was Prime Minister[viii]. And it then took another decade after that before the first Afro-Caribbean MPs were elected to the House of Commons in 1987[ix]. The fact that the UK Parliament has never come close to accurately reflecting, either the gender or ethnicity of the UK population is, arguably, due in large part to the role of Parliament in representing the ruling class, which is primarily rich white and male. My instincts tell me that it has always been this way because that is it’s fundamental purpose, to hide entitlement beneath a cloak of perceived electoral mandate.
In John Scott’s 1991 Who Rules Britain?, Scott shows how from the 18th Century through to the early 20th Century, the control of political power in the UK was primarily reflective of the shift in economic power amongst the rich, from the owners of agricultural land to the owners of factories and machinery. Even after the 1832 reform act the vast majority of people in the UK still didn’t have the vote, and Parliament continued to reflect this. Even Marx felt the need to explain how the 1855 Palmerston government was the most aristocratic administration in history[x]. And as calls for universal suffrage and the threat of revolution mounted, the ruling elite simply further entrenched its position. The 1905 Conservative government cabinet contained 11 alumni from the top fee paying schools in the country, and 13 Oxford and Cambridge alumni[xi].
This trend persisted throughout the twentieth century. In the 1930s Arthur and Margaret Wynn described Harrow and Eton as “the most important training-grounds for prospective conservative politicians”[xii], going on to argue how “the government, the civil service, the law and the military were all recruited from an extremely narrow class background [whilst] Conservative MP’s … were drawn from the wealthiest sections of society, many being millionaires or near-millionaires”[xiii]. In 1951 68% of all Conservative MPs had been to fee-paying schools, and by 1970 this figure reached 74%. It shouldn’t be that surprising to find out that “Virtually all cabinet ministers between 1951 and 1964 had been to public schools”, with roughly one third having gone to Eton[xiv]. In reality, not only isn’t the UK Parliament reflective of the gender, class or ethnicity of the UK population, but it has never really pretended to be. To which the follow up question must be, does Parliament at least represent the views of the UK population?
In 2010 the Conservatives were the senior partner in the coalition government, having been able to secure power with only 36.1%[xv] of the 65%[xvi] turnout of registered voters[xvii]. So, out of a general population at the time of over 60 million people[xviii], the Conservative party was able to run the country with a vote of less than 18% of the population[xix]. Similarly, after the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party were allowed to continue to govern with only 36.9% of the 66.1% turnout of registered voters. By then the population had risen to 65 million[xx], however the mandate stayed steady at under 18%[xxi]. The political system has been designed and developed over centuries in such a way that government can be secured and held against the overwhelming opposition of the people.
In light of this, it is worth considering what systems of popular control are in place, in order to at least ensure that the day-to-day activities of government reflects the will of the people, even if the elections don’t. The UK government describes itself as “a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch”, in which “the people vote in elections for Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent them”. In that system government is made up of a Prime Minister and a Cabinet who are most of the time “directly accountable to Parliament”. However, the Royal Prerogative recognises certain powers to the Head of State and their proxy, the government. “Today, most prerogative powers are instead directly exercised by ministers, rather than the Crown. They relate to areas including … certain areas of foreign and defence policy … [and] are beyond the control of the House of Commons and the House of Lords”[xxii]. Within these powers, the monarch and the government maintain certain rights with neither oversight nor mandate from any other mechanism within the democratic process. So, there are clearly powers afforded to the minority group that can take and hold control of the state which do appear quite authoritarian.
This in turn begs the question, if it is not a democracy, then exactly what kind of State are we living in? Perhaps Peter Dale Scott, who has extensively studied the nature of governmental power, and the degree to which it is both democratic and open can help answer that. In his 2010 book American War Machine, Dale Scott cites Max Weber’s argument that the modern State is a system that “upholds a claim on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order”[xxiii]. He furthered clarified this in 2015 explaining how the State, although historically inclined to use violence to solve international recalcitrance while using coercion to solve domestic recalcitrance, was fast becoming willing to openly use violence both domestically and internationally when it felt it was being obstructed[xxiv]. Can such totalitarianism be demonstrated in the UK?
In 1968 Detective Chief Inspector Conrad Hepworth Dixon, in response to the protests against the US invasion of Vietnam, came up with the idea of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS)[xxv]. An undercover arm of the Metropolitan Police Forces’ Special Branch which, among other things, was tasked with infiltrating political groups that obstructed the State[xxvi]. In Rob Evans 2013 expose Undercover, he explains how the SDS was quietly disbanded in 2008, only to be superseded by the newer organisation the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which was tasked with targeting domestic extremists who, “outside of the normal democratic process”, want to “prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy”. This could be something like marching on an anti-war protest for instance. In 2004 the NPOIU was joined by the “National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit” (NETCU) which was tasked with advising and sharing intelligence with Companies on the protest groups that were targeting them. Perhaps taking part in a campaign to boycott companies using plastic bags may fall into this definition. These two organisations were then joined in 2005 by the third group, the ‘National Domestic Extremism Team’ (NDET) which would coordinate the two other groups across the country. So what does all this mean? In the UK there is a nationwide undercover paramilitary intelligence force, protecting the ruling class by targeting people exercising their right to free speech. In 2006, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) took charge of all three units[xxvii]. And since then, the nature of what it is they have been doing, and to who they have been doing it, has become public knowledge[xxviii].
No one interested in politics in the UK today can ignore the historic changes that have occurred in terms of socialist policies being openly debated in the mainstream media for the first time in decades. But in answering the question does Parliament represent the people, further questions of whether this socialist debate is likely to be reflected in a similar change within the hierarchies of power has to be considered. Many of the people that I speak to, that have been carried along in this recent wave of energy are not as aware as those that have been doing this for decades, the extent to which those in power will go to in order to maintain their control.
More than anything I want to believe that a Labour Party run by actual socialists, with the support of a working class organised in Trade Unions can not only win a general election, but take control of government, and then institute processes that makes the state actually subordinate to the people. I would like to believe that well organised social networking groups, self-styled ‘liberal’ journalists, and privately educated University graduates might well be the difference this time that makes our collective struggle successful. But I am not sure. History tells me something different.
What worries me is not that we are talking about wrestling power and privilege away from a ruling class that have used violence and coercion to control the working people of the UK for centuries, or that they are part of a global system of financial imperialism that is subjugating close to 99% of the entire human race. No, what worries me most, is that we are focussing on achieving that through the very system that they created to subordinate us, namely the electoral process. It wasn’t so long ago, that even when standing up in our millions to express our opinions, we were roundly ignored[xxix]. And for those of us that were there, that is not easily forgotten. I think there is a real possibility that we may have to at least consider more direct approaches, such as boycotts, and withdrawal of labour and civil disobedience. And I think there is an onus on us to make those new to the struggle aware of that possibility.
We may act like we are not in a class war, but whether we like it or not, they have been fighting one for centuries.
Nicolas Lalaguna, www.nicolaslalaguna.com
x Scott, John – Who Rules Britain, 1991
xi Scott, John – Who Rules Britain, 1991 p127
xii Scott, John – Who Rules Britain, 1991 p28
xiii Scott, John – Who Rules Britain, 1991 p27
xiv Scott, John – Who Rules Britain, 1991 p132, 133
xxiii dale scott, peter – american war machine, 2010 – p8
xxiv Dale Scott, Peter – The American Deep State, 2015 – p3, 4
xxvii evans, rob – undercover; the true story of britain’s secret police, 2013 – p202, 203, 204