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The Labour Party and Economic Democracy

Writing in 2003, Paul Foot contended that successive Labour governments have abandoned any aspiration to economic democracy. Will a Keir Starmer government be any different in 2024?

Paul Foot12 June 2024

The Labour Party and Economic Democracy

Capitalism and democracy are always in conflict, and the history of all capitalist states that have conceded universal suffrage has been, in part at least, a history of that conflict. What has happened in all those countries, including Britain, is that the forces of capitalism have conquered democracy, subdued it, suppressed its impact and left it to wither in irrelevance.

The case against capitalism, and for a democratic socialist society to replace it, seems every bit as strong in 2003 as it was when the vote was first granted to most people some 85 years ago. Yet the sad fact is that in those years Labour Governments, including particularly the majority Labour Government that came to office at the end of the twentieth century, have done little or nothing to achieve the Party's founding aim - namely to use the power given them by the franchise to represent the organized workers and to close the gap between the rich and the workers in this country or in any other. In the past Labour ministers used to apologize for this failure. Now they boast about it.

Oh well, comes the sceptics' reply, it's all the fault of democracy. Under a democracy, the argument continues, we get the Governments we deserve, and all the Labour Governments were elected. This response ignores the main message of this narrative: that the electoral process, whenever it favours labour and the poor, has been constantly thwarted by undemocratic forces it does not control.

Chief among these is the power of wealth. Again and again through the twentieth century, Labour Governments with good parliamentary majori­ties have been humbled and cut down by financial 'crises'. Even in the 1940s, when they were strongest, Labour ministers were constantly looking over their shoulders at the City of London for fear of a bankers' coup like the one that destroyed their Government in 1931. 

By a mixture of determination, ideological commitment and good fortune, that post-war Government and its socialist reputation survived, but the Wilson Govern­ment that came to office in the mid 1960s had its promises, its thrust and its purpose thrown into reverse by developments beyond its control, orchestrated by the representatives of the rich who were not elected by anyone. Similarly, Labour ministers in the 1970s were plagued throughout by financial crises, sudden lurches in the value of the pound, which demanded - and achieved - quite different policies from the ones they themselves had proclaimed. More than once, their policies on quite crucial issues were overturned by the courts or the police.

All Labour administrations have been harassed and libelled by corrupt media, especially corrupt newspaper proprietors, recklessly dodging taxes and wielding their power without responsibility, famously dubbed the prerogative of the harlot. So effective was the harassment from the most powerful of these proprietors, Rupert Murdoch, that Blair, before the 1997 election, made peace with Murdoch and, in exchange for Murdoch's papers' support at election times, faithfully followed the proprietor's agenda for Government media policy.

The impotence of elected government in the face of these undemocratic forces has a long and miserable history. Even the Tory administrations that ruled from 1979 to 1997 had no answer to financial crises such as the exchange rate crisis of 1992 in which, according to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, the elected Government was 'completely out of control'. Those Tory ministers, however, assumed complete control when they were cutting down the organizations of labour, the trade unions, and reforming local authorities. They cut such a deadly swathe through what was left of Labour's social democratic achievements that the Labour Party, in a desperate struggle to keep their craft afloat, threw overboard their aspirations and policies and finally settled down with a conservative leader and an entourage of advisers and consultants ideologically indis­tinguishable from their Tory predecessors. 

A new politics has emerged, founded on the American model, and entirely divorced from the ideological disputes between capitalism and socialism that characterized the past. The new politics, agreed by all the contestants, effectively rules out of the political process at least 15 per cent of the people at the bottom of the pile. As a consequence, those people don't vote, and the process continues. So, in an age where socialist priorities are more relevant and vital than ever before, the conventional route to socialist progress through electing Labour Governments has been comprehensively blocked.

— An edited excerpt from The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined by Paul Foot.

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Further Reading: 

What does Keir Starmer Stand For?: Oliver Eagleton on Starmer’s past life as Director of Public Prosecutions, and what it reveals about the kind of politician he is.

Verso General Election Reading: Books to understand the British political landscape in the run-up to the 2024 UK General Election.

Imagining Radical Futures: In the face of political despair, we present books that radically imagine what our futures could look like.

The Vote
The culmination of a lifetime’s work by the celebrated journalist and historian Paul Foot, The Vote tells the thrilling story of how the universal franchise was secured in Britain, and the slow ero...

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