Picking up the pieces of our broken system

Steve Freeman writes in the Morning Star about the forthcoming Republican Socialist Convention. View events. Who elected Peter Mandelson to Parliament? He is Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade and Lord President of the Council.

He has considerable political power. He can decide the terms of the Kraft takeover and the fate of Cadbury workers. Yet nobody has elected him. Becoming a lord still opens the door to high office. It is just one of the many quirks of British parliamentary democracy.

Today the Westminster brand is facing a crisis as its credibility continues to sink. At the last election 40 per cent of people did not vote. In November MP Tony Wright's report warned that Parliament was in "crisis" after the expenses scandal and the crown's near total control of parliamentary business.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg declared that "this government has had 13 years to fix our democracy, but instead it will leave office with Westminster's reputation in tatters." The party likely to gain most from the alienation from politics and parliament is the BNP.

In the general election every party from Ukip and the BNP through to the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru and the Greens will take up the issue.

Labour is calling for the alternative vote system. The Liberal Democrats will be demanding recallable MPs, proportional representation and an elected House of Lords.

But the socialist and trade union movement has not worked out any coherent or consistent policy. Some organisations have no policies on democracy. Others have similar but differing policies which add to the sense of disunity. The result is inaction.

The No2EU - Yes to Democracy campaign in the 2009 Euro elections could have been an important point of departure. Trade unionists and socialists came together as a temporary alliance involving RMT, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Green Socialism and the Socialist Alliance.

The "Yes to Democracy" slogan was raised as part of the No2EU campaign. A connection was made between a lack of democracy, anti-working class laws, reduced workers' rights and free-market policies.

Britain's "broken democracy" is not about idealising some past golden age. We have always had a flawed - or some would say a Tory - democracy, or "democratic deficit."

The issue of Europe has merely added to the problem. In the past few years events have shown the Westminster system to be a busted flush. It is not a matter of patching it up with a few half-hearted and half-baked reforms. It needs a much more radical change which involves masses of people creating their own new democracy.

In 2002-3 the Iraq war tested Westminster. Over one million people demonstrated against it. Parliament failed to represent the people. It voted for war and simply provided some "legitimacy" for Blair's lies and deceptions.

Bush was committed to Iraq regime change before September 11 2001. The Twin Towers gave him a handy excuse. Blair promised the support of the British crown and its armed forces in early 2002, if not before. Military preparations were under way in the summer of 2002. But Blair kept up the public pretence that nothing was decided and there would be no war without the UN. Cabinet and Parliament were kept in the dark to be used as a rubber stamp.

In the Westminster system the most important questions are decided by the crown - ministers, civil servants and diplomats - in secret or behind closed doors.

Parliament knows little, cares less and can do nothing about it. It failed over the war. It could claim to have been misled like the Cabinet. But if so it would have done a serious investigation and prosecuted those involved. It could have seized the key documents or arrested those who did not co-operate. Blair's arrogance over this affair is built on the confidence that Parliament is too enfeebled to call him to account.

The failings of Westminster are not confined to the Iraq war or MPs' expenses. The same methods and results work out through the laws, taxes and spending decisions that affect the living and working conditions of the working class. You don't need to go to the House of Commons visitors' gallery to watch the whole ridiculous pantomime in action. Better to see the results by walking around the streets and housing estates in any of our towns and cities.

What should the left do about this broken so-called democracy? Ignore it and hope it all goes away? Should the left champion parliamentary reform? Is there an English national question? Is it time to call for an English parliament and a federal republic?

The Communist Party's programme Britain's Road to Socialism points in this direction. This Saturday the Republican Socialist Convention will be discussing these and related issues and what the left should say about the democratic question in the general election.