Tory disdain for democracy reduces Parliament to a talking shop
Older heads than mine may be able to remember a more shambolic and inept government than that of Theresa May. I can’t. However, if that were the only problem, we’d have seen the back of them by now.
Their naked cruelty and obvious disdain for the majority in society marks them out as a clear and present danger to the well-being and prosperity of millions. Can anyone now doubt the basic truth of this statement? However, the handling of the opposition debate on Universal Credit suggests they may be a threat to democracy its self.
This is a party so wedded to austerity, that they are willing to ignore the will of the people, parliament and members of their own party, in order to implement a roll out of Universal Credit. Despite dire warnings that the system will lead to real hardship for some of the most vulnerable people in society, Tory whips instructed their MPs to abstain on a Labour call to halt its implementation, so that deficiencies in the benefit can be fixed.
Think about that for a moment. The government was so certain it would lose a vote to the opposition, it chose the humiliation of mass abstentions on their flagship policy, over listening to genuine concerns about the harm their policies would inflict on many.
Perhaps, after capitulating on Jeremy Corbyn’s demands to abolish the 55p a minute charges for the Universal Credit helpline, Theresa May and her cabinet couldn’t bear the thought of ceding anymore ground to the Labour leader, no matter the damage it causes. What does this say about the democratic process?
And what of those so-called Conservative rebels? How will their constituents view their capitulation to the whips. Abstaining is a rogues route, it is not rebellion and nobody is fooled. When those who put them in office needed them to stand up, they simply fell in line with their leaders. Voters will surely judge their agnosticism harshly.
Perhaps this is merely a stay of execution for Universal Credit. After all, Theresa May has often proven to be a lady for turning.
There is much for the Labour leadership to reflect upon, in the wake of this vote. While the leader of the opposition exudes confidence and purpose, May stutters and evades. As Corbyn’s backbench MPs cheer him to the rafters, May’s sit ashen faced or skulk quietly from the chamber. Corbyn is clearly now a Prime Minister in waiting.
There can be no greater contrast with the early days of his leadership, no greater role reversal for the leaders of Britain’s two main parties. The leader of the opposition and his excellent shadow cabinet are breaking new ground with every passing day.
In truth, the battle with the neo-liberalism of New Labour has been won. They now have Thatcherism in their sights. Labour is an “existential threat to the Tory economic consensus” as Philip Hammond said. That may have been an attempt to rally neo-liberals to his cause, but all it did was point out the bleeding obvious. Among Corbyn’s supporters and beyond there will be those asking themselves, “if Labour isn’t a threat to the economic status-quo, what the hell is it for?”
However, winning the ideological battle, as important as that is, may not be enough. The chaotic attempts of Theresa May’s government to evade democracy point to an even greater battle to be fought in the future. Labour must now also represent a threat to the electoral status-quo.
Make no mistake, if Ministers ignore the outcome of this vote, then they will confirm what many of us have always suspected, Parliament is no more than a talking shop; its primary purpose to impose the will of the establishment on the people, while maintaining the illusion of participation in the process.
If this rag-tag and bob tail government can pass legislation after losing a vote by 299-0, then what hope is there for parliamentary democracy? Surely there is none.
American author, Charles Bukowski, is quoted as saying:
“The difference between democracy and dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.”
Watching the debate on Universal Credit and reading of the governments attempts to circumvent the will of opposition MPs, by curtailing the time for debate and issuing a three line whip to their own back-benchers to abstain, it’s hard not share Bukowski’s cynicism. Beyond the walls of Westminster, there were people desperately pinning their hopes on this vote and they have been woefully let down, not just by the Tories but by the very system itself.
The suffering that will ensue is hard to overstate. People will go hungry, countless will lose their homes and their dignity. Others may pay with their lives. All will be casualties of Tory ideology for sure, but they will also be victims of a broken democracy that no longer serves the majority; if it ever did.
The challenges of the next Labour government will be legion, but there are none greater than the need to revolutionize our country’s democracy. I’m encouraged by Labour’s ideas on new forms of ownership and workplace democracy, but this must extend to a transformation of the process for electing government and enacting policy, or we risk any gains we make being undone later.
If Corbyn’s revolution is to be a permanent one, then this is a battle Labour must be ready to fight.