Momentum: Time to reclaim our democracy
“What is to become of those destitute millions, who consume today, what they earned yesterday; who have created the greatness of England by their inventions and their toil; who become with every passing day more conscious of their might, and demand, with daily increasing urgency, their share of the advantages of society?”
Frederick Engels, 1845
I first read Engels ‘The Condition of the Working Class in Britain’, in the late 1980’s. I was eighteen or nineteen at the time and it had a profound effect on me.
I was struck by two facts. One, the condition of the working class had improved a great deal since Engels published his classic. We had achieved the Welfare State, the National Health Service and universal education. The council house I grew up in was comfortable and warm. My parents earned enough to ensure that we never went hungry.
I didn’t, however, believe that a benevolent ruling class had voluntarily handed over to those destitute millions their share of the pie. Instead I was very aware that each of these social advances had been the result of the hard fought battles of working people. I and millions like me owed a great debt to those men and women from another century, who had organised themselves and wrenched those concessions from a tight-fisted state.
Secondly, I recognised that those concessions would only ever be on loan to us. As I watched the nightly news in the eighties I could see that same ruling class seizing every opportunity to snatch back as much of the pie as they could. I watched as then Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, sent the full force of the state to literally smash the miners strike. These were simply men and women desperately trying to defend their livelihoods and communities. The response of the government was merciless.
One by one our industries were plundered and sold off to The City. For the many pay rates were driven down by mass unemployment. Those in jobs were having their right to defend them stripped away by legislation. It seemed everything that had been fought for was now being taken back.
My generation didn’t stand idly by while all this was going on. We fought back, demonstrated and campaigned. We managed to stop some of the attacks. The ‘Poll Tax’ for example eventually proved a step too far for Thatcher and would became her undoing.
Labour attempted to reverse some of the worst excesses of the Thatcher years, but they did little to challenge the vested interests that hold all the power in society. Now, just as before those same interests simply cannot wait to take it all back.
Thanks to our ‘democracy’ it’s simply too easy for them. Today grey suited men and women pass bills in parliament; plunging thousands into debt and the threat of poverty. Not to worry though there’s a food-bank in every town and city these days. Just as before people have took to the streets to register their disapproval.
However, things are different today. Today we have a much better chance to get our voices heard. We have a Labour movement that has once more found its voice.
This week we saw a magnificent demonstration by junior doctors fighting, not just the attacks on their working conditions, but also to defend the NHS. Many are so angry, they are openly considering strike action. Of course, if the Tories get their way, even that right will be removed.
Cuts to tax credits, threats to socialised medicine and attempts to neuter the unions should all be seen as different parts of the same ideological agenda. How much easier will it be to cut services and drive down living conditions if the last line of defence for working people, the Trade Unions, are fatally damaged?
There is a growing realisation that our current democratic system is bankrupt. We are being governed by a Party elected by only a quarter of those eligible. It is the flimsiest of mandates, insufficient for a union to call a strike, yet enough to justify an assault on the poorest in society.
Almost a third of the electorate failed to vote in May. In a terrible irony, those who have lost faith in voting are the very people who stand to lose most from the policies of the current government.
Those people have to be convinced to engage with politics, but voting every five years simply isn’t enough. There are people in need now and services to defend today. Waiting until 2020 to vote in a new government would mean condemning millions to five years of bitter struggle. What condition will the health service be in by 2020? We can not afford to wait.
Since the election of the new Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a new movement has sprung up. It’s called Momentum and at its heart is the desire to transfer power from the hands of millionaires to the millions. The power of democracy resides in workplaces, colleges and universities all over the country, not just in the House of Commons. When ordinary people come together and organise their elected representatives must take note. They serve at our pleasure. It’s not the other way around.
Momentum has the potential to unite neighbourhoods and towns in common purpose. People can join together to save a library from closure or exert pressure on policy makers and defend their communities from cuts. The first of Momentums campaigns centre’s on mass voter registration.
The right to vote is another hard earned concession from the powerful. It was won thanks to the sacrifices of brave men and women, some of whom gave everything to achieve universal suffrage. It is another advance the Tories are seeking to undermine.
Changes to the electoral system mean that almost two million people will be removed from the electoral register. Many won’t even realise. Add this figure to the eight million who don’t vote and that represents 20% of the electorate. Hardly universal suffrage.
This is a very real threat to democracy and it simply can not be allowed to happen. Wherever you live there will be an opportunity to work with Momentum to ensure as many people as possible are registered to vote. This will be a tremendous opportunity to engage with millions of people up and down the country. It should be used not only to drive up the vote, but to draw them into a new movement capable of ensuring that the victories we win today aren’t turned into defeats tomorrow.
Momentum is building and, to paraphrase Engels, it is becoming with every passing day more conscious of its might. Whether you’re faced with the loss of tax credits, fighting to save the NHS or resisting the attacks on workplace democracy, your part of the same struggle for a decent share of the advantages of society. Don’t fight alone, instead build momentum and take back our democracy.