“The public seem to be disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged” with politics concludes a Hansard Society survey (BBC online news, 25 April). Neither the further revelations at the Leveson enquiry, nor a series of scandals that dominated the news for a short while, and least of all the local elections, have stimulated much interest in the sordid politics of our ruling class.
“…the economic crisis, the summer riots and phone hacking did not lead to any greater interest in or knowledge of politics…” Often the ruling class and their media make a great play of condemning and cleaning up some great scandal to make it appear that they are really to be trusted to govern us and root out the self-serving. These campaigns may also reflect a real conflict being played out in the bourgeoisie, as with the attack on News International and phone hacking at the News of the World, which very effectively scuppered their bid for BskyB (see http://en.internationalism.org/wr/347).
This is not without risk, and in this case the Leveson enquiry is ‘revealing’ disgusting behaviour that the whole media has been engaged in for many years as well as the very close relationship between all the main parties and the Murdoch empire – such as Cameron hiring Coolson, the former editor of the News of the World, or Blair jetting off to the other side of the world to meet Murdoch, which was a key part of his effort to get elected. The public can become disgusted with the whole sleazy lot of them. And now Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, is being caught up in this scandal. His error was not so much that he maintained the usual close relationship with News International when he should have kept a quasi-judicial independence, but that he did so when it was no longer in the interests of the British state, which feared the Murdochs were getting too powerful and using that power to promote a pro-US and Eurosceptic line that undermined Britain’s efforts to steer a more independent line between the US and Europe.
Other campaigns and scandals have had an ideological aim in mind without representing a real division in the state. On Abu Qatada and the failure to deport him we see a further effort to whip up fear of foreign Islamic terrorists. The scandal of the disputed 3 hour wait to get through immigration goes in the same direction. ‘Jerry can-gate’ on the other hand was a good way of causing panic buying at petrol stations, and trying to create a link in the public mind between the threat of a tanker drivers’ strike with alarming shortages, thus making any strike action as unpopular as possible. The long running bankers’ bonuses scandal, on the other hand, supported the lie that the crisis was all down to greedy bankers. They are indeed disgustingly greedy, but that is not what caused the crisis.
“Disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged” is not such a daft response to all this, even if it is not enough. Tedious as it is we also need to understand what the ruling class is up to.
Disillusion with politics
“Worryingly, only a quarter of the population are satisfied with our system of governing, which must raise questions about the long-term capacity of that system to command public support and confidence in the future.” Only 32% voted in the local elections, the lowest for 12 years, and those who did turn out typically voted against the governing parties rather than for any of the local candidates. Hence the Labour Party gained many of the councils they lost when in government. The only exception was the ‘Ken and Boris show’ in which two media personalities, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, contested the London mayoral election and the Tory won. But did it really create much interest? Ten cities held referendums for directly elected mayor, with arguments for and against both recognising the general anti-politics mood: for, because the electorate are generally disgusted with local councillors; or against, because we do not need an expensive new layer of self-serving politicians. Only Bristol was in favour with a very low turnout of 24%, 9 against, with Doncaster voting to keep its mayor.
We simply must not fall for the Socialist Worker notion that “Big losses for the Tories” in local elections, which is nothing but the norm for a governing party, means that “voters reject austerity”. Voting means engaging with the electoral system, the state, when the whole ruling class is most concerned that we vote at all, rather than who gets in to run local government. The Hansard Society is right to be concerned about the capacity of the system to command public support. They found that the number of people who do not intend to vote at all has risen to 30%. The number voting in general elections has been falling since the 1950s and is significantly lower than in France of Germany, although higher than Switzerland. “Elections where there is a real choice, and the result matters, attract high turnouts” says Andrew Ellis of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, based in Stockholm (BBC news online 24.4.12). So when is there a ‘real choice’ in elections? We have only to look at the austerity announced in the last months of the last Labour government and that instituted by the coalition government to see that there never was any real choice at the last general election.
Parliament has classically been the best way for the capitalist ruling class to run its state, with elections allowing its competing interests to jockey for position. This remained true even when universal suffrage was introduced in the late 19th century, since their monopoly of communication and propaganda kept them firmly in control. Then there could be a real choice, albeit a choice of capitalists, some more progressive than others from the standpoint of the working class.
Throughout the 20th century, particularly since the outbreak of the First World War, there has not been such a real choice. During two world wars, the Depression, and the post war boom and since, the state has been required to take measures to direct or intervene in the economy either for the war effort or to defend the economy, and there has been a diminishing margin for manoeuvre for competing capitalist interests to influence policy. And absolutely nothing for the working class to gain from participating in any election, because whoever wins will be equally reactionary.
Disillusion is not enough
Disgust with sordid and often corrupt politics is a natural reaction. But the importance of workers’ disillusion with bourgeois democracy is not so that we can fatalistically put up with whatever the state intends to impose on us – which in the present economic crisis means austerity, cuts in the availability and quality of services, and increased surveillance which will be used to police any response. Disillusion becomes a positive force only when it helps us avoid falling into the trap of relying on democracy in our struggles, for instance the electricians who refused to follow Unite to lobby their MPs and instead tried to join the student demonstration last November; or when it leads to the effort to understand the nature of this society and how to overthrow it. Our ultimate aim is to be rid of capitalism altogether, and with it all professional politicians.