“On present evidence we may only just cross the 50% threshold and deliver a narrow majority of the electorate to the polling stations.” This is how Robin Cook expressed the ruling class’ concern about low turnout at the forthcoming election (Guardian 18.3.05). While “barely a third of the population believed that they really can change the way the country is run by getting involved” the risk is “In the long term, ebbing public confidence in democracy will erode it of legitimacy” – as well as a short term loss of control of the political machine with the rise of populist parties.
The problem for those who want to convince us of the importance of voting is that experience teaches us time and again that a change of government only puts a new team in charge of the same policies – those demanded by the needs of British capital. So in 1979 the Tories campaigned on the issue of rising unemployment under the Labour government with the slogan “Labour isn’t working” only to preside over a continued rise in unemployment. In addition they continued with the policies – particularly redundancies in the steel and coal industries – that had been started under the Callaghan government. In 1997 the one Labour promise we could believe in was that they would stick to the previous government’s projected spending limits for public services – the continuation of austerity was not at issue between the parties. The similarity is not just between Labour and Tory policies in this country, but also extends to attacks on living standards everywhere – as for example with pensions.
Similarly, when it comes to the issue of the latest Gulf war, we saw clearly two years ago that 2 million (claimed) demonstrating on the streets of London – provided they remain mobilised behind liberal and left wing bourgeois politicians – do not weigh in government calculations.
This, not the dumbing down of the press or poor presentation of Labour values, is the reason why “the proportion of the electorate who perceive much difference between the two main parties has fallen from more than 80% under Thatcher to less than 30% under Blair” as Cook observes.
To the rescue of the democratic mystification – and legitimacy – Tony Benn tells us that polling day “is the one day in five years when every voter has exactly the same political power as the prime minister” (Guardian 17.3.05). This is a lie – and always has been. On polling day, as every other day, the bourgeoisie controls the media, politicians’ statements are widely reported, and all this with the benefit of years of opinion polls and focus groups to warn them how best to manipulate public opinion. It is all the more dishonest after a century of capitalist decadence when the policies of the national capital are determined by the demands of the crisis and the need to manoeuvre on the imperialist chess board.
What Benn sees in the lack of interest in elections is not apathy, but anger, and this too can be mobilised by: “many popular movements growing up which provide a real outlet for those who no longer feel connected to the parliamentary process and its media entourage. The result it that real politics increasingly focuses on the issues of peace, the environment, civil liberties, pensions, student debt, and the rights of women and trade unions…” In other words, we can continue to be mobilised behind those whose aim is to prevent us questioning the capitalist system as a whole.
However, underneath this, there is another process at work in the hidden development of consciousness within the working class. Right now it is often expressed only by the tiniest minorities. Some try to find coherence in the contradictory atmosphere of the various campaigns Tony Benn is relying on to keep us controlled. Others get together in small discussion groups, committed to reflecting as much on general historic questions as on recent struggles. It’s here and in the positive response to the intervention of revolutionaries, rather than in elections or in single issue reformist campaigns, that we can see signs for the future. Alex 2.4.05