We have had a referendum on Scottish independence. We are to have another, if the Tory party form any part of the government post May 2015, on membership of the EU. What do we imagine would happen if there were a referendum on austerity? Given the consensus of all the main Westminster parties, including the Labour Party, on continuing the austerity drive (and therefore the tacit agreement on the associated further redistribution of wealth and resources away from the majority to the rich) how could we even get to a referendum? When we see the immense debate about society and the future that the Scottish referendum stirred who would let that particular genii out of the bottle? You might say that the SNP's victories in Scotland forced the Scottish referendum and that UKIP forced the Tories to hold one on the EU. Do we need a new party in Britain to force the issue on austerity? Is it possible, even now, that Labour might be reformed? Or can the British Parliament be moved directly to ask the people whether to continue with austerity, given the solid unanimity of our present political leaderships? The question, how to win for the people against the establishment, including the main political groups dominating Parliament, is an old one.
There have been many arguments among socialists about Parliament down the years. For example it has long been a point of honour for genuine social democrats that western parliaments are the platform for the social and economic advance of the working class. The social democratic point of view therefore logically places their group of MPs at the very centre of their politics and sees election work as the main priority for action.
In the late 19th and early 20th century Marx and then Lenin noted the limits of Parliamentary power within the capitalist system and therefore thought that Parliament, even with universal suffrage, could not generally act as the political agency for the transition to socialism. (To be strictly accurate, Marx's writing was ambiguous on this question in the case of Britain and the USA.)
In Lenin's writing his consideration of Parliament and the possibilities flowing from universal suffrage were a subordinate part of his theory of the state, and of the capitalist state in particular, based on Marx's writings about the Paris Commune. He argued that the democracy of parliamentary systems were crimped by the inability of Parliament to genuinely represent the whole of the working people, by its limited role in dealing with fundamental issues of society which were decided elsewhere and by the fact that its decisions were not carried through by the deciders but by inaccessible organisations and agencies that were part of the state and commanded by the ruling class and that therefore Parliament was unable to either to lead or to learn. It could not be either responsible or accountable.
There are nevertheless continuing arguments among socialists who reject the social democratic philosophy and claim to be revolutionists, about the role of Parliament. For example, as recently as the early part of this century a group that emerged from the old 'Militant' / RSL (Revolutionary Socialist League) were still arguing that in Britain we needed a (radically reformed) Labour Party that would win a Parliamentary majority and then pass an enabling act that would allow for the nationalisation of the top 250 monopolies. Perhaps they are still around? This group either kept secret or had not considered their policy on the capitalist state as a whole in the transition to socialism.
More familiar will be 'The British Road to Socialism', a strategy apparently personally endorsed by Stalin at the end of WW2. This rehearsed the main line of march of the pre WW1 German Social Democrats. The SDP planned to win a majority and pass socialist policies through Parliament. The British communists were given the role of hand maidens to the Labour Party in the British version ... And communist led trade unions and mass movements would also be required to buttress the action taken by a reformed Labour Party in Parliament. This latter idea was much more radical than the views of most European social democrats by 1945 and distinguished the communists from social democracy.
'The British Road' was based on a certain view of the Attlee regime in 1945-48 and turned on the understanding that the Labour Party could and would continue to be transformed. Several famous Labour MPs tried to follow 'the British Road'. Mass trade union actions were built against the Heath government in the 1970s for example. The Daily Worker and the Morning Star were obligatory reading among the 250,000 strong shop stewards movement. All now long gone. But some of the older CP cadre and 'fellow travellers' still salute this approach, cautioning the rest of us for our impatience and minutely studying the Labour Party for any hopeful trends.
Again, there is little reference in the 'British Road' to the limits of Parliament, the structural role of the capitalist state and the other ruling class agencies that actually control the country, let alone to the blindingly obvious direction that the real Labour Party has taken since the defeat of Bennism in the 1970s and 80s, a direction that has all but severed ithe party's ties with its historic class base.
But the critical consideration today, here and now, is not so much the objective limits of Parliament's attenuated and marginalised powers in modern global capitalism or the degeneration of Attlee's Labour Party. It is that the mass consciousness of the working class in Britain (parallel with most of the working class in France and Italy) has reached a deep understanding that Westminster and ALL the main parties will do nothing for them and instead belong to a political class that stand for themselves. Scotland is an example of the fact that working class people, previously entirely alienated from Britain's political system, have started to identify with new ways to deal with Westminster's failure.
It would be crude and false to say that Parliament has lost all significance for both major classes in Britain. Certainly the working class is not represented there. (It is a matter of historical analysis now, but there are strong arguments that Labour never represented the working class as such, rather that Labour was always the political twin of the huge and powerful bureaucratic leadership organised by the Tade Union leadership over decades.) And the ruling class has not used Parliament to run the system for years. Nevertheless Parliament has been used, indeed forced into action, at key moments of crisis. For the ruling class there are moments when popular legitimacy is claimed through Parliament, as with Blair's Iraq war, in order to carry through painful and unpopular acts. In an exceptionally bold move, comparable with any of the most damatic moments of the whole twentieth century, £3 trillion, the largest sum of capital ever mobilised at one time by BritaIn, was rubber stamped for the defence of the banks if required, with Parliament's agreement. A few weeks ago Parliament agreed to restart bombing Iraq.
This last case provides a useful example of how Parliament is utilised by the ruling class. The pressure came from the US, from NATO, from cross Atlantic security agencies and even from global oil companies, as well as some oil producers. They needed BritaIn to increase the world wide legitimacy of renewed war. Parliament was necessary. Which brings us to the question of how the working class interest has also effected and used Parliament.
Since 1968 Parliament was forced to support Britain's lack of involvement in the Vietnam war; it was forced to revoke Heath's Industrial Relations Act; it had to introduce Abortion and family planning rights and defend them at various junctures; it was forced to recognise the Equal Pay struggle, the long war with racism and discrimination and the battle for LGBT rights; it had to drop the Poll Tax (and Margeret Thatcher); the anti Iraq war movement came very close to outright victory - certainly finishing Blair and exposing Parliament's distance from popular opinion, and most recently the anti-war movement stopped the bombing of Syria. So Parliament can be pressurised by both classes and both classes can make advances through action to force Parliament.
None of this is meant to suggest that Parliament is some kind of neutral institution, somehow separate from the capitalist state. Our rulers have the three mainstream parties, virtually all of the media and the money as well as the influence, personal networks and patronage when they require something specific from Parliament. Consequently Parliament does their bidding in 99 cases out of a100. But Parliament can be used to try and moderate the temperature in society, to release some of the steam, and, on occasion, when it has no other choice, accept that if it does not grant reform, it may get revolution.
Can Parliament be used to overturn and recreate our society then? Is it a central part of a strategy to win change?
Those who saw the reform of the Labour Party and its ability to take a new radical programme like 1945 to 48 through Parliament as a winnable objective are no longer a serious current of working class opinion. The Labour Party continues to move in one direction only. Parliament and all of its main parties are seen by a large section of the working class as part of their problem and not an answer to their difficulties. Because of the direction taken by Labour working class politics is now in serious flux. UKIP is the rightwing expression of the frustration of many English working class people. However some progressive political leaders of the working class are also emerging. They are evolving out of the struggles that working class people and their allies are having against austerity and war. Here and there new leaders of real stature become noticeable in society despite the trivialisation of life and the banal 'common sense' promoted by most of the millionaire mass media. As the battle with austerity organises and concentrates (today, only the People's Assembly is carrying out that task) so a new policy and a new active and front line leadership is emerging.
Over the next years, perhaps decades of struggle, what is absolutely certain is change. But not the sort of change that can be sucked from a magician's thumb. Larger waves of protest and mass action of the working class and its allies may come to temporarily overwhelm Parliament again, as they have in the past. A new leadership might find a way to represent that movement and win to enough elections to be able to speak nationally from Parliament for the anti-austerity movement. Some of them might even be from the Labour Party, but we can be sure it would be from a Labour Party that was crashing. What is certain is that if a new leadership of a new working class movement in action did emerge and took that route into Parliament, its first priority would be for the creation of a completely new type of Parliament, one that was immediately accountable, that was able to master politics by breaking up the old state machine and the informal but deadly power of our current rulers; as well as taking the power to reorganise the economics of a new society while sharing the living standards, experiences, the life and the income of average working class people.
There is a deep political crisis going on in Britain. The anti-austerity left need to understand and relate to that fact and start raising the discussion about what politics, what institutions, what forms of organisation would be required to defeat austerity and secure its alternative. We could start with the call for a referendum on austerity, a political call like others (on Scotland and the EU) that has the potential to regroup politics even amongst mainstream parties and, most importantly, awaken political and social enthusiasm for real politics among the mass of the people.