Monday, October 02, 2006

The next word on democracy

Advocating alternatives to the existing political system as an immediate rather than a long-term policy, as AWTW does, naturally challenges preconceptions about the nature of the British state. All the major parties, most campaign groups, the education system and, of course, the media, maintain that the system of government that we live under is democratic, accessible, responsive and remains the only route to achieving change.

That view neither stands up to practical examination nor is necessarily shared by people outside of these circles. Increasing numbers of people have lost faith in the way that Britain is governed. The 2004 State of the Nation poll carried out by ICM for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that virtually every person interviewed (99%) wanted one or more democratic reforms. When asked for their views on the present system of governing Britain, only 3% of people agreed that it "works extremely well and could not be improved". The public also had a bleak view of the future of "British democracy". Twice as many people (55%) believed that Britain was becoming "less democratic" as believed (24%) that Britain is getting "more democratic".

The Power Commission, which reported in February 2006, established "that the level of alienation felt towards politicians, the main political parties and the key institutions of the political system is extremely high and widespread" and the report noted: "Citizens do not feel that the processes of formal democracy offer them enough influence over political decisions. In addition, the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle." New Labour, we should remind ourselves, was elected with the support of just one in four of registered voters last year.

There is now a strong case for arguing that the existing state is actually incompatible with democracy and presents a barrier to a peaceful and sustainable future. In the last 30 years, under both Tory and New Labour governments, the British state has more and more aligned itself directly with corporate interests while its actions are directed towards sustaining the market economy. As a result, the political system actually stands in the way of, for example, effective action to tackle the devastating threat from global warming. Sidelining the formal democratic process, the state is increasingly authoritarian and a wrecker of human and social rights. This surely cannot be history's last word when it comes to democracy.

AWTW is often asked how the transition to a new democracy can take place, considering the power that the existing state has over everyone’s lives. One way forward is to build massive popular support for a national constitution that embodies the rights we are struggling to retain and also extends democracy in new ways. A new campaign group – the Coalition for a 21st Century Constitution – which AWTW is part of, is advocating just that. A campaign statement calls for "the transformation of the present political system along democratic lines".

Among the coalition’s goals are the "building a new, independent and decentralised democracy, from below, creating an inclusive written constitution that serves to protect and enhance our liberty and embraces the aspirations of the powerless majority". It says it will encourage "the building of a new, nation-wide democratic tradition from the ground up through, for example, independent Peoples’ Assemblies, as a means of transforming the state". The coalition is holding a second Open Forum on Tuesday, October 17 to take the campaign further and the plan for a constitution will figure in our Rough Guide to the Future event on October 21. Supporting these events is a way to show that the next word on democracy belongs to the mass of the people, not the political and ruling elites.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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