2015 was a significant year regarding the space for change developing around the necessity for democratic renewal, a year that has in certain respects changed the situation.
Beginning with the general election in May, this was an election that had the feel of a battleground. The key election issue was to defeat austerity, expressed through a defeat of the Conservative-Liberal coalition. In Scotland, the issue was also sovereignty in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum the previous year.
The general background was growing frustration with the decision-making process and the party-dominated system of representative democracy – what has become termed the cartel party system – and the lack of any say over the direction of the economy. In other words, people were sick and tired of the big Westminster parties and their common and constant mantra of cuts. These parties were suffering a serious crisis of legitimacy and there was a growing search for alternatives.
In this context, the intervention of parties other than the big parties, which took a stand against austerity, became the prominent feature of the election. These parties started taking the agenda away from how the establishment, the ruling circles, big parties and media acting in their service, wanted it to be set, and a clear line of demarcation formed in the election over the issue of austerity between these parties and the parties of the establishment.
The election revealed the extent to which the cartel party system itself is in crisis. When the cartel party system was in its heyday, the role of elections had become the staging of electoral coups d’état to resolve who would be the champion of the interests of the monopolies and to establish a parliamentary consensus around those interests, setting the terms within which the major parties collude and compete for power. A classic example was the victory in 1997 of Tony Blair, who championed the interests of the monopolies under the slogan “Make Britain Great Again” and created a consensus under his “Third Way”, which finally rendered obsolete the old political theory of party in power and party in opposition as one that reasonably accommodates various interests and social bases.
However, the 2015 election resolved neither a champion nor a consensus. Instead, an unstable situation has resulted in which the pro-austerity and anti-austerity agendas are in collision. In Scottish constituencies, the consistent stand of the SNP and the repercussions of the referendum resulted in an historic landslide victory for the SNP, which has changed the balance of forces in Westminster. The coalition itself was rejected, with the Liberal Democrats all but obliterated. Small-party candidates that represented the alternative in various ways achieved an unprecedented share of the vote.
A sentiment for something new had taken hold of the electorate, while the election was marked by a lack of predictability, with fear-mongering, hysteria and incoherence characterising the negative campaign of the incumbent parties. The Conservatives managed to steal a majority out of the situation through their own negative campaign as well as the lack of a coherent alternative by the Labour Party. The election therefore showed that the modus operandi remains the staging of electoral coups through campaigns of disinformation, and increasingly, of fear.
The Conservative majority could not in any way be said to represent the popular will. It only sharpened further their crisis of legitimacy and the crisis of representative democracy in general. It simply raises the question: What can people do about an electoral system that does not represent the popular will?
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in September has taken these developments yet further. Corbyn has said that a fuse has been lit for a new kind of politics. With this outcome, his campaign stressed, it is clear that a fundamental change of approach to politics is long overdue.
The question is: what is the essence of this new politics that is required? These events have seriously upset the cartel party system, but that system still operates. The entire establishment has been against Corbyn, making even opposition very difficult. One can see how an uncompromised anti-austerity government simply would not be permitted, as can be seen in other countries across Europe at this time, such as Greece.
The in-power/in-opposition model is itself no longer a guarantee of democracy and is actually a block to empowerment. Progress can only be made when people start making material demands about what kind of democracy is needed, from their own standpoint. Democracy is not an abstract concept: it has a content and must represent their interests. Its forms must reflect the aim of representing the popular will, an aim that is not even recognised at present. It has to be constitutionally based on the sovereignty of the people, with the executive held subordinate to the legislature and the legislature subordinate to the people as a whole. With this aim and constitutional basis, the role of political parties needs to be addressed.
In this sense, it could be said that the significance of 2015 actually began in 2014 with the Scottish referendum. In that referendum, the proposed new written Scottish constitution opened with the declaration that, in Scotland, the people are sovereign. Even to put that on the agenda was very significant and goes to the heart of the historical constitutional contradictions of the British state.
The British government has sought to occupy the space that this has opened up in the interests of the ruling elite, as well as their own narrow interests as the Conservative Party. Therefore, in constitutional changes that were railroaded through parliament, the Commons approved in October the proposed new Standing Orders of the House of Commons known as “English Votes for English Laws”, as a means to marginalise the now potentially powerful Scottish voice in Westminster.
2015 changed the political reality in ways that are still unfolding. Whatever the outcome of these developments, the issue is to develop the initiative of the people and the independent politics of the working class in this situation. The characteristic of the new politics is the conscious participation of the population. The space for change has widened, putting even more emphasis on the need for people to occupy this space in favour of democratic renewal.