The first sentence on the Labour Party card states simply “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.” That short sentence neatly sums up what I believe the Party stands for and why I joined it.
I remember how shocked I was at the war in Biafra and that the world could be such a cruel place. I also started to notice, at about the same time, the effects of pollution and waste, and I joined Friends of the Earth. I took part in meetings and demonstrations, and chose A-levels which supported my aim to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at university.
I presented on proportional representation at my university entrance interview. I had still not settled on joining the Labour Party back then, but I had developed a strong belief in the necessity of democracy if the world was going to avoid oppression, war and environmental destruction. No country has perfect democracy, but in a representative democracy there must be a meaningful level of involvement for all the electors. I do not believe our current first-past-the-post system meets that minimum requirement.
But democracy isn’t just about how representatives are chosen. Citizens need some access to the truth, otherwise rulers or would-be rulers can get away with lies and corrupt use of power without the voters knowing. A media in the ownership of a small number of very wealthy persons who have a vested interest in protecting their own wealth, is not going to provide the voters with a balanced view. The media should be staffed by people who are writing or speaking what they actually believe, and the only way to ensure that, is to place the ownership of media outlets in the hands of their staff, or of non-profit-making trusts such as the Guardian or Channel 4.
And democracy needs voters who have been educated about politics. Margaret Thatcher’s government attempted to remove political and civic education from schools, for obvious reasons. I honestly believe that if the British public were fully aware of the core values of the political parties and the power of the ballot box, the Conservative Party would have ceased to exist as a major political force in 1923.
So, genuine representative democracy needs a system of election which is fair, sources of information which are unbiased, and an electorate which is aware of its powers and responsibilities. But it also needs elected bodies which can actually do what the voters have voted for. Far too often, the government is unable to do things because the power to make the relevant decision lies in private hands.
Tony Blair tried to suggest – like the caterpillar in Alice – that Socialism meant whatever he wanted it to mean. I believe that Socialism has to be based on ownership, and ownership is a power relationship. I own my toothbrush. It makes no sense for anyone else to have any power over how I use my toothbrush. If I ran a pub, I could own the building and operate a Free House. There would be regulations to protect my customers and my staff, which would act as limits on the power of my ownership. But as the owner I would still make most of the decisions about the business – if it did well I would be the main beneficiary, and if it did badly I would be the main loser. I think the power to make decisions about work should be as close to the people doing the work as possible, and very small businesses fulfil that condition admirably.
In big Public Limited Companies the links between effort, reward and decision-making have all but vanished. It is not just inequitable that financial bodies acting on behalf of the very very rich should determine whether a productive company grows or folds, it is also massively wasteful.
I believe that public services, and particularly monopolies such as gas and water, should all be in public ownership. The power to make decisions in the public good is hampered when those services are owned by private companies.
But in addition, all “public” companies should be publicly accountable – to their workforce, to their customers and to the wider society – and not simply rest on the whim of financial investors.
Our world faces enormous challenges. Global warming and pollution of our air and seas continue apace, and the possibility of nuclear obliteration has not gone away. We need a world where decisions are based on our world’s needs, and not just to enrich a tiny few. “Democracy” without socialism is a powerless sham. “Socialism” without democracy leads to tyranny. Genuine democracy and genuine socialism can only exist hand in hand. I am proud to call myself a democratic socialist, and will fight to keep the Labour Party as a democratic socialist party.
Sandy Martin 28-05-2018