London Working Group Notes: Representation and its limits


Peter Evans introduced the Working Group – see YouTube video and speaker’s notes below


  • How to represent minorities?
  • How do you get the electorate engaged? (i.e. emotive issues such as Scotland)
  • Lack of accountability
  • Limit on local government power imposed by executive
  • Scale is so large. Not a human scale – confusing and overwhelming
  • First past the post disenfranchises – people lose their votes
  • MPS aren’t necessarily representing you because at times they don’t vote
  • Parliamentary system is out of date
  • In 21st century we can represent ourselves
  • Current system doesn’t enable new participative potentials
  • Current system represents Crown and corporations
  • No re-call mechanism
  • Corruption – back room deals, lobbying, etc.
  • Personalities valued above policies
  • Leadership doesn’t listen
  • Participation requires time and in current system time is a luxury
  • There is no abstention option.

Assemblies for Democracy: Representation and its limits (speaker’s notes)

Introductions. Talk will be about historical context; discuss representation and its limits, and what to push for?

ASSEMBLIES FOR DEMOCRACY asked me to look into the history of popular movements, particularly around the period from the 1790s-1928.

What I’d like to contend is that there has been a cyclical pattern across this period, a kind of tug of war over the British state between the elite on one hand and ‘the people’ on the other. A simplification, yes, but for the sake of ease…

There have been waves of activity, and relative inactivity over this period. 1790s; period 1815-1820; activity around the Great Reform Act c.1830-2; the Chartist movement 1838-48; a bit of a lull until the strike wave of the 1880s together with the rise of British socialist and unionisation of unskilled worker. That of course led to the formation of the Labour Party in 1900 and the Parliamentary route to power for the socialist Left, but the 1900s and particularly 1910-14 were also heavy strike periods with the rise of syndicalism and eventually the Shop Steward’s Movement which emerged in opposition to wartime conditions of labour (ban on strikes, conscription).

Alongside that there were the Suffragettes and Suffragist movements spanning from the 1880s-1928; things like the co-op movements; struggles over the length of the working day; and battles over free speech particularly in the 1820s-40s, and 1880s.

Now, some of these periods were more sustained than others, and they certainly had different demands, approaches to achieving them, and contexts in which they were operating movements also overlapped – it’s not as if these activities all formed neat blocks of separate time. However, they do mark periods when large numbers of people came together – and pulled together on certain issues. Their common factors are also undoubtedly that 1) They were opposed by the British state and That people pushed far change when they realised their interests weren’t being served by existing systems – be that governmental; electoral; wage system….

Alongside this, we have waves of Parliamentary Reform, 1832, 1867, 1882 Reform Acts extended male suffrage, 1918 universal male suffrage; 1928 universal female suffrage. Also shifts in e.g. electoral boundaries (rotten boroughs); judicial reform, penal etc; Local Govt. Act 1888.

Parliament likes to claim credit for these reforms as part of a story of modernisation – Britain’s gradual but steady movement towards becoming a ‘mature democracy’. The live given out about universal male suffrage in 1918 for example was that it was a reward for people’s sacrifice and demonstration of maturity WW1. But actually this just gives the lie to their position before 1918; which was to utterly oppose extending the vote to ordinary people because they couldn’t be trusted with it. It’s no coincidence that suffrage was gained after millions of people gained experience of organisation on a large scale, and performing concerted action together. Even with suffrage extension the period 1918-1920 was a revolutionary movement in Britain’s history, with real potential for more serious upheaval. Even in 1926 there was the General Strike after all.

When you look at Parliament’s reform alongside the popular movements; when you restore that context to the story, the official version becomes a lot less credible. It wasn’t led from on high. It wasn’t a gift from middle class intellectuals, it wasn’t a gift from Parliament.

This is especially true when we add in the histories of surveillance, repression, agents-provocateur [give examples].

Now the question is, what’s the process here?

First – we have a cyclical uprising or ferment of people, pushing Parliament, reluctantly – after the struggle – to reform. But this doesn’t just come out of nowhere. A spark can light a fire very quickly from dry kindling, but the kindling has to be there. All that system is conditions were right. However it’s all too easy to forget – or not to notice, for an outsider – that those conditions are partly created by on the ground activity; by activism. People will respond to conditions, but without the capacity building activity – the communications networks for example – the large-scale movements can’t happen.

So where we really need to begin is when people start to react to their situation, their environment in such a way as to seek change. The question why do they need to seek change? Basically because systems no longer function to serve them. Why?

Well, focusing on the representative system of politics, on Parliament and the behaviour of MPs – which is our focus here – I think we have another cyclical effect going on. This is a corruption effect. I define corruption as deviation from purpose for a system, but I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not the only sense of corruption at play, as elites re-establish and re-entrench their control of the system.

Now, Parliament is part of a larger system, so this corrupting process can and has taken the form of subverting Parliament; particularly through money power, leverage debt for example, a very prominent theme throughout history. It’s not just about securing party control.

I think few would dispute that we’re in such a period and have been increasingly since the 1980s, accelerating over time. New Labour certainly didn’t slow the process.

It’s this corruption – what they called ‘Old Corruption’ in the early 19th century – that prompts the popular, as people begin to realise, through direct contact and experience with the systems of the state, that elite groups have repurposed the state to their own ends – wars, cutting welfare and tax, reducing overheads and expand their ownership. Classic private profit and socialised risk/cost. Can we think of modern examples? War, banks, austerity, TTIP, climate change even. The system no longer serves the interests of the people – to the extent it did. It serves the interests of the elite groups. These groups will have emerged through the system as it was – if financiers were successful they will be empowered to subvert it to their ends; if it’s bureaucrats, they’ll consolidate power, and in the long run they’ll do so as a class. This is the sense in which we talk of a ‘political class’. Historically universities were established to train bureaucrats for the state, etc. You can see it in the Soviet Union for example. It’s very human behaviour.

We do tend to like to see ourselves as somehow having outgrown all that. We’re a mature Western democratic after all. But this process has happened again and again in our history. Cromwell shut down the Levellers for example. The medieval Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 was a similar process – Jack’s Cade’s revolt in 1450.

Of course, this isn’t to say that this popular reaction is immediate or inevitable. Movements are constantly trying to emerge – there is an element of needing the right conditions here. Revolutionaries don’t manufacture revolutions, much as they’d like to be able to. If they did, we’d see a lot more happen. But activity-level activity does enable a movement, and if that doesn’t exist, people will have to construct it. Smaller movements will have to pull together, a concerted push needs to be made. But it also needs to come from a groundswell – from below. Historically speaking, the ability for us to do this – to assemble – is very important You just have to look at how hard regimes, particularly authoritarian ones, try to prevent it to realise that. As I mentioned earlier, this history goes alongside all the disruption and agent-provocateur activities.

So here we are again. ASSEMBLIES FOR DEMOCRACY’s purpose, I think, in this context, is to initiate the discussion. If it’s to be a real success it needs to build towards the democratic process. The power to frame problems; to consider the responses; and to evaluate the implementations.

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