What is it we're voting for again?


I'm a reluctant outsider to the general election coming up in Britain. Despite being a subject of Her Majesty, I no longer have the right to be consulted when she comes to choosing her government having lived outside the country for more than 15 years. I have mixed feelings about this. There are arguments for and against emigrants being declared unfit to vote - along with the mentally ill, convicts and members of the House of Lords. The fact is, however, the great majority of people who are excluded are of that unspeakable variety who insist that, living here in France, they are not immigrants - who by definition have dark skin, of course - but "ex-pats." If the Tories are really heading for victory, they'd be on their way to a much bigger one if these people could vote so I don't mind the sacrifice, though I've always enjoyed the actual business of voting.

I first voted in February 1974 having hitch-hiked from London to Manchester to put my cross against the name of a decent Labour candidate who won, satisfyingly, but only narrowly, therefore justifying my efforts. There were two elections that year as no party emerged in February with a majority, so I had to repeat my trip a few months later.

In 1979 my wife and I walked proudly arm in arm to the polling booth in a futile attempt to save the world from Thatcherism. Though five years of hard Labour made voting for Callaghan and co a bitter duty, we really felt that we were honouring our Mancunian ancestors who in 1819 had died at Peterloo for our right to do so, as well as the brave Suffragettes of a century later. Thirty-one years on I'm happy to say that our marriage is still in good shape, but the same can't be said for democracy.

Since the Single European Act of 1987 each step on the road to a federal Europe has removed more and more powers from elected national institutions and handed them to bodies which are neither elected nor, in any real sense, answerable to anyone who is. The unelected European Commission enjoys the exclusive right to propose legislation which 27 nominally sovereign countries are then obliged to adopt. True, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which directly represents the governments of those countries, can amend or even reject the commission's proposals. But more and more policy areas are dealt with under a system of majority voting which means that the people of Britain - or France, or Latvia, or any other EU country - can have laws imposed on them to which neither they nor their parliament nor even their government has given consent.

I am certainly no nationalist. I am all for international co-operation, and if the European Union were a body whose constitution respected the sovereignty of its member states and the democratic rights of their peoples I'd be all for it. In reality, however, that "constitution" has with each treaty since 1987 deepened the institutionalisation of what is falsely called the "free market."

The Lisbon Treaty was the latest step in a process of creating a continent in which corporate capital can reign unhindered, and in which economic power and the domination of the political process which accompanies it are concentrated in ever fewer hands. The European Union is not the only culprit, of course. International bodies answerable to no-one but the wealthy and the powerful - the G8, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation principal among them - are squeezing the choices available to elected governments into an ever narrower space.

When we voted in 1974 it was still possible, on paper at least, to elect a socialist government. This will not be the case on May 6 because the Lisbon Treaty outlaws not only socialism but any policies resembling the reformist agenda which characterised Labour governments of the past.

The answer, however, is not to retreat into the fantasy world of nationalism. This is demonstrated in fact by what happened after the 1974 elections. There are many interpretations of those events, but what is certain is this: buffeted by global recession, subject to attack by foreign capitalists hostile to the mildest measures in favour of working people, and unable to control an inflation rate which in 1975 had reached almost 25 per cent and remained stubbornly high, Labour abandoned its programme of social reform in exchange for an IMF loan.

If it was not possible to go it alone in 1976, it certainly isn't possible now. This does not mean, however, that we should harbour illusions about the European Union, one of the principal functions of which is in reality to undermine any possibility of real co-operation between peoples.

The only way to fight back is through international organisation - ours, not theirs. This must be rooted in the realities of people's lives and not in dreams of a glorious global revolution.

The sad truth is that your votes on May 6 will make little difference to the economic orthodoxies which determine what is possible in most areas of policy. All parties remain committed to a system based on hyper-exploitation of labour and none questions the right of the European Central Bank to dictate to elected governments.

So parliamentary democracy as an effective force for change turned out to be a 20th century phenomenon. If we are to revive it we must begin by reviving the kind of social movements which won it for us in the first place.

Democracy may be dead, but in the words of the final telegram sent by the great Swedish-US labour leader Joe Hill on the eve of his judicial murder, "Don't mourn, organise!"

Steve McGiffen is Spectrezine's editor and a British subject denied the right to vote.