On the 8th May this year the government’s Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill received Royal Assent – reportedly the next step to the establishment of elected regional assemblies inclusive of the Northern Assembly.
In welcoming the latest step towards devolution, Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford announced:
“With this Bill the Government has sought to give power and responsibility back to the people. To make our politics more open, more accountable and more inclusive…The regions now have a real choice about their future. Choice is at the very heart of this Act, in keeping with our wider policy of devolution to the English regions. We believe local people are best placed to make the decisions that directly affect them.”
Since then, a lot has been spoken about a Northern Assembly and how it would further democratise politics, empower us and enrich all our lives no end. And pretty soon, it appears, steps will be taken to hold a referendum in order that we northerners can vote for or against this most wonderful of New Labour reforms to the political landscape.
We should be flattered, but don't be fooled. These proposals are part of a smokescreen to disguise the fact that the Labour Party cannot deliver, and no longer wants to deliver, social reforms aimed at shifting wealth and power from the privileged few to working people.
Labour has always accepted the profit system. They used to believe they could humanise it by social reform legislation. Not any longer. Bitter experience has taught them that where reforms and profits come into conflict, it is reforms that have to give way. The last Labour government under Callahan ended up applying this and Blair had promised to do the same even before he became Prime Minister.
The Labour Party fully accepts now that priority has to be given to profits and no longer promises more spending on social reforms. But to distinguish itself from the Tories, Labour still wants to retain a reforming. But how? By finding reforms which do not come into conflict with profits. Constitutional reforms fit the bill perfectly. They don’t interfere with profit making and thus new Labour does not upset its backers in big business. Moreover, Blair’s plans give rise to the illusion of change – as if the government is really doing something. It is in this light – as with the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly – that the government’s proposals should be seen.
Constitutional reform is of no benefit or relevance to us. It leaves our lives and the problems the profit system causes completely unchanged. Exploitation through the wages system continues. Unemployment continues. A crumbling health service, a chaotic transport system, a polluted environment, failing and closing schools, rising crime and drug addiction and the general breakdown of society all continue. As far as solving these problems are concerned, constitutional reform is just a useless irrelevancy.
Naturally, Labour wraps its irrelevant, constitutional reforms up in democratic rhetoric. An elected Northern Assembly, we are told, would be an extension of democracy, bringing power nearer to the people, so how can Socialists not be in favour of this?
Yes. Socialists are in favour of democracy, and socialism will be a fully democratic society, but full democracy is not possible under capitalism. Supporters of capitalism who talk about "democracy" always mean only political democracy since economic democracy - where people would democratically run the places where they work - is out of the question under capitalism, based as it is on these workplaces being owned and controlled by and for the benefit of a privileged minority.
You can have the most democratic constitution imaginable but this won't make any difference to the fact that profits have to come before meeting needs under capitalism. The people's will to have their needs met properly is frustrated all the time by the operation of the economic laws of the capitalist system which no political structure, however democratic, can control.
It is not imperfections in the political decision-making process that are the problem but the profit system and its economic laws. And the answer is not democratic reform of capitalism's political structure but the replacement of capitalism by socialism.
As a society based on common instead of class ownership of the means of production, socialism will fulfil the first condition for a genuine democracy. Because it will be a classless society without a privileged wealthy class, everyone can have a genuinely equal say in the way things are run. Some will not be more equal than others, as they are under capitalism, because they own more wealth. Socialism will be a society where the laws of profit no longer operate since common ownership and democratic control will allow people to produce to meet their needs instead of for the profit of a few as today.
The argument about elected regional assemblies bringing power nearer to the people might have something in it if, even within the limited context of mere political democracy, the proposed assemblies were going to have some real powers. But, quite simply, they are not.
All their money is to come from the central government, and the only "power" they will have will be to rearrange slightly how the limited amount of funds they will be given is to be spent. In other words, they will have no more power than existing borough and county councils.
They will be part of the administrative arm of central government and their members will be no more than elected civil servants spending central government money. All that would happen would be the introduction of another layer of elected bureaucrats. Another trough for the professional politicians to get their snouts into perhaps, but of no significance to ordinary people.
If our rulers want to reform the machinery of capitalist government in this way, that's up to them. But spare us the charade that it's some great extension of democracy. Has the lot of the average Welsh or Scottish worker improved since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament? No. Has there been a marked drop in poverty, crime and a lessening of all the other social ills we equate with capitalism? Hadaway! Nick Raynsford, quoted earlier, may well declare that having a Northern Assembly means we have more choice – it is the government line he is paid handsomely to spin – but what choice have you when you are unemployed or low waged? Every aspect of your life is subordinated to the worst exigencies of the drive to make profit. If the time comes for a vote on a Northern Assembly, socialists shall indeed be voting, but not by placing an ‘X’ in the yes or no boxes, but by writing “Socialism” across our ballot paper. If you want socialism, we suggest you do the same, as a way of registering your support for world socialism