Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ask not for whom the polls bill, they bill for you

Ask not for whom the polls bill, they bill for you
Tribune 14 December 2007

Democracy is an imperfect tool. As Winston Churchill said, it’s the worst possible system except for all the others and so it needs sharpening regularly to keep its edge. However, it needs constant work not least since it often seems that every improvement brings new and unforeseen problems.

In the US, the attempt to rescue party nominations from the smoke-and-bribery filled rooms of Tammany Hall led to the primary elections, where the leading Democratic contenders are currently running bills of around $100 million each just to be the candidates. It’s not in the constitution, but you could almost dispense with the formality of elections and declare the candidate with the biggest war-chest the winner.

The Supreme Court adds its own wacko embellishment to this emerging principle of one dollar one vote by rulings that invoke the first amendment right of free speech to stop curbs on money in campaigns. The poor man has an equal right to own newspapers as the rich, just as Murdoch family members have the right to sleep wrapped in their newspapers under a Manhattan flyover.

This election cycle is even worse. More and more states moved their primaries forward to the beginning of 2008, which means that active campaigning and spending began a year ago and has at least six months more to go before the parties’ candidates are chosen. Most of this money goes on television advertising, which at least Britain is spared.

The results of the system are apparent – and undemocratic. Under Blair’s mentor, Bill Clinton, a $100,000 in campaign contributions bought a night in the White House, half a million bought a WTO case against Caribbean banana preferences in the EU, or tightening sanctions on Cuba. Those donations showed clear cause and effect, but on a larger scale the fact that money comes from rich people and businesses explain why

Polls show popular support for universal healthcare, but the lobbyists for the big pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies and their campaign cheques ensure that almost fifty million Americans have no health insurance and all Americans pay the world’s highest prices for their drugs.

We can guarantee that whoever is elected as the Democratic candidate, or eventually the President, will be the beneficiary of several hundred million dollars in donations from rich individuals and corporations. Their policies will almost certainly reflect that, which is why the gap between rich and poor is widening and why ordinary working families under Bush have become more indebted and impoverished even as the economy has officially been booming.

In Britain, the entirely laudable attempt to extend the franchise for choosing the Labour Party leadership led to similar problems. Candidates had to raise their own money for canvassing and reaaching hundreds of thousands of members, and despite warnings from those who had seen what happened in the US, there was no system to oversee and reveal funding.

Enter Michael Levy, the vanguard of dodgy fundraisers, who made his debut financing Tony Blair’s leadership campaign. We now see where that led. In the name of removing the “undemocratic” influence of the unions that had actually founded the Labour Party, New Labour desperately sold itself to everyone from friends of Formula One Racing to friends of Ariel Sharon.

Being an entrist clique similar to Militant – but without the Trotskyist group’s grassroots appeal – New Labour felt no great need to tell the members of the party, or indeed the NEC, what it was up to. There have always been eccentric millionaires who have supported the Labour Party, and who have done so publicly. The minute money flows under the counter it is reasonable to assume that there is a quo being quidded. Even in the US, for all its faults, candidates must publish the list of donations.

Sadly, the infiltrators have drastically reduced the size of the Labour party electorate that potential leadership candidates have to address even if that does not seem to lessened their appetites for funny money. Those original members whom Michael Levy’s money helped win for Tony Blair, have left in droves, whether in protest or apathy when it became clear that their role in decision making was minimal. It is sad that Gordon Brown should now be carrying the can for decisions made by his predecessor, but it does give him the opportunity to put some serious distance from previous policies. Above all, if he wants to increase individual membership and ensure continued and increasing support from unions and their members, then he has to ensure that they have an effective voice in everything from the selection of candidates to the direction of policies.

The alternative is to follow through on the American road, and put a big “For Sale” sign up.

No comments: