A prominent study published towards the end of 2020 through Cambridge University made the stark finding that “This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties”, receiving significant coverage in parts of Britain’s media.
As well as noting this global trend the study found that “in almost every global region it is among 18 – 34 year olds that satisfaction with democracy is in steepest decline … the idea that young malcontents soften in attitude as they age is now reversed the world over. Millennials and Gen Xers have grown steadily less satisfied with democracy as they have advanced in life.” These steep declines in satisfaction with democracy among the youth apply to western capitalist countries in general and Britain in particular.
Despite their general disregard and contempt for the views of young people, some right-wing and ‘liberal’ politicians and intellectuals, and the ruling class they represent, are concerned and alarmed by this development. What does it mean for them? What does it mean for the system in Britain they have built and maintained for well over a hundred years?
Should working people – the real force for progressive change, democracy and popular sovereignty – in Britain be worried?
The truth is that Britain isn’t a democracy and never has been. The ruling class parliamentary system they have constructed is set up to obscure who holds the real power – the rich and big business – and to give the illusion of real democracy.
That is what young people in our country are turning their backs on.
‘Democracy’ in Britain
Britain’s political system is corrupted to its very core, from the ‘preferential treatment’ given to political donors to the tap on the shoulder appointments in the civil service and the billions handed to profiteering private sector firms during the pandemic. Ruling class politicians and political parties always and everywhere serve the interests of big business first and foremost. Political promises last only as long as election campaigns and even individual soundbites.
The privately owned monopoly media and state outlets play a fundamental role in keeping the whole pantomime running. Narrowing the scope of political debate to the always right-wing ‘centre ground’, lowering the general political and intellectual level of public discussion and distracting and dividing working people by promoting racist and xenophobic views. As we saw during the last election with the Corbyn campaign, this media can always be trusted to lead a vicious smear campaign against left and democratic forces.
What little local democracy that once existed in this country that allowed councils to make progressive changes for working people in their areas has been viciously stripped away. The Tories and the SNP have centralised government in Britain and shackled local authorities to ensure that European Union diktats on ‘free competition’, public procurement and state aid – which all favour big monopolies – are adhered to.
But the youth in Britain and the world aren’t just rejecting these corrupted anti-democratic political systems.
Anti-Youth and Anti-Worker Politics
They’re rejecting the outcomes of an economic system which has proven itself unable and unwilling to protect the lives and dignity of the youth and working people, a system which can only prioritise increasing the wealth of a shrinking number of multi-billionaires.
This was confirmed in the Cambridge University study, which found that “Globally, as the first millennials began university at the turn of the century, satisfaction with democracy was higher than in their parents’ generation. It fell sharply following the financial crisis of 2008, with millennials losing faith harder and faster than older generations.”
The past 13 years of crippling austerity have seen the so-called democratic institutions of this country implement an anti-working class and anti-youth agenda. Creating an epidemic among young people of poverty, precarity and mental health problems among the youth. Institutions which time and again fail to take the serious action which is needed to prevent the climate crisis. It is no surprise that the youth have little faith left in the Britain’s ruling class’ parliamentary system – in fact it would be worrying if they did.
Across Europe, and especially Eastern Europe, we have seen the rise of the right and far-right parties in direct response to the policies of austerity, privatisation and deindustrialisation enforced by the European Union. Far from being a liberal bulwark against the far-right, the EU is directly responsible for their resurgence.
So what should the response of Britain’s youth and working class be to this disillusionment with parliaments and the other institutions claiming to be democratic but are anything but?
The fight for Democracy in Britain
As communists we are democrats in the fullest sense of the word. We believe in a truly democratic society. A society controlled by working people. A society which operates not only in the interests of the working class in Britain but also our planet and all humanity. Valuable lessons have already been learned in terms of the successes and failures of working class democracy and state power by the countries of the socialist camp, massive strides are being made today. Socialist Cuba for example is constructing a real people’s democracy based in communities, workplaces and campuses and in the mass organisations of working people – free from the corrupting influence of private interests and dirty money.
We have no ambition to rescue the legitimacy of the ruling class’ parliamentary system in Britain and will ruthlessly criticise it and fight to replace it. We must use the growing awareness among young people in Britain today to make and strengthen the case for real working class democracy and state power.
What does this mean for our approach to ruling class ‘democracy’ and elections?
Lenin addressed the question of participation in bourgeois parliaments and elections in his seminal work “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder: “you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped … otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.” Lenin noted that it is fundamentally important to “to utilise parliamentary elections and the parliamentary rostrum in a revolutionary and communist manner”.
This is applied to Britain’s conditions in the Programme of the YCL and the Communist Party, Britain’s Road to Socialism – “The ruling capitalist class wages its political class struggle … Politically, the labour and progressive movements must have their own organisations to fight for policies and reforms, including in the electoral arena. Here the main strategic goals are to protect and extend democratic freedoms and to take the political struggle into every sphere of the state apparatus – not least parliament, the government and the civil service – to try to impose the interests of the working class and the people generally. The movements need to develop their own organisations in collective action to win their objectives at each stage. In so doing, they will gain vital experience for exercising state power themselves when the time comes.”
Britain’s Road to Socialism also sets out the democratic freedoms we should be fighting to extend and deepen in 2021:
- Restoration of the civil liberties eroded by Tory and Labour governments since 1979, especially those relating to assembly, demonstration and detention without charge.
- Repeal of the vicious anti-trade union laws put in place by Tory and Labour governments and extension of day one employment rights and the right to strike and join a trade union to all workers.
- Break up of the privately controlled monopoly media and reform of law on injunctions and libel to unshackle the press.
- For Britain’s Parliaments to implement a single transferable vote system in multi-member constituencies to bring about proportional representation without breaking the direct link between elected representatives and meaningful local constituencies.
- The right for electors to petition for a by-election at any time so all MPs are constantly accountable – not once every 5 years.
- Removal of state funding for political parties and caps on private donations to remove corrupt money from politics.
- As called for in the YCL’s Youth Charter, full voting rights at 16 years old for everyone in Britain.
- Powers being repatriated from the EU and its institutions should be devolved to democratically elected national, regional and local bodies.
- Restoration of powers to local councils in areas such as business taxation, council housing, management of schools, public transport and contract procurement.
- Abolition of the archaic and anti-democratic House of Lords.
- Progressive federalism for Britain so that the Scottish Parliament and Welsh National Assembly have the full economic, legislative and financial powers necessary to protect and develop the economic, social and cultural interests of their peoples.
- In England, regional mayors should be replaced by democratic regional assemblies with members elected by a proportional representation system.
- The distinctive national, cultural, economic and social characteristics of Cornwall should be expressed through a directly elected Cornish Assembly.
The Opportunity and Challenge to Britain’s Left
It is for communists, the left and the trade union movement to take up mantle as true advocates of democracy and human rights in Britain while never helping to foster the illusion that the political system of the ruling class is in any way democratic.
How in a purportedly democratic system are ruling class politicians enabled to consistently push through anti-worker and unpopular measures with an air of legitimacy? Because 20% of the population voted Tory at the last election? Why are multi-national companies allowed to sack and abuse workers at will, shutting down entire communities? Because the same Tory government and their courts say they can?
Humanity can and already has created a more democratic system than this – socialism. We can see that, in fact, the arguments for a fundamentally democratic society, are the arguments for socialism.
Disillusionment with capitalism and its corrupt political system is an opportunity for the left but it also presents challenges. Capitalism thrives on political apathy among young people, which in fact favours the status quo. The right wing are also seeking to capitalise on this disillusionment, we have seen the rise of right wing populists across Eastern Europe, the USA and Brazil. The ruling class is always prepared to dispose of the pretence of democracy when push comes to shove. That British Army generals were openly discussing the possibility of a coup d’etat in the event Corbyn won last year should be evidence enough of this.
Capitalism is a decaying and ideologically bankrupted system and increasing numbers of young people across Britain and the world are coming to that realisation. They can’t be allowed to fall into apathy and despair or drift to the anti-democratic ideologies of the right. It is for communists to expose the corrupt nature of the ruling class parliamentary system in Britain and to lead the fight for defending and extending democratic rights in the present context – while making the argument for a revolutionary and democratic transformation of society.
Young Communist League