Our Peripheral Parliament

Politics is moving out of Westminster, as our representatives avoid the real issues

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian Election Companion, 2001

When Tony Benn announced his retirement, he said he was “leaving Parliament to go into politics”. He didn’t need to explain what he meant. To the thousands of activists championing the issues two governments have neglected, Parliament has been peripheral to the life of the nation for years.

It’s not hard to see why. The first and most obvious reason is that MPs are no longer permitted to represent their constituents. The lavish use of the whip, the increased efficiency of the party machines, the fudged reform of the House of Lords, the marginalisation of even the Cabinet as the government is run by unelected advisers have all helped to sever the links between us and our representatives.

As the government is gradually removed from effective democratic oversight, unprecedented opportunities emerge for undemocratic lobbying. While petitions signed by one million electors are binned, Rupert Murdoch is admitted to Downing Street every time he knocks. All governments (aware that the surest way to acquire power is to appease those who possess it already) are enlisted by the powerful to marginalise dissent. But this government has been so comprehensively captured by its lobbyists that it has marginalised itself.

There is, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have assured us, “no alternative” to neoliberal globalisation. This means, though they would never dare to express it this way, the gradual privatisation of everything, brokered by means of the Private Finance Initiative and the forthcoming General Agreement on Trade in Services. It means the progressive deregulation of business activities, resulting in ever lower environmental, workplace and consumer standards. It means fiscal policies whose purpose is to provide “a more competitive environment” for business, which translates as a long-term shift from corporate to personal taxation.

None of these issues are subject to meaningful debate, as all three major parties are courting the same corporate constitutency. National sovereignty, for example, is an issue only when the European Union suggests raising the standards to which business must conform. Its deregulatory measures, by contrast, are never construed as a danger to democracy. The gravest of all recent challenges to sovereignty was the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. Had this global measure been approved, it would have permitted corporations to sue governments for the removal of any laws restricting their ability to make money. But when it was debated in Parliament, the Conservative benches were completely empty. When, on the day of its negotiation, Jack Straw was asked about the agreement on Question Time, he admitted that he had never heard of it.

So the electorate is left to wonder why, though the state has never been richer, public services are falling apart, the state pension is dwindling and schools are being privatised. Why, though no one wants them, we are being forced to accept genetically modified crops. Why the government which promised traffic reduction, rail re-nationalisation and integrated transport has instead re-launched the road building programme. Why, though everyone who has studied it knows it is a deadly farce, Tony Blair refuses to rule out British participation in the Nuclear Missile Defence programme.

While the government insists that there is no alternative, those seeking to promote one are treated as dangerous outcasts. Non-violent campaigners have been re-classified as terrorists by the new terrorism act, while the investigatory powers act and the new criminal justice act allow the security services to intercept their emails and raid their computers without a warrant. Yet, in the absence of an independent, investigative press, peaceful protest is now among the few means of raising the issues which will determine the future course of most people’s lives. We are, as a result, entering a new age of activism.

Until recently, protest in Britain has been fragmentary and confused. Suddenly, however, the dissenters appear to be coalescing, and a composite radical opposition movement is beginning to emerge. Socialists, anarchists and greens seem to be laying aside their differences to campaign against global neoliberalism. Even the farmers who joined the fuel protests are beginning to talk to environmentalists, as both sides come to see that corporate power threatens small business and the ecosystem in equal measure. While the turnout for the general election promises to be among the lowest on record, the protests scheduled for the G8 summit in Genoa in July are likely to number among the biggest ever held.

These are, as a result, exciting times. While extra-parliamentary activism will make little difference to the outcome of this election, the concerns it expresses will become ever harder to ignore. With or without the help of our marginalised parliament, by the time of the next election, Britain’s politics will bear little resemblance to those of 2001.