Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 21, June 6, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

The Farce and the Tragedy of Government's Handling of Covid-19 Pandemic

How Should Democracy Be Organised?

Last week saw farcical scenes in parliament as long "socially-distant" queues formed after MPs were called back to Westminster and the ability to participate and vote remotely was dropped. The order to physically attend was given despite concerns that it will exclude those shielding due to age or for health reasons. On July 1, Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, representing the government's position, declared that "if Parliament is to deliver on the people's priorities it must sit physically", and tabled a motion accordingly. An alternative was put forward to allow MPs unable to continue to participate remotely.

In order to "break the deadlock", Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle intervened. "While I don't wish to stop a return to important elements of spontaneity, including interventions, some steps need to be taken to ensure that we can match those who need to be in the Chamber to participate at any one time with the limits on safe spacing," he said in letter to MPs. The compromise intended to prevent a densely packed chamber is a queuing system with two-metre separation, such as is now commonplace at supermarkets. Further, MPs can self-certify if they cannot attend Parliament, and may then vote by proxy. This applies to MPs who: are themselves or have a family member who is "clinically vulnerable" or "clinically extremely vulnerable"; are required to self-isolate; or are prevented from attending due to caring responsibilities. Voting by proxy cannot be used simply on the grounds of inability to use a member's usual travel arrangements. Meanwhile, the House of Lords is to continue online working and plans to implement an online voting system.

The chaos smacks of no serious attempt to create even a form of parliamentary decision-making in any way in step with the requirements of what is happening. Events are such that as many as possible should be being involved in the discussion. Instead, the move is to further abandon any norms and, in so doing, attempt to consolidate Cabinet rule. But this itself is doomed to failure as there is no coherence in its positions. It is known that the Cabinet members were not even socially-distancing, resulting in a number of high-profile cases of infection including the Prime Minister himself. This elite body now makes not the slightest attempt at a veneer of parliamentary decision-making. It is simply the faction in power taking decisions from its executive bubble.

Furthermore, the factional politics, where even the party in power does not operate as a party, has been hotting up over the Cummings affair. As is now well-known, Boris Johnson's Special Adviser Dominic Cummings very brazenly broke the lockdown rules earlier in the outbreak. This has been taken up by the factional struggle in parliament, with various voices from within the Conservative Party calling for his resignation and seeing their opportunity to weaken the ruling faction. Cummings' own unapologetic and arrogant press conference on May 25 did nothing to alleviate the situation, and neither was it intended to. It was a plain declaration of arbitrariness. By May 27, over 30 Conservative MPs were in vocal revolt over the incident, claiming that it undermined the "moral authority" for the consent of the public.

For one thing, the affair has been an exposure of the role of the unelected "Special Adviser", which under the current government has taken on a new centrality. Cummings has been a key figure of the populist faction and its usurping of power, holding sway over decisions and appointments, even ministerial careers, while spearheading the use of data science and artificial intelligence in governance, following his former role as director and leading strategist of the Vote Leave campaign.

It has also further revealed the extent to which the rule of law itself has simply become a phrase. Rather, there is simply executive rule and government by police powers, in which a privileged political elite assume the right to do as they please while ruling over the populace. At the same time, the chaos in the ruling elite also lies exposed after Boris Johnson's extended absence while in intensive care and the barely-disguised jostling for position within the "Cabinet of equals" during that time.

Just like the parliamentary shenanigans last September, when the old constitutional norms were torn up, the present chaos and farcical scenes emphasise just how dysfunctional the parliamentary system has become. Lockdown or no lockdown, the democratic mechanisms should operate, and the issue is that none of them are doing so. Lockdown should not be an excuse for shutting down the mechanisms of decision-making further and increasing direct executive rule by police powers. Indeed, amongst the working class and progressive movements, people are using technology to increase participation in discussion in a way that has not been seen before, proving in real life that the technological possibilities exist for mass participation.

Authority at this time is descending into total crisis, resulting from its very being, which is completely out of step with the conditions of the times. There is a real threat of a second wave of COVID-19 cases, with present deaths standing at over 40,000. Accountability is a dead letter as the government figures act with impunity. By what standard can accountability be applied, amidst the mish-mash of paternal instincts, herd immunity, and the like, as though human beings were no more than animals? The government has demonstrated that in its schemes and incoherent guidance it treats people not as human beings but as things. The running of society in this way cannot but lead to farces and then to tragedies. Meanwhile, the people are doing what they can to sort out the problems as they occur, but are coming into contradiction with this incoherence and are blocked from having the power to sort out things at a national and local level.

The question is: how should democracy be organised so to open the path towards empowerment, and what is blocking that? All of this reveals the necessity for complete break with the political forms of the past. The issue is not to fix the existing state power, take it back to a better time, to return to business as was once usual. Something new has to be brought into being. People need to organise to speak in their own name, and further, not to look to somewhere else for authority, but to constitute themselves as the authority. To look elsewhere for authority is a block to empowerment and democratic renewal. People are cast as observers, and lockdown is being used to enforce this passive role. The answer is for working people to create their own political mechanisms and organisations. They should empower themselves by working out their own stands.


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