Communists have long understood that the state is an apparatus for the rule of one class over the others in society. This remains the case even though it may mediate between competing sections of the ruling class, or organise concessions to the subordinate classes. It is not, therefore, ‘neutral’ or above the class struggle. Where the ruling class cannot achieve consent for its system or policies, it will use the coercive power of the state to enforce its interests.
But the struggle to win economic and social reforms under capitalism not only improves conditions for the working class, for as long as the reforms can be maintained. It also raises confidence, expectations and demands. Thus political understanding can grow about the class nature of society, class rule and the need to fight to change it.
Achieving democratic rights of assembly, combination, publication and election for workers, trade unions, political parties and other campaigning organisations creates the most favourable conditions for winning reforms and raising political consciousness.
Through the long campaigns for the People’s Charter in the 19th century and for votes for women into the 20th century, the British ruling class opposed electoral democracy. It feared that if the majority who possessed no capital secured the vote, they would use it collectively in their class interest. The working class movement fought with the understanding that the vote would enable the organised majority to counteract the massive economic power concentrated in the hands of the monopoly capitalists. The aim would be to establish a real ‘social democracy’ that went beyond political democracy, to achieve social ownership of the means of production. This understanding was originally expressed in the choice of name for the Labour Party.
Conversely, ever since the 1920s, when it was forced to concede full formal democracy, the British ruling class has sought to make it ‘unconstitutional’ for organised labour to use its own collective strength politically. Ceaselessly, this ruling class has sought to redefine democracy in individual terms that leave all those without capital at the mercy of the concentrated economic power of those who have it.
In recent decades, the ruling class has made deep inroads into the democratic rights and liberties previously won by the working class and peoples of Britain.
The Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s enacted a barrage of anti-trade union laws and abolished the layer of metropolitan local government where the Conservatives received little electoral support. The police, security services and the courts were used ruthlessly to limit rights of protest.
The 1997-2010 New Labour governments failed to repeal most of these measures. But they did fulfil manifesto commitments to establish a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly and to re-establish an elected authority for Greater London. Without charting a clear course to the reunification of Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement helped bring peace and a power-sharing assembly to the north.
But the powers and resources granted to the new devolved bodies in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London were kept to a minimum, in order to limit their potential to enact policies that could challenge the interests of monopoly capital. Similarly, proposals for regional government in England were drained of any real democratic content. They turned into measures for bureaucratic reorganisation, threatening the already meagre powers of local councils.
New Labour introduced limited reforms to expand trade union rights, but refused to repeal the vicious anti-union laws of the Thatcher period. As a result, trade union rights have since been blocked and undermined by employers’ use of the courts and judges by employers to overturn democratic ballots for industrial action. A series of judgements at the European (EU) Court of Justice threaten negotiated agreements and national legislation that protect workers’ terms and conditions.
The New Labour governments introduced repressive new laws to target scapegoats held responsible for social problems and to suppress the growing opposition to government policies. Huge holes were punched in longstanding civil liberties including rights to peaceful protest and freedom from detention without charge or trial. The powers of the police, security and immigration services were increased to unprecedented levels. Asylum seekers and refugees were blamed unfairly for government failures to invest fully in health, education and housing, while Muslims were demonised as part of the bogus ‘war on terror’.
New Labour also embraced the use of military state power to promote monopoly capitalism abroad. It strengthened British imperialism’s subservient alliance with US imperialism, participated in wars of aggression, supported repressive regimes in Colombia, Israel and the Middle East, offered facilities to the US Star Wars programme and colluded in the illegal kidnapping, transportation and torture of detainees from around the world, including from Britain itself.
In 2010, the incoming Tory-Liberal Democrat government scrapped plans to introduce a universal identity card system, which would have given the police and other state authorities enormous potential to limit the individual civil liberties of every member of the population. This was in order to focus its anti-democratic drive on collective rights, notably those to demonstrate, to influence and enact policies through elected local government and to defend workers’ interests through trade union representation and industrial action.
Such developments can best be understood against the background of ruling class strategy with its offensive against people’s living standards, public services and the welfare state. This offensive has been greatly intensified in the wake of the post-2007 capitalist crisis.
It is a strategy that illustrates the division of interests between British state-monopoly capitalism and those of working people – from managers and research scientists to shop-floor workers – and all who depend upon economic growth within Britain.