Last night, after leafletting the area behind Waterloo station, three of us went to see the new "documentary play" Counted? put on in the council chamber of the old LCC/GLC. This couldn't be missed as it's in Vauxhall but also because it is largely based on research done by Stephen Coleman, professor of political communication at Leeds university, who used to be a speaker and writer for us.
The play takes the form of an actor playing Professor Coleman interviewing various different groups of people in Yorkshire about their attitude to voting. This requires some versality on the part of the six actors who have to change not just their clothes but their also their accents and age to perform the interviewees. It's well done and well worth seeing. It's on till 22 May. Sadly, there were only 35 people in the audience, perhaps because some who might have gone were at home watching the Three Stooges debate in what passes for "politics".
The professor opens by saying that his research starts from the premiss that democracy is a good idea but does it work. It doesn't seem to, when there are turn-outs of less, sometimes much less, than 50% in local elections, which are the only elections in which people could have some influence on what is done, such as the provision of community centres, sports facilities and other amenities or the positioning of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. So, why do people vote -- and not vote?
In the first scene the professor is trying to interview young mothers at a community centre, the day after an election, about why they hadn't voted. They are not interested. It's not something they do. He does manage to extract from them that they are interested in choices (his definition of politics, as opposed to what goes on at Westminster) and that they do make them on an individual basis and also that they do vote, by mobile phone in programmes such as Big Brother and the X-Factor.
The next scene is in a golf club. Everybody interviewed votes and they think it's a good thing, even a duty. Their local concern was to prevent the opening of a Tesco superstore. And they too had voted by telephone, for Strictly rather than Big Brother.
There are interviews with an Independent councillor and an Independent candidate who are concerned about purely local issues. The councillor explains what's involved in being a councillor, dealing with individual cases and pressing for amenities in his locality. That this is what most people see as the role of those they elect is re-inforced by the one interview that doesn't take place in Yorkshire, with MPs assistants in Westminster. They explain that most of the letters MPs get from constituents are about individual cases (and that not too much importance is attached to circular letters about Saving Whales, fox-hunting and the like. So, so much for petitioning by single-issue groups).
What's the conclusion, then? It seems to be that democracy might work at local level if people were consulted more about what they wanted for their locality and could be persuaded to participate by making it easier and more interesting to vote. Maybe, but this ignores the constraints that capitalism places on what people can get even with the most democratic of institutions and practices.
You can have the most democratic structure in the world and people can vote to have decent housing or whatever, but they won't get it as the economic laws of capitalism dictate that priority must be given to making profits and accumulating capital. In short, capitalism prevents democratic decisions to improve things from being implemented. And what local councils can spend on amenities depends on what they get from central government, which is never enough. What local councils can do, even with more popular participation, is limited by what is possible under capitalism.
Capitalism also prevents democracy working properly as under it some, those with more money, are more equal than others and so, as the case of Lord Cashcroft shows (there are many others), have more say and more influence. A real, properly-functioning democracy is only possible in a classless society where the means of production are owned in common by the whole community. Then there'd be no restrictions on the amenities that could be provided at local level. If, after discussion and debate, people voted that they wanted something they could go ahead and implement it.
The audience were invited to fill in a ballot paper asking such questions as "I tend to vote as my parents do", "I regard voting as my duty", "I know the names of my local candidates". We were tempted to write "WORLD SOCIALISM" across the ballot paper but didn't. Even so, one of us inadvertently spoilt his by putting an X for no and a tick for yes. How often has he voted?