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Who governs Britain? And how?

Westminster: the mother of all parliaments, or the mother of all smokescreens? Photo Workers.

Examining the glaring limitations of present-day political arrangements forces us to fathom the best way of confronting the myriad problems surrounding us…

Clarity about the lack of democracy is particularly important in an election year when electoral distractions become a plague that can weaken us if we are not immune to them.

From the cradle to the grave, we hear the same complacent endorsement of the existing method of governance on these lines:

“You are most privileged to live in an era of parliamentary democracy where everything is based on the principles of universal suffrage and periodic general elections that decide which candidates and which parties get representation in the House of Commons at Westminster; where the victorious party installs its leader as Prime Minister, who goes on to construct a Cabinet and a Government that wields executive power through the agencies of the state on behalf of the electorate. Even if the party you voted for does not end up as the government, you have had a chance to influence the outcome, and maybe in the future your turn will come.”


Yet, in the period between elections under this type of governance, the electorate-as-a-force conveniently vanishes, withdrawn from involvement. It is displaced by the intrigues of a never-ending Westminster parade of blind alleys, in which one particular brand of bourgeois politics is in charge while the others hurl ritualistic abuse. For up to five years the electorate, supposedly key, is relegated to an outside observer of government and parliament.

In Britain today two classes cohabit uneasily, two classes divorced from each other, two classes with divergent economic concerns and contrasting lifestyles. The classical description of classes within capitalism says there is a clash between those who have to work to get a living even if their labour increases capital and those who own the means of production, live off the work of others and appropriate the surplus value.

This analysis remains true, yet nothing ever stays exactly the same. And, since the early 1980s, with world capitalism and here in Britain too, there has been a tremendous concentration of economic power among finance capitalists and monopolist corporate bodies. They exercise stifling control over the real economy and are increasingly hostile to our national interests.

Developed capitalist countries like Britain are examples of imperialism. Yet when imperialism is mentioned, people usually focus on its aggressive desire to overpower other parts of the world, and they might concede the right of developing countries to fight national liberation struggles. But imperialism also exploits and oppresses just as rigorously in its heartlands.

Who wields real power behind the façade of visible politicians? The puppeteers determining politicians’ moves are the networks of finance capitalists and monopolists, pulling the strings, usually out of sight.

What, then, does a brief snapshot of Britain’s political economy under imperialism reveal?

Finance capital directs the flows of capital today. Money-capital speculation is its obsession. This speculative capital destroys productive capital as it seeks short term, largely monetary gains.

And because productive capital entails longer-term investment within a process or in researching and developing a product in order to create surplus value, speculative capital actively shuns it. Productive capital entails the use of workers with a different class interest that finance capital fears. Financial markets reign supreme neglecting investment in means of production, and in production itself.


The deindustrialisation of Britain continues. Mass immigration and the sucking in of cheap labour proceeds on a vaster scale alongside the obstinate refusal to upskill and invest in British workers. Generally, Britain is a low wage economy, which is the  cause of capitalism’s perennial problem of underconsumption.

Almost every part of our country’s infrastructure needs not just overhauling but renewing. Our public services have been chronically underfunded for many years.

The Treasury is the dominant government department, setting the tone and parameters for the others. It is consistently loath to endorse investment, or industry, or necessary public spending, or sensible national protections or judicious planning.

It is pro finance capital and against strengthening independence. Its orthodoxy condemns Britain to a spiral of decline. And the rise in government debt means soaring interest debt repayments, a vicious cycle of attacks on public services, and a return to austerity measures.

‘Imperialism also exploits and oppresses just as vigorously in its heartlands…’

A recent example of monopoly corporations’ bad effects is the sorry tale of the Post Office and the Japanese IT company Fujitsu, well told in the ITV drama Mr Bates and the Post Office. We should admire the magnificent resilience and courage of the band of postmasters who took on the Post Office, Fujitsu and the government, which conspired against them for decades. Taking campaigning action was vital in exposing the scandal.

When problems openly escalate into scandals as with the invasion of Iraq or the Grenfell Tower fire, then public inquiries are wheeled out. These take years or even decades to publish a report. Then generally nothing decisive happens, the problems are not tackled.

Years after the Grenfell fire, an estimated 2,000 high-rise residential buildings have some form of dangerous cladding, and nothing has been done about it. Perhaps all these residents should get together and form a campaigning body that organises a few sit-ins of the installing companies or negligent government departments. That is likely to force the issues.

For many decades government in Britain has overseen a shift in influence and power to the big financial players and huge corporations. Mainstream politics offers a pointless joust between two parties who are both for the maintenance of capitalism.

Populist parties like UKIP and its successor Reform, which were for Brexit, argue for even greater power to unregulated markets, even though the markets’ attack on working class society was the main reason for the popular uprising for independence.

The working class is the only agent for change; the only force capable of overturning the ruinous hold of finance capitalists and monopolists over society. Progress comes through us and our actions. A working class creates power when it comes together and acts collectively.

As a first step workers must disengage from reliance on the parliamentary parties. In particular, workers must end the ruinous habit of fawning over a Labour Party that has never produced the goods, and never will. Surely after witnessing the administrations of Ramsay Macdonald, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, we can see the dreadful role of the Labour Party.

And from their pre-election stances, it is already plain that there is no prospect of anything fundamental being brought in by Keir Starmer and his supporters. If elected, his Labour Party is going to be remarkably similar to Sunak’s Conservatives.

Absolute decline

Necessity sometimes simplifies and determines choice. And it is becoming clearer to millions that the systemic tendency towards absolute decline and the inadequacies of the prevailing political structures hem everyone in.

After some years of relative quiet, there has been a welcome resurgence in working class struggle recently, much of it centring on pay, though not all. Yet in the past sometimes big upturns in working class activity have frittered away and the rule of capital has managed to re-assert itself.

Therefore this valuable momentum and increased mass involvement can’t be lost or squandered. Working class initiative must be held and extended – by keeping charge of matters in workplaces and sectors – by not letting our guard drop – nor allowing the recently gained active involvement to lapse when specific disputes reach temporary settlements.

Instead struggle must spread further, into more spheres and other sectors of society. We strengthen our influence when we govern events by action. Action is an art. Many recent pay struggles have been well conducted, avoiding infeasible all-out strikes and instead adopting a more guerrilla approach.

Workers have been involved in successful pay disputes that have frequently achieved significant increases. Once a trade union culture is reborn, spin offs will follow, not least in the form of willingness to be involved in future struggle.

Yet we don’t have to idolise strikes, or always reach for the strike button. Action short of a strike or “working to rule” with collective restrictions imposed over the amount of work to be done can be effective and sustainable. Even at times just expressing a collective attitude on a key problem can bring beneficial effects in a workplace or sector.

The word “guerrilla” does not imply a mere tactical stance. Properly applied in the context of a mass in class struggle, it has ideological significance because it presumes a class acting as a force-for-itself, ever keen to control events. Wherever possible, positional tactics of a trench warfare mode should be avoided and flexible tactics that do not exhaust those in action should be pursued.

Initiative should never be ceded to a system that always wants to stifle our aims. As pay settlements are reached, the return to work cannot be a case of “as you were”. Workplace trade union organisation has sprung into life again. It ought not just briefly flare only to die back.


There are many pressing concerns to pursue beyond pay: conditions of work, health and safety, pensions, training up of a younger skilled force, quality of work, and so on. Momentum gained on pay should translate into ongoing pressure on all the issues that concern us.

Over recent years our party has popularised the idea of “taking control”. Its first crucial factor is asserting a collective response, which then needs to evolve into a social power operating independently of the system, on a persistent basis.

Taking control is when workers act collectively, consciously and independently to pressurise and force the employer or government into accepting specific demands. Taking control means building the working class so that it becomes increasingly separated from the capitalist order, and acts as a movement outside their remit. Taking control requires a protracted strategy to shift the balance of power towards the working class and against the ruling class.


And it will involve more than just trade unionists – also concerned professional bodies and campaigners striving for effective national delivery of transport networks, for farming, fishing, energy security, nuclear power, clean water and rivers. The working class will at some point have to consider the stage of moving beyond taking control to assuming absolute power which is all a revolution is.

And when we do, it will not be enough to raise a red flag over the Houses of Parliament. It is ridiculously static to believe that governing systems and political theory have reached their peak in bourgeois democracy. The way we collectively organise against the system will shape the way we construct power and government in a new society. It will certainly necessitate democracy and responsibility on a hitherto unknown scale.        

• This article is based on the introduction to a CPBML public meeting held in March.