Toby Benn: The global attack on democracy

From the Peter Shore Memorial Lecture, delivered at Queen Mary College, London
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The Independent Online

Peter Shore was one of my oldest political friends, an influential figure in the Labour Party, an important minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, and a principled, passionate and tough-minded person. He should be remembered as a committed democrat who believed that the people, using the ballot box, were entitled to expect that those whom they elect should be able to use their power to improve the conditions of life and be held accountable for the decisions they made.

Writing in 1958 about the managerial revolution and the danger it posed for democracy, he set out his own convictions with absolute clarity: "I want a society which shapes its institutions so that men may become self-determining, their own masters. Humanity can only develop if we have faith in our own innate capacity. This is for me the starting point of democratic socialism and the basic case for social change."

Since he wrote those words power has become more and more centralised, both nationally and internationally, in exactly the way he feared it would, and this has led to a counter-attack on democracy that challenges all the gains so painfully made since the Chartists and the Suffragettes began their long campaign to make parliament accountable.

Multinational corporations and the banks, buttressed by the IMF and the WTO, which are not elected, now act as a form of world government in the globalised economy and give orders to nations, while big corporations fund parties and hope to buy the policies that will benefit their shareholders.

The mass media, increasingly global in its reach, exercise a massive influence on public opinion, and to that extent have partly replaced those we elect to speak. They warn of public apathy, when what is really happening is that people are angry that no-one seems to listen to them.

The recovery of the right of self-government, whether against the new imperialism or the machines that control politics and mass communication, must necessarily take pride of place in any agenda for reform. Peter Shore will be remembered for his role in explaining that and devoting himself to making it possible.