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This is not what democracy looks like

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On 1 May Occupy Democracy will be returning to Parliament Square to demonstrate against the UK’s inveterate political system. 

Ask most people what it means to live in a democracy and they will tell you it’s having the right to vote, the right to turn up to a ballot box twice a decade and put an X in a box. But when the whole political system is set up in such a way that whichever box you cross it will be corporate power and profit that wins, surely it’s time to ask ourselves whether we are living in a truly democratic system?

It is clear from the recently launched manifestos that little will change whether it’s blue or red that enters Number Ten in May. To name but a few examples, both parties are committed to supporting low corporate tax regimes to ensure corporations can continue to reap maximum profits. Likewise, both are committed to pushing through the unjust EU-US free trade agreement – TTIP – which explicitly places profit motives above public services, environmental standards, labour rights and would even allow companies to sue governments if those governments’ policies threaten profit losses – an inherent assault on democracy itself. Furthermore, neither of the two major parties are promising to take the urgent action needed to tackle climate change.

Instead of leaving fossil fuels in the ground, both parties are committed to continue fracking for shale gas, maximising revenues from UK petroleum reserves and express only minimal commitments to renewable energies. While on austerity, the Labour Party has given no meaningful commitment to reversing the attacks on the poor and the cuts to public services that have been unleashed under the past five years of Conservative rule. In other words, the manifestos make clear that there will be no overhaul to the current status quo which ensures profit is put before both people and planet meaning our political system will continue to represent the needs of the top 1% of society.

In a further insult to democracy, even when there are alternatives on offer from beyond the traditional parties, the archaic ‘First Past The Post’ system means that votes for these parties do not translate effectively into political power. This further illustrates the fact that our ability as ordinary people to bring about meaningful change via the upcoming general elections is severely limited.

The importance of popular action

We know from history that the extension of our democratic rights, whether it be votes for women or greater civil rights for example, has not been led from the top by politicians, but forced onto the agenda by the actions of popular mass movements like the Chartists and the Suffragettes. It is on the shoulders of these past struggles that Occupy Democracy will be returning to Parliament Square this May, the seventh occupation since the movement launched in October last year. The occupation forms part of the ongoing campaign to expose and tackle the influence corporations are able to exercise over our current political system, while also building a movement that is focused on bringing about an alternative democracy that is capable of representing us all.

Whilst fighting for change, Occupy Democracy itself functions pre-figuratively, adopting alternative horizontal structures through which discussions are had and decisions are made by consensus, which can be a truly empowering experience of what it really means to participate in democratic processes. It is through this structure that Occupiers have developed six core demands which represent first steps towards ending the corporate control of our system. These include addressing the mechanisms which allow wealthy individuals and corporations’ unrivalled access to political parties through lobbying and political donations, and preventing MPs from having conflicts of interests via second jobs and company shareholdings. Further demands call for major democratic reform of the media, the introduction of proportional representation so that everyone’s vote counts and a citizen-led constitutional convention for real democracy.

Addressing the systemic crisis

Occupy Democracy’s message is bold and brave and is resonating with a growing number of people who are rising against the system. The past year has seen the rise of an expanding network of politically aligned campaigners, radicalised by a raft of separate struggles – from the Focus E15 Mums fighting for their homes to the London Black Revs confronting race and class oppression, through to Reclaim the Power addressing the climate emergency – increasingly recognising that their issues are linked by the democratic deficit at the heart of our political system. Like Occupy Democracy, many involved in this resistance understand that the cycle of voting in and out neoliberal minded politicians only leads to broken promises and a widening inequality between the top 1% of society and the rest of us. Until we address this systemic crisis, individual campaigns will only have limited success. It is only once we have genuine democracy that we will we have true agency to participate on issues that affect our lives.

The programme for the ten day occupation of Parliament Square from May 1st-10th will bring together like-minded groups and individuals united in their conviction that there is an alternative. Student Occupiers, UK-Uncut campaigners and housing eviction resisters will all be sharing stories, skills and knowledge, and celebrating their resistance. Highlights include the activist preacher Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping choir kick-starting the occupation at 5pm on May 1st and a guerrilla gardening flash mob who will ‘reclaim the commons’ on the 2nd. Workshops, walking tours and stunts will take place every day exposing the corporate capture of our political system and the deficit that will remain in our democracy regardless of who gets into power. This is where the political conversations that matter will take place this May. This is where we build alternatives for change. This is what democracy looks like.

Resource: Open Democracy, April 28, 2015

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