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Britain is an Economic Dictatorship - Time for Economic Democracy

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Up to two million trade union members are expected to strike this Wednesday, in protest against the government's attack on pensions and cuts in public services. Their grievances are real. But their solutions don't go far enough.

Pressing the government for fairness isn't the answer. Staging a protest is second best. These are reactive, defensive responses to fundamental flaws and failings in the way our economy is organised and run.

The perennial failing of most trade unions is that their horizons are so limited. They seek a better deal for their members within the economic status quo, when the real solution is to reform the system of economy that, by its very nature, leaves the vast majority of working people powerless, disenfranchised and marginalised. When it comes to the economy, the average person has no meaningful say in the decisions that affect their jobs, wages, pensions and working conditions.

We expect political democracy. Why not economic democracy too?

Behind the cosy democratic facade, Britain is a cut-throat economic dictatorship. A rich and powerful economic elite makes all the key economic decisions, excluding millions of employees and consumers.

Our country's democratic political transformation - pushed forward by the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes - has never been matched by a corresponding economic democratisation.

'One person, one vote' has been won in the political sphere (albeit imperfectly) but not in the realm of economics. Britain's democratic revolution, which begun four centuries ago, remains unfinished.

It is time to put economic democracy on the political agenda; to bring the economy into democratic alignment with the political system.

Extending the economic franchise is about democracy and justice. It can help create a greater plurality and diversity of economic power, and also lay the foundations for a more equitable and productive economic partnership between all those who contribute to wealth creation and to the provision of public services, from local councils to the NHS.

Whatever people think of the current economic system, one thing is indisputable: it is characterised by an absence of democracy, participation, transparency and accountability.

Employees and their representative bodies - the trade unions - are frozen out of economic influence and decision-making.

Big business rules. The captains of industry, commerce and finance have almost total power.

They run their enterprises on totalitarian lines. All decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a tiny, privileged cabal of major shareholders, directors and managers. They alone determine how the company operates. Employees - without whom no wealth would be created and no institution could function - are powerless and disenfranchised. They are little more than glorified serfs of the moneyed classes and their government.

Not much has changed in two centuries of capitalism. There have been no major democratic reforms of the economy. Although millions of people bought shares in privatised public enterprises like BT, their individual holdings are minuscule and marginal. They have no real influence. Big corporate interests retain the decisive economic power. This power is as centralised and autocratic as ever. A few determine the fate of the many.

The advent of nationalised public industries, utilities and services changed nothing. They have been run in much the same centralised, dictatorial manner as their privately-owned counterparts. There was never any economic democracy in the state-run railways or coal mines. The system of ownership changed but not the system of management. The bosses of public utilities and nationalised industries were almost as powerful as the captains of private enterprise. Their employees remained locked out of the decision-making process. It was state capitalism, not socialism. The Labour Party and the trade unions have made a huge mistake in over-emphasising public ownership, to the neglect of public control.

The same applies today in the NHS and other public services. They are administered according to the classic capitalist model of top-down command and control. NHS big-wigs have almost as much power as private medical bosses. Doctors, nurses and ancillary staff are excluded from policy-making in both public and private medicine. Their years of accumulated hands-on, frontline service knowledge is disregarded when it comes to policy-making. This is a huge waste of human resources.

Wherever we look, in all sectors of the economy, the democratic deficit is universal. Power is concentrated and wielded in ways that is contrary to the democratic, egalitarian spirit of modern, twenty-first century Britain. The time for economic democracy is now.

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