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The Kenyan Supreme Court’s BBI Judgment – Part II: Public Participation, Direct Democracy, and the Popular Initiative

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This is the second of three articles in which Gautam Bhatia analyses the judgments of the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court following the constitutional challenge to the BBI Bill.

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The Kenyan Supreme Court’s BBI Judgment – Part I: On Constitutional Amendments and the Basic Structure
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In the previous article we discussed the Kenyan Supreme Court’s BBI judgment, on the issue of basic structure and limitations upon the constitutional amending power. That discussion provides an ideal segue into the second major issue before the Court: the interpretation of Article 257 of the Kenyan Constitution, which provides for constitutional change through the “popular initiative”.

Recall that other than the substantive challenge to the contents of the BBI Bill, another ground of challenge was that, on a perusal of the record, the president was the driving force behind the Bill (the High Court called him the “initiator”), going back to the time that he engaged in a “handshake” with Raila Odinga, his primary political rival at the time. It was argued that Article 257’s “popular initiative route” was not meant for state actors to use – and definitely not for the head of the executive to use. It was meant to be used by ordinary people, as a method for bringing them into the conversation about constitutional reform and change. The High Court and the Court of Appeal (see here) agreed with this argument; the Supreme Court did so as well, although it split on the question of whether the president had, actually, been impermissibly involved with the popular initiative in this case.

The Long Shadow of the Imperial Presidency

At the outset, it is important to note that Article 257 does not explicitly bar the president from being a promoter (the technical term) or an “initiator” of a popular initiative (Ibrahim J, paragraph 784). Any restriction upon the President, in this regard, would therefore have to flow from an interpretation of the constitutional silences in Article 257.

How does the Supreme Court fill the silence? As with its analysis of the basic structure, the Court turns to history. Where the point of Chapter XVI was to provide internal safeguards against hyper-amendments, more specifically, Article 257 – as gleaned from the founding documents – came about as a response to the “Imperial Presidency”, i.e., the period of time under Kenya’s Independence Constitution, where power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the president, and where the president was in the habit of simply amending the Constitution in order to remove impediments to the manner in which he wished to rule (Koome CJ, paragraph 243; Mwilu DCJ, paragraphs 463, 472; Wanjala J, paragraph 1046; Ouko J, paragraph 1917-1918).

This being the case, the Supreme Court holds, it would defeat the purpose of the popular initiative to let the president back in. The purpose of Article 257, according to the Court, is to provide an avenue for constitutional change to the People, as distinct from state organs (Mwilu DCJ, paragraph 491; Ibrahim J, paragraph 789; Lenaola J, paragraph 1537). In other words, the scheme of Chapter XVI – with its twin parliamentary (Article 256) and popular initiative (Article 257) routes – is to balance representative and direct democracy when it comes to constitutional change (Koome CJ, paragraphs 237 – 242; Mwilu DCJ, paragraph 480; Wanjala J, paragraph 1042; Lenaola J, paragraph 1535; Ouko J, paragraph 1900). That balance would be wrecked if Article 257 was to be converted from a bottoms-up procedure for constitutional change to a top-down procedure, driven by the president.

This is a particularly important finding, whose implications extend beyond the immediate case. Recall that the contest over the interpretation of Article 257 was – as so much else in this case – a contest over legal and constitutional history. While the challengers to the BBI Bill told the story of the imperial presidency, its defenders told a different story entirely: for them, Article 257 was not about constraining the president, but about enabling them. The situation that Article 257 envisaged was one where a recalcitrant parliament was stymying the president’s reform agenda; in such a situation, Article 257 allowed the president to bypass parliament, and take their proposals directly to the people.

The contest, thus, was fundamentally about the relationship between power, presidentialism, and the 2010 Constitution. Was the 2010 Constitution about constraining the imperial presidency – or was it about further entrenching the power of the president vis-a-vis other representative organs? And thus, in answering the question the way it did, the Supreme Court not only settled the fact that the president could not initiate a popular initiative, but also laid out an interpretive roadmap for the future: constitutional silences and ambiguities would therefore be required to be interpreted against the President – and in favour of checks or constraints upon their power – rather than enabling their power. This is summed up in paragraph 243 of Koome CJ’s opinion, which demonstrates the reach of the reasoning beyond its immediate context:

In its architecture and design, the Constitution strives to provide explicit powers to the institution of the presidency and at the same time limit the exercise of that power. This approach of explicit and limited powers can be understood in light of the legacy of domination of the constitutional system by imperial Presidents in the pre-2010 dispensation. As a result, Chapter Nine of the Constitution lays out in great detail the powers and authority of the President and how such power is to be exercised. In light of the concerns over the concentration of powers in an imperial President that animate the Constitution, I find that implying and extending the reach of the powers of the President where they are not explicitly granted would be contrary to the overall tenor and ideology of the Constitution and its purposes. (Emphasis supplied)

Furthermore, in this context, Koome CJ’s endorsement of Tuiyott J’s opinion in the Court of Appeal (Koome CJ, paragraph 256) becomes particularly important. As Tuiyott J had noted, simply stating that the president is not allowed to initiate a popular initiative will not solve the issue; there are many ways to do an end-run around such proscriptions – for example, by putting up proxies (as arguably did happen in this case). What is thus required is close judicial scrutiny, and the need for a factual analysis that goes behind a proposed popular initiative, in order to ensure that it is genuinely citizen-driven, and not a front for state actors (especially the president) (see also Mwilu J, paragraph 509, for some of the indicators, which she suggests ought to be addressed legislatively). Indeed, a somewhat more formal reading of the process (with respect) led to Lenaola J dissenting on this point, and finding that the president was not involved, as it was not he who had gone around gathering the one million signatures for the popular initiative. Thus, how well the judiciary can police the bounds of Article 257 is something only time will tell; in the judgments of the High Court, Court of Appeal, and now the Supreme Court, the legal standards – at least – are in place.

Public Participation

The Supreme Court unanimously found that the Second Schedule to the BBI Bill – which sought to re-apportion constituencies – was unconstitutional. Their reasons for doing so differed: a majority holds that there was no public participation; Mwilu J also holds that the amendment was not in harmony with the rest of the Constitution (paragraph 533) and Wanjala J says that it amounted to constitutional “subversion” (paragraph 1063), on the basis that it amounted to a direct takeover of the functioning of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission – raising some of the basic structure issues discussed in the previous post. On public participation with respect to the rest of the BBI Bill, the Court split 4 – 3, with a wafer-thin majority holding that – on facts – there had been adequate public participation in the process thus far. In this context, it is important to note that CJ Koome – one of the majority of four – notes elsewhere that the most intense public participation – that is, voter education, etc. – occurs at the time of the referendum (which had not yet happened in the present case).

Was the 2010 Constitution about constraining the imperial presidency – or was it about further entrenching the power of the president vis-a-vis other representative organs?

A couple of other points arise for consideration on the point of public participation. The first is that in a dispute about whether or not there was adequate public participation, who bears the burden of proof? On my reading, a majority of the Court holds that it is the state organs which bear the burden of demonstrating that there was adequate public participation (Koome CJ, paragraph 270, 311; Mwilu J, paragraphs 599, 604; Ibrahim J, paragraph 849; Wanjala J, paragraphs 1096 – 1097). The rationale for this is set out by Ibrahim J at paragraph 849:

With profound respect, as stated by Musinga, (P), the amendment of a country’s constitution, more so our Constitution, should be a sacrosanct public undertaking and its processes must be undertaken very transparently and in strict compliance with the country’s law.

This chimes in with the Court’s finding that the tiered amendment process under Articles 255 – 257 is an internal safeguard against abusive amendment. Needless to say, if that interpretation is indeed correct, then within the scheme of Articles 255 – 257, constitutional silences should be interpreted in a manner that protects the citizenry from abusive amendments; one of the most important safeguards is public participation, and it therefore stands to reason that the burden of establishing it – especially where state organs are concerned within the scheme of Article 257 – should be on the state. In this context, it is interesting that other than repeatedly emphasising that Article 257 was an onerous, multi-step procedure whose very onerousness was designed to protect the basic features of the Constitution, Koome CJ is the only judge to both hold that the burden lay upon State organs, and to hold that the burden was discharged in this case.

The second point about public participation is the Court’s finding that it flows throughout the scheme of Article 257, with its specific character depending upon what stage the amendment process was at: at the promoters’ stage, at the stage of the county assemblies, at the stage of the legislature, and at the stage of the referendum. A majority holds – and I think correctly – that at the initial stage – the promoters’ stage – the burden is somewhat, especially given that this is the only stage where state institutions are not involved, and the burden falls upon the promoters, who are meant to be ordinary citizens.

Given the contested facts in this case – which are discussed at some length in the separate opinions – it will be interesting to see how future judgments deal with the issue of public participation under Article 257, especially given the Court’s finding that it is this tiered amendment process that is meant to protect against abusive amendments.

The Quorum of the IEBC

Recall that a key question before the High Court and the Court of Appeal was whether the IEBC, working with three commissioners, had adequate quorum, notwithstanding the fact that the Schedule to the IEBC Act fixed the quorum at five. The High Court and the Court of Appeal held that it did not have quorum; the Supreme Court overturned this finding.

The reasoning of the judges on this point overlaps, and can be summed up as follows: Article 250(1) of the 2010 Constitution states that “each commission shall consist of at least three, but not more than nine, members.” This means that, constitutionally, a commission is properly constituted with three members. Any legislation to the contrary, therefore, must be interpreted to be “constitution-conforming” (in Koome CJ’s words), and read down accordingly (Koome CJ, paragraph 325 – 326, 336 – 337; Mwilu J, paragraph 661; Wanjala J, paragraph 1113; Ouko J, paragraphs 2060, 2070).

How well the judiciary can police the bounds of Article 257 is something only time will tell.

With the greatest of respect, textually, this is not entirely convincing. If I say to you that “you may have at least three but not more than nine mangoes”, I am leaving the decision of how many mangoes you want to have up to you; am only setting a lower and an upper bound, but the space for decision within that bound is entirely yours. Similarly, what Article 250(1) does is set a lower and upper bound for Commissions and quorum, with the decision of where to operate in that space being left up to legislation (see Ibrahim J, paragraph 892). This point is buttressed by the fact that under the Transitional Provisions of the Constitution, it is stated that

“Until the legislation anticipated in Article 250 is in force the persons appointed as members or as chairperson of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission shall be appointed by the President, subject to the National Accord and Reconciliation Act, and after consultation with the Prime Minister and with the approval of the National Assembly.”

I would suggest that this indicates that the appropriate body for implementing Article 250 is the legislature, and consequently, questions about quorum and strength ought to be left to the legislature (subject to general principles of constitutional statutes and non-retrogression, discussed here).

Conclusion

There were, of course, other issues in the judgment that I have not been dealt with here; the question of presidential immunity, for example. In this article, however, we have seen that the overarching finding of the Court – that the tiered amendment procedure under Articles 255 – 257 is meant to provide an internal safeguard against abusive constitutional amendments and hyper-amendments – necessarily informed its interpretation of Article 257 itself, in particular, in holding that the president cannot initiate a popular initiative, that the burden of demonstrating public participation lies upon the state, and that public participation is a continuing process flowing through the several steps of Article 257. In the final – and concluding – article, we shall examine some of the other implications of this logic, in particular upon issues such as distinct and separate referendum questions.

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Gautam Bhatia is a constitutional lawyer based in New Delhi, India.

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Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy

If Rwanda is to attain its stated ambition to become of a middle-income country by 2035 driven by the knowledge economy, then it must inject significant investments in the education and related sectors.

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Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy
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Rwanda has shown commitment to bring improvements to its education sector. The development of Human capital that involves the enhancement of the education and health sectors was one of the main pillars of Rwanda’s development programme launched in 2000 to transform the country into a middle income state driven by the knowledge economy by 2020. Many developed countries joined in to financially support Rwanda to fulfil its development ambitions.

But while Rwanda did not meet its target to transform into a middle-income state by 2020, it has nevertheless made progress in the education sector that should be recognised. The country has now near-universal access to primary education with net enrolment rates of 98 per cent. There are also roughly equal numbers of boys and girls in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Rwanda. Compared to other sub-Saharan African countries, Rwanda has made great improvements in the education sector based on the gains made in primary school gross enrolment, out-of-school and retention rates and considering that the country came out of a genocidal civil war in the 1990s. Those of us living and travelling across the country can also see that the government of Rwanda has built more schools across the country to address congestion in classrooms.

However, education in Rwanda is faced with serious challenges which, if not addressed, the country will not attain its ambition to become a middle-income by 2035 and a high-income by 2050. The World Bank’s comparison with middle- and high-income countries, to whose ranks Rwanda aspires to join, shows that Rwanda lags far behind in primary and lower secondary school completion levels.

The gains made in education are not equally distributed across Rwanda. There are, for instance, wide disparities in lower secondary education by income and urban–rural residence. Whereas lower secondary school gross enrolment ratio level is 82 per cent in urban areas, it is only 44 per cent in rural areas. Moreover, transition rates between primary and lower secondary education are 53 per cent in urban areas, and 33 per cent in rural areas. School completion is 52 per cent among the richest quintile while it is 26 per cent among the poorest. Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

The standard of education in Rwanda is another major challenge. At the end of Grade 3, 85 per cent of Rwandan students were rated “below comprehension” in a recent reading test, and one in six could not answer any reading comprehension question. In my view, the quality of education has been partly affected by the abrupt changes in the language of instruction that have taken place without much planning since 2008.

Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

Learning levels in basic education remain low in Rwanda.  Children in the country can expect to complete 6.5 years of pre-primary and basic education by the age of 18 years. However, when this is adjusted for learning it translates to only about 3.8 years, implying that children in Rwanda have a learning gap of 2.7 years. This is a concern.

Education in Rwanda is also impended by high levels of malnutrition for children under 5 years. Although there have been improvements over time, malnutrition levels remain significantly high at 33 per cent. Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings. It also deprives the economy of quality human capital that is critical to Rwanda attaining its economic goals and sustaining its economic gains. In 2012, Rwanda lost 11.5 per cent of GDP as a result of child undernutrition.

Because of low learning levels and high levels of malnutrition in children under 5 years, Rwanda has consistently ranked below average on the World Bank’s Human Capital index since 2018, the year the index was first published. HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens.

If Rwanda is to develop the competent workforce needed to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and bring it into the ranks of middle-income states, the government must put significant public spending in basic education. This has not been the case over the past decades. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s public spending on primary education has been significantly lower than the average for sub-Saharan African countries with similar coverage of primary school level as Rwanda. This low spending on primary education has translated into relatively modest pay for teachers and low investment in their professional development which in turn affects the provision of quality education in Rwanda. The government recently increased teachers’ salary but the increment is being eroded by, among other things, food price inflation in Rwanda.

Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings.

Going forward, Rwanda’s spending on education needs to be increased and allocated to improving standards. Considering that the underlying cause of the high rate of malnourishment in children is food insecurity, the government needs to spend more on the agriculture sector. This sector employs 70 per cent of the labour force but has received only 10 per cent of total public investment. Public investment in Rwanda has in the past gone to the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions sector rather than towards addressing pressing scarcities. This approach must be reviewed.

Increasing public expenditure in education and connected sectors should also be combined with strengthening accountability in the government institutions responsible for promoting the quality of education in basic schools and in promoting food security and livelihoods in Rwanda. This is because not a year goes by without the office of the Rwanda auditor general reporting dire inefficiencies in these institutions.

Strengthening institutional accountability can be achieved if the country adapts its consensual democracy by opening up the political space to dissenting voices. Doing so would surely enhance the effectiveness of checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda, including in the education sector, and would enable the country to efficiently reach its development targets.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States

Adam Mayer praises a new collection, Liberated Texts, which includes rediscovered books on Africa’s socialist intellectual history and political economy, looking at the startling, and frequently long ignored work of Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu and Makhan Singh.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
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Liberated Texts is a magnificent, essential, exciting tome that feels like a bombshell. This incredibly rich collection is a selection that is deep, wide, as well as entertaining. The book focuses on twenty-one volumes from the previous one hundred years, with a geographical range from the UK, the US, Vietnam, Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, the Middle East, Ireland, Malaysia, Africa (especially East Africa), Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, focusing on books that are without exception, foundational.

The collection is nothing less than a truth pill: in composite form, the volume corrects world history that Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States offered for the sterile, historical curriculum on domestic (US) history. The volume consists of relatively short reviews (written by a wide collection of young and old academics and activists from every corner of the globe) but together they reflect such a unified vision that I would recommend Liberated Texts as compulsory reading for undergraduate students (as well as graduates!) Although the text is a broad canvas it speaks to our age (despite some of the reviewed book having been written in the 1920s).

Each review is by default, a buried tresure. The writer of this very review is a middle-aged Hungarian, which means that some of the works and authors discussed were more familiar to me than they would be to others. For example, Anton Makarenko’s name was, when the author grew up in the People’s Republic of Hungary, a household word. Makarenko’s continued relevance for South America and the oppressed everywhere, as well as his rootedness in the revolutionary transformations of the Soviet experiment, are dealt with here marvellosly by Alex Turrall (p. 289). In loving detail Turrall also  discusses his hero the pedagogue Sukhomlinsky’s love for Stalinist reforms of Soviet education (p. 334).

There is one locus, and one locus only, where death is given reign, perhaps even celebrated: in a Palestinian case (p. 133) the revolutionary horizons are firmly focused on the past, not on any kind of future. The entire problematic of Israeli society’s recent ultra right-wing turn (a terrible outcome from the left’s point of view) is altogther missing here. Yet it is difficult to fault the authors or editors with this (after all, they painstakingly included an exemplary anti-Nazi Palestinian fighter in the text, p. 152) but it might be in order to challenge a fascination with martyrdom as a revolutionary option on the radical left.

In every other aspect, Liberated Texts enlightens without embarrassment, and affirms life itself. Imperialism is taken on in the form of unresolved murders of Chinese researchers in the United States as a focus (p. 307), and in uncovering the diabolical machinations of the peer-review system – racist, classist, prestige-driven as it is (p. 305).

The bravery of this collection is such that we find few authors within academia’s tenure track: authors are either emeriti, tenured, very young academics, or those dedicated to political work: actual grassroots organizers, comrades at high schools, or as language teachers. This has a very beneficial effect on the edited volume as an enterprise at the forefront of knowledge, indeed of creating new knowledge. Career considerations are absent entirely from this volume, in which thankfully even the whiff of mainstream liberalism is anathema.

I can say with certainty regarding the collection’s Africanist chapters that certain specialists globally, on African radical intellectual history, have been included: Leo Zeilig, Zeyad el-Nabolsy, Paul O’Connell, Noosim Naimasiah and Corinna Mullin all shed light on East African (as well as Caribbean) socialist intellectual history in ways that clear new paths in a sub-discipline that is underfunded, purposely confined to obscurity, and which lacks standard go-to syntheses especially in the English language (Hakim Adi’s celebrated history on pan-Africanism and communism stops with the 1950s, and other works are in the making).

Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu, Makhan Singh are the central authors dealt with here. Rodney is enjoying a magnificent and much deserved renaissance (but this collection deals with a lost collection of Rodney’s 1978 Hamburg lectures by Zeilig!) Nabolsy shows us how Nyerere’s Marxist opposition experienced Ujamaa, and Tanzanian ’socialism’. Nabudere – a quintessential organic intellectual as much as Rodney –  is encountered in praxis as well as through his thought and academic achievements in a chapter by Corinna Mullin. Nabudere emerges as a towering figure whose renaissance might be in the making right at this juncture. Singh makes us face the real essence of British imperialism. Nabudere, Babu and even Hirji’s achievements in analysing imperialism and its political economy are all celebrated in the collection.

Where Shivji focuses on empire in its less violent aspect (notably NGOs and human rights discourse) powerfully described by Paul O’Connell, Naimasiah reminds us that violence had been as constitutive to Britain’s empire, as it has been to the Unites States (in Vietnam or in Korea). An fascinating chapter in the collection is provided by Marion Ettinger’s review of Richard Boyle’s Mutiny in Vietnam, an account based entirely on journalism, indeed impromptu testimony, of mutinous US soldiers tired of fighting for Vietnam’s landlord class.

Many readers of this anthology will identify with those veterans (since the collection appears in the English language) perhaps more than with East Asia’s magnificent, conscious fighters also written about in the book. Even in armies of the imperialist core, humanity shines through. Simply put, there are no imperialist peoples, only imperialist states.

Zeilig’s nuanced take on this important matter is revealed in Rodney’s rediscovered lectures. Also, the subtlety of class analysis in relation to workers versus peasants, and the bureacratic bourgeoisie profiting from this constellation (p. 219) brings to mind the contradiction that had arguably brought down Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist president who nevertheless found himself opposing working class demands. Rodney’s politics in Guyana invited the same fate as Sankara, as we know.

Nabolsy’s review on Hirji’s The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher touches on very interesting issues of Rodney’s role especially in the context of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s idiosyncratic version of African socialism. Nabolsy appreciates Nyerere efforts but analyses his politics with great candour: Ujamaa provided national unification, but failed to undermine Tanzania’s dependency in any real sense. The sad realization of the failure of Tanzania’s experience startles the reader with its implications for the history of African socialism.

On an emotional and personal level, I remain most endeared by the Soviet authors celebrated in this text. So Makarenko and Sukhomlinsky are both Soviet success stories and they demonstrate that this combination of words in no oxymoron, and neither is it necessarily, revisionist mumbo-jumbo. Their artificial removal from their historical context (which had happened many times over in Makarenko’s case, and in one particular account when it comes to Sukhomlinsky) are fought against by the author with Leninist gusto.

Sukhomlinsky had not fought against a supposedly Stalinist education reform: he built it, and it became one of the most important achievements of the country by the 1960s due partly to his efforts. The former educational pioneer did not harm children: he gave them purpose, responsibility, self-respect, and self-esteem. The implication of Sukhomlinsky and Makarenko is that true freedom constructs its own order, and that freedom ultimately thrives on responsibility, and revolutionary freedom.

As this collection is subtitled Volume One, it is my hope and expectation that this shall be the beginning of a series of books, dealing with other foundational texts, and even become a revolutionary alternative to The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, both of which still demonstrate how much readers crave review collections. Volumes like Liberated Texts might be the very future of book review magazines in changed form. A luta continua!

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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We Must Democratize the Economy

In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.

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Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
Photo: Chatham House, London
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On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.

People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.

For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.

Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.

However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.

From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?

As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.

Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.

Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.

To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.

Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.

Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.

This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.

Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.

This article was first published by Progressive International

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