Brexit Britain and the political economy of undemocracy: Part II – the left

17 August 2016 

Craig Berry  - Deputy Director at SPERI

While the right acts decisively to restore the established order, the Corbyn experiment eschews both democracy and state power, and thus Labour’s best hope of transforming capitalism

Labour’s current predicament is one of many dimensions.  It is also not simply Labour’s dilemma, insofar as the turmoil engulfing the party is symptomatic of that which now characterises the basic notion of social democracy, that is, a negotiated compromise between social justice, growth and the market economy.  When capitalism falters, elites protect their own material interests through political consolidation, responding to the weakening of the accumulation regime’s legitimacy by arguing that even the slightest shift to the left poses the risk of an economic crisis even greater than the one just concocted by the regime itself.

Crucially, the social democratic dilemma is in part rooted in a more encompassing crisis of democracy. As I discussed in Part I of this blog, waning adherence to democratic ideals has facilitated the right’s decisive response to Brexit (and, indeed, the earlier response to financial crisis).  Of course, this is a crisis which Labour has been complicit in creating the conditions for in Britain.  The last Labour government did staggeringly little to reform the bastions of British undemocracy, by sustaining the Westminster model of governance and further emasculating local government, failing to reform the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system or Britain’s archaic electoral administration processes, failing to challenge the market structure of press ownership or political party funding rules, and barely touching the House of Lords.

Some of these features of British political life have often worked in Labour’s favour in the short term, but one of the long term consequences of acquiescence to undemocracy has been to insulate the party from the perspectives of those it purports to represent (especially once the decline in trade union membership had gathered pace).

Labour has nevertheless been able to rely on substantial working-class support at the ballot box.  Yet the Brexit vote offers a worrying portent in this regard.  Only 60 per cent of people who voted for Labour in 2015 voted to remain in the EU; the notion that this represents any semblance of success for the Labour leadership is a highly illusory one.  It represents in fact a staggering withdrawal of support for a longstanding foundation of centre-left statecraft and, more worryingly for Labour, a profound desertion by working-class supporters, insofar as the Labour remain vote was concentrated among the party’s better-off supporters in large cities.

Jeremy Corbyn continues to claim that the result vindicates his own approach. By indulging in the post-truth tropes of Brexit, Corbyn is beginning to embody part of the crisis of British democracy.  Ironically, his election as Labour leader was of course a product of his more moderate colleagues’ own complacency regarding the fragility of democratic ideals.  The so-called ‘morons’ in the parliamentary party nominated Corbyn even while many, if not most, did not support his candidacy.

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

Furthermore, the hastily designed rules of the leadership election he won are the product of political positioning far more so than any democratic principle.  Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband implemented one-member-one-vote (OMOV) in place of the electoral college solely to distance himself from the trade unions that had been decisive in his own victory in 2010, and at the same time introduced the ‘registered supporter’ model – a neither-here-nor-there nod to American-style primary elections – solely as a response to the argument that David Miliband, not Ed, would have won had OMOV already been in place.

The left’s embrace of undemocracy is perhaps more worrying than the right’s, given the historical association between left-wing politics and campaigns to enfranchise less privileged groups within society.  The Corbyn camp claims the mantle of democracy, but it is one of the paradoxes of democratic life that democratisation within parties – an inherently problematic endeavour – invariably serves to widen the distance between the party and the electorate at large.

Corbyn consistently argues that Labour’s MPs must respect his ‘mandate’ (that is, the votes of around 59 per cent of members and supporters).  Notwithstanding the fact that leaders in democratic societies can and must be challenged irrespective of the size of their victories, the notion that it represents a form of democratisation to disempower MPs, who were both selected by local parties and then elected to parliament by the public, from exercising their own judgement on questions of party leadership clearly exists within a philosophical quagmire.  Julian Baggini is surely correct in labelling Corbyn’s politics as ‘populism in its purest form’, and to warn of the threat to genuine democracy that populist politicians have always posed.

Irrespective of their procedural rules, essentially all political parties must function as coalitions between members, activists, elected officials and the wider constituency they exist to represent.  This is surely the spirit of Labour’s leadership election rules, even if these rules were drafted rather absent-mindedly.

As such, any attempt to treat political parties as microcosms of the wider polity, mimicking basic citizenship rights for members, is flawed, precisely because individuals exercise discretion over whether to join the organisation in the first place.  The idea that the 12th January cut-off date for Labour members to be eligible to vote in the coming leadership election ‘disenfranchises’ new members is a classic example of the fallacious thinking that often surrounds this issue.  It is indeed an arbitrary date, but no more than any other date would have been, and it was decided on at the same executive council meeting that ruled in Corbyn’s favour on much more consequential matters.

Political parties are clearly allowed to privilege loyalty and activism if they wish to do so – if new or prospective members disagree, they can, armed with their rights as British citizens, form their own party.

The current process, after another bout of complex gerrymandering, is therefore another deeply ambivalent exercise in democracy.

Corbyn is a keen student of history, so will be well aware there is little that is historic about his mandate from the perspective on internal party democracy.  Neil Kinnock received a far higher proportion of votes when challenged in 1988 than Corbyn did in 2015, and Tony Blair received a far higher volume of votes in 1994 (because the party membership was so much larger).  Yet Corbyn defied both, despite their overwhelming mandates.  And as leader, he consistently defies the party’s sovereign policy-making body (the annual conference) on key areas of policy.

Corbyn also appears to fret very little about the questionable democratic procedures within the trade unions which continue to sustain his leadership.  Union leaders, and delegates for the conferences that establish union policy, are elected on miniscule turnout rates.  Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey, for instance, is currently threatening to attempt to deselect all MPs opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, while at the same time YouGov polling suggests the majority of its own members want Corbyn to resign.

Meanwhile, Labour is failing to fulfil the basic functions of parliamentary democracy, either by opposing the incumbent government or forming a meaningful alternative.  Arguably all parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party are at fault here – not least those with substantial parliamentary and ministerial experience.

Corbyn’s supporters would of course retort that they are building a ‘social movement’ rather than simply a parliamentary party (a case explicitly made by Paul Mason, and expertly unpicked by Matt Bolton and even Corbyn sympathiser Owen Jones).  This was clearly behind the argument of Jon Lansman, chair of the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum, that ‘[d]emocracy gives power to people, “Winning” [sic] is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves’.  While Corbyn et al might genuinely want to build a mass movement both encompassing and reaching beyond Labour, it seems incongruous that they have offered little by way of a radical political strategy around which the movement can cohere. Corbyn supporters take comfort in the notion that they are rallying on behalf of ‘the people’ or ‘the 99%’, but these represent shallow forms of political identity more likely to alienate than appeal to the mass of ‘ordinary’ citizens.

None of this is necessarily meant as a criticism of the Corbyn leadership.  Yet it is necessary to locate Corbyn in a broader canvas, one in which democratic norms appear to be fading as various interest groups jostle for supremacy in a post-crisis environment.  There are two issues, however, on which Corbyn must be personally criticised. Firstly, he appears indifferent to the increasingly abusive nature of internal Labour Party relations, despite his self-proclaimed ‘kinder politics’. Corbyn may rightly condemn abuse in one breath, but it means little if in the next he continues to use the language of treachery and betrayal to describe his opponents – whom he chillingly referred to recently as ‘unkind’, and therefore presumably unworthy of protection from abuse (having apparently failed the kinder politics test).

He also appears indifferent, secondly, to the increasing marginalisation of women within the party’s leading roles. Labour’s role in empowering women within politics is a classic example of a radical democratising agenda, insofar as it has brought under-represented groups into the actual practice of governance, often challenging established procedural norms in the process. Equally, Corbyn’s implicit claim that it is more democratic for a leader not to interfere with a local party’s right, for instance, to select a male mayoral candidate (or even all-male shortlists for the selection of a candidate), seemingly because the men being selected are supportive of his platform, is a classic example of democratic ideals being invoked purely to serve the political ends of an existing elite.

Democracy and all its messy compromises should matter more to the left than the right.  Even if a social movement in favour of radical economic reform were to arise, it will need institutions through which to exercise both voice and control. Yet in demonstrating his fondness for the rhetoric of democracy over the actual practice of empowering under-represented groups, Corbyn follows all of his recent predecessors in taking for granted Labour’s right to participate in those institutions. In practice, democratic principles have to be consistently defended and renewed through political struggle.  Democratic citizenship is an ideal which constrains capitalism, but which it cannot feasibly jettison from Western societies without jeopardising its own future, and as such is allied to the left’s long term interests in this regard. At the moment, Labour is not only failing to live up to democratic ideals, but its leader is prone to invoking them in a superficial and often duplicitous manner. Labour must find a way to nurture these ideals before they are mangled beyond repair, and settle on an organisational model which allows it to do so.

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