I’ve been watching developments in the Labour Party in the UK with interest, and some horror. Following the Brexit vote, the Conservatives were clearly horribly divided and in some disarray, and that should have been a wonderful opportunity for Labour. What do they do? The sitting MPs immediately try to unseat their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. This led to a vote of the membership which re-elected Mr. Corbyn with an increased majority.
This article from Jacobin discusses some of the background to this. Now, Jacobin is generally a pretty left-wing source, so I tend to treat what it says with at least a pinch of salt. However, I think it nails the issues rather well.
I have historically supported our third party, originally the Liberals, now the Liberal Democrats following merger in the 70s with the Social Democrats, who were a breakaway from the Labour of the time. I’ve stood as a candidate for them many times and served as a LibDem councillor for, in aggregate, well over 20 years. During that time, to my considerable consternation, the Labour Party (under Tony Blair) moved so far to the right that I found myself for a while in the most left-wing of the three parties, at least so far as practical policies were concerned (though I knew that Blair miserably failed to satisfy a lot of the traditional Labour base, who were still to my left – and who had so much invested in the party that they felt there was nowhere else to go – obviously I would have preferred them to join the LibDems!).
The Conservatives had already, under Margaret Thatcher, moved hugely to the right of where they’d been in my youth, under the pernicious influence of economists like Hayek. Actually, while Thatcher claimed to follow Hayek, she and her successors have not followed this suggestion of Hayek “There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend. To enter into such an insurance against extreme misfortune may well be in the interest of all; or it may be felt to be a clear moral duty of all to assist, within the organised community, those who cannot help themselves. So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law.” The trouble was, Thatcher went further – she famously stated “there is no such thing as society” and latched on to Hayek’s antipathy towards social justice (which, of course, means there is also no room for adoption as a national community of the Social Gospel). Blair took the Labour Party to much the same place, albeit dolled up with more talk of social concern, which unfortunately we “couldn’t afford to implement” (to reduce a lot of his statements to their ultimate basis).
As a result, in 2010, the only viable majority government was a LibDem – Conservative coalition, which the LibDem’s duly entered into. I saw this as moving the LibDems also to the right, and while they did, I think, manage to make the 2010-2015 government much less nasty than it would otherwise have been, I think a lot of other LibDem supporters agreed with me. In any event, the party got more or less wiped out in last year’s election, down to the kind of numbers of MPs it had when I first joined in the 1960s. I thought at the time the coalition was made that it was a disastrous mistake for the party, and would compromise its principles, and unfortunately seem to have been proved right. The trouble is, it may well have been the right thing for the country… but that now left us without a reasonably credible and electable left-of-centre party. Except in Scotland, that is, where the electorate has almost universally elected Scottish Nationalists, who are definitely in the Social Democrat range which first Labour and then the Liberal Democrats abandoned.
I have watched the press talking about support for Corbyn, and the oft-repeated poisonous claim that the vast influx of new members is “far left”. However, I talk to a lot of people who fall within this new membership, and they are in no way “far left” – they’re actually pretty much like me, in what would, 40 years ago, have been firmly the centre Social Democratic position. OK, I will confess that my views may have drifted leftward a bit – I think that is an occupational hazard of studying the Synoptic Gospels a lot – but I’m definitely not “far left” or “hard left”. Indeed, I’ve toyed with the idea of joining Labour – I let my LibDem membership lapse following the coalition – but I too have too much time and emotion invested in the party to find leaving it completely an easy prospect.
The media plainly feels (as a substantial majority view, at least) that there is no viable policy other than neoliberalism, and anything more socially concerned than that is not only “left wing” but also unelectable. The trouble is, they are fighting the last war, i.e. the one in which Blair moved Labour to occupy the same ground as the Conservatives and thus secured three terms in power, based on the fact that the country as a whole had swallowed Thatcher’s neoliberalism. The thing is, I am fairly convinced that we’re collectively now sick of it, and particularly sick of the effects on not just the most vulnerable in society (who are told that cutting their benefits is to “help them” by giving them a greater incentive to go and find work – work which the system miserably fails to provide) but also the bulk of the population. They see stagnating wages eroded by inflation and the vanishing of any opportunity to do better. Labour should have won the 2015 election, but headed by Blairites, the electorate saw a party which would pursue the same neoliberal agenda as the Conservatives, but not do it as efficiently and lie about it into the bargain.
I think the vastly increased Labour membership reflects this, and not the resurgence of hardline Marxists and Trotskyists which the press wants us to believe. There just aren’t very many hardline class warriors remaining; most of the left has now acknowledged that communism in the forms in which it’s been tried so far just doesn’t work (however nice an idea it might be). I set on one side the rather good argument that command economies are not what communism aims at, they are really “state capitalism” – suffice it to say that there are no state-wide examples of successful communism to date.
In terms of shaping party policy, I think it’s entirely right that Labour should do this via direct democracy, the wishes of the whole membership. I have many reservations about direct democracy in national politics; the result of the Brexit vote indicates that it is possible that way to make some incredibly stupid decisions when the electorate is not well enough informed (or when they can be persuaded to vote emotionally rather than rationally), and am glad that as a nation we have representative democracy instead. (Some of my readers who voted for Brexit will disagree, but many of them feel that Remain voters were not well enough informed and, if they had been, would have voted “Leave”, so my point still stands). But Jacobin are right in saying that representative democracy tends to get us governed by a political class which is out of touch with the people as a whole. We should have an alternative drawn from a wider spectrum of experience and background – and then we can vote for them or not in each constituency.
I think that at the moment an unified Labour led by Corbyn or by someone else whose politics are very close to his would win an election at present. I confess that I’d prefer it to be someone else; Corbyn is not a natural leader and has made a lot of mistakes as a result. But there is no way Labour should go back to singing from the neoliberal, Tory song sheet.
Granted, we probably won’t have an election until the current term runs out in 2020. I have no idea what politics will be like in four years, apart from fearing that unless Brexit is somehow stopped in its tracks (or a complete free trade agreement reached with the EU which will have none of the benefits of Brexit but all of its burdens), the economy will be so bad that the only way to kick start it will be via a complete abandonment of the country to corporations, with little or no regulation or tax, of the government to neoliberalism and of the populace to declining wages, declining social care and permanent anxiety. Even that might not be enough. At that point, getting back to a civilised society might not be possible without revolution…
What does all this say about democracy itself? We have in the two events of the Labour leadership elections and the Brexit vote a contrast between representative democracy and direct democracy. In theory, direct democracy is the ideal – every member of society has an equal voice, and the majority should rule (though most people would argue that there should be restrictions on the exploitation of minorities by the majority – after all, everyone is part of some minority…) This was the model of the ancient Greek city-state, and it can work quite well – for very small societies. Typically, the number of people actually able to vote in those states was fairly low (they almost all practiced slavery, and those who didn’t relied on non-citizen “foreign” labour, women had no part in the process and many others were not able to give the time necessary to participate). It was also the case that they limited the franchise to a set of the most educated in their societies, who at least could be assumed competent to make informed decisions.
In a larger society with an universal (or near-universal) franchise, the mechanics of direct democracy have been impossible to implement until very recently, save for a very few specific issues (such as Brexit, or the “propositions” which are regularly voted on in California). I say “until very recently” because we are (at least in this country) close to having 100% ability to connect online, and that would give us the ability to vote as a direct democracy on everything government does.
The Brexit vote, however, exhibits some of the problems of this approach. Firstly, there wasn’t actually a clear and thought out policy there to be voted for or against – none of the details of how Brexit might be achieved was on the ballot paper, and there wasn’t even clarity that the government would have to follow the result, partly as a result of this. Nor (taking the issue most talked about) was there a clear statement that this would mean more or less immigration – although the bulk of those I talk to who voted Brexit want less immigration, a very significant number actually want more – but from outside the EU rather than restricted to within it, having accepted the argument that past statistics show that immigration actually improves the economy and is a boost to it rather than a burden. Certainly those business leaders who were Brexiteers thought that way… At the least, there should have been clarity of what was actually being voted for on this absolutely fundamental part of the issue.
Secondly, most people are just not well enough informed to take a sensible view on complex policy matters (this is one point on which both sides of the argument would probably agree, although they would think that anyone well informed enough would vote with them…). I like to think that I am significantly better informed than the average, and frankly I didn’t think that I was entirely competent to make such a far reaching decision.
This could possibly be remedied if we were all to spend large amounts of time researching the proposed policies, but that throws up another problem. Do we really want to spend perhaps four to six hours a day (at a minimum) researching and voting on government actions?
I, for one, do not – and I have a history of actually standing for office and getting elected, albeit at a local level. What I would have preferred at the time is for the councillors who actually did the job to do it efficiently and at least more or less in line with my thinking – but they were not doing that, and so the only option was to involve myself. The vast majority of people are not prepared to do that, or even to get involved in trying to get someone they feel will represent them well elected – the only effort they are prepared to put in is in voting on the day. Well, apart from complaining about the result, that is!
I arrive at the conclusion that some form of representative democracy, in which we choose from a pool of people who are willing to put in the hours and have the capacity to decide, is as good as we can hope to get – and I have centrally in mind Churchill’s famous statement “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried”.
But, I might hear you say, what about the Labour leadership election? Shouldn’t that have been left to the existing already elected representatives, namely the sitting Labour MPs? There is, after all, a strong argument that if you want someone to lead a group, they need the backing of a majority of that group, and Corbyn has never had the support of anything remotely like a majority of Labour MPs.
That would, after all, be another form of democracy, a “second-level democracy” if you like. It is, of course, at least in theory, the way in which our elected representatives make decisions in parliament (or congress, or the senate). However, this is not the way the Labour Party has decided to structure its electoral system. That is now “one member, one vote” (which I thoroughly approve of; it is the system my erstwhile party has had for a long time). The previous system (as can be seen from the link) gave each of the membership, the MPs and the Trades Unions one third of the votes (the Labour Party was initially the political voice of the Trade Union and Cooperative movements in the UK). That tended to lead to the party being controlled very largely by the Trades Unions (particularly as many Labour MPs are financed by Trade Unions), and those in turn were led by leaders who were not always perfectly representative of their electorate – they were, again, representatives in another species of representative democracy.
This, in turn, throws up another problem with representative democracy. You are inevitably going to end up with a party structure, and in a “first past the post” system like the UK and the USA, this is going to be subject to strong pressures in the direction of there being only two parties of significance. Once you get that, it is largely going to be the party which determines how our representatives will vote (under threat of being expelled from the party and therefore landing in the wasteland of minor party candidates with little hope of election). In the process we largely lose the ability to choose someone whose qualities as an individual we think make them particularly suited to represent us as individuals.
However, it also gives us a situation where if a party controls (say) 52% of the representatives, whatever they wish gets enacted – but what they wish is decided between that 52%. If that turns out to be on a simple majority basis, 27% of the actual representatives get to make all the decisions – and that is no longer properly democratic. This was at the root of a lot of the problems with the Trade Union vote within Labour – it led to a single union representative voting on behalf of the entire membership of the union, sometimes millions of votes – and that was commonly not quite what even a majority of members would have wished for, as many union members did not actually vote for their leadership anyhow (many were members for entirely non-political reasons, many could not be bothered, and that second category was made significantly greater by unions which only allowed voting at meetings which had to be attended). Some unions even chose leaders and policies by a show of hands at open meetings, leading to a strong suspicion on many occasions of people being coerced into voting one way, if only via perceived peer pressure.
How might this problem be reduced? Well, an interesting possibility is one I read at least hints about recently in one of the “Fox Meridian” science fiction books by Niall Teasdale. It also rather rests for decent functioning on an internet-connected society. The concept is that you can delegate your vote to any other individual (and one might suspect that they could then delegate theirs to another), with the interesting possibility that that could be limited to voting on a particular area of interest – so, for instance, you could delegate your economy vote to one person and your foreign policy vote to another. You can then withdraw that delegation at any time…
I haven’t yet thought this one through in complete detail, but I’d be very interested to receive comments and even more so to see it attempted in practice – perhaps not on the scale of a nation state initially!