At lunchtime tomorrow, most Labour MPs will be sinking to a new depth of despair. The party will announce the results of a leadership challenge that was intended to either weaken or depose Jeremy Corbyn but will instead make him stronger than ever. The race has been decided by a Labour Party now 70 per cent composed of people who signed up after last year’s general election, delighted with the direction of the Corbyn project and convinced that he’s going to win. We have just witnessed something unprecedented in Western democracy: the takeover not just of a party’s leadership, but of its membership.
It’s not just that Owen Smith will be crushed tomorrow, it’s that the whole premise of his leadership bid was flawed. Just a few months ago, most Labour MPs signed a motion of no confidence against their leader and regarded his election as a freak, a historical burp from the Seventies. Now, they are coming to realise that he is the unlikely face of a very modern phenomenon where radical politics combines with digital technology to mobilise thousands of people who agree to click petitions. And even spend £3 (or, this time, £25) to join Labour, vote for Corbyn and shake things up. This army, once raised, represents a force that is very difficult for MPs to overcome.
In a rare BBC radio interview this week, Mr Corbyn said that things must be going well for Labour because he doesn’t recognise the people he sees at rallies nowadays. He wasn’t joking; for most of his political lifetime, he has been shaking fists with old friends. The hard Left spent decades scattered across Britain feuding with one another and selling (or, rather, not selling) copies of Socialist Worker outside stations. There are no more Trots now than there were then, but the digital era has allowed this happy few to join forces with thousands of “clicktivists”.
This is one of the great gifts of modern technology: the ability to turn a political party upside down without leaving your bedroom. Studies show just one in seven of Labour’s fiery new members are prepared to hit the doorsteps. Two thirds admit they put in no time campaigning in local, mayoral and devolved elections. But it’s amazing what trouble you can cause on a mobile phone nowadays. Before Andrew Feldman quit as Tory chairman, he told me he’d found that the most effective way of mobilising voters – other than doorstep visits – was persuading people to share Tory messages on Facebook.
The Labour frontbenchers who resigned en masse following the Brexit vote thought they were making a break for freedom. Now they themselves are trapped in a political equivalent of a Sartre play, an electoral hell with no exit. No tactical options are now open to them, but they face plenty of tactical threats. The emboldened Corbynistas can be expected to start a purge of their enemies, which should be easy when so many Labour MPs are having their constituencies redrawn and face reselection battles. Momentum, the hard-Left militia behind Corbyn, can be expected to fight for every seat.
To many MPs, Mr Corbyn’s offer to “wipe the slate clean” after tomorrow’s election result sounds more like a Mafioso threat than a peace offering. Already, Labour’s civil war has moved the jungle of the party’s rules and committee procedures.
The Labour moderates now have only one option left. They shouldn’t do any more plotting, something they were never any good at. Nor should they set up a splinter party, and abandon the ship to the pirates. They need to stay, if they’re spared, and work out: what do they stand for? What’s the moral case against Jeremy Corbyn, and how to convince people of it? If the far-Left can persuade new people to join the Labour Party, moderates can too – but first they need a cause in which to enlist people.
Ever since Mr Corbyn’s first victory, Labour MPs have been walking about in disbelief – obsessing about what trick, or what candidate, might dislodge him. They should have started with a more basic question: why oppose him? Why should people join Labour to back their side of the argument? It’s a tougher question, and one that requires great thought. Their only consolation is that they will, now, have plenty of time to do the thinking.
Corbyn will undoubtedly emerge stronger, (but) he and his supporters can expect to face a continuing barrage of attacks from the usual suspects in the media and the Labour right. One likely refrain will be that Corbyn’s victory, however large, lacks legitimacy because it rests on an energized minority of activists out of step with the rest of the electorate. Party democracy, we will be told, is anathema both to electoral success and the goal of representing the majority of society.
While these arguments are anything but new, recent debates provide an excellent opportunity to put these narratives to the test. So, does party democracy really matter? Should party members have a role in determining policy and directing leadership? And if so, why?
In broad terms, the two most common perspectives on party democracy can be summarized as follows.
The first, espoused by skeptics, is that the more democratic a party’s internal structures, the more likely it will become a vehicle for single-issue groups or marginal sects whose quixotic views and dilettantish zeal threaten its appeal to the wider population. The second, by contrast, holds that only internal mechanisms at least nominally democratic in character will encourage mass participation and foster the dynamism needed to win elections and, perhaps even more importantly, build real popular support for a program.
But if the second view is today represented by figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the skeptical one is often found throughout liberal commentary and analysis.
Corbyn in particular has made increasing member participation both a personal priority and a criterion for success. And it’s paid off. Labour’s total membership has risen from a relatively modest 187,000 just prior to the 2015 election defeat to a startling 600,000 as of July — easily overtaking the previous modern peak (405,000 in 1997) and making Labour the first mass party in the advanced capitalist world this century.
Not everyone, however, has applauded the explosion in membership.
Skeptics have variously portrayed the membership surge as the work of far-left infiltrators; a resurgent, zombified reincarnation of retrograde “Old Labour” politics; or the result of an influx of self-indulgent, middle-class socialist hipsters. Last week, Corbyn’s leadership opponent, Owen Smith, mused about expelling members of Momentum — the internal party organization that grew out of Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign — from the party altogether.
Regardless of the operative caricature, the implication is clear: Labour’s increasingly mass membership is essentially narrow and sectarian, representing the parochial flourishing of a minority political view in one of Britain’s two major parties and endangering its prospects by backing policies and leadership antithetical to the political mainstream.
At the core of Saunders’s argument and others like it is the notion that democratic legitimacy rests in the hands of parliamentarians or legislators, who are elected by the whole country.
It’s a truism that in any liberal-democratic system, the legitimacy of political decisions rests on the popular mandate that legislators at least nominally receive in general elections. But it’s quite wrong to imply, as Saunders does, that MPs had, or should have had, the authority to oust their party leader by way of a parliamentary vote.
Given how immovable the political cultures of a good number of Western democracies have become, many commentators seem to forget that parties are, first and foremost, private institutions. Labour isn’t simply an appendage of the state or a creature of parliament, even if its representation there forms the most important and publicly visible part of its existence. MPs from every party may be chosen by voters, but candidates, leadership, and policies are determined completely by internal party structures (democratic or otherwise).
In the parliamentarist view, political legitimacy does indeed emanate from the people, who elect representatives in what Saunders calls the “wider democratic showdown.” But for Saunders and his ideological brethren, popular involvement beyond the routine practice of voting in elections is (and should be) severely limited. Membership participation, either in the form of candidate or leadership selection, let alone party policy, is conceived of as both an electoral weakness and a potentially illegitimate encroachment on parliamentary democracy itself.
When taken to its logical conclusion, this view essentially recasts democratic politics as an ongoing confrontation between a permanently embedded cluster of parties directed almost exclusively by unelected professional apparatchiks. Ordinary members have negligible influence and, consequently, the wider public cannot fundamentally alter the composition of the political class — its choices are limited to whatever options that class serves up at elections.
Yet this view misunderstands the origins of the Labour Party itself. Labour, like many other left and socialist parties, originated in the early twentieth century on the back of mass mobilization and discontent. Even before the party itself was constituted, popular participation was widespread in churches, community halls, and trade unions. This is not simply arbitrary historicism: recalling these origins, even more than one hundred years later, is vital because they clearly demonstrate the limits of conceiving democracy in purely parliamentary terms.
Today’s Parliamentary Labour Party is, to put it mildly, not particularly representative of the communities it represents throughout the country.
In 1979, 40 percent of Labour MPs came from a manual occupation. That figure is now just 7 percent, according to an analysis by the Smith Institute. A full 29 percent entered parliament after working as political staffers; another 18 percent came out of business or finance, 10 percent began their careers in media, and 12 percent started in law. Only 15 percent have roots in the trade union movement that founded the party.
The numbers from parliament as a whole are even more striking: the average British MP is male, aged fifty-one, and university-educated. A full 33 percent of MPs attended private schools (compared to a national average of 7 percent), and one in four had a background in politics.
In short, Westminster politics has turned into a career path for upper-middle-class professionals, drawn from an incredibly narrow range of occupations. If the ostensible goal of democratic politics — let alone democratic socialist politics — is to represent and reflect the desires and interests of ordinary people, the British system is failing miserably.
At the core of its diagnosis was the notion that successive election defeats could be chalked up to the party’s inability to embrace “modernization” (which, in the Blairite formulation, implied zealous assimilation to the central tenets of both Thatcherism and neoliberal globalization.) This was in major part, the Blairites understood, thanks to an activist base that still viewed Labour as a vehicle for democratic socialism.
The lingering trauma from the toxic internal debates of the 1980s offered an opportune psychological backdrop for the thoroughgoing restructuring of the party that followed. Not only were party members and constituencies disempowered but, mimicking a strategy pioneered by the Clintons in the US, Blair actively sought to antagonize them to shore up support with the Murdoch press, the City of London, and other right-wing interests.
Despite Blair’s three successive election victories, Labour shed millions of voters between 1997 and 2010, disproportionately from the working class.
The decline of Labour’s internal democracy, in other words, coincided with a growing severance from a significant chunk of its social base. The party’s increasingly professional composition has had very real consequences for its policy agenda and overall ideological outlook.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the phenomenon of MPs with metropolitan backgrounds parachuting into Labour heartlands they have little or no connection to.
The consequences of diminished internal democracy, then, are anything but abstract. Not only has Labour become less representative of the communities that send its MPs to parliament, but the party’s increased professionalization has actively disconnected it from their needs, wounding its long-term electoral prospects. Lacking the ability to shape the party’s agenda or determine who stands at general elections, many have withdrawn their support and a good number have become alienated from politics altogether.
The parliamentarist view, with its skepticism of party democracy, simply offers no solution to such an impasse.
When party democracy is absent, parties can sever themselves completely from the social bases they were initially formed to represent and, eventually, from the lived experiences of most of society. Democratic politics is effectively transformed into a profession like any other, with candidates drawn mostly from a narrow and privileged social caste and platforms and messaging meticulously engineered according to the marketing strategies of PR specialists.
Parties are reduced to the status of corporate brands, and voters to passive consumers of whatever focus-grouped twaddle the political marketplace deems admissible. The very principle of democratic politics as a social enterprise, even in the most tepid liberal sense, collapses.
The result is a kind of post-democracy, in which the formal mechanisms of politics are captured by an unrepresentative class pursuing an agenda of its own, regardless of what the wider population may actually think or want.
While the business of party democracy may at times be messy, contentious, and disruptive, it remains the only means by which ordinary people can exert real influence on the political process, check the power of dominant interests, or qualitatively change things for the better.
If what we seek is a democratic society, there is no alternative.
The Decline and Fall of the Neoliberal political consensus rests on two rocks, the preening pompous arrogance of the professional political class (including media) is one, and their abject incompetence and failure is another.
Who would you rather elect? A Gilded Class Twit like David Miliband who masquerades as a working people’s delegate in Westminster and merely commutes to his constituency or Karen?
The choice is more than obvious.