Democracy and the UK Labour Party
Posted on August 18, 2015
In the current UK Labour party leadership election, the party elite has come face to face with democracy at work – and they don’t like it one bit. But are the people right? Does Jeremy Corbyn represent Labour’s best electoral hope?
This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.
Berthold Brecht once came up with an ironic ‘solution’ for the difficulties associated with any democracy. He suggested that it might be better if governments were to dissolve the people and elect an alternative.
The UK Labour party seems to have taken this solution to heart as it struggles with a possible Jeremy Corbyn victory in the leadership race. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, Corbyn has galvanized a huge following and has left all other contenders in the dust. Convinced that under a Corbyn leadership Labour is unelectable, the great and the good in the party are at a loss as to how to react. Their response highlights what has been obviously true for some time – Labour is a party that is uncomfortable with the idea of truly democratic processes.
Ever since its foundation, the Labour party has not been democratic. Rather it has been ruled by the powerful in the form of trade union bosses, its own leadership and the parliamentary party. Its idea of being a ‘workers’ party’ has been more in the Soviet mould than in the mould of European social democracy. Decisions have not been made – or even significantly influenced – by the membership. Rather they have been imposed by the few who have accumulated power as the supposed representatives of the workers. Membership of the party (and the payment of union dues) has itself been and undemocratic process and often the result of coercion rather than free choice.
All this has, over the past decades, been rolled back with members being given more of a say. This leadership election is the first real test of a truly democratic process. Corbyn seems to be the outcome. The party elite are horrified and seemingly at a loss as to what to do next when, horror of horrors, nobody seems to be listening to them. Insisting from on high that Labour under Corbyn would be unelectable is a dangerous game. First of all it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not clear how under a Corbyn leadership all those who have branded him as unelectable can face potential voters in a campaign. Second it has already split the party. Finally it sends the usual elitist signal to the membership – you people are stupid and have no idea what you’re doing.
Yet, in a world where faith in the political establishment is low and sinking, such interventions will strengthen rather than hinder Corbyn’s position – if for no other reason that the voters will relish the opportunity to kick the discredited party elite in the teeth.
To be sure, running a party along democratic lines is a challenge. Before the 2010 elections, the leadership of the Liberal Democrats (the only party left with embedded democratic processes) pleaded with its membership not to include a pledge to eliminate university tuition fees. The membership ignored those pleas and this became party policy. The rest is history and the Liberal Democrats are now reduced to a party with eight MPs.
Party democracy poses particular challenges because it ends up reflecting the views of the relatively small number of party faithful. It rarely reflects the views of the electorate as a whole – or even a significant part of it. This places a huge burden on party leaders to inspire and cajole the membership towards electability – a burden that all leadership candidates other than Corbyn have clearly failed to meet.
Finally, the Labour elite seem to have forgotten one crucial element: Corbyn is the leader most likely to have any chance of rescuing labour in its next crucial electoral test – the election for the Scottish Parliament in 2016. And without reclaiming Scotland, Labour has no chance of success in any UK general election. Maybe Corbyn is, after all, the leader most likely to move Labour towards electability – at least in the short term, The people may not be as stupid as the elite might think.