“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Following the abrupt and unlooked-for result of the EU referendum in the UK at the start of the summer the British Labour Party has set about sustaining the sensation of stupefaction amongst the good inhabitants of that bewildered territory by doing its best to tear itself apart. The challenge by one hundred and seventy two members of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the stewardship of its previously unexpected leader, Jeremy Corbyn – based notionally on his perceived non-electability in a general election – reached its denouement with his re-election as leader with an increased majority of party members’ votes.
Might this be the end of the matter? Hell no!
The battle behind the scenes is not just about the party’s chances in the next general election. It concerns rather the wildly differing views of the nature of democracy itself held by the constituent members of the organisation. Fundamentally, those to the left of the party do not believe in parliamentary/representative democracy. The idea that those who are chosen to represent the electorate should be gifted power once every five years, on the basis of an agreed manifesto, is anathema to those who believe that ‘true’ democracy requires rather that power should rest continually in the hands of its party members.
To those who wish to be constantly engaged in politics this is perhaps understandable. British democracy – as in many other parts of the western world – is predicated upon a direct but limited connection between the electorate and those who represent them. Once elected the members of parliament are largely protected from interference by those who put them there – until subsequent ballots allow the electorate to issue a judgement as to how well – or how badly – they have performed. This actually suits the majority of voters well – preferring as they do not to have to think about the grubby business of politics more than is absolutely necessary.
To those on the further left such a state of affairs will not do at all. These people hold the view that the members of a political party should be able to exercise judgement on its elected representatives at any point by de-selecting them should they be deemed not to have toed the party line. Further, these zealots would like to be able to dictate policy through decisions taken by the membership at party conferences. It should be clear that this could well mean that the wider electorate could not only lose the ability to pass judgement themselves on their chosen representatives, but that they might also wake up to discover that the party for which they had voted no longer subscribed to the manifesto on which they made their choice. By such means the actuality of democracy would be re-calibrated away from the involvement of the forty six million plus who make up the total electorate toward the half a million or so who are members of the Labour party.
When it comes to the hard core – of course – there are those on the left who do not believe in party democracy either. They are playing a long game in which they believe that ultimate power rests with a smaller number of party activists who – in the longer term – can utilise a palette of well documented strategies to ensure that the motions adopted as a result of ‘democratic’ votes are those of their preference. Such devious manipulations are – naturally – to be kept at arms length from those in charge of the party, but to those of us who witnessed such methods in use during the 1970s and 1980s – be it by political parties, trade unions or even in student politics (as did I myself) – present denials that we are in fact experiencing a re-run of that period in the Labour Party’s history ring somewhat hollow.
Churchill quote was apt. He recognised the failings of the UK’s parliamentary system, but he was also right that pretty much anything else would be worse. Certainly recent experience should warn the nation away from any experiment which attempts to extend democracy by increasing the use of referenda. My view – which I have long espoused and which I have seen championed increasingly across the various media in recent weeks – is that the most effective way to improve democracy in Britain would be through electoral reform.
That the Labour Party is vehemently opposed to such a course speak volumes.