Unlikely incarnations of democracy

clSo, let’s re-cap:

  • Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in 2015, having secured enough nominations from MPs to appear on the leadership ballot because, back then, we all took it for granted that the point of being the leader of the Labour Party was to lead the Labour Party in Parliament, and at elections to this and other representative bodies in Scotland, Wales, EU, and locally.
  • Once elected as leader, Jeremy Corbyn demonstrates a complete inability to develop meaningful policy, of any sort, but especially on economic issues. His Shadow Chancellor, meanwhile, does draw up a good reading list.
  • As leader, he demonstrates culpable incompetence, perhaps mendacity, in the biggest single electoral decision since 1945, the result of which recalibrates British politics decisively to the right for at least a generation, if not forever.
  • He happily cultivates the idea that all of his failures to make any impression with the wider electorate are due to ‘media bias’, thereby demonstrating a certain degree of contempt for the cares and concerns and interests of the people he is meant to be persuading.
  • As both candidate and leader, Jeremy Corbyn is consistently presented as the embodiment of honesty and integrity and, above all, that most undemocratic of virtues,  of authenticity.
  • Jeremy Corbyn loses the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the body, remember, without whose nominations he would not have been able to run for leader in the first place, because the point of the Labour Party etc, etc, etc.
  • This is a ‘coup’, apparently. Because the PLP has no other reason to exist than to follow the ‘mandate’ of the Authentic One.
  • Jeremy Corbyn refuses to resign. Because he would not, after all, want to be mistaken for Iain Duncan-Smith, or Margaret Thatcher.
  • Anyone who disagrees with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, (lack of ) actions, principles, pomposity, is called by his supporters either a Blairite, or a Red Tory, or a Neo-Con, or a Neoliberal (did I miss anything?). Because Jeremy Corbyn is The Vindicator.
  • And because if you have no doctrine, or if the doctrine you have is silly and unconvincing and poorly formulated, then all you’ve got to fall back on is an appeal to the ethos of unity.
  • Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is formally challenged because at least one MP is able to muster enough nominations from amongst the PLP.
  • All of this is apparently an affront to the ‘mandate’ held by the Leader, which seems to extend into infinity.
  • And all of this generates another rapid spurt of people joining the Labour Party, as if Corbyn’s leadership is all a cunning ploy to boost membership by encouraging both supporters and opponents to sign up (I’m not a terribly active person, politically. But I have slogged around streets in Swindon delivering leaflets for the Labour Party. If all those 10s of 1000s of new Corbyn recruits to the Labour Party put in even that minimum effort, the Labour Party’s performance in elections in May and at the Referendum would have been very different. My point is not a holier-than-thou one, it’s that the growth in membership under Corbyn over the last year does not necessarily mean anything).
  • A kerfuffle ensues over whether the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party should be treated equally, by all being required to secure a threshold of nominations from the PLP. It turns out, because this is politics remember, that they do not have to be treated equally in this way at all.
  • So Jeremy Corbyn will again be a candidate for leader. Because, despite not being able to command the support of the PLP, he would not want to be mistaken for Andrea Leadsom.
  • The Labour Party NEC then decides to rather arbitrarily limit the franchise through which the forthcoming leadership election will be decided. Because, again, its politics, which is fine.
  • Somewhere down the line, though, depending on the outcome, the Labour Party NEC may well have just inadvertently, perhaps not, sought to redefine the meaning of what it is to be an MP in the UK – the lifting of the requirement that an incumbent leader should have to seek nominations again for a leadership election, even after massively losing a vote of confidence of his MPs in Parliament, implies that in the event of Corbyn being re-elected, MPs (the same ones, or some freshly selected ones perhaps) should function not as representatives of their constituents, but primarily as delegates accountable to the ‘membership’, the size and shape of which is, remember, just revealed to be easily manipulated through political horse-trading (although actually, this bit is open to alternative interpretations – does it indicate a prefiguration of the Labour Party anticipating a move to full PR and therefore a list-based system of selecting candidates…?).

As politics, this is wonderful, grubby, full of spite, so who could complain. ‘Democracy’ is a word being claimed by different sides in all of this, especially where it helps to close down an argument or potentially silence critics or de-legitimise opponents. It’s a very good word with which to do that. It does not belong to one side or the other, but different versions of what ‘democracy’ means are certainly at stake in this rolling drama (roughly speaking, narrowly narcissistic activist-centric ones versus compromised ‘polyarchic’ ones). But it’s politics, in the end. Properly political politics, too.





Seeing Like a Market and its Problems

UntitledFinally, a paper co-written by myself and Nick Mahony entitled ‘Marketing practices and the reconfiguration of public action‘ is published, in print, in Policy and Politics. It was made available online almost exactly a year ago. One of the odd things about the drawn-out rhythms of academic publishing is the tendency to be presented with previous versions of your own self. The paper arises out of a small research project on market segmentation methodologies that Nick and I worked on together when both at the OU. The Report from that project was published by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement.

The new paper develops a more theoretically oriented argument about how to interpret the increasingly widespread use of a range of marketing technologies in non-commercial fields, including the public sector, by charities, by political consultants, and in the third sector. So, in that respect, its part of an ongoing argument I have been making (both in publications and on this blog) about the limits of standard ways of using concepts such as governmentality and neoliberalism in critical social science.

It is also, I can now see, now it is finally done and dusted, one of a series of ‘occasional papers’ in which I have tried to make use of the idea of  ‘problematization‘ to reframe the ways in which one might pursue the vocation of ‘critique’, including pieces on ideas of security and public life in Dialogues in Human Geography, a more  theoretical treatment of how this idea helps us read Foucault in nonsite.com, and an ongoing effort to use the ideas to make sense of the proliferation of urban concern across any number of fields.

So, anyway, one more time, here is the abstract of the Policy and Politics piece:

“Market segmentation methodologies are increasingly used in public policy, arts and culture management and third sector campaigning. Rather than presume that this is an index of creeping neoliberalisation, we track the shared and contested understandings of the public benefits of using segmentation methods. Segmentation methods are used to generate stable images of individual and group attitudes and motivations, and these images are used to inform strategies that seek to either change these dispositions or to mobilise them in new directions. Different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibilities for public action on different issues.”

Mandates and other democratic chimera: why Jeremy Corbyn does not embody democratic virtue

UntitledThe last few weeks in the UK have been a bit like living through a natural experiment in the politics of democracy. All sorts of different claims about what does count as democratic legitimacy – a majority decision, for example – or what delegitimises such a seemingly democratic decision – lies, misinformation, mendacity – are flying around, and of course, in this moment, these arguments really seem to matter.

I tend to like the idea that democracy is not really embodied in the will of the people, or in particular procedures, or in particular types of action (whether polite chatting or loud protest). The value of democracy is relational, by which I mean that it depends on the quality of relationships between different dimensions of action – deliberating and voting and participating and deciding and reflecting and being held to account and revising and so on and so on.

Thinking like this means that you are not inclined to presume that any one event, or decision, or instance of a procedure, is inherently democratic, or not. Referendums, for example, are poor devices for all sorts of issues (complex ones, like remaining or leaving in the EU), but they are not inherently undemocratic (in the UK context, of course, they just happen to expose the degree to which the exercise of power is rather unconstrained by the much lauded principle of “parliamentary sovereignty”, and therefore not quite as democratic in a much deeper sense as one might suppose). Likewise, the system for choosing the leader of the Conservative Party seems uncontroversial on the face of it – a process of nomination by MPs, followed by a vote of Party members. Used to be much worse. It begins to raise some democratic concerns when it is put into practice on occasions when that Party is already actually in government, so that it then becomes the system for choosing the next Prime Minister, who as we know, has all sorts of unchecked executive authority (to make bad decisions about invading other people’s countries, or to hold Referendums).

Of course, the Labour Party has been holding its own little side experiment in the last couple of weeks to establish the relative merits of different understandings of democracy. Jeremy Corbyn, elected in 2015 with a smacking great majority of votes from members and supporters, has been challenged by the majority of the MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), either because they are a bunch of unreconstructed ‘Blairites’ if you hold to one view, or because they have some grasp of political reality if you hold to another. Of course, this is a political dispute, not a dispute about the meaning of democracy – the latter only ever arise as one aspect of examples of the former. There are substantive issues at stake on the different sides, no doubt (but one of the reasons why the Corbyn faction rely so heavily on the appeal to democracy is because there has been very little of policy substance to arise from his leadership). But the dispute is also, and not tangentially, about ideas of what democracy means within parties and beyond them. Corbyn’s unprecedented insistence on remaining in his role as leader of the PLP despite an overwhelming vote of no confidence by his Party’s MPs (an insistence which, remarkably, makes him appear rather less honourable than Iain Duncan-Smith) depends on a claim that his position gains its legitimacy solely from the ‘mandate’ secured when he was originally elected. And thinking that one’s democratic credentials are all about the size of one’s mandate is to presume that democracy is all about authorisation, rather than, say, accountability, or competence, or indeed, effective representation.

One way of looking at this claim is that it is an attempt to restrict the relationships of democratic process to just one vector: that between the Leader and the Membership. The other dimensions – the relationships of representation between Labour MPs and their constituents (Labour and non-Labour voting), as well as the role of other elected representatives at local and EU level, the role of the Trade Unions and other affiliated organisations, and the relations of ‘virtual representation’ between the Labour Party nationally and locally and Labour voters and supporters not represented by a Labour MP – all of these find no significant place within the seemingly airtight claims to embody democracy by fulfilling the mandate of Party members. Given the sweep of the history of the Labour Party, it’s certainly a radical departure from previous understandings. As Neil Kinnock has reminded us, and as Tom Watson has reiterated, the whole point of the Labour Party is to provide a Parliamentary presence for the labour movement. This is why the Leader of the Labour Party is an MP, nominated to an election process by other MPs, and then elected by members and supporters. Leading the Labour Party in Parliament is not an optional extra of the job. Not being able to do so is also, rather obviously, more than a mere incidental detail.

Lurking behind the claim that Corbyn’s mandate can somehow trump the loss of PLP confidence is actually a rather dubious investment in ideas of ‘direct democracy’, derived from different sources, and a deep suspicion with the values associated with representative democracy (values like compromise, complexity, and pluralism, for example). David Graeber makes the hilarious claim that Corbyn’s ascendancy actually embodies an authentically ‘grassroots’ movement that eschews what he claims is the deeply ‘anti-democratic’ concept of ‘leadership’. ‘Leadership’ isn’t, of course, an anti-democratic concept at all, any more than supposing that cosy deliberations amongst the mostly like-minded guided by an authoritarian ethos of consensus are inherently democratic. I would be inclined to suggest that the only concept that is, actually, inherently anti-democratic is the idea of direct democracy. And anyway, when it comes to concepts of leadership, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be the perfect Blairite – he is clearly a man of strong convictions and firm beliefs, and he holds to them with a degree of self-righteous certainty that is rather unbecoming for a leader of a leading political party in an imperfect but functioning liberal democracy.

In its commitment to a singular relationship between only two of the actors, leader and members, in what is in fact a more complex and distributed field named ‘the Labour Party’, Corbyn’s position may or may not work out for him politically. The rhetoric surrounding Corbyn’s leadership has always been about the importance of a whole movement. But when it comes down to it, he is acting not as if he thinks of Labour as a movement at all, and much less as a party, but as if it were a private club.

The Worst Machiavellians Ever

drevilIt’s been a good week for grasping for classical reference points to describe the fast-changing political drama of UK politics, with lots of betrayal and hubris and tragedy, and a little farce too. With the front-stabbing by Michael Gove of Boris Johnson’s hopes of becoming British Prime Minister by acclamation of the sleepy members of the Conservative Party, this trend has reached its peak. The term ‘Machiavellian’ has never seemed so apt, and rarely so often invoked. Johnson’s transparently self-interested betrayal of David Cameron to lead the Leave campaign for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has been trumped, shall we say, by the cunning treachery of Cameron’s other nemesis figure, Michael Gove, who denounced Johnson’s suitability to replace Cameron as Prime Minister, universally understood as the only reason Johnson had U-turned on the Brexit issue in the first place. Attention to real calamity is displaced by displays of perfidy.

Hold on, hold on. This seems all very unfair. To Machiavelli.

It’s true that Machiavelli recommended, in The Prince, that “a sensible leader cannot and must not keep his word if by doing so he puts himself at risk”, which sounds a little shabby it’s true, but he did add that this was all OK “if the reasons that made him give his word in the first place are no longer valid”. Gove might appear to be absolved by this caveat, if one were inclined to believe that he came to an honourable judgement that Johnson was not after all up to the job and felt he had an obligation to say so in public before it was too late. Lots of us had already decided long ago that Johnson hardly deserved the seriousness bestowed upon him as a potential Prime Minister. Michael Gove is the only person I know of who believes that reaching this judgment for himself actually qualifies him for the job instead. Gove’s performance over the last day or so is almost hilariously lacking in self-awareness, which is the primary quality one needs to be a successful ‘Machiavellian’.

Johnson is an even worse Machiavellian than Gove, if we retain the common understanding of that epithet. Machiavelli’s proposition was that it was crucial for a leader to seem to possess virtues, to seem to be compassionate, loyal, humane, honest and so on, while having to act in a less dignified manner than they might want to be widely known: “In general people judge more by appearances than first-hand experience, because everyone gets to see you but hardly anyone deals with you directly. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few have experience of what you really are”. There’s an important point about the civilising force of hypocrisy lurking in this account of the importance to the effective exercise of power of keeping up appearances, and a lesson too about how to think about the possibilities of political life in light of an acknowledgment that we are “a sad lot” not always prone to goodness.

But unlike other plotters and schemers this week, Johnson and Gove have both long since relinquished any pretence at all of seeming to be anything other than what they seem to beNaked ambition and brazen hypocrisy and boastful arrogance are hardly what Machiavelli was concerned with. So let’s not diminish the significance and profundity of Machiavelli’s thought by associating his name with theirs.

Bite Size Gove

“I don’t take back anything I said in that campaign”. Michael Gove, 1/7/2016.

“In order to be prime minister of this country, you need to be an exceptional person. […] I don’t think I have got that exceptional level of ability required for the job”. Michael Gove, 18/6/2016.

What does Truth have to do with Politics?

lbjhkwrHere’s a thought, from Hannah Arendt’s 1971 essay ‘Lying in Politics’, to orient one’s analysis and thinking about political excitement in the UK this past week or so (actually the whole essay helps, as does ‘Truth and Politics’ in Between Past and Future, 1968):

“We are free to change the world and to start something new in it. Without the mental freedom to deny or affirm existence, to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – not just to statements or propositions in order to express agreement or disagreement, to our organs of perception and cognition – no action would be possible; and action is of course the very stuff politics are made of.

Hence, when we talk about lying, and especially about lying among men, let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear.”