The 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.