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.





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.

Politics and the biases of media

There are various things about the phenomenon of Corbynism which reflect very badly on the quality of political thought on that part of the Left that likes to think of itself as new and shiny and alternative in a weirdly backward-looking, Bennite kind of way. From a personal but also professional point of view, the one thing that I find most amazing is the way in which this ‘movement’, from Jeremy Corbyn on down, thinks about “the media”. It is evident, and has been since last summer, that they really do believe in ‘media bias’, based on ideological grounds and intentionally reproduced, and that you can find evidence of it everywhere but especially in the BBC, personified in certain journalists.

There is no denying that Corbyn has had a bad press, but that of course is no evidence of media bias. To suppose that it is might just be a version of denial. And to think that there is such a thing as ‘media bias’ based on ideological grounds in the way in which the current Labour leadership and their supporters still, today, does is not only to display a basic misunderstanding of how journalism works, how news is made, how Party politics works (i.e. a misunderstanding of the world one is meant to have some grasp of as people working in Party politics), it is deeply troubling for two related reasons:

  • It indicates a failure to grasp the sorts of ‘bias’ that might well be at work in the conventions of news-making, biases towards things like narrative, good stories, arresting personalities, sincerity, and the like.
  • And following from this, what is really most troubling about the 1980s-style media studies view of ‘media bias’ circulating in strands of left commentary in the UK these last few months is not so much that it indicates a misunderstanding about dynamic world-making media practices, but what it reveals about how this sort of political perspective thinks about the interests of ordinary people.

If, as a politician, you keep publicly saying that your problems are due to the bias of ‘the media’, then you are demonstrating both a lack of self-awareness and a form of condescension towards people you think should really like you. And these are the sorts of dispositions that resonate quite powerfully in ‘the media’, irrespective of whether you are being reported on by Laura Kuenssberg or taking part in a fly-on-the-wall documentary on Vice, because they have little to do with ‘ideology’.