Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election to the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party in September has not been credited with the significance it deserves. It has the potential for remaking British democracy.
That sounds exciting. From Runnymede to Cromwell to the Anti-Corn Law League to Keir Hardie, Britain has frequently provided role models in democratic evolution. Now we have an attempt by progressive activists whose first loyalty may not be to the Labour Party to manoeuvre Corbyn and Corbynism into pole position on the political grid.
The main issue that Corbyn and his friends wish to challenge is that of representative democracy. For centuries, the Athenian idea of direct democracy was considered unworkable in large communities. The closest one could come to delivering the will of the people was to elect representatives. Now representative democracy is being presented by Corbynistas as a betrayal.
What they want instead is direct democracy, or what they call “participatory democracy”, that will cut out the middle man. No more will the people be supposedly misinterpreted, ignored or railroaded by those they sheepishly voted to represent them. The people themselves will speak.
There are mechanisms for this. With digital communication, large citizenries will have their say on any issue at the touch of a keypad on a mobile phone. Switzerland has for more than a century been developing the art of the plebiscite. But Swiss referenda don’t seem to be what Corbyn’s supporters are working towards.
Instead, what seems to be energising the Labour Party’s new activists is a mob passion that confuses morality with manipulation. One expression of this is the rise of the Corbyn personality cult. In 2015 Jon Lansman set up a Corbyn support group called Momentum. At the party’s annual conference last month, members of that group demonstrated a quasi-religious adulation of the leader, singing songs and writing poems about him—hymns, in fact—that recalled the worst of Europe a century ago.
That veneration was matched by equally passionate hatreds of the kind that Orwell denounced in 1984. Until now, political parties have conventionally attacked each other’s standard bearers. But now, Corbynite activists can be heard savaging their own party’s MPs. That is to say, opposition to representative democracy is being expressed in attacks on the representatives of representative democracy.
It isn’t just the callow youngbloods who are doing this. According to the celebrated 80-year-old film director Ken Loach, MPs are a clique—“the old guard”—defined by the common characteristic of wanting to keep themselves in power and everybody else out. Interviewed by the BBC recently, Loach accused the entire corps of Labour Party MPs of having “politically corrupted the party that should represent the interests of Labour” and of not undertanding those interests.
Did he mean every single Labour MP who’d voted against Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership contest? “I don’t know every single one of them,” Loach replied; “I’m talking about them as a group. They’re stranded: the tide’s gone out and left them beached because the politics they represent has failed—that’s the point. They lost the last two elections, they lost Scotland: Scotland voted for the SNP before Jeremy Corbyn was elected … They have failed the party, they failed the working class … and I think they have to pack their bags.”
It’s an astonishing revelation of a Marxist mentality, and invites innumerable questions. How exactly did this decline from virtue to treachery take place? Did Mr Loach think it began when Labour MPs were first elected to Westminster or was it latent in every prospective MP? Was it also inherent in candidates who never got elected? Was it something you absorbed in the company of other MPs and from walking the corridors of the House of Commons? Did it die or survive after MPs retired or were voted out? And what distinguished the mentality of MPs from that of their agents and party chairs and supporters? Mr Loach was not asked and did not say.
Loach’s bizarre generalisations are widely shared within Momentum and reflect three frightening tendencies in extremist politics: conspiracy theory, blame culture, and the regimenting of individuals into pre-defined and ideological typologies irrespective of data.
As a matter of fact, all parties’ MPs are typically hard-working individuals dedicated to their professional duty to serve everyone in their constituency and not just those who voted for them. Yet Loach and his cohorts feel able to distinguish the venality not just of Labour vis-à-vis non-Labour MPs, and not just of Corbyn-opposing vis-à-vis Corbyn-supporting MPs, but of all MPs and all Labour MPs vis-à-vis “the people”. They don’t even excuse those few MPs who actually support Corbyn. (If this had been the Terreur, Robespierre would have had the lot of them guillotined as enemies of the Revolution.)
The fundamental problem here lies with Socialism’s belief in “the people”. Momentum aspires to wrest power from the few and give it to the many: to put “the people” in charge of politics, to “take back control” (to co-opt the language of their ideological enemies, the Brexiteers).
This obsessive mission depends on the core Socialist belief that political authority is naturally vested in the people, and is underlined by the principle that the people are never wrong. (How can they be? If ultimate authority lies with the people, no higher authority exists because no one can exist outside the people, or determine their errors from a distance and put them right.)
This is where Momentum steps in (and before it Loach’s Left Unity, and Derek Hatton’s Militant, and Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party and so forth, going back) and what makes it so attractive to so many. Momentum offers the idea that its members collectively embody the people and that their singular voice is the people’s voice. It’s heady stuff.
With real plebiscites—Swiss plebiscites, for example—there are acknowledged difficulties in reading the public mind. There’s the question of legitimacy if not everyone who is eligible to vote takes part, the question of the quality of argument and understanding on any issue, the question of balance if plebiscites are dominated by activists and propaganda.
In the case of Momentum, none of these sensitivities exists. On the contrary, the views of Momentum are susceptible to exactly the kind of pressures that proper polling seeks to eliminate. In fact, Momentum’s agenda is the very product of these pressures. Ideology. Peer pressure. Group sentiment. Electoral manipulation.
The dangers here are very obvious. In the case of representative democracy, legislators are accountable to the electorate: screw up or offend and you can be called to account, unelected, deselected or even prosecuted. In Socialism, however, the people can never be held to account. Socialism conflates the public with the idea of a virtuous and unionised working class pitted against a treacherous bourgeoisie of individuals and corporate interests.
By this measure, non-socialists are not included in the people; they are class enemies; their voice is worthless. Momentum, by contrast, becomes the quintessence of the people: plus le pueple que le peuple. It does not need to interrogate itself because it alone can do no wrong.
What we may be approaching, therefore, in this potential remaking of British democracy is a progressive wing that is ideologically incapable of being ejected, voted out or deselected, which is what it is now trying to do to the majority of Labour’s sitting MPs, because it sees itself as virtuous by default.
In this scenario, the leader does not lead—which is what Corbyn is repeatedly criticised for by his opponents—so much as functioning as the mere mouthpiece of the people, and thus of Momentum.
We used to fear Fascism and its belief in the inerrancy of the leader and his cohorts. We now have in the UK a very clear model for a left-wing fascism. We should be terrified.