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In the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, there are two distinct issues. One is crushingly obvious and should be boring but it excites media. The other is great and ignored. One is the need for ordinary – even collegiate – leadership and management within the parliamentary party. The other is coming to a decision about the nature of the party.

It is untenable that the party leader in any party be opposed by a significant minority of their parliamentary party. It is plain daft to continue when opposed by the majority. Either the leader goes, their opponents go, or one so changes as to placate the other side. Appeals to party unity just aren’t enough because it’s not a matter of one decision. It’s a matter of working together day after day – for years.

Party Leader is a difficult institution. Leaving aside more thoughtful considerations, the leader is the party figurehead for both the party generally and for its parliamentarians, and must enjoy the confidence of both.

There was a time when members played no role in electing a party leader. In recognition of their membership and in a spirit of democracy many parties changed. They developed different ways of selecting their leaders but always to prevent two outcomes: i) A leader popular with parliamentary colleagues but opposed by the wider party; and ii) A leader popular with the members but unacceptable to parliamentary colleagues. Now, it might be argued that all members are equal and that a parliamentarian should have no special role in selecting a leader. This refuses to accept that those working closely with the leader have a special interest or that that interest should simply be disregarded. In short, it is deaf to a parliamentarian’s plea, “Jaysus, we have to work closely with this person day in, day out. We must have some say.”

The UK Labour Party led by Ed Miliband devised a system of one member, one vote while effectively giving the parliamentary party a veto. Nomination for leadership is the preserve of the PLP and then the members vote for their preferred candidate. The idea is that members of parliament would hardly nominate someone whom they didn’t generally support. However, that is exactly what they did in nominating Jeremy Corbyn – while explaining that they did it to encourage contest and debate.

His election was assured by another development. Ed Miliband and co. made party membership inexpensive and undemanding. Registered supporters pay a fee of £3 and are entitled to vote for a leader. Members of long standing were lost in a huge throng of new arrivals. To complicate matters the new people are predominantly affluent and urban; they are middle class in the sense that pollsters use that term and unlike the constituents with whom the majority of Labour MPs would identify.*

Interestingly, the profile of the new member is a good match for that of a remain voter in the Brexit referendum, while the “heartland” Labour voter is a good match for a leave voter. Clearly the composition of the party and its relationship with voters is far more complex than is often presented.

Turning to the more basic question of the nature of the Labour Party, there was a time when the fundamental division on the left was between revolutionaries and those who chose parliamentary democracy. As more and more leftists abandon revolution and the nature of exploitation changes – at least in the West – a new division is apparent between those who remain with parliamentary democracy and those who see parliament as part of a wider struggle in which activism, street politics and pressure on the establishment is more important.

This is not the place to offer a critique; the point here is merely to emphasise that the two components of leftism are markedly different and cannot be reduced to policy differences, to “Corbynistas” versus “Blairites” or to “real socialists” versus “Tory-lite”. While it may be presented as a struggle for the “soul of Labour” or who represents true Labour values or who is more in touch with the people, the division is more basic. It’s about how the left should operate. It’s about parliament.

For this reason the best course now might be for Labour to split. Of course there are many arguments against that. It will be characterised as a split over policy or some tawdry question of the “electability” of Jeremy Corbyn. However, in time – most of it being out of majority or left-led government – the two approaches can contend openly in public rather than pretending that this is a mere squabble within a party.**

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/01/how-middle-class-are-labour-s-new-members

** In Ireland where the left is much smaller this essential difference focusses not on a split but on whether the tiny Labour Party should follow the other left parties into protest, pressure and campaigns or should adopt a more socialist position by opting exclusively for parliament. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

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At the heart of all the fretting over populism there is a dispute about the essential meaning of citizenship. Populism is often defended by reference to its root, populus, and presented as ordinary people taking control. The reality is that the last thing on earth that a supporter of populism wants is control over their own or the affairs of the republic; they are passive citizens. When thinking people complain of the lies and simplicities which fuel populist campaigns, they fail to appreciate that this content is not directed at them. They are irrelevant onlookers to a play for the support of fellow citizens who have a fundamentally different outlook. Crucially it is journalists who ensure that content reaches its intended target.

You see, one view of citizenship pays little or no heed to meaningful participation – to deliberation – and cedes thinking to an elite. Because adherents complain about elites (variously labelled the establishment, the government or the political class) a fake anti-authoritarian image can appear; in truth it is more like petulant but dependent children complaining about their parents. It is a view that reduces citizenship to a desire to be well managed or led by a patriarchy which the dependent, passive citizen hopes will be benign.* There is competition then for the support of these citizens.

Competition for the votes of such citizens is characterised by political communication which plays down, ignores or lies about risk. The most recent example is Brexit. Passive citizens were told that they could leave the EU without fear of adverse consequences. They could have been asked to assess the risks and decide on balance what would be best but that would not have served them. It would have made them unhappy and prompted cries for “leadership”.

The first Syriza election win in Greece was another example. Frightened citizens were told that everything would be fine, that they could be delivered unproblematically from austerity. It turns out that a whole swathe of the coalition that was Syriza was fully aware of the risks, were talking among themselves about the Drachma and an isolated fresh start but they stayed quiet rather than perturb the simplicity.

In Ireland we are burdened with the same authoritarian nonsense. When our entirely predictable property crash finally arrived, citizens who would prefer to be untroubled by risk assessment were offered a wide choice of potential parents. All said that there was an easy way out of austerity, that a country in desperate need of loans to pay welfare and state salaries could refuse to accept the conditions imposed by its one remaining lender and that there would be no adverse consequence.

It is difficult to imagine a political controversy which does not involve the consideration of consequences, of advantages for some and disadvantages for others. However, the idea that a controversy over matters as large as the above could be presented by anyone as having small or few consequences is not merely absurd. It is an authoritarian gambit.

The citizen who doesn’t want to be troubled with participation, argument, evaluation, judgement is a willing target for the authoritarian who will reassure, will relieve them of meaningful citizenship by offering leadership. This is the authoritarian who tells them not to worry, that nothing bad will happen, who talks in terms of being in touch with the people, who will likely even try to identify as anti-establishment. Crucially, complex argument and possible consequences will be dismissed as “scaremongering”, while expertise will be spurned as “establishment”.

Familiar? Of course it’s familiar; it’s the parody of political discourse that has become not merely acceptable but normal. If you are not a citizen in need of a leader but one who wants to participate in the affairs of the republic, wants to have all the information and arguments in order to discuss what matters before coming to your decision, you may wonder how the repeated lies and simplicities could gather supporters. You may even have a haughty disdain for your fellow citizens, questioning their intelligence. The reality is that many citizens seek soothing codology because they prefer a quiet life. Moreover, the populist leader knows this and has no intention of wasting time in addressing the republican citizen. Indeed, there is no need to do so because the number of passive citizens is sufficient for success at the polls and may constitute a majority, even a large majority

There’s nothing new about concern over citizen passivity. It has a track record from before J.S. Mill’s fear of the herd, through the Frankfurt Marxists, on even into music with Roger Waters *, inspired by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and on it goes. In short, it’s a staple in theorising about democracy and the nature of citizenship. **

Finally, where do journalists come into this? Well, they have a problem and a decision to make: they cannot at the same time serve the republican citizen while holding the passive citizen’s attention or serve the passive citizen without dismissing the needs of the republican citizen. Generally they stay out of trouble by covering everything in a fair, objective, impartial way and that’s one reason why public discourse and republican participation are threatened.

 

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* A note to leftists who might be tempted to lead populism: The citizen who wants to be patronised is working class only in the way that the term is used by pollsters.

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

*** http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/

There is no comparison between public service and private enrichment. Let us stop making one so as to attract “the right stuff” into public service.

“There may come a time some day when the country will have to face the question of paying the great heads of the Civil Service on a commercial basis. There is a constant temptation, and it is only those who, like the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Austen Chamberlain), myself and others who have had some experience, know what the temptation is. Great commercial undertakings are constantly trying to lure away our great Civil Servants by offers not of the same salary, not of twice, but of five or ten times the amount that they are receiving as Civil Servants. Some of them, for family and other reasons, succumb to the temptation, but most of them resist it. But there is an element of honour in the public service which will always be some sort of contribution and make towards the retention of these great public servants. When we offer £400 a year as payment of Members of Parliament it is not a recognition of the magnitude of the service, it is not a remuneration, it is not a recompense, it is not even a salary. It is just an allowance, and I think the minimum allowance, to enable men to come here, men who would render incalculable service to the State, and whom it is an incalculable loss to the State not to have here, but who cannot be here because their means do not allow it. It is purely an allowance to enable us to open the door to great and honourable public service to these men, for whom this country will be all the richer, all the greater and all the stronger for the un-known-vicissitudes which it has to face by having here to aid us by their counsel, by their courage, and by their resource.” –

The UK CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (David Lloyd George) moving his Payment of Members motion, HC Deb 10 August 1911 vol 29 cc1365-4831365