Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Talk to the People

After the initial outpouring of class contempt, ageism and metropolitan narcissism, political commentators have sobered up and now suggest that the EU referendum result was a response to decades of deindustrialisation and austerity; that "taking back control" means more than simple xenophobia; and that it is a protest against a remote and unsympathetic elite by the "left behind". Despite this, there appears to be little appetite to talk at length with the people who cast the votes, either to understand their motives or to clarify their expectations. The vox-pops have moved on from "Did you really mean it?" to "Are you disappointed with the ensuing political chaos". Similarly, when people are asked why they voted leave, the answer "immigration" is accepted without any further enquiry, as if no further explanation was needed, showing how the cant of "understanding people's concerns" has enshrined ignorance.

Many have noted the irony that the government might need to hire expert trade negotiators from abroad as a result of the demands of Brexit, but perhaps the interlocutors we have greater need of are ones that can respond to the referendum result by talking to the voters. As it happens, that is the job description of an MP, but the current self-absorption of the two main parties suggests that they are determined to reassert parliamentary sovereignty by performatively ignoring the demos in favour of more niche electorates. The Tories have managed to engineer a new leader, and thereby a new Prime Minister, without recourse to the opinion of party members let alone the wider electorate. Despite the appointment of David Davis as minister for Brexit, the elevation of Theresa May will look like an establishment stitch-up to many who voted leave. The appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary does not dilute the effect.

In contrast, the Labour Party has now determined that a challenge to the leadership must go to a ballot of members with the incumbent as a candidate by right, though with the proviso that the electorate be gerrymandered to try and conjure up an elusive anti-Corbyn majority. Given that one didn't exist last year, it is asking a lot to believe that the new £25 threshold for supporters is going to swing it. Corbyn may have lost the vote of some who elected him, but he may also have gained the votes of others disgusted by the manoeuvrings of the Blairites and their "centre-left" fellow-travellers. It beggars belief that the PLP seriously thought they could depose Corbyn by a procedural coup, though there has been no lack of evidence over the last year of their incompetence or capacity for self-delusion. Some are still talking about a split, which in practice means the PLP annulling the membership in their desire to preserve the purity of their idea of representative democracy.

A common response to the referendum has been to suggest that the people don't know what they want, both in the sense that we're almost evenly divided as a nation and more particularly that leavers want contradictory outcomes. That's patronising, but it is also an excuse to avoid engagement. An individual voter may be an idiot, but the collective electorate is not. Reflecting the will of the people through systems of representative government is difficult at the best of times, but trying to resolve a complex issue, even assuming it isn't misrepresented, is not best done through a binary referendum. Rather than regret Cameron's folly, that should encourage us to treat the result as the trigger for negotiation (a sort of internal Article 50), rather than the end of the process, not in the sense that we treat the referendum as "advisory", or that it be finessed to the point that the result is stood on its head, but that we should have a conversation to establish what a preferred outcome, consistent with the result, would look like.

I see little prospect of that happening. Theresa May and popular engagement do not sit easily together, and her track record at the Home Office suggests her curiosity is kept in check by her authoritarianism. Her sponsorship of the "snoopers' charter" displayed little interest in the technical or social realities of the Internet, while her attitude towards immigration has always been a depersonalised focus on process and quantification. She has vowed to be a "one nation" PM and fight for the many against the few, but then they all say that, don't they? Her government is likely to be more mercantilist and less socially liberal than Cameron's, reflecting her instincts as much as the opportunity of Brexit. Her promise on co-determination, like her promise to give "hard-working families" greater economic security, will be whittled away by that same mercantilist turn and pressure from the free-market right. This does not mean she is a committed deregulator but rather someone who sees regulation as the guarantor of markets. In other words, less neoliberal (Osborne) and more ordoliberal (Hammond).

There seems little prospect that the new government will spend much time asking people in Sunderland what they mean by "immigration" (given the paucity of immigrants in the area) or how they envisage Brexit working in practice. They certainly won't be inviting suggestions on the more fundamental issues that supposedly underlay the referendum vote, such as regional industrial policy or the desire for an English assembly outside London. No doubt opinion polls will be commissioned, but they are no less a "blunt instrument" than a referendum. As New Labour proved with its focus groups, structured questions serve to establish what people will tolerate, not what they aspire to. This incuriosity is hegemonic. The defeated candidates in last year's Labour leadership election do not appear to have spent much time talking to party members about why they voted for Jeremy Corbyn, while their discussions with the wider electorate haven't advanced beyond focus group banality: immigration is a concern; Corbyn is weird etc.

One lesson of Corbyn's success last year was that he valued engagement. His election meetings weren't packed out because he is a masterful talker or because his policy prescriptions were strikingly novel. He's a dull speaker (and thus suspected of honesty) and his platform is bog-standard social democracy with top-notes of internationalism. The attraction was that he was prepared to articulate values that appealed to members (e.g. "austerity isn't necessary") and showed respect for the members' own views. His was a victory of style as much as substance, which ironically means he was the most "Blair 97" of the candidates. Whether he can repeat the trick is moot, but there seems little reason to bet against it. Though he has received little credit from the PLP or media, his achievements over 9 months are of the sort that will appeal to party members, from forcing a reversal on welfare cuts to getting the Fire Brigades Union to affiliate.

Though some on the left harbour hopes for an extra-parliamentary movement, Corbyn is very much in the tradition of the parliamentary road to socialism in which popular engagement and public demonstration act as a buttress to support (and keep honest) the party in the legislature. This is why accountability is critical for his supporters, and why the PLP have made "bullying" the emblematic criticism of their opponents. One side sees the MP as a pure representative of party policy (and therefore the membership), the other as a mediator between the wider electorate and a cunning state. You can argue that party members are not representative of the electorate, but this is meaningless given that they self-select by party. What you can't argue is that MPs have a better understanding of the wider electorate when they spend so little time engaging with voters as political philosophers rather than as consumers of policy tat. The referendum starkly highlighted the UK's problem: too much Parliament, not enough democracy.


  1. Herbie Kills Children14 July 2016 at 09:10

    I personally didn’t see much to shout about from either the vote to remain or exit, I take a very pessimistic view of the current state of the British people.

    The best we can say about the exit vote, from the collective elector view, is that it was misguided and if a response to genuine problems that people face then it was the wrong response and will not deal with the problems people face.

    The worst we can say, and in my opinion much closer to the truth, is that it was a vote based on bigotry, prejudice and staggering levels ignorance. Rather than being an expression of being left behind by the elites it was actually a vote that expressed a sense of privilege. Those boat people who want our standard of living can fuck off and drown - this is the vote in its pure, truthful state. I.e. not an expression of grief from the underclass but a fuck off poor people from the imperialist centre. The centre where even the unemployed are better off than someone working 50 hours in a developing nation.

    The reason the collective voter is a socio/psychopath intent on preserving privilege at the expense of everyone else can be explained by the culture and history of this nation. Culturally shaped by the tabloid press, and a history of violence against native people and dominance of them. The Iraq war was a perfect illustration of how Britain views itself, still the master, still the civiliser of the natives. What the idiot pro imperialists always fail to consider is the barbaric affect this has on the population at home, aside from the fact that their imperialist adventures lead to chaos, disaster and arch reaction. Still on the plus side McDonalds manage to open a few more branches and fashion TV has a few more nationalities to treat like pieces of meat!

    Of course even from this pitiful state of affairs hope exists and the embodiment of hope is Jeremy Corbyn. If the centre left wolves manage to depose him them all they will have done is extinguish hope. Not that they give a toss about that!

  2. "Though some on the left harbour hopes for an extra-parliamentary movement, Corbyn is very much in the tradition of the parliamentary road to socialism in which popular engagement and public demonstration act as a buttress to support (and keep honest) the party in the legislature."

    If (I hope when) Corbyn wins this latest leadership election then the Labour Party could well be reduced to a small parliamentary rump and extra-parliamentary tactics will be vital. This scenario is probably the only strategy that the PLP have against Corbyn, blackmailing the members by threatening to take the bulk of their Westminster representation away permanently. I hope the membership resist this and prepare to strike out onto new ground, as I think 'parliamentary cretinism' has been one of the main restraints on the Labour Party adopting a more democratic position. That's not to say elections aren't important, just that obsession with them has helped to create the Labour clique we see so clearly today.

    1. I think it unlikely that the Labour right will resign the whip and form a new party. However, if they did so, I doubt many anti-Corbyn centrists would follow suit. For people like Eagle, party loyalty is a substitute for policy ("If you sliced me in half I would have Labour running through me like a stick of Blackpool rock"). Outside the Labour movement they would be adrift and quickly eliminated by the right.

      The strategy appears to be to paint Corbyn & co as a de facto extra-parliamentary movement, hence the laughable over-estimation of the influence of Momentum and the emphasis on bullying and direct action (I suspect the Wallasey brick was the work of a 12-year old scally having a laugh). The NEC decisions on who will be eligible to vote in the leadership contest looks like the early signs of a purge.

      What the right wants to do is expel the left, and it looks like the centrists have now fallen in behind this plan (the "Kinnock manoeuvre"). Their problem is that the "left" of the Labour party these days are remarkably mild in their politics, mostly being a continuation of the Foot/Kinnock centre-left of old rather than Bennites (let alone Trots).

      The lack of any real policy deviationsim (attempts to make Trident a defining issue will backfire) leave the right with no alternative but to try and justify the purge through charges of violence, harrassment, misogyny and antisemitism, which means painting ordinary Labour party members as somewhere between UKIP and the BNP. That's not going to work.

      This struggle isn't going to be resolved through people on the street but in CLP meetings (the NEC attempt to suspend these for the duration of the leadership contest is telling). The Labour movement's commitment to the parliamentary road to socialism remains undimmed, hence the PLP are vulnerable.

    2. "... justify the purge through charges of violence, harrassment, misogyny and antisemitism ..."

      It's hard to credit the atmosphere of hysteria being created. From the charge of vandalism at Eagle's office, you would have thought the place had been trashed instead of one stone through a window. And then Corbyn is meant to be able to magically control the Twitter feeds of some NEC members. Unfortunately the story builds, and John Harris is now running hard with it in his latest Graun piece. Add that to Kinnock trying to tie this into the anti-Militant campaign of the 80s and they leave the realm of reality. As you say, the so-called left is remarkably mild and, as I've posted elsewhere, the SWP would be amazed to find that there are hundreds of thousands of Trots in the country.

    3. 'For people like Eagle, party loyalty is a substitute for policy'

      I'm not at all sure about this. For one thing, they would have been far more careful about when and how they challenged Corbyn. Secondly, as gastro george suggests, their hysterical behaviour in and after the 'coup' attempt suggests that they have burned their bridges and this is an all or nothing grasp to regain control or split the party.

      I reckon that if they retained some instincts of loyalty then a lot more MPs would have sought compromise with the leadership after the initial 'coup' had failed, and they would have done a lot more, not just recently but since last September, to analyse the pre-Corbyn failings of the party and appease many of the membership who are relatively moderate and insulted to be compared to thugs and insurrectionists.

      As such, for a lot of the PLP there is going to be no way back now.

    4. It depends what is actually meant by "party loyalty" of course. Loyalty to the PLP, to the Party membership (as it actually is) or some mythical Labour Party tribe, that doesn't really exist except in nostalgic memories?

  3. Your post put me in mind of this on AJP Taylor

    The theme is that Taylor was a great communicator because he thought people really did think for themselves, even if they couldn't articulate themselves. The one bit Ax gets wrong (entirely understandably) is when he thinks Taylor's prediction that foreign policy woould be driven by public opinion was wrong. That may have been too quick.

  4. Herbie Kills Children16 July 2016 at 15:02

    The labour right value their seats in parliament too much to form another party.

    The fact they have got so desperate, with the accusations of misogyny, anti semitism, bullying etc is testament to the fact that they are trying everything and anything to oust Corbyn, because they have nowhere else left to go and they know it.

    This blatant descent into the gutter is presented as something serious and the media happily go along with the story, so every other Telegraph and Guardian article follows this ridiculous narrative.

    This blatant attack on its own members is pretty unprecedented, the PLP and the interests that lie behind it are using every undemocratic trick in the book to try to ensure they win. If they can't win trying all these desperate tactics you do wonder where they go next!

    If we ever wanted to know what united liberalism and Toryism, aside from imperialist chauvinism, we now know!