This morning on a BBC discussion between various members of the Commentariat one commentator who was American by birth, but a British citizen, said something to the effect of, “I don’t care about Labour Party members, that’s not democracy. Democracy only happens at the ballot box for official elected office.”
The argument being put was that ‘Representative Democracy’ necessarily, and desirably entails, a sort of ‘elected dictatorship’ and that the political parties and their members who supported and nominated the candidate for office, are irrelevant to the policies and actions of elected politicians, once elected. i.e. that elected politicians owe their entire loyalty to ‘the electorate’, some who voted against them, and that therefore they cannot and MUST not be bound by specific Party policy promises they made to the electorate in order to get elected.
This argument is being made in the context of the Corbyn Crisis in the LP and seeks to free elected politicians from even the slightest obligation to honour the party that supported their nomination, provided the funds for their campaigns and volunteered to work the phones and the streets to help win the election. It seeks to suggest that the Parliamentary Labour Party is a distinct autonomous organisation that owes no allegiance to the wishes or views of the membership of the Labour Party itself. It seeks to assert that the PLP should choose the Party leader and the policy of the Party and the job of the members is simply to support them in doing this.
If the members don’t like the leader chosen by the PLP or don’t like the policy decisions made by the PLP, then tough because the PLP are the ‘professionals’ and they know better than the ignorant, naive membership.
In my own CLP the secretary recently pronounced that a branch could not discuss a motion on Corbyn’s leadership because branches in this particular CLP do not discuss “motions on national policy issues or who should lead the Party.”
This position was subsequently defended by another member on the grounds that LP branches “are all about getting councillors elected to the County Council aren’t we?”
These statements are making it explicit that in the view of these men and women it is not the job of LP members to even have views on policy matters or who the Party leader should be, let alone to express them at LP meetings. In this worldview the ONLY job of members is to provide the money and do the leg work in order to get centrally chosen candidates elected to office, and that once elected these politicians will owe no debt to the views of those who did that leg work.
This is not democracy in any meaningful sense of the word. To reduce democracy entirely to choosing between two or three candidates who are all from similar backgrounds and all share similar views, who are then entirely free to ignore the views of anyone they are supposed to represent, IS a form of ‘elected dictatorship’ and is a major cause of the profound dissatisfaction with ‘politics’ across the Western world.
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A political party has to stand for something or it is literally just a brand, an endless emptiness behind a redesigned logo. But even brand managers know that their ‘product’ has to deliver on its brand promises. If a brand’s USP is being cheaper than everyone else, then it has to actually be cheaper; if the brand is associated with ‘quality’ then its products have to be quality products. So ultimately the brand has to reflect something concrete in the real-world or over time customers will realise it is based on a lie and stop buying it.
Where is a political party to get its policies, it’s USP, from? If getting elected is the ONLY objective, then the best thing to do would be to find out what people want and then offer to give it to them. Except of course people want different things and the things the rich man wants are often not the things the poor man wants. But even setting that aside there is another problem because if a political party finds out what people want, promises to give it to them and then fails to deliver on that promise, then it will not get elected twice. A political party that presents a belief in justice, democracy and protecting the interests of workers as its USP ultimately better be just, democratic and deliver on protecting the interests of workers or over time it will fail.
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The other way to form a political party is that like-minded people who wish to promote a particular political philosophy will come together to pool their knowledge, money and resources in order to promote their philosophy into the market-place of competitive elections. (The Greens and UKIP are recent examples) Under this model it is the members who formed the party who democratically decide the policy and choose their representatives who will stand for public office.
And this was how the LP was formed. Trade Unions and socialists came together to form a political party that would specifically promote the interests of the 99% mass of workers over the interests of the 1% of capitalist owners. The Labour Party had, and still has, specific aims. It does not seek election for its own sake, it seeks election in order to promote a democratic socialist vision of our future.
The Labour Party was once part of a mass ‘labour’ movement. In the past LP membership has topped 1 million. At its lowest ebb it was down to 50,000. It is now once again above 500,000. This is a STAGGERING number. In a world where ideology is supposed to be dead. people are ‘apathetic’ and politics is only about ‘managing’ the interaction between free markets, half a million people are paying good money to join a political party! Yet this staggering number is constantly dismissed as being a mere fraction of the electorate and thus irrelevant. This is of course literally true, 500,000 members aren’t going to win a general election. But that fails to recognise the millions this amazing number represents. Very few people join political parties. There are 45 million electors in the UK and the membership of all the political parties together is less than a million. But the LP has 500,000 of them! 300,000 have joined since September. These people are so inspired by a particular political vision that they have signed up to pay money to join a political party. And it is a particular political vision they have signed up to; they have not aligned themselves with an empty brand, they have joined for specific reasons.
And these men and women, the members, ARE the LP. The PLP represent these people in Parliament. The PLP are the Labour Party in opposition or in government and they DO owe allegiance to the political values those members wish to pursue.