Brexit Britain and the political economy of undemocracy (parts I and II)

Part I: The aftermath of economic crisis, followed by Brexit, has seen the dismantling of democratic norms in Britain. The right benefits, while the left stands by

Another Conservative Prime Minister, another Downing Street speech drenched in one nation mythology.  Many will doubt Theresa May’s sincerity when she talks about equality and inclusion, but to conclude that she is being duplicitous would be to miss the point.  It is more a question of conceptual hierarchies: there will be plenty of time for progressive politics, but only once the economy has been ‘stabilised’.

The problem is that while politicians of the right borrow the language of the left, their real priorities go largely unsaid, or are at least obscured.  When May praises her predecessor’s commitment to ‘social justice’, we are attuned to focusing on the word ‘justice’, insofar as it conjures up egalitarian politics.  But her focus, like David Cameron’s, will probably be on the ‘social’ bit. Individuals must make themselves more morally worthy, if they wish to be rewarded by the inherently just market order.

Such wordplay is of course a normal, and usually unthinking, element of political discourse.  We can therefore both take May at her word, and with a pinch of salt.  My fear, however, is that this is becoming more normal, with contorted conceptualisations now deployed more consciously by politicians.  Colin Hay and I use the term ‘communicative dissonance’, to describe the way that the coalition government, especially George Osborne, talked about the economic recovery.

In the aftermath of Brexit, the willingness of competing elites to engage in post-truth politics, or what Ben Rosamond and Jonathan Hopkin call political ‘bullshitting’, is as alarming as it is fascinating to any student of politics or political economy.  It is an additional dimension of the post-crisis ‘unravelling’ of Western values identified by Andrew Gamble, made possible by an entire generation of elites’ indifference to the norms of representative democratic life.  Colin Crouch’s 2000 work on ‘post-democracy’ chronicles the emergence of this shift.

In this way, Theresa May takes forward Cameron and Osborne’s toxic legacy for Britain’s democratic culture.  She told us during her abbreviated leadership election campaign that ‘Brexit means Brexit’; this is only true because Brexit essentially means very little.  May claims that as Prime Minister she will be guided above all by respecting the people’s democratically expressed preference, but it is becoming increasingly clear that she has no intention of delivering Brexit in any straightforward sense.

I believe that the UK will ultimately agree to the closest possible relationship with the EU, short of full membership, including free movement of labour (FMOL).  The deal will probably see Britain included as a partner in both existing and future trade deals between the EU and the rest of the world.  This would be largely unprecedented for a non-member; it will presented as a way of delivering a new ‘global Britain’, but it will of course represent the opposite, that is, salvation for the pre-Brexit status quo.

To enable Britain to ‘save face’ in these circumstances, I would expect an EU/UK trade deal that allows Britain to sign supplementary bilateral deals on financial services with non-EU countries.  Such deals will in practice be quite rare, and insofar as they do materialise, the EU will probably welcome them, given the City’s Eurozone entrepôt function.

Caving in on FMOL might damage May, but no more so than she was hurt as Home Secretary by missing pre-Brexit immigration targets.  Crucially, opposition to FMOL will soon be dampened by a likely collapse in immigration as Britain’s stuttering post-Brexit economy offers a weaker ‘pull’ to migrants.  Migrants from outside the EU will also probably have fewer rights in Britain in the future; although May advocated remaining in the EU, she also argued in April that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Immigration will for the foreseeable future be even more concentrated in London, and so will be less visible to most pro-Brexit regions in England. I also expect a smaller but still significant immigration surge in Scotland:  the Sturgeon government will seek to use higher immigration in lieu of a fiscal stimulus as Scotland enters the next recession.  This will create a dilemma for the Scottish National Party if it precipitates an anti-immigration backlash among more disadvantaged groups – which the Conservatives, under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, rather than Labour, are well-placed to benefit from politically.

All the while, the Bank of England has embarked on an enormous monetary stimulus that nobody voted for in an effort to again prevent recession turning into depression.  Its effects will be as regressive as they were after 2008. There are already emerging signs that the stimulus is failing. Expect the unexpected – just don’t expect it to be explained.

No matter how ‘Brexit Britain’ takes shape, the link to the exercise in mass democracy undertaken in June will seem increasingly tenuous over time.  The referendum result was of course a kick in the teeth to those elites who favoured remain, but clearly, and crucially, it was not a mechanism by which the established order was seriously endangered.

To clarify, I am not arguing that the new government should respect the Brexit vote – but nor am I arguing the opposite.  From the perspective of democracy, the referendum was a profoundly flawed process.  Cameron believed he could use the referendum to manage his own unruly backbenches, in the way he had in 2011 used the Alternative Vote referendum to manage his junior coalition partners.  Very little thought was given to whether a hasty, one-off, UK-wide, winner-takes-all, in/out referendum represented the correct way in a parliamentary democracy for the people’s voice to be heard on such a seismic issue.

That many millions of Britons wanted to challenge EU rules such as FMOL should be neither doubted nor ignored (clearly, Labour must take this warning seriously if it ever wishes to govern again).  But from the right’s perspective, it was only the loose correlation of anti-immigration sentiment with certain elite interests that made the politicisation of EU membership permissible.  And it is the same elites that will now translate the result.

As such, many of the actions that Britain’s leaders have undertaken or will undertake following the referendum clearly fit the notion of ‘post-democracy’ quite well.  But the crisis of democracy is arguably intensifying: I believe we are moving into an age of ‘undemocracy’.  It is no longer simply the case that popular opinion is marginalised by technocratic decision-making processes; it is becoming apparent that people themselves no longer appreciate the value of democratic institutions as arenas in which they can exercise any meaningful influence on public life.

One of the paradoxical dimensions of undemocracy may be a populism of the left, whereby a mass protest movement forms with only a fairly superficial focus on formal democratic processes – this will be explored further in Part II of this post.  But the left’s evolution seemingly mirrors a broader contradiction of undemocracy: while post-democracy marginalises popular opinion by narrowing the scope of democratic engagement by elites, in contrast, in the age of undemocracy, the people are themselves mobilised to execute the final stages of the destruction of democratic culture.

That they are asked do so in the name of democracy, through exercises such as the EU referendum, serves to underline the significance – and perhaps irreversible nature – of this shift.

What we are witnessing is the effective severance of the apparent operation of democratic principles from the actual institutions of democracy, thus creating a vacuum that only existing elites are capable of filling.  In this scenario, Brexit might be the least of our worries.

Part II: While the right acts decisively to restore the established order, the Corbyn experiment eschews both democracy and state power, and thus Labour’s best hope of transforming capitalism

Labour’s current predicament is one of many dimensions.  It is also not simply Labour’s dilemma, insofar as the turmoil engulfing the party is symptomatic of that which now characterises the basic notion of social democracy, that is, a negotiated compromise between social justice, growth and the market economy.  When capitalism falters, elites protect their own material interests through political consolidation, responding to the weakening of the accumulation regime’s legitimacy by arguing that even the slightest shift to the left poses the risk of an economic crisis even greater than the one just concocted by the regime itself.

Crucially, the social democratic dilemma is in part rooted in a more encompassing crisis of democracy. As I discussed in Part I of this blog, waning adherence to democratic ideals has facilitated the right’s decisive response to Brexit (and, indeed, the earlier response to financial crisis).  Of course, this is a crisis which Labour has been complicit in creating the conditions for in Britain.  The last Labour government did staggeringly little to reform the bastions of British undemocracy, by sustaining the Westminster model of governance and further emasculating local government, failing to reform the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system or Britain’s archaic electoral administration processes, failing to challenge the market structure of press ownership or political party funding rules, and barely touching the House of Lords.

Some of these features of British political life have often worked in Labour’s favour in the short term, but one of the long term consequences of acquiescence to undemocracy has been to insulate the party from the perspectives of those it purports to represent (especially once the decline in trade union membership had gathered pace).

Labour has nevertheless been able to rely on substantial working-class support at the ballot box.  Yet the Brexit vote offers a worrying portent in this regard.  Only 60 per cent of people who voted for Labour in 2015 voted to remain in the EU; the notion that this represents any semblance of success for the Labour leadership is a highly illusory one.  It represents in fact a staggering withdrawal of support for a longstanding foundation of centre-left statecraft and, more worryingly for Labour, a profound desertion by working-class supporters, insofar as the Labour remain vote was concentrated among the party’s better-off supporters in large cities.

Jeremy Corbyn continues to claim that the result vindicates his own approach. By indulging in the post-truth tropes of Brexit, Corbyn is beginning to embody part of the crisis of British democracy.  Ironically, his election as Labour leader was of course a product of his more moderate colleagues’ own complacency regarding the fragility of democratic ideals.  The so-called ‘morons’ in the parliamentary party nominated Corbyn even while many, if not most, did not support his candidacy.

Furthermore, the hastily designed rules of the leadership election he won are the product of political positioning far more so than any democratic principle.  Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband implemented one-member-one-vote (OMOV) in place of the electoral college solely to distance himself from the trade unions that had been decisive in his own victory in 2010, and at the same time introduced the ‘registered supporter’ model – a neither-here-nor-there nod to American-style primary elections – solely as a response to the argument that David Miliband, not Ed, would have won had OMOV already been in place.

The left’s embrace of undemocracy is perhaps more worrying than the right’s, given the historical association between left-wing politics and campaigns to enfranchise less privileged groups within society.  The Corbyn camp claims the mantle of democracy, but it is one of the paradoxes of democratic life that democratisation within parties – an inherently problematic endeavour – invariably serves to widen the distance between the party and the electorate at large.

Corbyn consistently argues that Labour’s MPs must respect his ‘mandate’ (that is, the votes of around 59 per cent of members and supporters).  Notwithstanding the fact that leaders in democratic societies can and must be challenged irrespective of the size of their victories, the notion that it represents a form of democratisation to disempower MPs, who were both selected by local parties and then elected to parliament by the public, from exercising their own judgement on questions of party leadership clearly exists within a philosophical quagmire.  Julian Baggini is surely correct in labelling Corbyn’s politics as ‘populism in its purest form’, and to warn of the threat to genuine democracy that populist politicians have always posed.

Irrespective of their procedural rules, essentially all political parties must function as coalitions between members, activists, elected officials and the wider constituency they exist to represent.  This is surely the spirit of Labour’s leadership election rules, even if these rules were drafted rather absent-mindedly.

As such, any attempt to treat political parties as microcosms of the wider polity, mimicking basic citizenship rights for members, is flawed, precisely because individuals exercise discretion over whether to join the organisation in the first place.  The idea that the 12th January cut-off date for Labour members to be eligible to vote in the coming leadership election ‘disenfranchises’ new members is a classic example of the fallacious thinking that often surrounds this issue.  It is indeed an arbitrary date, but no more than any other date would have been, and it was decided on at the same executive council meeting that ruled in Corbyn’s favour on much more consequential matters.

Political parties are clearly allowed to privilege loyalty and activism if they wish to do so – if new or prospective members disagree, they can, armed with their rights as British citizens, form their own party.

The current process, after another bout of complex gerrymandering, is therefore another deeply ambivalent exercise in democracy.

Corbyn is a keen student of history, so will be well aware there is little that is historic about his mandate from the perspective on internal party democracy.  Neil Kinnock received a far higher proportion of votes when challenged in 1988 than Corbyn did in 2015, and Tony Blair received a far higher volume of votes in 1994 (because the party membership was so much larger).  Yet Corbyn defied both, despite their overwhelming mandates.  And as leader, he consistently defies the party’s sovereign policy-making body (the annual conference) on key areas of policy.

Corbyn also appears to fret very little about the questionable democratic procedures within the trade unions which continue to sustain his leadership.  Union leaders, and delegates for the conferences that establish union policy, are elected on miniscule turnout rates.  Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey, for instance, is currently threatening to attempt to deselect all MPs opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, while at the same time YouGov polling suggests the majority of its own members want Corbyn to resign.

Meanwhile, Labour is failing to fulfil the basic functions of parliamentary democracy, either by opposing the incumbent government or forming a meaningful alternative.  Arguably all parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party are at fault here – not least those with substantial parliamentary and ministerial experience.

Corbyn’s supporters would of course retort that they are building a ‘social movement’ rather than simply a parliamentary party (a case explicitly made by Paul Mason, and expertly unpicked by Matt Bolton and even Corbyn sympathiser Owen Jones).  This was clearly behind the argument of Jon Lansman, chair of the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum, that ‘[d]emocracy gives power to people, “Winning” [sic] is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves’.  While Corbyn et al might genuinely want to build a mass movement both encompassing and reaching beyond Labour, it seems incongruous that they have offered little by way of a radical political strategy around which the movement can cohere. Corbyn supporters take comfort in the notion that they are rallying on behalf of ‘the people’ or ‘the 99%’, but these represent shallow forms of political identity more likely to alienate than appeal to the mass of ‘ordinary’ citizens.

None of this is necessarily meant as a criticism of the Corbyn leadership.  Yet it is necessary to locate Corbyn in a broader canvas, one in which democratic norms appear to be fading as various interest groups jostle for supremacy in a post-crisis environment.  There are two issues, however, on which Corbyn must be personally criticised. Firstly, he appears indifferent to the increasingly abusive nature of internal Labour Party relations, despite his self-proclaimed ‘kinder politics’. Corbyn may rightly condemn abuse in one breath, but it means little if in the next he continues to use the language of treachery and betrayal to describe his opponents – whom he chillingly referred to recently as ‘unkind’, and therefore presumably unworthy of protection from abuse (having apparently failed the kinder politics test).

He also appears indifferent, secondly, to the increasing marginalisation of women within the party’s leading roles. Labour’s role in empowering women within politics is a classic example of a radical democratising agenda, insofar as it has brought under-represented groups into the actual practice of governance, often challenging established procedural norms in the process. Equally, Corbyn’s implicit claim that it is more democratic for a leader not to interfere with a local party’s right, for instance, to select a male mayoral candidate (or even all-male shortlists for the selection of a candidate), seemingly because the men being selected are supportive of his platform, is a classic example of democratic ideals being invoked purely to serve the political ends of an existing elite.

Democracy and all its messy compromises should matter more to the left than the right.  Even if a social movement in favour of radical economic reform were to arise, it will need institutions through which to exercise both voice and control. Yet in demonstrating his fondness for the rhetoric of democracy over the actual practice of empowering under-represented groups, Corbyn follows all of his recent predecessors in taking for granted Labour’s right to participate in those institutions. In practice, democratic principles have to be consistently defended and renewed through political struggle.  Democratic citizenship is an ideal which constrains capitalism, but which it cannot feasibly jettison from Western societies without jeopardising its own future, and as such is allied to the left’s long term interests in this regard. At the moment, Labour is not only failing to live up to democratic ideals, but its leader is prone to invoking them in a superficial and often duplicitous manner. Labour must find a way to nurture these ideals before they are mangled beyond repair, and settle on an organisational model which allows it to do so.

Image: Policy Exchange