Contemporary politics is saturated with would-be liberators, decrying the rule of the few and promising a return to democracy. Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader, is but one of these politicians whose platform is a revolt against oligarchy. He styles himself as the democrat, leaving decisions to his members, not to his cronies, instead choosing to act as a mere arbiter of their will. His attitude towards the threat of de-selection of moderate MPs by radical members has been one of relaxed deference. Unfortunately, Corbyn’s revolution will not result in the empowerment of the many, but simply the imposition of a new few.
The populist message more generally has proven quite successful. On the American left, a central element of Bernie Sanders’ campaign was its revulsion towards the politics of the “one percent.” Brexit campaigners carried a similar message, chiding the oligarchic “bureaucrats in Brussels” with ruthless disregard for post-revolutionary planning.
On the right, Donald Trump has fumed about America’s upper classes without a hint of irony. In his own ungrammatical words, “Jeb Bush or Hillary, or one of these politicians, all controlled by lobbyists and special interests–and donors, people like me from previous months–total control.” Trump at least only cares about himself, more of a monarch than an oligarch. Yet his message confirms that whether one is red, blue, or even orange; disdain towards elites is a vote-winner.
This is an old phenomenon. Americans may remember the gripes of 2000 and 2004; that the big two parties are ‘the same’ and represent the will of the ruling classes. Back then, it was Ralph Nader who was the people’s saviour, even if he did lack the support of most of the people. Across the Atlantic, Britons may remember the 2010 General Election, when Nick Clegg was near worshipped for his similar message of replacing the old establishment with his own.
Yet often these new regimes are just as undemocratic and unsavoury as the old. This is what is particularly irritating about Corbyn’s plan for our salvation. His musings on democracy have largely consisted of the Labour Party opening up more decisions to its members. Simultaneously, compromise with the public has been branded ‘Blairite’ apostasy. Such schemes obviously do not herald an age of British direct democracy. In place of the 1% merely comes the 1.2% of voters who bothered to join the Labour Party.
Cobyn’s first error has been to assume that the presence of voting alone indicates democracy. The question is not, though, whether people vote but rather to whom the political system is accountable. The Elective Monarchy is a political oxymoron which dates back to antiquity. Rome’s first five Kings were said to be chosen by the city’s assemblies. Such a procedure would inspire one Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the USA, to suggest the Elective Monarchy as a system for the new America, where rulers would continue to rule until impeached. Even today, Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni acceded to the throne through election by a Royal Council, rather than through the western method of the princely foetus race. Despite the presence of voting, power ultimately remains in the hands of one individual and the few councils who elect them.
Voting itself is no more the identifying feature of democracy than wheels are the defining feature of a car. A car without wheels obviously does not function, but we can still identify what that body is for. If I was to refer to four wheels as a car; then most would be rightly perplexed. Democracy needs more than votes, it must be representative of and accountable to the citizenry at large. It is the voters whose will is central to democracy; not politicians, not party members.
Mr Corbyn unfortunately appears to have construed the will of the electorate with the opinions of Labour’s membership. In the old days of New Labour, it was up to the party’s leader to reconcile the views of their party, their parliamentary colleagues, and the electorate. The leader functioned under an understanding that little more than obscurity beckoned if this balance was struck incorrectly. Despite there being fewer votes, the leader was still accountable to all three.
Labour is now understood to be democratically legitimate if its policies are selected by the membership alone, regardless of how unpopular their preferences may be with the general public. There is no doubt that those who pay Labour their subs should be granted some influence on their party’s policy, yet their importance now appears to have eclipsed that of the electorate. Labour has, as a result, become a vehicle for the utilitarian satisfaction of those on the left, not a vehicle of progressive government.
In no other matter has this been clearer than in Labour’s shunning of electability. To win an election, one must compromise with reluctant centrist voters who owe little allegiance to any particular party. Sadly, being in support of such compromises with voters now gains one little more than harassment and the branding of being “Blairite,” regardless of how little one actually likes Tony Blair. Blairites are said to have shunned principle due to their lust for power. Too much time they spend worrying about whether people actually want their policies. Much better to instead ‘educate’ those who disagree with Labour about what their opinions should be, while assembling a ‘progressive alliance’ of parties who all seek to replace the Labour Party.
If a party’s programme is written without hope of ever appealing to a majority, or at least a sizeable plurality, can that programme really be considered something underpinned by democratic principles? After all, the electoral system exists to force leaders and parties to shave off their own ideological extremities and self-interest, and instead adopt ideas and practices which the electorate can consent to. Should a party compromise adequately with the people, they may be granted the opportunity to govern. Should they speak only to a small clique of voters, the best seats the house their parliamentary rumps can ever hope to grace will be on the opposition benches.
In place of the principles of compromise and consent has come a populist politics of self-satisfaction. Our political system has become a contest between parties which suits the ideological idiosyncrasies of small groups, rather than between parties which seek support of a majority of the electorate. While smaller, more exclusive, parties may feel more comfortable, the result for the non-partisan is a detestable politics of gridlock and dogma. Ironically, for all the complaints that neoliberalism is to blame for us placing our own interests above that of the community; those on the ideological extremes appear to have shunned the opinions of the wider community and instead opted to write manifestos which better satisfy their own peculiar ideological tastes.
And so, having been promised democracy after the removal of our old oligarchs we see government by the new few; small radical parties who shun the opinions of the electorate as incorrect and hope that they may impose upon all the views of their own 1.2%. It seems that those who so fervently seek wish to liberate us from our electoral oligarchy are all too willing to replace it with their own.