Saturday 3 September 2022

Defending Tory Party Democracy

We've gone through a Tory leadership contest that has been a foregone conclusion since it was whittled down to the final two candidates. Tedious but necessary viewing for Tory watchers and professional commentators, something to dip in and out of for party members themselves, and an unexciting but occasionally noticeable spectacle for everyone else. Occasionally because the awful numbers reported for Liz Truss haven't come out of nowhere. Her dismal prospectus and significant silences have crept into popular consciousness, and they're unimpressed so far.

But thanks a bunch John Rentoul for making me defend the indefensible - the Conservative Party membership. In The Indy, he argues Tory party members shouldn't be allowed to choose their leader, and therefore the next Prime Minister. Others on the left have been making similar arguments, saying the replacement of one occupant of Number 10 by another is a matter for a general election. But this is not Rentoul's position: he believes members should have no say whatsoever.

He dresses this up as a long-held position stemming from the change in Labour's rules in 1981 that gave members a vote on determining party leadership. He argues it was a factional move by the Bennites to make it easier for a left wing candidate to get the top job - because it could not possibly be a means by which the party better reflects the aspirations of its support base. He then goes on to moan about Ed Miliband's decision to sweep away the electoral college in favour of one member, one vote. Assorted right wingers naively believed it would encourage a mass of ordinary people to join and choose leaders on the basis of the centrist politics they believed were the default commonsense of the British public. We know what happened next. Therefore, MPs should determine who gets the top job.

Undemocratic? Actually, Rentoul says giving members a vote fundamentally departs from parliamentary democracy. He points to the constitutional principle that the Prime Minister is the one who commands the confidence of the Commons. I.e. Who has a majority. Giving members a say dilutes this principle, allowing the opposition to make mischief about the number of MPs sitting behind them who do (or don't) back them - problems Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Corbyn encountered when their respective memberships backed them, but the parliamentary parties did not. This isn't to say members don't have a role, conceding that Tony Benn was right about mandatory reselection - a position few making similar arguments to Rentoul would keep with.

I disagree. This argument is about process and rarefied principles that, ultimately, defends an elitist approach to politics. On the contrary, all political parties - yes, even the Tories - should be democratic and as participatory as possible. First, there's the assumption MPs know more and have better judgement than party members about who's best to lead. This does make some sense. They inhabit the Westminster system and live and die by the rules of the game. They know about the demands and pressures of the job, what the stakes at play are, and how to play to the parliamentary gallery. As constituency representatives they occupy a privileged bird's eye position to know what's happening in their patch, and their surgeries are often parades of misery (which makes a mockery of claims that Tories (particularly) are unaware of the consequences of their policies). However, that doesn't mean they're in touch - seeing isn't experiencing, and the rarefied world of politics, its privileges, and its salaries become, for a lot of MPs, a block on empathising and understanding. As the wretched careers of many left wingers turned right wingers in Labour shows.

Tory party members are not representative of the public at large. They're older, whiter, maler, straighter, more retired and more propertied than the electorate. They have peculiar peccadilloes, such as making speed limits advisory and the awful policies Truss and Rish! Sunak pandered to and encouraged. And yet, as oddball as they are, when all is said and done they're more representative and closer to "ordinary people" than MPs. They are not insulated by official politics, no matter how much they assume the parliamentary party's point of view, and are mostly subject to the same cost of living pressures as everyone else. The Don't Pay UK campaign, for example, got a very sympathetic hearing among Tory activists on Conservative Home before it reached mainstream attention. These pressures have reflected in the constant questioning of both candidates about their plans to deal with the energy crisis, but the hustings format (as opposed to the earlier debates) have allowed them, and Truss in particular, to side step detailed answers.

In mainstream political science, parties are linkage devices. They are a medium transmitting preferences from a given constituency to a cosseted party elite. From Labour's point of view, more party democracy allows for a better performance of linkage. It is a means for aligning the party, its policy generation process, and its elites with what's happening in every day life. Despite the reams of the Labour right's self-interested drivel, the Labour Party membership is probably the most representative party out of all this country's mainstream parties, save perhaps the SNP. More democracy are the best conditions for left wing, working class politics to flourish inside the party. But more democracy in the Tory party also suits the labour movement. Not because it allows for entryism or some such, but because it opens up the party to more mass pressure and makes it more difficult and politically damaging for party elites to pursue pro-oligarchy schemes and wheezes.

And this is precisely why establishment commentators are using the tedium of the leadership contest to call the process into question. They would like both main party leaderships to be MP-only affairs because it dampens the acuity of mass pressure, and coincidentally secures them their careers as gossip merchants who forecast and explain what's happening - something that has got harder since masses of people rudely trespassed onto their domain and upended politics. Defending what there is of Tory party democracy doesn't mean abandoning an analysis in which the party is recognised as the key political lynchpin for organising ruling class politics. But more democracy introduces an element of uncertainty that might interfere with, disrupt, and derail madcap schemes, some of which we've seen of late. And as the tempo of struggle rises, and/or the deeper the crisis gets, the more of a hindrance party democracy could become. A dysfunctional organisation permanently divided and hamstrung by its base, and therefore the onslaughts its launched in the past become harder to pull off. Mightn't a Tory party made weaker by democracy be a better opponent?

Image Credit


Blissex said...

«seeing isn't experiencing, and the rarefied world of politics, its privileges, and its salaries become, for a lot of MPs, a block on empathising and understanding.»

Robert de Jouvenel wrote almost a century ago:
There is more in common between two deputies, one of whom is a Communist, than between two Communists, one of whom is a deputy.

In particular most MPs are upper-middle class "Middle England" property owners, often with several properties, and with various BTL assets too. Some are not compromised by this, but I guess that most reckon that turkeys don't for for Christmas.

Robert said...

If the PLP had chosen the leader rather than the party members David Miliband would have got it and Corbyn wouldn't. We might then have had a Labour government rather than the real right wingers, the Tories.

Any Labour government is better than any Tory government and elections are won in the centre,

David Lindsay said...

It is neither constitutional monarchy nor parliamentary democracy for Crown and Parliament to cede the power to choose the Prime Minister to the paying members of a private club of children and foreign nationals. While in 2019, party members elected the candidate who had led in every round among Conservative MPs, Liz Truss has never led in any. In the last, she took 113 votes, 31.6 per cent. Taking the House of Commons as a whole, that was 17.38 per cent.

Before appointing this Prime Minister, the Queen should put the name to a Yes-No ballot of all Conservative MPs. If the majority voted Yes, then let that be honoured. If not, then the same question should be put to a division of the House of Commons. Most Opposition parties have no parliamentary representation, and only in the most wildly improbable circumstances could any install its Leader as Prime Minister without a General Election. But when that office were guaranteed to be assumed by a party's Leader, then the shortlist of two determined by its MPs should be submitted to an election among all registered parliamentary electors in the United Kingdom. No party could afford that. But the State could.

Graham said...

If the PLP hadn't sabotaged Corbyn than we would be entering the cost of living and climate crisis with energy, water and transport back in public ownership.

This is what the public want, even almost half of Tory voters want energy nationalised, but under what passes for democracy in this country there is no party to vote for that will do this.

Instead after Truss has made things immeasurably worse, Starmer’s “Tony Blair Tribute Act” will inherit power and nothing much will change.

Just hope we don’t invade anywhere this time around.

Old Trot said...

Robert, FFS, You really think the USA's creature, David Miliband, would have led a progressive policy-led Labour Party ? You really think the empty neoliberal, David Miliband, had anything to offer to compare to even Ed Miliband's mildly social democratic 2015 Manifesto? David Miliband's warmed over Blairism was already electorally stale by 2015, laddie. Only the Neoliberal Guardianista class believe David Miliband, £500K a year as parachuted in CEO of the CIA's 'International Rescue' agency, had or has anything to contribute to UK politics. I think you will find, if a Labour government does eventuate in future years, purely from the electoral collapse of a now self-discredited Tory Party (though a coalition with the neoliberal Lib Dems is more possible) , that they would institute a vicious austerity programme too, and continue with privatising the NHS, and not renationalise anything . The old mantra ' a Labour government is always better than a Tory one', and elections are won in the centre' is actually ahistorical drivel of the most pathetic Guardianista kind. The Attlee Labour victory of 1945 wasn't 'won from the centre' . Nor was the mammoth vote for the 2017 Corbyn Labour Manifesto gained 'from the centre . In a huge social crisis, as we are now entering, the status quo 'centre' has no credible solutions, because it is that very 'centrist' ideology and POLICIES which have got us here. This was as true today as in the 1930's. Today, in this era's deep structural economic and social crisis the 'mainstream' parties are ALL bought outright, body and soul, by the capitalist class , with Nulabour merely the 'second eleven' to carry on the rapacious, failed , status quo of neoliberalism and ever greater inequality. It will be radical politics and policies that people will increasingly turn to from now on . The issue for genuine socialists is whether it will be the radical Left or the Radical Right that wins out in gaining a mass following. You who maunder on about 'Labour is the only choice' are now well behind the curve as to the future direction of UK crisis era politics.

And , good article, Phil. I have read identical arguments from the usual arrogant Guardian opinionator journalists too in recent weeks. They all want the mass of the population, including the party members, kept well out of any decision making about the political stitch up that is the UK Parliament today - and want 'their class of politico professionals' to have all the real decision making . Leaving Parliamentary democracy merely as a cynical facade democracy sham , as it has been in the USA for generations.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that all elections are won in the centre?

What about Johnson in 2019, Trump in 2016, Bolsanaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India. And let us see what happens in Italy.

And is the centre fixed and immutable?

Is it wishful thinking by centrists to assert that elections are won in the centre to justify their abandonment of principles?

Blissex said...

«We might then have had a Labour government»»

It is difficult to fantasize something more ridiculously delusional that in 2015 despite booming house prices tory voters would have risked switching to the opposition. The only vote mover in 2015 was brexitism.

In 2015 there was already a David Miliband clone in politics, Nick Clegg, a perfect "centrist" (whig thatcherite). If “elections are won from the centre” why did the LibDem vote collapse in 2015?

They had proven in coalition to be committed "centrists" (whig thatcherites), so there should have been a large surge in votes for them at the expense of both Conservatives and New Labour.
But actually their vote collapsed, the Conservative and New Labour vote grew, and the UKIP vote exploded:

2010: 8.61m NLab. 10.70m Con. 6.84m LD, 0.92m UKIP
2015: 9.35m NLab. 11.33m Con. 2.41m LD, 3.88m UKIP
2017: 12.88m Lab. 13.64m Con. 2.37m LD, 0.60m UKIP

The delusional "centrists" always fail to explain how the LibDems, at the centre of central centrism, have not won a single national election in 100 years.

«Any Labour government is better than any Tory government and elections are won in the centre»

This is the "centre" that is alleged to win elections (by "trot" Nick Cohen):
After the election, David Blunkett was promoted to the Home Office. He promised Blair he would 'make Jack Straw look like a liberal'. He was bragging, there's not a politician in Britain who can do that. But again it tells you something about the PM that Blunkett was obliged to make it.

As to "better", while New Labour allowed some crumbs for non-"Middle England" voters, it redistributed upwards far more than that via property prices and by spending scottish oil revenues on "Middle England". As to the politics (by "trot" Roy Hattersley):

It's no longer my party
It has been a difficult four years for the Labour Party's unrepentant social democrats. One by one, the policies which define our philosophy have been rejected by the Prime Minister. [...] In fact, success has emboldened the Prime Minister to move further to the Right. [...] Now that the Labour Party - at least according to its leader - bases its whole programme on an alien ideology, I, and thousands of likeminded party members, have to decide if our loyalty is to a name or to an idea. [...] A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation. By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority. The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape. [...] The certain knowledge that the Conservative Party would be a worse government than Labour is not enough to sustain what used to be a party of principles. [...] At this moment Labour stands for very little that can be identified with social democracy.

Blissex said...

As a side note about a statement that is among the most laughably delusional about national politics:
Gordon Brown: ‘I didn’t show enough emotion to win the 2010 election’

The doubly ridiculous conceit is that leaders by themselves win elections, and that a party that had just put in negative equity millions of "Middle England" upper-middle class voters could have any chance of winning their votes if he had displayed the right emotions.

I have been asking myself why that is persistent myth, and I now reckon that there is a reason for that: within a faction/side/party, that is among people with the same material interests, internal elections and careers then depend on popularity based largely on "intangible" qualities like mateship, prestige, ... That applies if “we are all thatcherites now” as within the Mandelson Tendency where politics is all about choosing the most popular person among thatcherites.

But in general, external, elections even *unpopularity* matters little: so many "Middle England" voters also loathed electorally toxic Tony Blair, but since New Labour kept delivering to them massive property-based upwards redistribution from the lower classes, instead of voting for a change of government (with the memory of the Conservative property crash was still burning) they switched to abstention or the hopeless LibDems.

Which means that there is a tension between being electable within a faction/side/party and being electable in a general election. A tension that Militant Mandelsoncy members hand-wave away with the “elections are won in the centre” and “we are all thatcherites now” propaganda.

Blissex said...

«Is it wishful thinking by centrists to assert that elections are won in the centre to justify their abandonment of principles?»

I have come to reckon that many "centrists" are committed to thatcherism as their core principles (“we are all thatcherites now”), and their claim, manifestly disproved so many times by the evidence (as I mentioned above for example 100 of LibDem defeats, and the collapse of the "centrist" Clegg LibDems in 2015), that switching to thatcherism to pander to "Middle England" voters always wins elections is just an excuse, my usual quotes:
Tony Blair, 2015: “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”