Lessons for Jeremy Corbyn from the Argentinian left

By Pia Riggirozzi, Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


 

Jeremy Corbyn won a decisive victory over Owen Smith in a second Labour Party leadership contest on Saturday. With it Corbyn not only strengthened his authority but also the right to lead his party. This election was interesting on many counts, not least because it opens questions about where political power and legitimacy reside. The emergence of Corbyn in Labour politics has been politically and ideologically divisive from the outset, confirming a chasm between what is considered the Labour establishment, and ‘the people’ who have rallied to Corbyn’s support, including unions and local activists. Corbyn has revealed his intention to give more prominence to ‘the people’, to ‘do things differently’, and to build a more just and decent society. These promises put a spin on the Labour Party, reclaiming its role within the global resistance to neoliberalism.

Take Argentina, for example. From 2001 to 2015, the challenge to neoliberalism came from electorates that refused to accept parties committed to free markets. Furthermore, Kirchnerismo, the movement associated with the legacy of the 12 years administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor, led on the promise of moving beyond neoliberalism, ‘putting politics at the service of people and the economy at the service of the well-being of all citizens’. And it did so in the context of a global political economy where rising commodity prices and strong commercial and financial links with China gave the Kirchners resources to focus efforts on Argentina’s poor. The nation made significant progress on reducing poverty, introduced universal child benefit plan as well as higher pensions, and the expansion of civil rights, including same sex marriage. But this political project undoubtedly proved to be very divisive. For some, it represented a real commitment to prosperity and the expansion of citizenship rights. For others, it represented a quasi-authoritarian, state-led interventionist system, leading to mistaken exchange rate policies, ruinous energy subsidies and unsustainable fiscal deficit. With the economy slowing and inflation worsening, this polarisation explains Kirchnerism’s defeat in November 2015, and a swing to political and economic conservatism with the election of Mauricio Macri.

As for Corbyn, he won the mandate to do something different and he will thus have to provide an alternative to the unravelling of neoliberalism in the UK, where Labour has so far failed to refashion a social contract of ‘capitalism with a human face’ while Conservatives, caught off-guard by the Brexit vote, double-down on their endorsement to an economic model based on rising inequalities.

SUVs and suspicion: climate change scepticism on the populist right

By Dr. Eloise Harding, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu)


 

“It’s snowing and freezing in NYC. What the hell ever happened to global warming?”

Tweeted by @RealDonaldTrump, 21/03/2013

With this tweet, Donald Trump – now a presidential hopeful – places himself firmly in the canon of populist climate change scepticism. This embodies some of the hallmarks of Trump’s rhetoric: sustained use of conspiracy theories and greater faith placed in big business than in science. It also ties in to a wider ideological pattern of climate change scepticism (and occasional denial) on the political right. At the core of this ideological tendency lie the following concepts: deep anthropocentrism, technological optimism (also known as Prometheanism) and a suspicious interpretation of the motives and intentions of environmentalists.

Climate change scepticism is a broad field which spans from the left liberal Bjorn Lomborg to right-wing populists such as Trump and UKIP MEP Roger Helmer. The common elements named above are shared across this spectrum: the difference lies in how they are framed. In particular, deep anthropocentrism focuses on a different set of human interests when applied by the populist right, and a ‘green scare’ becomes almost a logical conceptual extension of the earlier ‘red scare’ in the US context.

Deep anthropocentrism, broadly speaking, refers to the assumption that ‘the needs and desires of humankind represent the crux of our assessment of the state of the world’ (Lomborg 2001, 11). Anthropocentrism is decontested in such a way that human interests are perceived to be directly threatened by excessive concern for the nonhuman world. These human interests range from the treatment of pandemics (threatened by competing for resources with environmental concerns) in Lomborg’s case, through discussion of the benefits of fossil fuels to the global poor, to the populist end of the spectrum in which conceptual stretching comes into play. Marc Morano of the website Climate Depot expresses outrage at a particular potential extinction, arguing that ‘we’re allowing the American SUV to die right before our eyes’ (Klein 2014, 32). This is a broader-than-usual conception of human interests, and one which is likely shaped by proximity to business interests. A cynic might also suggest that, in the case of politicians, reassuring the public that their current habits need not change is liable to win votes.

The interpretation of environmental campaigners’ motives, Naomi Klein notes, is in the US case drawn almost unchanged from Cold War rhetoric regarding tendencies perceived as left-wing. The rhetoric of individual freedom – decontested as freedom to pollute, rather than (say) freedom to breathe clean air – features strongly. There are two strands in play here: firstly the perceived infringement on liberty by legislation designed to limit pollution, and secondly the apparent fear that an authoritarian (by most readings communist) regime is lurking behind the ecological façade.

See for example the predictions of Bay Area Tea Party activist Heather Gass:

“One day (in 2035) you will wake up in subsidised government housing, eating government subsidised food, your kids will be whisked off by government buses to indoctrination training centres while you are working at your government assigned job on the bottom floor of your urban transit centre village because you have no car and who knows where your aging parents will be but by then it will be too late! WAKE UP!!!!”

(Cited Klein 2014, 38: original punctuation and capitals)

Ms Gass, Klein points out, is responding to relatively mild sustainability initiatives with minimal impact on everyday life.

Factors more familiar in the context of the market economy are also brought into play here. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump is on record as stating that ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive’ (Tweeted by @RealDonaldTrump, 06/11/12). The common thread here is a suspicion of the ‘other’: be it the left or a rival economic power, the populist strand of climate change scepticism hinges on a perception of environmental discourse as a smokescreen set up to mask something less benign.

While Lomborg and his ilk make it their mission to debunk climate science (albeit on dubious grounds at times), the populists prefer to elide the issue entirely by citing shadowy paymasters in the background of the scientific establishment or merely by dismissing evidence in favour of the sort of wild claim made by Trump above. If anything, claims originating from the realm of conspiracy are harder to disprove than those drawn from the realm of science, since contradictory evidence is no more readily available than the confirmatory variety.

The likely solution to this problem hinges on recognising the debate as a political, rather than scientific, one and acting accordingly. The approach taken by climate scientist Mark Maslin sets parameters as to which aspects are up for discussion (for example the nature of human interests, and the question of whether nonhuman interests should be considered) and which are not. As we adjust to the Anthropocene era – the first geohistorical period in which humans have had more impact on the planet’s development than natural forces – it is reasonable to insist as Maslin does that the scientific aspect of climate change be placed firmly in the latter category.

 

 

 

 

 

Can the Labour Party work again?

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


 

In The Discourses, the infamously astute republican thinker Niccolo Machiavelli argued that the strength and vitality of the Roman Republic compared to other republics lay in the fact that it successfully institutionalised the inevitable antagonism of the people and the nobles in such a way that each held the threat posed to the republic by the other in check and hence republican liberty was preserved. Mercilessly mocking the pieties of republican thinkers who imagined a harmonious transcendence of this antagonism, Machiavelli recognised that a sustainable balance of opposing forces could produce something stronger and more resilient than efforts at harmonious unity could realistically hope to achieve. Machiavelli’s insight is one that the Labour Party, in the midst of its current travails, would do well to remember since the history of the Labour Party is also one of antagonism between opposed forces. Simplifying somewhat we can see the current implosion as a recurrence of a tension that has structured the history of the Party from its inception between a Left that is focused on Labour as a transformative social movement and a Right that is focused on the acquisition of Parliamentary power (with plenty of folk in between). When the Labour Party has functioned at its best, the role of the Left has been to keep the Right honest, to block its tendency to surrender too much in its electoral pursuit of power, to prioritize short-term tactics over long-term strategy, and the role of the Right has been to keep the Left focused on the point that principle is impotent in the absence of power, that sacrificing electoral success (or deluding yourself concerning the prospects of such success) for ideological reasons surrenders the field to an opponent who will not advance the interests of the people that the Labour Party is meant to serve. There are, though, relatively few points in its fractious recent history in which the organisation of the Labour Party has successfully institutionalized this antagonism, although it is vital to its ability to succeed as a political party.

Today it seems that the Labour Party is closer to a split than anytime since 1981. The Left with its Leader in place has responded to a rebellion of the vast majority of its MPs by reaching, once again, for its long established vocabulary of betrayal and plots, asserting its claim to represent the true flame of socialism and, at times, dismissing the importance of becoming the governing party. The Right draws on its long-practised appeal to electorability, to being a credible government in waiting, asserting its claim to represent those who will suffer once more if the field of government is effectively abandoned to Tory rule. Meanwhile Corbyn is holding firm and leadership challenges by Eagle and Smith are already on the table, while NEC decisions are surrounded in a penumbra of recrimination. There is almost no hope of compromise.

So let’s stand back from the field of internecine conflict and ask if an institutional change might help alter the terrain. Suppose, for example, the role of Leader of the Labour Party were divided into three roles. The Chair of the Party, elected by members, who has the role of re-building Labour as a social movement across the country. The Leader of the PLP, elected by the MPs, with the role of mounting effective parliamentary government and opposition. The General Secretary of the Party, elected by members and MPs (through an electoral college), who occupies the role of organising party campaigns and, with the other two leaders, working out its strategy. Such a structure would aim not to overcome but to balance the tensions between Left and Right – as Labour Party structures have generally tried to do – in order to realise the strength and vitality of the Labour movement in a parliamentary form.

How might this help the Labour Party in its current crisis? It is relatively easy to see Jeremy Corbyn’s real strengths coming to the fore in the role of Chair of the Party without being undermined by his real weaknesses. Similarly the General Secretary role is a natural fit for Tom Watson (and others like Stella Creasy). As for Leader of the PLP, well there are several plausible candidates other than those currently standing against Corbyn: Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Dan Jarvis would be among those uncluttered by the past. No doubt there are flaws in this proposal, it would be surprising if there were not, but my point in proposing it for consideration is to draw attention to the point that the problems bedevilling the Labour Party are not new and are not likely to be solved simply by changes of personnel. Rather it needs to think seriously about its organisation and how is structures the division of leadership responsibilities in order to use its internal antagonisms as a source of strength rather than weakness.

After Brexit, What Next? Not Much Mandate for Anything…

By Ben Saunders, Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders, Academia.edu).


 

As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson, Gove, Farage, Leadsom) have all vacated the main stage, leaving it to others to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. This is probably wise on their part, not only because the political divorce is likely to produce considerable short-term discomfort, but also because it seems that no one had any clear post-exit strategy.

We’re told that the British people have spoken and their will must be respected. But, even setting aside reports of widespread protest voting and regretful Leavers, it’s not clear what ‘the people’ (or 52% of them) voted for, beyond the obvious (leaving the EU). Leaving the EU doesn’t itself specify what alternative arrangements should be put in place.

Some want to withdraw as completely as possible from the European project – in particular, in order to control migration. Call this Total Exit, or TE for short. But not everyone in the Leave campaign favours TE. Others made quite clear that they welcome trade and cooperation with our European neighbours, they merely oppose the EU organisation and the threat of a federal European state. These people would be happy for the UK to adopt a position like Norway or Switzerland, not an EU member but not so different in practice. For want of a better label, call this Weak Exit or WE. (For simplicity, I’ll only consider two alternatives, though there are many possibilities.)

Obviously, these alternatives are incompatible. If the UK opts for WE, then we will have no more control over migration or over laws and regulations that continue to bind us. The referendum result will, officially, be respected – we’ll be out of the EU – but many of the 52% won’t be satisfied. But, on the other hand, if we got for TE then, though we’ll have control over these things, we won’t have the strong relations with Europe that were promised and, further, this is more likely to cause great economic disruption than WE. Again, a significant number of the 52% are likely to be dissatisfied – while they may have wanted out of the EU, they didn’t necessarily want TE.

It might be that the 52% are so strongly committed to leaving the EU that they would prefer either TE or WE to continued membership, but I doubt all of them feel this way. Someone who dislikes loss of sovereignty, but is also concerned about the possible economic effects of Brexit, might reasonably prefer WE to Remain, but also prefer Remain to TE. That is, their preferences might be WE > R > TE (with ‘R’ standing for ‘Remain). If they were moderately optimistic about what ‘Leave’ meant (i.e. WE), they would vote for Leave, but they would prefer Remain if the alternative were TE.

Conversely, someone whose chief concern was migration, while ideally wanting TE, might prefer Remain to WE. The Leave campaign emphasized the threat of Turkey joining the EU but, as a member, the UK would have a veto over this. If the UK ends up like Norway, having to accept free movement but without that veto, then the UK would actually have less control over migration than before. So it could be perfectly consistent for someone to prefer Remain over WE, even if their first choice would be TE. That is, TE > R > WE.

The Leave campaign was actually a coalition of people wanting inconsistent things. Some were voting for TE and some for WE. Since we can’t have both of these, it’s likely that a considerable number of Leave voters will end up disappointed, whatever the eventual outcome – and some of them might even have preferred to remain in the EU to the eventual outcome.

Given the closeness of the result, it might seem reasonably likely that, given a choice between ‘Remain or TE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain and, likewise, that given a choice between ‘Remain or WE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. So far, I’ve only highlighted divisions amongst the Leavers, but the Remain voters might also have been influenced by lack of clarity over the options.

No doubt many amongst the 48% who voted to Remain prefer that to either TE or WE. However, it could be that some were simply pessimists about the likely consequences of Brexit. Suppose, for example, that someone would really prefer WE to Remain and Remain to TE (i.e. WE > R > TE). Such a person might nonetheless have voted to Remain if they (pessimistically) thought that Brexit was more likely to result in TE than WE. Had the ballot in fact given the choice between ‘Remain or WE’ then they would have switched their vote from Remain to WE. Likewise, someone whose preferences were TE > R > WE might have voted Remain had they feared that Leave would result in WE.

So, even if some Leavers would have voted Remain, given this choice, it’s also the case that some who actually voted to Remain might have voted to Leave, given a more concrete proposal. For all the talk about ‘respecting the will of the people’ the problem is that there are more than two options. The referendum didn’t really present a choice between two clear options, but rather a choice between the status quo and a mystery box. Now we’ve chosen to open the box, what’s inside is still unclear.

Though the referendum was not legally binding, I think it would be politically impossible for the government to ignore the result. The problem, however, with respecting the will of the people is identifying what it is that the people want. Given that the only really clear outcome of the referendum is that the people are deeply divided, and that both the Conservative Party and Labour Party have been plunged into leadership contests, probably the only certainty is that the political landscape will be unsettled for some time.

The shadow of Brexit: delegating or pooling sovereignty?

By Pia Riggirozzi (University of Southampton) and Diana Tussie (FLACSO/Argentina).

Pia Riggirozzi is Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


 

On 23rd June, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union through a non-binding yet politically compelling referendum. The result was a close 48% remain and 52% leave, demonstrating a very divided society. This division is largely due to a combination of citizen frustration with an insulated and arrogant ruling elite and insensitive political leadership leading to apparently widespread support for anti-politics parties such as UKIP and insensitive political leadership and, more profoundly, a political-economic project that seems to be cutting away, wilfully and needlessly, at the welfare system and social contract that have hitherto guaranteed social peace in Britain. As we have indicated somewhere else, this is also part of the unravelling of neoliberalism in the UK where the Right is failing to impose an economic model based on rising inequality and the Left unable or unwilling to refashion a social contract of ‘caring capitalism’ or ‘capitalism with a human face’. As a society it manifested some deeply disturbing moral, emotional and human issues of ‘national’ identity preceding any responsibility towards ‘others’, being those immigrants that legally contribute to the UK economic activity and social life, or those ill-fated, dispossessed, immigrants and asylum seekers who are simply trying to survive. Equally disturbing is, as Grugel claimed, how all this ignores both the complexity of identity in Britain and a history of internationalism of the UK in global affairs.

As the British elite spins with the implications of the vote, there is much to reflect on the current crisis in the UK and indeed in Europe more widely. Brexit is about class, inequality, voters feeling excluded from politics, as much as a loss of purpose of what regional integration is for.

 

What regionalism is and is for

Crucially, Brexit revitalised a conventional argument that regional integration is associated with a reduction of state power, especially in terms of the ‘loss of sovereignty’ to markets and normative regulating flows of people, in this case workers and immigrants, to regional institutions. Taking control back of the country was the political platform of supporters who consider that integration in larger multilateral schemes means diminution of state power as a result of the ‘pooling’ of sovereignty or surrender to the regional level. Effectively, once policy measures such as tariff liberalisation are established at the regional level, national governments’ direct control over policy is sharply diminished. Authority is thus removed not only from the state but also from societal influence. But this is not necessarily incompatible with a revitalisation of state power. Aldo Ferrer, former Minister of Economy in Argentina, defended the thesis that a successful integration rests on coordinated ‘construction of sovereignty’. This construction does not rest upon the delegation of sovereignty to supranational communitarian institutions, which in a conglomerate of unequally resourced members could lead to the subordination of the weaker states to the hegemonic power of the stronger states, as the experience of the European Union demonstrates for cases such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, nor does it rest on the transfer of sovereignty to supranational institutions, but rather on inter-governmental institutions and agreements that adequately address regional economic and social disparities within the bloc. Regionalism, from this perspective, enhances governance through cross-border intergovernmental forms of cooperation, and identified instances of regionally coordinated programmes of resource redistribution, social regulation, regional provision of welfare goods and services, social rights (including regional mechanisms that give populations the means of claiming and challenging governments).

As such, the key question is less what regionalism is (in terms of its philosophical, legal, or institutional bases) and more one of how regionalism acts, the roles and purposes to which the practice of regionalism gives expression to political actors and policies. In other words, what practices and political imaginaries specific regional governance enable or obstruct, what issues are made visible as central problems, and what modes of action are supported as a consequence.

The Brexit outcome indicates that the Leave platform in the UK successfully created a false sense that Britain would be better off on its own. By capitalizing on anti-immigration sentiments, economic inequality, and lack of understanding of the EU, the Leave campaign won the support of voters that have been in many ways the disaffected – older, less educated, low working class or non working class, and whose concerns focused on the loss of jobs, rising inequality, the supposed misallocation of government funds to the EU instead of British systems, and the increase in immigration. Brexit created a sense of identity and self-image amongst those actors who reacted to a regional integration model perceived as failing to adequately address regional disparities within the economic bloc, and across and within societies.

Likewise, Brexit shows that citizens’ information about and engagement with regional politics and institutions is vital for legitimacy and demands for accountability. A key problem faced by the Remain campaign was the lack of accurate knowledge about the EU, its normative beyond movement of goods and people, and its relationship with Great Britain and the ordinary people, including frameworks for rights, including the right to health. A 2013 EU Survey found that nearly half of EU citizens said that they didn’t understand how the EU worked, or how monetary contributions may support cross national arrangements for free health coverage and tax rebates.

 

Opportunities for reclaiming and rebuilding sovereignty through regionalism

The Brexit vote has led many in Latin American commentators to wonder about the benefits and disadvantages of regional integration. From an economic point of view, there are concerns about the prospects of economic vulnerability led by financial volatility and a halt in ongoing bilateral trade agreements with the EU. Politically, sceptics claims that compared to Europe, Latin America did not develop any ‘integration initiatives meaningful enough for people to even consider leaving’, taking this as a sign of failure. In fact, claims that Latin American regionalism has failed have been common for more than a decade despite the fact that that regional initiatives have proliferated since at least the 1960s and despite its long tradition in a diversity of regional associations.

This conclusion is certainly persuasive given the recurrent politico-institutional and economic instabilities in Latin America and holds up well if regionalism is merely understood as an economic project. However, over the last two decades regional demands for – and supply of – regional initiatives in Latin America increasingly focused not on economic deepening but on regionally-anchored projects addressing social development. These recent developments are significantly different, in content and in institutional architecture, from the experiments of the 1990s or even in the early years of the new millennium. For this reason, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for instance are seen as a manifestation of post-commercial or what we have identified as post-hegemonic regionalism with distinctive calls for reclaiming sovereignty collectively through, for instance, health and defense. From this perspective, we must pay new attention to the ways southern regional organisations are re-engineering normative frames and debates as to what the purpose of regional integration should be, what kinds of social policies are needed, and what roles regional institutions should play in helping members to achieve those policies. This is significant because regional normative frameworks articulate political forms of thinking that configure political agency; make central or even visible particular issues; and privilege particular forms of political practice. This is also key to rethink how regionalism can serve the purpose of strengthening sovereignty through regional diplomacy.

The case of regional health policy in South America helps to illustrate this point. In the field of health policy there are multiple tensions between the interests of international pharmaceutical industry, developing countries, their national health systems and citizens. UNASUR and Mercosur have taken action on access to medicines, coordinating active resistance to the dominance of pharmaceutical companies under a motto that links regional health diplomacy with sovereignty. As a consequence a new regional ‘Database on Medicine Prices’ was set up revealing the prices paid by South American countries for their drug purchases. By making the information public and comparative, UNASUR and Mercosur are seeking to provide policymakers and health authorities information to strengthen the position of member states in purchases of medicines vis-à-vis pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, UNASUR’s Health Council has recently launched a project for mapping regional pharmaceutical capacities, to coordinate regional policies for production of medicines. Within the WHO, UNASUR as a bloc has pressed to change international norms regarding the combat of counterfeit medical products. The harmonisation of policies on medicines means that MERCOSUR/UNASUR negotiated the price for public sector purchases of the anti-retroviral Darunavir to US$ 1.27 per tablet from up to US$ 2.98 paid by some South American governments; an agreement with the pharmaceutical Gilead for the lowest possible price for essential medicines to treat Hepatitis C. These are the ways in which South America has been constructing the coordinated construction of (health) sovereignty, ways that skew hegemonic heavy riding, do not hit the headlines, careful to keep policy discretion to cope with disparities but important enough to increase bargaining power in asymmetric situations. These features lie at the core of our understanding of post-hegemonic regionalism.

When the Party’s Over

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


 

The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form. (Peter Mair, Ruling the Void)

In the UK, party politics has always been refracted through the first-past-the-post electoral system that demanded that both Labour Party and Conservative Party adopt ‘broad church’ approaches, representing and conciliating diverse sectors of society. Yet the cultural and social shifts that emerged in the 1960s and came to fruition in the 1980s as the twin phenomena of individualization and globalization have been enabling conditions for trends of declining party membership, declining voter turnout across elections, and declining partisan allegiance. It is an important consequence of these phenomena, however, that political parties can no longer play the role of mediating between society and state that emerged with, and sustained, mass party democracy.

With Labour and Conservative vote share declining from 97% in 1951 to 67% in 2015, electoral logic has driven both parties to a focus on key swing voters and a relative neglect of those who, in Peter Mandelson’s brutal phrase, ‘have nowhere else to go’. While with membership declining from 1950s highs of 1,100,000 and 2,800,000 respectively to figures under 200,000 for the Tories and under 400,000 for Labour (helped upwards by a rise under Corbyn), the local infrastructures of both parties have weakened at the same time that professionalization of politics under the discipline of a 24 hour new cycle drove centralization of party control and the disconnection of ‘the Westminster bubble’ from regional and local roots. The changing conditions of these political parties, no longer meaningfully ‘mass organizations’, was further impacted by the post-devolution boost to the SNP and Plaid Cymru as their ability to portray themselves as ‘national’ parties for the whole of the UK (excepting the special case of Northern Ireand) has become increasingly tenuous, with the Greens and UKIP adding to the electoral complexity.

It is commonplace to recognize that David Cameron’s reckless political gamble with Britain’s membership in the EU was driven by a failure of authority within a fragmented Conservative Party that was exacerbated by the rise of UKIP. But this is reflective of a wider phenomenon. As Will Jennings and Martin Lodge argue:

More generally, then, the increased use of referenda and other methods of direct democracy in British politics should not necessarily be seen as advances of participation. Rather, they should be seen as attempts by party leaderships to overcome their own internal party conflicts. In the case of Labour, direct elections of the leader offered the dual promise of reduced trade union influence and symbolic gesturing that office-seeking was somewhat checked by the party. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives, it was an attempt to maintain illusions of ‘governing’ (i.e. ‘control’) by offering voters a choice while the real world has turned ever more into one that demands compromise, bargaining and dealing in trade-offs.

The current internal debacle of the Labour Party presents itself as driven by the traditional competing logics of the Party as a vehicle for gaining power and as the medium of a social movement. But lacking the bulwark of mass membership, it is more accurately depicted as a competition for control between an organised sect and a professional elite.

The Brexit Referendum and the responses of the two parties to the outcome of this referendum demonstrate nothing more truly than Mair’s argument that mass party politics, and party democracy, is dead and we do not yet know how, or with what, to replace it.

In this context, what steps may help? Perhaps the first is to recognize the reality of this situation and that the social and political conditions under which our electoral system could be justified no longer apply. A shift to some forms of proportional representation is both democratically necessary as well as providing a mechanism for encouraging greater party responsiveness to people across the UK. A second possible move is for regional devolution in England (modelled on the Welsh Assembly) combined with a shift in the structure of Labour and Conservative parties to a more federal form and, quite possibly, the rise of regional political parties (such as Yorkshire First). In both cases, national government becomes more complex but the role of parties in mediating between society and state is given new, if different, life.

The Worst Week EVER for Politics?

By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and Centenary Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra (Twitter).


The last week of June 2016 was the worst week for politics of my lifetime. I was born in 1955 and some terrible political events have unfolded since then but never before have all the vices of our politicians and our political system been so blatantly on display.

First we saw in the EU referendum campaign the most unashamed dishonesty in argument from both sides and then an incredible acceptance of that dishonesty in the aftermath of that result. Many politicians have a different approach to truthfulness from the rest of us with a view that telling lies is fine as long as it’s about winning an argument. Moreover they then compound the errors of the campaign with a new set of lies about how the message from the British public is clear so that they can claim the mandate is whatever they want it to be. Can we really be that sure what citizens meant to say when they voted? It’s the casual nature of this fraudulent posturing that is breath-taking.

Second, politicians appear to be resolutely committed to making promises that they know they cannot keep. This behaviour was a key feature of the EU campaign and it had continued in its aftermath. You cannot have both national control of immigration and economic regulation and full access to European markets. You cannot spend money twice. If any public funds are saved from leaving the EU they cannot be stretched to save the NHS, give us tax cuts and be spent on a myriad of other things. You cannot deliver economic development to “left behind” parts of Britain through speeches or even legislation. At best you can work up several policy tools — and back them with sustained finance over decades — that may stand some chance of success against the forces of global capitalism. They are no quick fixes to the uneven and unequal economic geography of Britain.

Third, politicians have displayed and continue to demonstrate astounding short-termism. To call a referendum to fix a row in your party or to campaign for an exit from the EU without any clear plan of how to do it was staggeringly irresponsible. The Conservatives may blame Corbyn for his weak campaigning, but the referendum and the campaign was born of politics learned on the playing fields of Eton and the oak-panelled halls of the Oxford Union. Their approach appears to have all the hallmarks of the casual and cavalier attitudes bred in our elite. Politicians are now focused on positioning themselves in the aftermath of the EU result and offered next to nothing in terms of longer-term vision or practicalities.

Fourth, and connected to the above, politicians have really outdone themselves in their commitment to being self-serving. Neither the national interest, nor even their party’s interest in many cases, appears to have figured in their thinking; just plain and simple personal ambition and ego. Corbyn and McDonnell join Gove and Johnson in getting top marks for their truly self-serving displays. But there are many other contenders.

Fifth, we have been assaulted by a series of stupid cults of celebrity and personality that have led followers to the abandonment of evidence and reasoned judgement. We have had Farage the pint-loving Dad’s Army sergeant with his loud-mouth version of “They don’t like it up them those Europeans”. We have had Boris the polymath and wit who turns out to be a total wally? We have had Corbyn the Messiah whose initials might be J.C but in reality is an out of his depth, old-style sectarian politico.

Sixth, the clumsiness and limitations of our simplistic majoritarian way of thinking about politics has been horribly exposed. We are told that Leave won plain and simple. Whereas what I see is a country terribly divided and that continues to be run by a government voted for by only a quarter of eligible electors. You might argue that being able to kick the government out if it fails gives a crude accountability to our system. But where is that after a referendum result? If Brexit proves to be a disaster do we ask all those who voted to Leave, well to leave or never vote again? What’s the seventh vice? After all, sins are supposed to present themselves in seven deadly forms. The last vice I am going to reserve for us as citizens rather than the politicians. It’s the vice of fatalism. I confess to be suffering from it. Everything I have just argued about the state of our politics would indicate that giving up on it would be a reasonable response. But I want to end with an attempt to break from the path of sin.

Insert here please your favourite cliché — such as the darkest hour comes before the dawn and then move from despair to a commitment to helping bring about change. Abandon the social media comfort zone where you tweet, Facebook and share your views with those who think exactly like you and go and join a political party or political movement. Although of course still use social media to promote this blog!  Remember that change in democracies comes about through mutual adjustment. We don’t need to like each other or even understand each other but simply hold that every citizen needs their interests addressed, even if their concerns can only be met partially. We need a politics of learning, trial-and-error rather than a politics of “I know” given the overwhelming uncertainties facing us. We need multiple small changes so that losers — and there will be many — can accept their position without abandoning democracy. We need new thinking and policies to make Britain a better place.

Politics done in this  inclusive but unflashy and restrained way might just help to restore our faith in its capacity to help rather than hinder. A week may be a long time in politics but this last week is going to take years of effort if we are to overhaul the flaws in our political system that it has revealed.