The Strange Death of Parliamentary Democracy

By Will Jennings and Martin Lodge. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Lse.ac.ukTwitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


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One hundred years since the battle to end all battles at the Somme, the aftermath of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU offers a stark reminder of the court politics of a different era. Once again the officer class has sent the ‘tommies’ over the top with little thought for what lies ahead. The ‘sun-lit meadows beyond’ that the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson spoke of seem distant at best. Whatever the long-term social and economic consequences of Brexit, the political ramifications of Brexit have displayed a terrifying decline in the political elite’s commitment to representative democracy and a breakdown of the norms and conduct of political debate.

New Politics and Labour

These dangerous times for representative or parliamentary democracy are most prominent in the two main political parties. Take the Labour Party and its leadership crisis. Here the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn suggest that a (non-binding) vote of non-confidence by parliamentary colleagues has no legitimacy. Legitimacy is seen to lie in the election of the party leader by a majority of party members. It is claimed that the future of politics lies in ‘movements’ rather than party organisation. This is no longer about party meetings or canvassing, and winning elections, but about expression of a political worldview and set of values. A disregard for the engagement of political parties in parliamentary processes has been at the heart of so-called militant tendencies on the left for a long time. For these elements, participation in representative democracy is seen as a sell-out to dominant (capitalist) interests. These elements have received a lease of life in the name of ‘new’ supposedly kinder politics. We are now at a place where there is a split between a party in parliament and a (proclaimed) movement outside parliament (though there is little evidence of how large that movement is, despite support for Corbyn in the leadership election last year). This is a dangerous sign for the future of representative government. After all, political parties are supposed to play a dual role – the first is to provide for responsiveness to the views of voters, and the second is to participate in responsible government (and opposition). Suggesting that legitimacy for party leaders lies in a movement undermine the crucial role that political parties play in government. This is politics by an elite that looks different from the Bullingdon boys, but is still an elite nonetheless.

The Death Throes of Club Government and the Conservatives

The leadership battles in the Conservative Party currently resemble the courtier-intrigue of a Shakespearean play. Whatever the twists and turns of the contest, the preceding events of the referendum campaign point to an important decline in the understandings of representative democracy by party leaders. One of the distinguishing (and problematic) features of the Westminster system was its lack of formal checks and balances. The ‘elective dictatorship’ was held in check by ‘responsible’ club government – social ties and conventions were to ensure appropriate behaviour in government. As many have argued, ‘club government’ has been in fatal decline since the days of Margaret Thatcher, given hyper-innovations, such as liberalisation and internationalisation. The last ‘club’, united by a shared school and university background, appears to be the world of British politics. This, as Michael Moran has argued, sets up the stage for tragic failure: a world in which internationalisation and regulation have constrained the levers of the political elite. In turn, this raises the incentive to engage in spectacles and posturing, whether these include grand events such as the Olympics, building projects such as airports, or battle-bus style campaigning to rage against the ‘loss of control’. The consequences of these spectacles are unlikely to come cheap, if only in terms of taxpayer expense. Not least, the prevalence of stage-managed events is itself a source of public cynicism about politics being contrived and out of touch with ordinary folk.

Populism and Illusions of Governing

More fundamentally, offering the spectacle of regaining ‘control’ plays straight into the hands of those politicians with outright disdain for political institutions. Appeal to ‘decent’ and ‘hard-working’ people offer a rhetoric that divides any population into, on the one hand, those who are ‘deserving’ with common sense and the undeserving feckless and undeserving ‘elites’ on the other. This then leads to the rather bizarre spectacle of elite, career politicians campaigning on an anti-establishment and anti-London ticket (a phenomenon that has been well-documented in the US since at least Jimmy Carter). In doing so, they further undermine the role of parties in contributing to responsible government and opposition.

The same holds for the SNP. Here, the vote of a UK-wide referendum has been reinterpreted as a vote of a separate country that stands apart from the rest of the UK. Political opportunism has to be always seen as part of the (legitimate) political game, but it dangerously conflates one issue (the UK’s relationship to the EU) with another (the future relationship of different ‘nations’ in the British Isles).

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. That is not the kind of world that fits easily into the legacy-seeking worldview of the debating rooms of the Oxford Union.

An International Phenomenon?

The recent developments in British politics may appear a peculiarly national malaise. They are however consistent with much wider international trends. One such trend is growing bifurcation among electorates between cosmopolitan and provincial places, as one of us has highlighted in work with Gerry Stoker. Another is the dominance of constraining policy frameworks in order to attract international private investment. The latter has reduced discretionary scope for doing politics as governments have lost control over much of their policy agenda, in areas such as taxation and migration. The former encourages divide and rule style of politics that sits uneasily with the myriad ways of parliamentary government and decision-making in international organisations. Pledging that ‘one can have one’s cake and eat it too’ and not be laughed out of the court of popular opinion suggests that politics is treated as student union-type entertainment, and worse. After all, it is not the jester that speaks truth to power that is being feted, but the jester for jester’s sake.

We do not have a rose-tinted view about the pragmatic functioning of parliamentary democracy, in Westminster or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the explicit disdain for responsible government through representative democracy by engaging in political games and posturing without compromise might at first sight appear attractive. It unfortunately resonates more closely to the politics of Weimar than the traditional views of Westminster. This disdain might make for catchy tweets and photo-ops, but it will do nothing in the long-term for the legitimacy of political institutions. In fact, it reduces the actual ability to solve policy problems, and ultimately it will foment the public mood of disillusionment.

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