This piece was published on the now defunct Labour Vision website in 2017.
By Will Barber Taylor
The quest for true democracy is one of the Labour Party’s most recent and compelling projects. I’m sure we’ve all asked “What is democracy? What does it stand for?” At times of political crisis, such as now, this debate intensifies. In Britain, Brexit was the spark that lit the fuse – the referendum’s result was refuted by one side, who proclaimed it only a fraction of the true population and thus could not truly represent a vote to leave the EU and even if it was a vote what leaving meant needed to be voted on as well. The other side took the opposite view – that it somehow meant that every single man and his dog had voted for Brexit and anyone who questioned the process of leaving or attempted to try and get some actual detail as to what leaving would look like was a strange creature from the planet Zog. In America, this debate centres around President Trombone’s attempt to stay in tune with Fox News and how constitutional his actions are. The fight over democracy is particularly intense in the Middle East and Venezuela where citizens are fighting against one another to try and cement their democratic rights.
In the Labour Party however, democracy has seemingly been answered. With Jeremy Corbyn having cemented his place in the party thanks to not only retaining Labour’s pre-election number of MPs but gaining seats as well, the dominant left wing of the party are determined to bring democracy to every single aspect of the party. Why, some ask, if we are the largest party in Britain, can we not let the members lead our political conversation and define what we should be about? This is certainly an interesting form of democracy and harks back to democratic principles help by the Ancient Greeks – though perhaps, the idea is a bit frayed around the edges by now.
This idea of true enfranchisement, of giving power to everyone, has recently been furthered by one of Corbyn’s champions, Chris Williamson. Williamson believes that Members of Parliament should not be allowed to decide who gets to stand as Leader of the Labour Party because they are a small percentage of the Party and thus should not hold anyone back from leading. Leaving aside the inevitable possibility that if Labour was ever elected with a Leader who no MP supported that the cabinet of that government, a fundamental part of running government, would just be one person hopping from chair to chair in an attempt to create the illusion of supporters, Williamson’s ideas has other problems. A Labour leadership election with 262 men and women all vying for the top spot may cause a certain amount of financial loss for a party that is hardly rolling in money.
Yet, let us consider the full compass of Williamson’s suggestion and expand upon it. If Labour is to become a truly democratic party and open its door to free voting why not apply this true democracy to the contest for the leadership of the party? If Labour MPs are only there to serve members why not include members in the ballot for the leadership of the party? Why not let members stand and, if one of them gets enough votes, let them become leader? One could argue that, surely the leader of a political party has to be an MP – yet the Prime Minister does not have to be an MP; they simply have to have the support of the largest party in the House of Commons. Many Earls and Lords have been premiers without having to ever be elected – could this not be redressed by an ordinary Labour Member becoming Prime Minister? And surely, if Mr Williamson has no problem with MPs having no say in selecting the leader he will have no problem with the idea of individual members being given the chance to be leader of the Labour Party.
True democracy therefore is perhaps in the eye of the beholder; some see Brexit as undemocratic whilst seeing Maduro as not a dictator. Democracy is therefore a powerful thing and can be abused and misused by those who claim to be its champion. There is a fascinating film called The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer that deals with this. Produced and starring Peter Cook in the 1970s it tells the story of the unfortunately named Rimmer’s climb to power through his abuse of a polling company. Rimmer tricks his way into the premiership and then institutes a policy of giving the public a vote on every single issue before the government can do anything. Grinding the country to a halt Rimmer offers one final poll which will allow him to become Dictator for life in exchange for the public never having to vote again. Rimmer is elected in a landslide – a form of true democracy to some. Perhaps this is something we should all consider before we pursue true democracy.