First Published in the Huffington Post
The election of Jeremy Corbyn has been seen as a swing to the left in the Labour party – as a majority of members and registered supporters put the nails in the coffin of the New Labour project. But it may have as much to do with a call for greater democracy – something that the British political establishment has long been deeply suspicious of.
Even in the supposedly democratic element of the British system – elections – there is a deeply held antipathy to giving Britons real and meaningful choice. We continue to use First Past the Post – an archaic system which is only used by Britain and former British colonies. Our system massively limits limits choice, ensuring that there are only ever two main parties. The absence of preferential voting causes small parties to lose out as voters are forced to vote negatively, to keep out the party they dislike the most. Unless a party is territorially concentrated, (like the SNP or Plaid Cymru) it is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats until it reaches around 30% of the national vote share. The lack of a multiparty system limits the ideas that are discussed – there is great pressure on the parties not to differ too much from the other, and to focus disagreement on relatively minor issues. The fact that the electoral system has remained in place, is a measure of how little emphasis Britain places on democracy. One of the most common arguments in favour of the status quo is that it ‘ensures strong government’. This is by its very nature an anti-democratic argument – a system that continually distorts the national vote is maintained because of its ability to uphold an meta-democratic ideal – that of strength and stability.
Given the lack of meaningful choice at (most) general elections, it might be presumed that the real democracy happens within those parties, in internal elections to choose the leader. But in fact, Party members choosing their leaders is a very recent innovation. Until 1965 the leader of the Conservative Party ’emerged’ – appointed by Party grandees. The party has only given members a vote since 1999, from a shortlist of 2 drawn up by MPs. Labour members have only had a vote since 1981, and until Ed Miliband’s reforms of 2014 they voted as part of a complex ‘electoral college’ in which the votes of Labour MP’s were worth far more than those of rank and file Trade Unionists and Party members. The 2015 Labour leadership was the first to feature One Member One Vote, allowing members a genuine choice between 4 divergent candidates. While the new rules required nominations from 15% of the Parliamentary Party (35 MPs) an intense grassroots campaign persuaded MPs to include Jeremy Corbyn, creating a genuine choice in what was arguably the first genuinely democratic election of a party leader in British political history.
Since winning, Corbyn has consulted members extensively, instituting the novelty of asking questions received from the public at Prime Minister’s Questions, and culminating in the approx. 70,000 emails received in response to party’s Syria consultation. The latter was mocked by opponents – who questioned how the leadership could possibly read so many emails. They were right – but the answer to that problem is not less member participation, but the building of a genuine system of internal online democracy so that members can vote regularly on a range of policy issue. This has been promised by Corbyn and Ben Soffa, Labour’s new Head of Digital organising, has confirmed that the digital infrastructure is currently being built in order to deliver this.
Such an approach is totally new to the UK – British political culture prefers to talk of ‘consultation’ rather than direct democracy, and mass votes on specific policies have only taken place a handful of times in British history, all since 1973. But interntationally the idea of political parties operating through internal democracy is not new – in fact it is becoming something of a trend. The poster child for this movement is Podemos, the Spanish anti-austerity party that emerged out of the 15-M ‘Indignados’ movement and received 20.65% of the vote in the recent Spanish election. It practices radical internal democracy, with online deliberations and voltes on all policy questions through an appand a sprawling set of Reddit pages known as ‘Plaza Podemos‘ as well as in-person ‘citizens assemblies’. Direct democracy is also a key feature of Italy’s 5 Star Movement, founded around the comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009. Proposals put forward by representative of the movement in parliament are those that prove most popular in online votes held on its website ‘Sistema Operativo‘. A similar approach is taken by Germany’s Pirate Party who use a system called ‘liquid feedback‘ which allows a wide range of members to edit and refine policy documents. Rival policy documents are then voted for to see which has most support. From 2002-2013 a local Swedish party Demoex elected councillors as delegates – they are strictly obliged to vote according to the result of a prior membership decision. The party is now a member of the national grouping ‘Active Democracy‘ – which aspires to implement such an approach across the whole of Sweden. The ideal software for mass participatory democracy has probably not yet been designed – it requires a mix of discussion forums, collaborative editing in order to co-write policy proposals, and multi option ballots, with most current systems offering one or two of those. Due to its ubiquitous nature many political groups organise through Facebook – but it only really offers a forum for discussion. An alternative platform, Loomio, which emerged out of the Occupy movement, allows a group to edit a proposal until it all are happy, but the designers’ belief in consensus decision making means that there are no multi-option ballots, making decision making rather laborious. The mass participation movement is still waiting for the free, user friendly digital technology that will allow direct democracy to truly flourish.
Ironically, the movement towards greater participation in Britain occurs as the government is doing everything in its power to erode democracy – rushing through individual voter registration against the advice of the independent electoral commission, leading to around 2 million falling off the electoral register – in addition to the 8 million already unregistered. The government will then redraw constituency boundaries based on the new register. As the people most likely to drop are the poorest and most transient, the inevitable result is reducing the number of constituencies likely to be won by the Labour party. This is a highly sophisticated gerrymandering operation. In the long term the only way to fight this is by involving millions of people who are currently unenthused by politics. Despite the monstering Jeremy Corbyn has received at the hands of the press, polling suggests that there are a great many issues on which the the Labour leadership is in tune with broad swathes of popular opinion: belief in higher (and better enforced) taxes on large corporations, renationalisation of the railways, abolishing tuition fees, instituting rent controls, abolishing the bedroom tax, jettisoning the marketisation of the NHS, returning schools to local control, opposing TTIP and more. But it will not be enough to take popular positions – rather it is the other way round, that policies drawn up and approved by millions of people in internal ballots are likely to be popular with the wider election. Given current Conservative hegemony there is little choice but to take a radical approach. It is only by giving away power that Labour can hope to return to government.