Tony Blair - the unelected peace envoy to the Middle East. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As we mourn Benn, the rise of unelected power should shame us

In the Ukraine, the Middle East and the eurozone, authority increasingly lies with elites, rather than elected representatives.

"Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons, I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so."

While it’s 15 years since he said that, Tony Benn’s words today seem more apposite than ever, albeit in a way he didn’t intend. For democracy seems to be in a very poor state of repair just now, and power seems to lie increasingly not with our elected representatives, but with the elites and the establishment.

The world argues over the rights and wrongs of the Ukraine. The west howls because a referendum is going to be held asking the people of Crimea what they want, ostensibly objecting because it is "unconstitutional" (one suspects what they really mean is "we will lose"). Meanwhile, 20,000 Russian soldiers waltz into the region, largely because they know no one will stop them. And today two politicians, neither of whom come from the Ukraine, will meet in London to try and thrash out a solution to the problem that will set the future for its people. For what it’s worth, neither of those politicians are elected by the nations they hail from either.

The worst conflict in the world currently is the civil war in Syria. The democracies of the world watch helplessly as the two unelected sides battle it out, the innocent population bearing the brunt of, what I heard described last week as a de facto war between two completely different countries – Iran (currently 158th of the 167 countries listed on the EIUs Democracy Index) and Saudi Arabia (our ally, currently lying 163rd on that list, five places lower than Iran and a remarkable 21 places lower than, er, China).

And how quick we are to forego democracy ourselves when it suits the establishment to do so. I’ve railed before about the effective coups in Italy and Greece in the euro crisis, where the ballot box was quickly dumped in favour of doing what the political establishment decided amongst themselves was "the right thing". Only yesterday did we see our own Prime Minister discussing how best to solve the problems of the Middle East with the region’s – needless to say unelected – "Peace Envoy". How happy the people who live there must be that the great and the good from the UK, including the author of the doctrine of the international community, are amongst them to solve their problems. It’s like we’ve gone back to the 1950s.

It seems more than ever that the establishment are determined to decide what’s best for everyone, rather than letting the people decide for themselves. But then again, as another politician of whom Tony Benn approved once wrote, “if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it”.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Getty Images.
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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.