When Marx met Mill

People just don't want to be told. Personal political responsibility, like virtue, is notoriously di

May I suggest some summer reading? Consider it as a little extra homework, or an intellectual workout for the holiday season. The book is Democracy: Crisis and Renewal by Paul Ginsborg, professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence. Ginsborg is a public intellectual of international renown, but you probably won't have heard of him because he writes mainly for the Italian press. The book is only 124 pages long, if you don't count the notes and bibliography. It is written in a perfectly accessible, non-academic style. It would take you an afternoon by the pool to get through it and, as a result, you would be vastly better informed about the state of global democracy and well placed to engage with the political process when you return from your holiday.

How do you feel about that? Patronised? Even more turned off politics than you were before you started this article? Deeply determined to read the latest Robert Harris after all? Your perfectly understandable reaction proves one of the main points of Ginsborg's book: it really is very difficult to inform people about the importance of participating in the democratic process. Because people just don't want to be told. Personal political responsibility, like virtue, is notoriously difficult to teach.

Ginsborg argues that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democracy has entered into a period of crisis not of quantity (something like 120 of the 192 nation states of the United Nations can now be described as democracies), but of quality. As he writes: "While formal, electoral democracy expanded with great rapidity all over the world, disaffection grew in democracy's traditional heartlands. This is expressed in a consistent decline in voter turnout and membership of political parties and a loss of faith in democratic institutions and the political class."

This decline has also seeped into the new democracies of Europe, however. In the 2004 European parliamentary elections, turnout in the UK was under 40 per cent. But it was 38.5 per cent in Hungary, 28.3 per cent in the Czech Republic, 20.9 per cent in Poland and just 17 per cent in Slovakia. People may not have liked communism, but they do not seem greatly enthused by democracy, at least not at the level of the European Parliament.

Ginsborg's delightfully bonkers book begins with a meeting in London in March 1873 between two great political minds of the age, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. Over a generous dinner followed by port at Mill's home in Albert Mansions, Victoria Street, the two men discuss their competing visions of democracy. Marx argues for a "participatory" model based on the Paris Commune of 1871, in which the workers seize direct control in a process of radical decentralisation (otherwise known as proletarian revolution). Mill, on the other hand, argues for the "representative" model, in which an elected elite rules over the less-informed, poorly educated and hopelessly prejudiced majority. The party broke up just before midnight, and the two great men agreed to differ, although Marx conceded that in some countries, perhaps even Britain, progress towards true democracy might be possible without violence.

Did it really happen like that? You will have to read the book for yourself to find out. Mill's belief in "the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state" remains something on which all democrats would probably agree. By the late 19th century, the Marxist tradition and the liberal tradition diverged, with the latter ultimately triumphing in the revolutions of 1989. Ginsborg believes this discussion remains central to contemporary political debate: democracy should be essentially representative, or could people become more engaged with a country's political institutions if there were more direct involvement on the participatory model.

Like many on the left, Ginsborg is excited by the participatory politics of Porto Alegre, a city of four million in southern Brazil. In a system set up by the Workers' Party, the people of Porto Alegre take part in a series of meetings throughout the year to decide on priorities for the forthcoming budget. Delegates from local assemblies are then elected to a central budget council, where they thrash out a policy programme to be adopted by the mayor at the end of the year. In 2004, the Workers' Party was defeated in local elections, but such was the consensus around the participatory budget that the incoming coalition agreed to keep it.

Could such a model be adopted in Britain as a way of breathing life into local politics? Well, it has been tried, in the leafy outer London borough of Harrow, of all places. In spring 2005, in collaboration with Helena Kennedy's Power inquiry into political participation, the Harrow Open Budget Process brought together 300 residents to discuss priorities for the 2006/2007 budget and elect a panel to monitor how local politicians responded.

Ginsborg's book ends with an imagined conversation today between Marx and Mill about the merits of the Harrow experiment. Curious to know what had become of it, I called Harrow Council's press office. It has yet to get back to me. A report I found online showed that 94 per cent of those who took part thought it was a "good" or "very good" experience, and 74 per cent suggested it should be repeated. So what did happen? The Conservatives seized control of Harrow and the idea was scrapped. One thing you can rely on in Britain is that the dead hand of local politics will always throttle anything approaching genuine participation.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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The continuity between Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn

The left say that the former leader created crucial intellectual and political space for them.

One of the errors in the leaked list ranking Labour MPs by favourability to Jeremy Corbyn was the inclusion of Ed Miliband in the "negative" category. Most in the party believe the former leader is better described as sympathetic to his successor. In recent interviews he has defended his leadership more robustly than many shadow cabinet members and has offered him private advice.

Last year I reported on speculation that Miliband could return to the shadow cabinet (a rumour heard again this week). Those close to the former leader continue to dismiss the possibility but he will appear with Corbyn today at a pro-EU climate change rally in Doncaster - the first time the pair have shared a platform. "Ed's more engaged than he's been for a long time," a friend told me.

Though Miliband did not vote for Corbyn in last year's leadership election (sources say he backed Andy Burnham), there is notable continuity between their political projects. In interviews with me, shadow chancellor John McDonnell and Momentum chair Jon Lansman have spoken of how the former leader created crucial intellectual and political space for the left. Those on the party's right make the same point - if rather less positively. A former shadow cabinet member told me that "the left of the party was indulged for five years and wasn't challenged".

It was under Miliband that Labour first identified as an "anti-austerity" party, with the then leader addressing a 2011 anti-cuts march. Though this stance was later abandoned, as emphasis was put on the need for public spending reductions (with room left to borrow for investment), it provided Corbyn with an opening to exploit.

It was also Miliband who denounced the Iraq war and promised a new approach to foreign policy, declaring in his 2010 conference speech: "Our alliance with America is incredibly important to us but we must always remember that our values must shape the alliances that we form and any military action that we take." His refusal to support the government's proposed intervention in Syria in 2013 was hailed by him as preventing a "rush to war". By promising "a different kind of foreign policy - based on a new and more independent relationship with the rest of the world", and opposing all recent military actions, Corbyn has travelled further down a road taken by Miliband. 

The Labour leader's promise to give greater power to party members similarly follows Miliband's decision to give them the ultimate say over the leadership (the system that enabled Corbyn's victory). Rail renationalisation, limits on media ownership and opposition to privatisation were also stances either fully or partly embraced between 2010 and 2015. 

Many of those who voted for Corbyn backed Miliband in 2010 or joined after being attracted by his radical moments. For them, Corbyn, the only candidate to position himself to Miliband's left from the outset of the contest, was his natural successor. It was these left-leaning members, not Trotskyist entryists, who enabled his landslide victory. 

The continuity extends to personnel as well as policy. Simon Fletcher, Corbyn's director of campaigns and planning (formerly chief of staff), was Miliband's trade union liaison officer, while Jon Trickett, the shadow communities secretary (and key Corbyn ally), was a senior adviser. If Miliband is more open to the Labour leader's project than many other MPs, it may be because he recognises how much it has in common with his own.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.