Modern democracy, political scientists often say, would be inconceivable if it were not for party government. If this is true, then a new political party might offer solutions when democracy is in crisis. The Independent Group sees itself as a fresh political force disrupting the way old politics works. It wants to occupy a space in the centre that traditional party divides have left empty. It urges people to make change happen.
But the Independent Group is not your standard political party. It has no manifesto, no popular base, no memory of struggles, victories or defeats. Rather than a movement in search of political representation, it is a group of elected representatives in search of a movement.
Elections are one of the most important moments in which a political group consolidates its principles, popular support and identity. But TIG appears uninterested in elections. If its members were concerned with popular mobilisation or deliberating with supporters, they would seize the first opportunity to confront their adversaries in by-election campaigns. Instead, as TIG member Heidi Allen argues, fighting a by-election would “crush the birth of democracy”. TIG may not have a coherent manifesto, but it does seem to have a vision of democracy: one that is, on closer inspection, not very democratic.
The “birth of democracy” that Allen refers to is historically associated with rule by the many rather than the few. In modern societies, citizens are too numerous to speak directly for themselves. Instead they speak through representatives in parliament. Whether this relation is democratic depends on the degree of proximity between citizens and their representatives. When that relationship is not subject to ongoing critical scrutiny, it is not clear who the representatives speak for, or what they speak about.
For radical democrats like Rousseau and Marx, the purpose of democratic politics was always to ensure that powerful people were kept in check by the masses. A number of measures emerged from this intellectual tradition: mass membership in political organisations, mandatory reselection, mechanisms to deselect MPs, rotation in office, and so on. This is what political theorists call “the delegate” model of representation.
The Labour Party’s expanded membership and moves to change the relationship between members and MPs, such as making deselections easier to achieve, reflect this delegate model. According to this view, MPs are only one of the links in the chain of democratic participation. They are by no means the most important one. Every MP must remain accountable to party members each step of the way.
Labour Party leaders are often accused of authoritarianism. But if Labour really had been in the business of silencing criticism and undermining democracy, it would have discouraged rather than promoted the delegate model. The current Labour Party may have many flaws, but a lack of commitment to democracy is not one of them.
The same cannot be said about the Independent Group. Its refusal to fight by-elections signals its alignment to a very different tradition of thinking about the relationship between citizens and politicians. Members of TIG insist that there is no reason to subject their views to democratic scrutiny since their values have not changed.
But even if that were true, MPs are not selected only for the values they embrace, but also for how they interpret those values in public life, and for the policies they generate. Its initial statement of values spoke of pursuing “policies that are evidence based, not led by ideology”. The institutions that work best are, as in the TIG’s statement of values, those where “well-regulated private enterprise can reward aspiration and drive economic progress”. Disagreements of principle are reducible to disagreements of policy. This is the essence of centrist politics.
TIG’s opposition to by-elections arises from a political ideal where MPs retain independence from their constituents. This is often called the “trustees’” model of representation. It emerged historically from attempts to isolate politicians from the power of the many, from thinkers including Emmanuel Sieyes, Benjamin Constant and James Madison.
The trustees’ version of democracy views the masses as dangerous and democracy as easily manipulated. Political institutions are authorised by the masses but remain isolated from them. According to this model of politics, once representatives are selected, their relationship with citizens is essentially a fiduciary one, like that between a customer and their bank manager. Once money is in the bank, you trust the bank managers to do their job. Once elections are over, you trust politicians to represent the people. Once you make a donation or fund someone’s electoral campaign, they will look after your interests. The more you pay, the better you will be served. While this model dominates the electoral systems and political institutions of Western liberal democracies, the divide between professional politicians and ordinary people that it invokes helps explain why, as TIG puts it, “politics is broken”.
Like its moderate ancestors in the 18th and 19th century, TIG is a creation of parliament rather than mass publics or social movements. Instead of offering genuine change, it resurrects a problematic past, displaying the same contempt for ordinary people and the same distrust of democracy as centrist politics in the 18th and 19th century.
Change is needed, but it will not emerge from a group of professional politicians whose democratic antipathies run so deep that they oppose by-elections. To revive democracy we must depart from the trustee model of representation and consolidate radical democracy.