According to the Economist, the UK is in the throes of its second ever presidential election. Boris Johnson, argues the magazine’s columnist Duncan Robinson, was effectively “Britain’s first president”: he became the “first prime minister to be directly elected by voters” when he won the Conservative Party leadership election in 2019. At the start of September, “voters” will pick between either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss – a recovering republican, no less – to replace their last, disastrous choice.
Not all voters, of course. In this case, a very particular People decides: over 50, male, rich and right wing, the average Conservative Party member will have to stand in for the average Brit in this odd republic. (I can’t avoid mentioning that, according to a notorious YouGov survey, our hypothetical Tory supporter also fantasises more than most people about “sex with a sports star”.)
These people are not particularly representative of the nation at all. The rest of us can only hope that they are making their choice based on a vague sense of what the wider public might want – something that, Robinson notes, they have typically been quite good at. But “the problem”, he writes, is “the principle rather than the end-product”. Others, such as the historian Robert Saunders, have emphasised the “undemocratic” nature of giving party members so much influence over national politics.
Many of the UK’s liberal intellectuals are increasingly concerned about the influence of parties – with their own supposedly insular interests – on the wider polity. This is not a new anxiety, nor a marginal one. Spend a modest amount of time knocking doors during an election and you’re likely to encounter some kind of complaint about political parties being too ideological, or even (absurdly) “too political”. These protests were directed with particular fervour against the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, after the membership and affiliates chose a leader who struck horror into most party MPs and staff.
The result of that rupture within the opposition was, as Robinson writes, “misery”. That misery is made plain throughout the newly released Forde report into a half-decade of factionalism within the Labour Party. It is dubious at best, however, to suggest that the factionalism identified by Martin Forde was simply the consequence of party members choosing their leader. While Forde blames both sides of the conflict – Corbynistas and anti-Corbynistas – for Labour’s dysfunctionality under Corbyn, he also notes that “by 2015, the majority of the Party’s senior staff did not see their roles as requiring perfect neutrality, or even the appearance of it”. This was the result of a party headquarters whose staff remained “steadily on the Right of the Party even as the elected leadership (and membership) moved to the Left”.
In other words, the democratic choice of the party as a whole – to be led by Jeremy Corbyn – was subjected to persistent efforts at sabotage by a party machine that was not just unrepresentative of but hostile to the ideological trajectory of the wider party. The “misery” experienced by the Labour Party itself under Corbyn was not the result of members having too much power, but of that democratic authority being resisted by the administrative detritus of previous party management regimes – a legacy that was unambiguously rejected with Corbyn’s election to the leadership. Forde’s effort to blame both sides overlooks the basic question of democratic legitimacy within the party. The left’s factionalism, which undeniably existed and still exists, was what we might call the earned factionalism of democratic victors; the right’s factionalism was that of people clinging to power in defeat.
Corbyn’s internal opponents often claimed that they were resisting him on behalf of their constituents, or the country. This is a more substantial and interesting position than the more common argument that Corbyn was “unelectable”, and that he had to be opposed for the sake of the party’s wider popularity. It seems to be underpinned by the belief that parties should be governed more by their MPs – elected, after all, by the public – than their members. But this dangerously undermines the most vital contribution that parties, as large organisations full of ordinary, unelected people, make to democracy.
The case for political parties is quite simple: that it is the best way for the different, conflicting interests that constitute society to express themselves directly and compete for power democratically rather than via more disruptive and destructive means: strikes, riots, civil wars, revolutions and putsches. It is worth remembering that the trade unions – which, however imperfect, are by far the most legitimate expression of working-class interests across the country – overwhelmingly supported Corbyn throughout his time as leader.
There is a wider case for partisan power as well. Parliamentary democracy only empowers people once every four or five years, and it does so by leaving them alone with their interests, their bigotries and their consciences in the sublime isolation of the ballot box. Party democracy, when it works, allows ordinary people to become constant, engaged participants in the decisions that affect them. A party genuinely ruled by its members and affiliates would allow collective desires to be formed and expressed over years of formal, facilitated debate and process, providing the deliberative processes of self-government that are absent from general elections and the mass media.
In theory, parties are especially valuable in an age of crowd-based politics, in which political appetites are shaped by the compulsive informational anarchy of social media and the uncontrolled flows and crashes of globalised market chaos. In the middle of all that speed and carnage, the often tedious activity of party politics ought to be able to slow things down and enable mutually agreeable education and decision-making among those with shared interests. Once those interests have been forged and refined into something capable of competing for power, it is the party’s job to win and remake the whole country in the image of the people it represents.
Opposition to this vision of politics seems to boil down to two things. First is a scepticism about the ability of parties to adequately represent a particular social interest. Labour is regularly condemned as being out of touch with the working class. But this is a case for better parties, not weaker ones. It demands parties that are rooted far more directly in the culture and everyday life of the communities they seek to represent, and which give more power to their ordinary members, not less. Indeed, this was one of the central objectives – however badly it failed – of Corbynism, and the one most fiercely resisted by Corbyn’s internal opponents.
There is, admittedly, a wider problem here, which is that since the decline and fragmentation of working-class power after the 1970s it has become harder to identify the self-conscious collective agents that Labour is supposed to represent. But parties don’t simply represent an interest that has already been formed: they can be central to the formation of collective interests, convening people and causes around a common platform that allows economic demands and cultural identities to combine into a political weapon.
The second objection is very different: that parties hinder our ability to work together, across all our social divides, in the national interest. Why should one faction of society get to impose its vision of the world on the others? All that can be said to that is: welcome to reality. We live in a world that has undeniably been constructed in the image of the super-rich and their hangers-on, and it is those people whose priorities will shape any renewed Conservative agenda far more than “Rotary Club members from Witney”, as Duncan Robinson describes the archetypal Tory member. The Conservative Party is too indebted to the UK’s real power brokers to do anything about that. It should be the job of the Labour Party to assemble and fight for a collective interest that can.
[See also: Labour is wrong to turn against nationalisation]