The story so far. We are told that a vote to leave the EU – and this is the only time I shall use the odious term ‘Brexit’ – should not have happened. It transpires – who’d have thought it? – that neither Remain nor Leave had a coherent plan for what might happen next, which suggests, at the very least, they were taken by surprise. The people did not want what they were supposed to want. As Brecht said, let’s dissolve the people and elect another one … while Gove said, Gosh, I suppose I’d better get up. Leave voters, we are told, were conned by a pack of lies, which means (a) they are stupid and (b) the referendum vote can be safely ignored (many have said, apparently, although it is increasingly difficult to believe anything in the mainstream media, they made a mistake, can we go back and start over; it’s all a bad dream). Meanwhile, the right‑wing PLP, having undermined Corbyn at every opportunity since he emerged as a serious leadership candidate a year ago, have blamed him for the result: there is no justification for this attack, of course, but who cares … and, at the time of writing, they are still trying to force him to resign, (a) to avoid the inconvenience of an election, in the process destroying – as they hope – the left in and outside the party; and (b) to stop him saying/doing anything when the Chilcot Report is published.
Labour’s current (‘existential’?) crisis is rooted in competing conceptions of ‘party’ or ‘membership’ or ‘electorate’, terms freely used as though the meaning is unproblematic. One useful way to understand the contradictions involved is to describe a dominant paradigm based on imagined communities; differences between parties are acceptable on the grounds that, in the final analysis, all pull in the same direction. Occupation of the so‑called ‘centre ground’ – whatever that is, wherever it might be found; it does, after all, have a tendency to move – confirms that political debate is necessarily based on some kind of consensus, a shared vision that requires only tweaking to bear fruit, all in ‘the national interest’; and such tweaking is what parliamentary debate (‘will the honourable member give way?’) and the role played, for example, by committees with cross-party membership is all about. When people talk about adversarial politics they overlook the possibility that the day-to-day business of Parliament is, in fact, based on the careful avoidance of ideology if that means differences cannot be reconciled, eventually, by sensible men and women, all working in the national interest.
This being so, democracy – which, after all, has something to do with ‘the people’ – must be performed to show that adversarial politics is not for real: this can be seen from parliamentary ritual and staged events such as the Queen’s Speech or Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph – here, party leaders act out a role that means they ‘put aside differences’ that cannot amount to much and present a united front. When Corbyn became Labour leader last year a lot of the early criticism was aimed at his inability or refusal to play the game and perform as expected. His appearance and behaviour, supposedly, made him an outsider; when he then went on speaking of ‘a different kind of politics’ – and, worse, seemed to mean it – he broke with so many different kinds of consensus. The idea that Labour should be a movement, for example, is one many people cannot understand; and simply describing Corbyn as ‘anti-establishment’, often grouping him with both Sanders and Trump, shows a lack of joined-up thinking within the so-called commentariat, for whom extra-parliamentary translates as ‘no good can come of it’.
Generally, what has been described above is a functionalist view of politics in society, very different from the idea that all in daily life is political. Here, differences are never so profound they cannot be resolved to maintain the all‑important value consensus. Further, this view also insists that the serious individual should attempt to integrate, another way of saying ‘become part of the establishment’. To refuse to do so is to be irresponsible. For example, before the Syria vote in December, Labour MPs were offered private briefings with government ministers. This was not just about passing on information, ‘sharing intelligence’ that, it would have been argued, could not be passed on openly, in public; more importantly, it was about using access to such briefings to seduce those MPs, all the while promoting the fiction that such discussions were above mere party politics.
There is always, then, pressure on MPs to gravitate towards, as they think, power and influence. To break now with the fiction of a value consensus, this is plainly how hegemony is maintained; or, put another way, how soft power is exercised, people encouraged to compromise because that is how they demonstrate how serious they are, how committed they are to the national interest. Cameron’s supposedly throwaway (not really; all is carefully scripted) gibes at PMQs serve a similar purpose. Corbyn is to be punished, for example, not because of his arguments (Cameron, after all, refuses, time and again, to answer questions), but because of his failure to conform. This is what ‘do your tie up’ meant; while last week’s ‘for God’s sake go!’ became a heartfelt expression of the national interest.
In the past, political consensus (in the 1950s, Butskellism; more recently, Blatcherism) rested on the assumption that serious politicians accepted that their role was that of technician, tweaking, polishing the small print. At the level of Parliament, party politics is not about ideology; it is about, to quote the master opportunist Blair, ‘what works’. One can easily see, then, how differences within parties become disruptive and threaten consensus, that is, parliamentary collaboration to realise a – never the – national interest. For representative democracy, to function adequately, requires those representatives to distance themselves from party and membership, imagined communities that are exposed as partial, incomplete. In appealing to the electorate (an imagined community made synonymous with the national interest, until the electorate does something stupid against the national interest) they – one might say almost magically – rise above sectional interests that, based on a limited perspective, cannot see the big picture, the greater good. This is why MPs, having used the party membership to get elected, will insist they have to represent the interests of all constituents. Is this a betrayal of the party and those hard-working foot-soldiers who put leaflets through doors? Of course not. And it follows there is something sinister about mandatory reselection, or even – God forbid! – deselection: this is when mob rule takes over and party becomes dysfunctional.
This version of party – top-down, prioritising the right of representatives to exercise judgement – fits into what Becker called a hierarchy of credibility. The ‘Westminster bubble’ separates those who have the right to speak from those who have been silenced (they must now speak, if at all, a foreign language). The mainstream media, of course, play a vital role; and the people who call themselves journalists also seek to integrate themselves by showing they can be trusted with access (denied if said not-journalist harms his or her career by being untrustworthy). Obviously the Labour right-wing (who showed they could be a responsible Opposition when they refused, after last year’s general election, to vote against the welfare bill) has greater credibility than the great unwashed, the many-headed monster that makes up Momentum.
The assumption that MPs know best, that politics is, and should always be, ‘the art of the possible’ and MPs should be allowed to get on with the hard work of negotiation is rooted in the very idea of representative democracy, one based on paternalism and requiring deference. If MPs are representatives or, put another way, representations of people-as-voters, their individual constituents are quickly rendered both invisible and silent, specifically, not-here. So people are always allowed to participate as voters on the understanding that they then withdraw; while paternalism insists they must avoid bothering the grown-ups whose job it is to do the hard work of thinking that only serious grown-ups are qualified to do. So voters‑as‑children do withdraw because they understand that the grown-ups have their best interests at heart. Go to bed, it’s our job to burn the midnight oil. Sweet dreams.