What do ‘we, the people’ want? #2

The story so far. We have been told, repeatedly, that Angela Eagle (or Owen Smith; he has an advantage over Eagle in that, as a mere Spad in 2003, he was unable to vote in favour of the Iraq war) is about to launch a leadership challenge that will blow Corbyn out of the water, just you watch me. Either or both of them have been about to do this for over a week, so one feels for the poor Guardian desperately in need of an update for its story. As a headline, Stuck on the Launch Pad doesn’t quite cut it. Neil Kinnock has made an appearance, nobly (OK, not a very good pun) taking time off from counting his money to allow Labour MPs to give him a standing ovation. Like the Guardian, they have had a hard time of it; they needed cheering; and Kinnock was just the man to tell them they’re alright, alright! The media have told us constantly that Corbyn is beleaguered, barricaded in his office, hiding from his enemies. Well, if you need Kinnock to boost morale, as though he were a third-rate pop singer (one, moreover, who always did bellow as a substitute for hitting the high notes) entertaining troops at the front, it could just be the wannabe rebels who are isolated, not least from those CLPs who would like them to come over here, please, and have a quiet word.


My last post ended with deference as a key feature of any political system based on representation; and deference is inseparable from the paternalism that allows any social leader to experience – not merely exclaim – astonishment at any challenge to their authority. The dominant (functionalist) paradigm would insist that the challenge to authority – any kind of protest or rebellion, anything that might count as deviant behaviour – must no more than test the value consensus in order to reinforce it. The logic of this argument applies to what has already been said about the nature of debate in Parliament, or the role of MP as technician. Hence it is possible to patronise those who do break the rules by insisting they don’t know any better; but they must, all the same, acknowledge the error of their ways. There is no better example of this process than the working-class affront to middle-class norms, a short-term affront that will eventually succumb to the needs of the national interest.


And so it is the need for deference that allows representatives – presently, Labour MPs – to distance themselves from those they supposedly represent. Historically, voting is a fairly recent development as a feature of modern societies, while deference, essential to any kind of hierarchical society, continues to thrive: respectively, these features can be taken as examples of what Raymond Williams called emergent and residual cultures. For example, in Britain 200 years ago, in the years leading up to the Great Reform Act, the new bourgeoisie had to justify its own refusal to show the aristocracy deference, while at the same time insisting the working class did ‘know its place’. Elections are designed to distance people‑as‑voters from the exercise of power; to vote is to surrender agency, and Parliament protects its occupants from those they might, otherwise, fear. MPs tell everyone else they have been elected to exercise judgement based on a superior capacity to reason; while extra‑Parliamentary action is marked by unreason. The media recycle fears of hysterical wide‑eyed Trots shouting down speakers to prevent proper debate – which, of course, never happens in either Parliament or the media.

Parliament protects MPs from society. This might mean privilege, so an MP can say something without fear of reprisal (and that might or might not be an important freedom). For Labour MPs it might also mean unease, a reminder of where they once belonged. Consider those working-class MPs (current examples include Johnson, Phillips, Khan) who must remind people of their working-class origins as a badge of authenticity required when, awkwardly, they have moved on. For most Conservative MPs Parliament has always provided continuity from their social backgrounds; it has been just one part of the elaborate network that makes up social capital. Historically, for Labour MPs, election and eventually, the promise of a seat in the Lords, or a directorship, must function as a form of social mobility, evidence of one’s personal worth and therefore meritocracy. Perhaps it needs pointing out that this is about Labour the institution and its relationship to the establishment, so it matters little if the MP in question comes from an elevated social background. Nonetheless, consider those MPs – and union leaders – who take their working‑class accents into the Lords as evidence that sensible, well‑meaning people will integrate, just as any sensible, well-meaning immigrant will seek to join the host community, all the while allowing that host to flaunt a progressive outlook as the value consensus, tested, survives modification. Tebbit’s cricket test applies to Labour MPs as much as to Pakistani cricket fans (as Tebbitt himself, and Thatcher among others on the Conservative side, well understood).

It is likely that Conservatives never confuse ‘office’ with ‘power’; their social capital, after all, provides them with enough information about the political power found outside Parliament (and some might even exercise power there). Their function, they are well aware, is simply to keep Labour out of office, to avoid any embarrassing reforms difficult to reverse (admittedly less likely after 1997). This is why ideology must play a lesser role in the Conservative party. Labour MPs, on the other hand, probably have to learn that simple fact; they might have known it all along, but they still have to learn it as MPs negotiating their way through Parliament.


Usually, such learning is relatively straightforward because deference is inseparable from paternalism, a default perspective for most men (women, of course, will be invited to adopt this masculinist outlook when they become MPs; for integration is not just class‑based).

Depending on the party, paternalism might take various forms; and one should not infer no difference whatsoever between Conservative and Labour parties with their respective histories (the Conservative party linked to a hierarchical society it wishes to preserve, Labour based on collective strength and a desire to change something for the better, make its mark somehow); but the two parties, in Parliament, do share an unwillingness to quite believe people ‘out there’ can ever be trustworthy. Occasionally the rhetoric of Liberal Democrats or UKIP will promise the empowerment of ‘ordinary people’; but this empowerment is reduced to the protest vote (Farage, for one, was unable to avoid speaking of the EU referendum vote in that way; voters will now take pride in having given the establishment ‘a bloody nose’). This being the case, protest can be easily contained since those protesting still do nothing more than vote and therefore surrender the right to protest – in a by‑election, say, when mid-term governments are supposed to suffer (but not really, only in the short term); or … in a referendum.

It was heard, many times, that most people had not been given the right to vote on EU membership, given that the last referendum was held over 40 years ago; yet the vote to leave (carried on a small majority, with under-18s and EU citizens denied a vote) is exceptional in that, as a protest vote, it has had unlikely consequences, whether or not Article 50 eventually comes into play. It would appear, then, that people‑as-voters have (stupidly) confused the referendum with a mere by-election. If the likes of Liberal Democrats and UKIP enjoy the luxury of protest based on some kind of popular will, they do so solely because the electoral system, one they claim to abhor, allows it; they can pose as the people’s champions and – certainly in the case of Liberal Democrats – weep tears of frustration at social injustices they would correct if only. In all likelihood these parties would quickly retreat from such populism if electoral reform threatened to give it greater weight, just as Kinnock, as Labour leader in the 1980s, would have been terrified to find, following a victory for the miners, he was now expected to deliver what working-class people demanded. For this reason alone it is naïve to claim that proportional representation, say, would automatically lead to a more democratic system of government. The Leave victory is what happens when people are allowed to vote; no good can come of it, and so it must be avoided as much as possible. (It might also help explain why Johnson and Farage wasted no time in abdicating responsibility for the aftermath of the referendum.)


One of the criticisms of Corbyn has been that he will turn Labour into no more than a party of protest: by implication, no better than Liberal Democrats or UKIP. This could mean ‘pointless irrelevance’, although many of the PLP rebels seem happy to countenance this eventuality if it, somehow, were to preserve their personal status. It could mean ‘not serious’, as with the by-election protest vote, acceptable because it will not have significant consequences. Or it could mean a party that has recalibrated the relationship between PLP and extra-parliamentary membership; and so the stand-off between Corbyn and PLP is one between different versions of representation.

If, then, Labour is in the middle of an ‘existential crisis’, it is one related to the dominant fiction of representative democracy; can the party now, like Doctor Who or James Bond, regenerate and, once and for all, lose its working-class identity? One view of social change, based on the inevitability of progress through evolution, suggests that, once institutions or ideas have served the purpose that made them necessary in the first place, they will simply fade away: at different times this argument has been used to acclaim the obsolescence of religion or trade unions, say, or feminism. Blair insisted that Clause 4 no longer served a purpose; it might have done, once upon a time, but not now. Similarly, ‘the decline of Labour’s heartlands’ – a euphemism for those working-class communities shafted by both Conservative and labour governments, ignored by Labour MPs speaking now of electability – is invoked to explain that ‘we’ might no longer have any need for Labour, not unless it can reinvent itself as another, nicer, neoliberalism: New Labour 2.0. Social democracy might have been a good idea in the middle of the twentieth century; it produced the welfare state and the NHS. But neoliberalism (like social democracy, a form of functionalism) insists welfare state and NHS are no longer fit for purpose; and Labour, since the 1980s, has bought into the quest for modernisation. Perhaps modernisation now means something never tried before. And perhaps I need to go to sleep and enjoy sweet dreams, while allowing the grown-ups to get on with the hard business of thinking.


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