Corbyn's Democratic Cant Is Running Out Of Road

05/10/2016 12:27
Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick

A decision on shadow cabinet elections in the Labour party seems to have receded into the distance. This is bad news for the Labour moderates seeking concessions from an emboldened Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader is reportedly keen to wait until November to discuss shadow cabinet elections alongside a broader discussion of the 'democratisation' of the party. Undoubtedly, this is a sensible negotiation tactic. Presuming there are no disasters, it becomes harder for moderate Labour parliamentarians to argue the frontbench can't do without them after a few weeks of watching from the sidelines. But the delay also suggests the scale of the challenge Corbyn is facing. There is now violent disagreement in the Labour party about the legitimacy of representative democracy.

The clearest illustration of that disagreement came from an unlikely source. During a Labour party conference session addressing changes to the membership of Labour's National Executive Committee that favoured Labour moderates, a Momentum activist screamed from the podium that the debate had been rigged and gerrymandered. Just hours later, Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum, appeared on the World at One programme to repeat the accusation that the debate was rigged. He was indignant that new members of the National Executive Committee would be appointed, not directly elected by members.

Hyperbole aside, Lansman's passion is understandable. There are plenty of reasons to worry about the health of our political institutions. Voter engagement and registration remain low, despite an improved turnout at last year's general election. Politicians are overwhelmingly seen as untrustworthy, self-interested, and alien to their constituents. But accepting that voter disengagement is a serious problem is not the same thing as having a credible alternative to the institutions of representative democracy.

Jeremy Corbyn has spoken at length about the need to increase participation among Labour party members and increase their power over policy. When challenged over his electoral prospects, he routinely invokes the admittedly impressive increase in Labour party membership as evidence of his success. Participation, not power, is the lodestone of the Corbyn project. So it would be reasonable to imagine that he had well-developed and practical proposals to bring new vigour to democracy, both in the Labour party and the country as a whole. Corbyn has done nothing, however, to suggest he has divined the answers that elude policymakers the world over. He told Andrew Marr that, at his request, the National Executive Committee was looking at the issue, and he wanted more online consultation and online policy development. The limp ideas Corbyn has offered to deliver the transformation of his party, the transformation of democracy, no less, are of little consequence against the old, resurgent ideologies of the far-left he has knowingly unleashed.

Thanks to the spotlight thrown by Labour party conference, voters have already seen some of the consequences of Corbyn's laissez-faire. But far worse is to come. Eventually, no amount of obscurantist rhetoric will be able to elide the different views on democracy now held within the Labour party. Perhaps as early as next year a manifesto will need to be agreed. It's hard not to recall Clement Attlee's half-joke that 'Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking'.