The key division in British politics today is between democrats and democracyphobes. There are democrats in all parties and outside the parties, and there are democracyphobes in all parties, too. And the latter have the upper hand.
So what is democracy? And who fears it?
Democracy is not reducible to voting in free and fair elections, though that’s an essential part of it. Russia has regular and lively elections, and plebiscites were a regular feature of Spain under the dictatorship of Franco. Neither is anyone’s idea of a functioning democracy. For democracy is a culture, as well as a set of institutions.
Democratic political culture requires a broad acceptance of the legitimacy of differing opinions, a respect for minority rights, and a shared belief that argument is healthy and can lead to better decision-making and governance. Political institutions – parliaments, councils, electoral systems, the machinery of the state – are there to facilitate the culture of democracy.
So who are these democracyphobes? Are there really people around who genuinely fear democracy?
Of course there are. They may reject the label, but most of the political class, including politicians on the national stage, political journalists and commentators, corporate interests, and much of the media absolutely loathe the idea of democracy; the idea that other opinions and ways of doing things may be legitimate and deserve a fair hearing. Indeed, democracy is a nuisance that gets in the way of building motorways, or flogging off public assets, or going to war. Best leave decision-making and ruling to the Ruling Class.
Democracy came into being because people – those without power and influence – demanded it. Men and women used the power of protest, they created movements and organisations, to get not just the right to vote, but the right to widespread political participation and freedom of speech and assembly.
The roots of our political parties, and their political histories, say something about the shifting sands of our political culture today.
The Tories were a party of government in parliament long before universal suffrage, and were often completely hostile to the idea of giving more people the right to vote. Nonetheless, the Tories are the most successful political party in European history precisely because they are clever and flexible, and can come up with strategies to survive political change. The Conservative Party invented modern democratic political practice. When first middle class, and then working class men got the right to vote, the Tories set out to win their support, creating a mass membership party across the country which was both a social club and an efficient electoral machine. But they kept the party in the country separate from the parliamentary party. Ordinary Tory Party members were essentially viewed as a fan club for the Tories in Westminster. Internal party democracy was always resisted by the leadership. They must be delighted now the day has arrived when they can win elections with hardly any members at all (the Tories haven’t been called a zombie party for nothing).
Liberals also pre-date the widening of the franchise, but having a preference for law over land came to see that democracy was wholly compatible with their beliefs.
Labour was a movement which created a party. The achievement of democracy was integral to the party’s creation and development. In that it is culturally different from the other major parties in parliament.
But party leaderships do become detached from the membership. For the Tories this was never a problem, except when populist Tories tried to mobilise the membership for specific political ends, as Enoch Powell did in the 1960s. Note that he ended his career as an Ulster Unionist, wholly estranged from the party he had once hoped to lead.
But the detachment of Labour leaders from the members is more problematic. In the days of Old Labour, the party machine could use the trade unions as enforcers, but this was not intrinsically undemocratic. Unions are, after all, mass membership organisations with an internal system of democracy.
New Labour changed all this. They wanted what the Tories had – party members as electoral foot soldiers, a support system for a leadership which held a monopoly over policy-making. The Labour Conference, which historically had been the party’s sovereign decision-making body, was downgraded to a cross between an American party convention, full of glitz and razzamatazz, and a corporate jamboree.
I have over-simplified here. There was always within the Labour party a technocratic, Fabian strand which “knew best”. New Labour to some extent had elements in common with that paternalistic tradition. But New Labour went far beyond it, ultimately becoming as democracy-phobic as the Tories.
And so to today’s threat to democracy. Democracy requires respect for the rule of law, and fair access to that law for all. The attacks on rights at work, the severe restriction of legal aid such that legal redress is outside the reach of most people of modest means, all weaken democratic rights. More is promised, including making it more difficult to vote, opt-outs from EU legal protections, and the repeal of the Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts. These are not mere legal changes, but are fundamental to the dismantling of democratic political culture.
More voting with less democracy is also a hallmark of the democracyphobes. Police and Crime Commissioners are a case in point. Police authorities used to hold local constabularies to account. Imperfect, nonetheless they were woven into democratic political culture in a richly organic way. They included elected local politicians of representative hue from across a county or region, lay members with an interest, such as representatives of Neighbourhood Watch schemes, and magistrates who are at the end of the process of maintaining law and order at a local level. This sort of thing is integral to a democratic political culture. Police and Crime Commissioners are a gimmick. Sold as a means of clear accountability, in practice they are no such thing, because they shut down awkward democratic debate. Men and women, black and white, could hold Chief Constables to account on things like domestic violence or stop and search in regular meetings of police authorities. A single individual – most of them middle aged white men elected on a dismal turnout of less than 15% – is clearly less democratic than the system they replaced.
And now we move on to elected Mayors. Cities which voted in referendums to reject mayors now will have them imposed upon them by a party without a single MP in the city in many cases. Councils have councillors representing wards, small neighbourhoods. A range of interests is thereby represented in councils – different parties, men and women, different ages, ethnicities, sexuality, abilities, – and they can discuss their agreements and disagreements in a public arena which is the very essence of grassroots democracy. Elected mayors, on the other hand are likely to be representative of much narrower, probably corporate interests. They weaken democracy. They also act as lightning rods taking the flack for cuts away from the real villains, plus it’s much easier for a Minister to call a mayor in for a dressing down than a whole council.
Democracy depends upon the existence of the state to give legal and institutional support to a whole political culture which is open, inclusive, responsive and fair. Cutting back the state, which is the Tory project, and a broader consensus across the political class to contain the messy compromises of democracy are dangerous. Now that the Tories have added to that a clear wish to completely neuter all political opposition by destroying the Labour Party (not my alarmist phrase – Allegra Stratton used it on Radio 4 this morning), it is fair to say that democracyphobes are on the rampage.