Democracy, Sovereignty and Leadership


It’s been a challenging few days for democracy. In the United Kingdom democracy has been something we’ve taken for granted. Despite the oddly persistent fact that we’re mere subjects of a flesh-and-blood sovereign, sovereignty, in practice, lies with us, the people. The UK is a democracy, and when there’s a General Election we delegate our collective sovereign power to our Members of Parliament, who debate and vote in Parliament. What they decide, our Sovereign signs into law. So far, so simple.

But of course it’s not simple at all. Sovereignty is limited in dozens of ways: by the unelected House of Lords for a start, by the European Parliament, by domestic and international law, by the media, by treaties with other nations and supranational bodies, by the United Nations, and by the interconnectedness of the world’s economies and ecologies.

The events of the last few days, unusually, have brought many of these issues into the limelight:

The Brexit Referendum has, at least partially, been about ‘taking control’, clawing back sovereignty from the EU. Though, as many of us predicted, the Leave camp are now discovering that control of our borders isn’t possible as long as we want access to the single market. Is that ‘control’?

And then there’s the Referendum itself. Is it actually a democratic process? A Referendum is technically ‘advisory’ in the United Kingdom, though tradition demands that the people’s ‘will’ be respected. That said, Referendums are so rare in the United Kingdom that they end up being mere  travesties of democracy, at least if regarded as true reflections of the people’s will on a single issue. The Brexit choice was so complex, the ‘facts’ so unclear, the emotion so strong, that it’s hard to see the vote as reflecting a thoughtful view on a single issue, rather than expressing a more general dissatisfaction with the Government and the world.

We delegate complex issues to Parliament for a reason. Our MPs have the time, the knowledge and the experience to consider issues more narrowly. Perhaps if Referendums were more frequent (as in Switzerland) issues could be more coolly considered on their merits rather than, as last week, used as an opportunity for a splurge of misplaced emotion and hysteria.

And then there is democracy and party politics. The hideous wrangles in the Labour Party stem from differing views as to where power lies when it comes to determining policy and electing a party leader. Jeremy Corbyn is an old activist who sees the Party as the source of power, as the sovereign body when it comes to the exercise of power by elected Members of Parliament, though nearly all of his Parliamentary colleagues take a different view, and consider themselves as representing the wider body of Labour voters who elected them, and all their constituents whether they were Labour voters or not.

Democracy is difficult.

  • Is the EU undemocratic? (Everyone seems to forget that we actually vote for our unknown MEPs. It’s just a rather large institution and even the loudest MEP will rarely be heard.)
  • Should the leader of the Labour Party enjoy the support of the Members of Parliament that he leads? Or is it enough that he’s supported by tens of thousands of activists?
  • Do Referendums really allow ‘the people’ to express their views on a single important issue?

There is no single form of democracy. There’s no right way of doing it. Its various forms may reflect tradition and culture in different countries and regions.

In the end there is only one really important test of democracy.

I am reminded of a dispute between two different schools of Logical Positivism in the mid-twentieth century. Alfred Ayer, an Oxford philosopher, put forward the idea that meaning derives from the means employed to verify a proposition (an idea curiously incapable of verification itself, but never mind that for now), whereas Karl Popper, a London philosopher, put forward the idea that a proposition makes sense only if it’s capable of falsification. So, for example, when it comes to science, a theory can only be accepted if criteria can be defined for disproving it. Freud and Marx fail as scientist on this analysis.

In fact it is always easier to disprove than prove, and something similar is true of democracy. It is very difficult to define it, and everyone has different ideas about what it means, but there’s a simple litmus test that looks at the same thing from the opposite direction: a country isn’t democratic if its Government can’t easily be replaced. We shouldn’t always be considering how the will of the people can be expressed. Rather we should concentrate on how the will of the people can be thwarted.


Lovely, but Unelectable

There is much to admire in these three undoubtedly lovely men, all stalwarts of the ‘old’ and principled Labour Party, all unelectable.

tony benn

Tony Benn (1925 – 2014)

michael foot

Michael Foot (1913 – 2010)

jeremy corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn (1949 – )

Of these three, only Michael Foot has so far led his party into a General Election (1984), losing disastrously with the fewest votes for half a century or more. If the polls are correct then Jeremy Corbyn might soon win the chance to do the same.

Though each is of a different generation, and each came to his radicalism by a different route, all three share some of the same qualities.

  • They’re not in it for themselves (Jeremy Corbyn, for example, claimed fewer expenses in 2010 than any other MP)
  • They care deeply about inequality, poverty, injustice, etc., and oppose it vigorously, seeing Labour’s policy as the best suited to alleviate disadvantage
  • They are anti-establishment and anti-elitist
  • They have a fond belief in the essential goodness of humanity (except perhaps that of ‘capital owning humanity’ whom they see as rapacious and essentially selfish)
  • They believe that state ownership and state intervention are the route to a more equitable and a more efficient society

Michael Foot’s convictions were formed during the conflicts of the 1930s, when capitalism and socialism were stark and incompatible opposites, and when capitalism seemed to tend inexorably towards Fascism (as a young journalist he vigorously opposed the appeasement policies of the Chamberlain government). He was an intellectual socialist, and he stuck to the belief that socialist economics could work. He campaigned throughout his life for nuclear disarmament (even unilateral disarmament) and it was probably Labour’s disarray on this topic that lost him the election in 1984. He was a notably kind, funny, personable, man.

Tony Benn nearly became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981, but profound influence on the policies of the Labour Party in Government ultimately eluded him. He, too, was convinced of an old-fashioned, ideological, class-warfare kind of socialism. He was happiest in the company of union officials, drinking mug after mug of tea (not for him the fine clarets and champagnes of New Labour). Perhaps, like Marx, he believed that socialism could transform human nature and resolve the conflicts that arise from personal or class interest. He was also a notably kind, funny, personable, man, and, even in his later years, still a man of the people, travelling to Parliament and back by bus.

Jeremy Corbyn is an activist, allied to all the radical (and often admirable) causes of the last thirty years, including nuclear disarmament, opposition to the Iraq War, the extradition of General Pinochet, and many others. He has never been a member of the Shadow Cabinet, and was, during the last Labour Government, the most rebellious Labour MP. He has never been a Party man, and clearly never fed at the Westminster trough. I’m not sure he is as witty, warm and personable as Tony Benn or Michael Foot, but he comes across as an ordinary, soft-spoken, even if passionate man.

But none of these three is imaginable as Prime Minister.

The fact is that there are some truths about the world that in their goodness and idealism these lovely men don’t see. Perhaps it is because they have never worked extensively in the commercial world. Take this passage from Tony Benn’s diary from 1965 (when he was Postmaster General and obsessed with the idea that the Queen’s head should be removed from postage stamps):

This highlights in my mind one of the great difficulties of being a socialist in the kind of society in which we live. The real drive for improvement comes from those concerned to make private profit. If, therefore, you deny these people the right of extending private enterprise into new fields, you have to have some sort of alternative. You have to have some body which wants to develop public enterprise, but our present Civil Service is not interested in growth.

Benn rightly sees ‘private profit’ as an engine of growth, as motivating ‘improvement’, and he’s struggling, in painfully good faith, to come up with a substitute for this in state-owned industry. But he completely misses the point. Private profit leads to improvement only if there’s competition (it doesn’t work if there’s a private monopoly). Competition is the point, not profit. Profit is the means, not the end.

This point, blindingly obvious to most of us, just doesn’t occur to this well meaning, but naïve and, in terms of practice, inexperienced man. Yes, it’s certainly hard to see how competition can be fostered within or between state-owned enterprises. The shabby unproductive factories of Eastern Europe are witness to the lack of it. ‘Growth’ and ‘improvement’ cannot be directed, even by the best motivated Civil Service in the world, or by the most well-meaning Government. Benn seems to know that something is lacking, but doesn’t see what it is.

And all three of these lovely men are still devoted to the old class-war rhetoric that talks of ‘working people’ as if these are still the oppressed. exploited manual labourers toiling in mines or in Satanic mills. They forget that capitalism isn’t any longer unfettered (and never should be), that there’s the national health service (which could be better), there’s free education (that could be better), there’s a minimum wage (that could be higher), and myriad health and safety regulations that protect the ‘worker’ (whether struggling with a machine or at a call centre) from the mercilessness of capitalist greed. And they forget that everyone, whether ‘worker’ or not, aspires to better his or her lot. Whether you believe that the balance should be tipped more in favour of the disadvantaged or not, there’s no class war being fought, is there?

Admirably, none of them has the slick establishment gloss of the career politician, the pragmatic, non-ideological, unprincipled, deal-making skill that the likes of Tony Blair, David Miliband, David Cameron, even Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown possess.

But what do we want our politicians to be? Good men, unsullied by the realities of the world, averse to compromise, certain of their mission and clearly principled? Or realists?

There is currently a global, certainly European, aversion to establishment politicians. Conviction politicians, and anti-establishment parties of both the left and right are winning the votes of the disaffected, whether old or young. Syriza, in Greece, is a case in point. But what are the realities of power? Alexis Tsipras has, finally, been forced to accept a deal that is worse than the one his people rejected earlier in a referendum.

Labour party members or affiliates must ‘get real’. Unhappily, I agree with Tony Blair, that Jeremy Corbyn would be another disaster for the Labour Party. As Gordon Brown said yesterday, the Labour Party must be credible, radical and electable.

Whither Socialism?!

The results of Thursday’s election in the UK took us all by surprise. None of the P’s predicted it, neither pollsters, nor politicians, nor pundits. As the exit polls came in and the final results were predicted, political leaders vowed to eat their hats, or their kilts, if they were right, and now they must make good on those promises.

To my mind there was only one interesting surprise, the Labour Party’s failure outside Scotland.

That the Scottish National Party did well was no surprise at all. It was accurately predicted. The Referendum on Independence had energised politics in Scotland and Scottish consideration of Scotland’s interests. But I hope that the rejection of the Unionist parties doesn’t mean that Independence is the goal of all those who voted SNP.

The shocking collapse of the Lib-Dem vote (to which I would have added my own if I were not disenfranchised by 15 years’ residency outside the UK) was predictable, if not its appalling extent.

UKIP polled more or less as expected, and, unjustly, won only a single seat.

The real surprise was the failure of Labour. After the left-centrist politics of the Blair years, and encouraged by the Unions (whose influence won Ed Miliband the party leadership), the Labour Party moved consciously to the left, towards the ground it occupied in the 1970s and 1980s, both in policy and in language. Ed Miliband’s rhetoric, no doubt milder and more digestible than that of his Marxist intellectual father, was still based on an academic vision of class war, of the proletariat asserting its power. He saw the financial crisis of eight years ago as the predictable result of unfettered capitalism, a manifestation of its theoretical evils ,to be improved, if not entirely replaced by a socialist economic system designed in the university laboratory. New Labour’s cool about people becoming filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes, has no place in Ed Miliband’s emotional palette.


This old-socialist model is the prism (red and dead) through which Ed Miliband sees the world, but I suspect it’s not a vision that appeals to the ‘working families’ of today to whom he repeatedly referred in his speeches (though, who are they?). In reality he’s no more comfortable having tea with the ‘working classes’ than David Cameron, though I fancy Dave can eat a hamburger more elegantly. But I don’t think the geeky academic other-worldliness lost him the election, rather an ideology that doesn’t make sense any longer, that doesn’t chime with how people see themselves, and that can’t be applied to the economy we live and work in.

Of course, socialism can be a good thing, even without the Marxist theory. Let’s regulate capitalism, but not replace it. (To her credit, Margaret Thatcher saw that what ‘working people’ want is not class war, but a share of what the richer folks have – property and possibility. Fairness, not collective ownership.)

Whither Sociialism?!

Ed is now out, so what comes next? I’d suggest the Party put aside Das Kapital, but take some account, instead, of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There’s a good argument to be made that inequality is a danger in itself. So, keep the proposals for an asset-value-oriented Mansion Tax, abolish the Non-Dom status, keep bashing down the walls of privilege and exclusion, don’t pander to xenophobia, but don’t be the Party of ‘working people’. Forget class. Take the vision and argue the case with everyone. The Labour Party needn’t be the party of ‘working families’ alone.

As for a new leader, jump a generation. Don’t choose between the Blair-ites and the Brown-ites. Choose someone new. I’d vote for Chuka Umunna myself.


And as for the SNP, whoever rules must now bow to the pressure for devolution. It’s fair that Scotland is asserting its own interests (I’m sure it’s that sense of making Scotland heard in Westminster rather than the ‘progressive’ aspect of Nicola Sturgeon’s policies that won the SNP their seats). But let’s keep the Union. Don’t let legitimate regionalism mutate further into toxic nationalism.

Why didn’t anyone foresee what was going to happen? Why were there so many ‘shy Conservatives’, saying one thing to the pollsters and then doing another? Could it be because Labour misguidedly puts itself forward as the ‘moral’, rather than the ‘pragmatic’ choice, and that we tell the pollsters how we would like to vote, not how we will.

Socialists don’t accept human nature as it is (Marx supposed that it could be transformed through Socialism). They have a generous but unreal idea of our human capacity for altruism. When we get to the ballot box we usually vote in our own narrower interests. At that moment, in private, we vote as we are, not as we would wish to be. The new Labour leadership must recognise that.