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Rethinking democracy

New Labour is allowing democracy to be tamed by globalised free markets. Meanwhile, American style politics is leading to political stagnation and loss of identity for Labour, argues Joy Johnson.

Despite an assertion to the contrary democracy is fragile. Its fragility is also a strength in as much as it forces us to come to its defence. 'Rethinking democracy.' the conference organised by Labour Reform and Chartist was intended to do just that. The question we were asked to consider 'does democracy need political parties?' has a simple answer - yes. In the light of the ever greater centralisation of New Labour and where the phrases 'stitch up' and 'backroom deals' are becoming common currency I posed a further question - 'do political parties need democracy?' It too demands the answer - yes.

Both of these questions are prompted by the political circumstances in which we now find ourselves, post cold war, specifically the so-called end of ideology and the triumph of economic and political liberalism. These assertions lie at the heart of Fukuyama's notorious 'end of history' essay along with his contention that a 'remarkable consensus has developed in the world concerning the legitimacy and viability of liberal democracy'. His essay provided succour and comfort to America, which, post Vietnam and with economic rivalries from the East had suffered a loss of confidence in its economic and defence prowess. Now the supremacy of Western values was again hegemonic, and politicians have mutated into technocrats asking only 'how' and not 'why'.

Acceptance of the end of history thesis, globalisation and the 'Washington free market consensus' was apparent in Tony Blair's 1999 Labour conference speech: "Global finance and communications and media. Electronic commerce. The internet. The science of genetics. Every year a new revolution scattering in its wake, security and ways of living for millions of people. These are the forces of change driving the future. They wait for no-one and no nation. The challenge is how. The answer is people".

These sentiments are those of a pragmatism which has political outcomes determined by the experts who make up government task forces. It is predicated on the belief that those tensions between competing economic systems have supposedly been eradicated. And it is the language of the techno-politician accepting the world as it is. Yet tensions have not been taken out of the system. They exist between liberalism and democracy itself, namely between liberal individual rights, and democratic concerns with collective action and public accountability. Furthermore, there is more than one form of government, which can be comprehended under the term "democracy".

New Labour gives all the appearance of suffering from a crisis of identity. It knows it is no longer socialist. The discrediting of socialist ideology, combined with the perceived failings of nationalisation, specifically in relation to efficiency, contributed to Labour's transition from a party concerned with the collective to one based on individualism. But it is not sure whether or not it is truly Social Democrat. Premier Blair looks to Liberal figures of the past for inspiration, while his close confidant Peter Mandelson recently asserted that pure representative democracy was coming to an end. Plebiscites, it would seem, are to be preferred to elections and the right of the people through Parliament to hold the political elite to account. Despite its defects, representative democracy is infinitely superior to a form of voting that can be manipulated, not to enhance democracy but to destroy it.

Fortunately only Mr. Mandelson believes in the end of 'representative democracy'. But within the party itself there is a sense that democratic impulses are stifled. A presentation to Labour's National Executive Committee members in October this year - dubbed 'New Democracy' - dealt with party structures. The rhetoric may be of greater democracy, with an element of policy formation given to members of regional policy forums, but the reality is that the executive is dominant. According to an NEC member who attended the presentation the intention was clear - activists were not welcome, passive supporters on the other hand were to be encouraged.

This is further proof of the increasing Americanisation of politics. It is in line with the personalisation of political issues where the plebiscitary dimension of politics reduces the role of party organisation. We saw it in the run up to the 1997 general election when the manifesto (without amendment) was put to a vote of the membership. And we saw it when Clause IV of Labour's constitution, with its ideological commitment to public ownership, was dropped. Both plebiscites gave the leadership overwhelming support, although this was hardly surprising given the timing. The election was only months away and self-discipline at all levels of the party was total. However, while plebiscites may appear seductive they are essentially undemocratic, as they become instruments of executive manipulation rather than popular sovereignty. They are part and parcel of an organisation which has weakened party structures, an essential feature of the centrality of the leader.

Americanisation is not new and has long been a term of derision on the left, but the personal chemistry between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair has deepened the special relationship. The New Democrats begat New Labour. Thus the British and American political systems give every appearance of converging. The most obvious - and commented upon - similarity emerging between the two countries is in the increasing taste for strong leadership of a 'presidential type' untrammelled by any political constraints, other than the requirement to secure re-election every four or five years. Through a synthesis of media and organisation the party in 1997 became an efficient instrument in the election of the political elite but mobilisation alone is not enough. For activists to be effective they should be participatory and not passive. For leaders to be democratic and not oligarchic they should be held to account from below through internally democratic political organisation, as well as the votes through elections.

An elite that contends that the occasional plebiscites fulfil the democratic requirement frowns upon this constraint. Along with this direct democracy among the membership go the policy determinants by focus groups among the electorate. Americanised focus group techniques have multiple uses. On the one hand they allow pragmatic politicians to devise policy and language to appeal to volatile voters. However they can be manipulated to validate the direction in which the leadership is taking the party. Focus group participants, it is argued, are more likely to reflect individual and not collective interest. Furthermore information from these groups is in the hands of the political consultants. They have control of a commodity with a greater value to the technocratic politician than ideological values held by their colleagues.

An end to ideology may appear seductive but without ideas to drive change politics stagnate and without debate informed choices cannot be made. In an adversarial political system, admittedly, debate can be characterised as division and the narrative about Labour in the eighties is one of splits and rows with the leadership. While it is undoubtedly true that mistakes were made, to thus characterise this period is a distortion. The high point of the 'left activist' was the period between 1981 and 1983. After that the leadership re-asserted itself and the transition of the party began. That time is now used as an excuse for the greater centralisation of the party. While the decentralisation of the state continues with devolution in Scotland and Wales aiding the peace process in Northern Ireland and the re-establishment of home rule, centralisation of the party process continues. It is worth noting that those political commentators who blithely talk of the end of politics as a response to low turnout in elections play a dangerous game. When power was devolved to Northern Ireland and the politicians got down to talking about mundane issues Martin McGuiness said, "We now have to make the politics work." When the politics doesn't work the fighting begins.

For the new breed of leadership, democracy is not about debate or discussion, it is about finding appropriate means to give legitimacy, without serious challenge, to decisions already taken and their course already determined. In 1993 when John Smith and John Prescott staked their political reputations on winning OMOV at the party conference the value of open democratic debate was demonstrated. Opposition to OMOV came primarily from those who thought that it was the first move in the divorce from the party and the trade unions. Insofar as Mr. Smith was concerned it would be a fair assumption to make that OMOV was to be the last of the reforms to the Labour Party. When Tony Blair ran as leader following John Smith's death he put further modernisation on the cards. Yet during the leadership contest he had ruled out the one change which was the modernisers' greatest prize - dropping Clause IV. However that was out of political expediency, since he did not wish to alienate sections of the electoral college which would determine the political outcome. It was not until his first speech to the party conference as leader that he indicated his true intention regarding what had in any event become largely totemic - removing Clause IV with its commitment to public ownership. It was not, however, a proclamation and it was left to the spin doctors to clarify Mr. Blair's words which were disguised as wanting to create 'a clear up-to-date statement of the aims and objectives of our party'. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary described it later as a political coup.

This decision made in secret by a tiny elite was a precursor to New Labour's methods of operation. OMOV was abandoned when it did not suit the technocratic fixing tendencies of the leadership, as in Wales and currently in the search for a candidate as the first directly elected Mayor of London. All talk of divorce from the trade unions was ended when it was re-discovered that some are useful in fixing votes for the leadership in time honoured tradition. Whereas the forces of democracy previously tamed the market, now with the forces of globalisation and the capitulation to the free market, the impression is one of impotence of nation states. Yet this need not be. Lionel Jospin the French social democrat Prime Minister has declared that while he favours a market economy he does not favour a market society. Democratic governments have to determine the pace of change: not big business whose interests and priorities are for profits and minimising labour costs. When politicians become mere technocrats with target and delivery mentalities then, as Professor David Marquand said at the conference, "democracy is in danger of being tamed in favour of the market".

January/February 2000