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The iron law of malarkey

Is the Labour Party destined to become a stage army of loyalists? Pete Smith looks at the options.

Political parties are at the base of any involvement in the political process. When we vote, we vote for party politicians not individuals. This is partly because we know so little about the people who want us to elect them to council, Parliament and European Parliament or, now, to Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly or London Assembly. Party labels separate a candidate from their opponents and provide the cue that triggers electors to vote for one candidate rather than another.

Political parties, as we currently understand them, arose with the creation of a mass electorate. Politicians needed to communicate with a large number of voters and, thus, the world of mass memberships, subscriptions, meetings, rallies, canvassing, posters and leaflets was brought into existence. Mass-based political parties arose in the era when the masses where making their impact felt in society and even conservative and elitist parties (like the British Conservatives) had to learn how to play the game. Many right wing parties made few pretensions that their members actually had much of a say in the running of the organisation or policy determination. The members were merely the humble sherpas who lifted their leaders to power through their electioneering efforts, not people thought capable of deciding on more weighty matters.

Parties of the left claimed to be different. They represented the workers and were democratic of their very essence. The question marks were raised very early on. Robert Michels, in his book Political Parties, as long ago as 1911, took a long hard stare at the German Social Democratic Party and its associated trade unions. This led him to conclude that such organisations were, in fact, rather than in theory, dominated by their leaders, not democratically controlled by their members. For Michels an "iron law of oligarchy" meant that however democratic an organisation claimed to be the reality would always be rule by the few. An educated, cultured and professional elite, which as Max Weber once said lived "off politics" rather than "for politics" would be able to dominate a membership of poorly educated workers easily prone to deference and respect for those in authority.

Michels and Weber were writing about the domination of leaders over followers, long before the arrival of the mass media. Now party leaders can communicate directly with the people without the intermediary of the party organisation. If Tony Blair wants to speak to the people of Britain he goes on 'Breakfast with Frost' or has Alistair Campbell or Andrew Adonis write articles, under his name, which appear in tabloid newspapers.

Weber saw a tension between what he was to term the "ethic of responsibility" and the "ethic of ultimate ends". The ethic of ultimate ends was the world of those who preferred the party to be right rather than to be in power. Better to despair of the prospect of ever being in a position of doing anything than to sacrifice the principles of the party on the altar of expediency. The ethic of responsibility was the conception that if parties (and their leaders) cannot win power they are not able to do anything, not even the wrong things. Leadership brings with it the responsibility to win.

How many times have we heard people in the Labour Party (and elsewhere) express the view that it was better to stick to our deeply held beliefs than it was to win elections? Labour spent eighteen years in the wilderness as a consequence and the most vulnerable groups in society suffered as a result. In the aftershock of the Conservative melt down of 1997 the Tories have found themselves in a similar position. The conference faithful are overcome by the once and future queen. It does not matter that the voters will not buy it. Better to be right than to be in power.

Are we not reminded of Tony Benn saying of the 1983 election that it was not a defeat because eight million people had voted for Labour's socialist manifesto? In 1983 Labour got only 28% of the vote, its lowest share of the total since before 1918, but this election, in which Benn lost his own seat, was not a "defeat". People on the Labour left or the Tory right who fail to face up to defeat cannot move on. Ultimate ends are all very well but what is the point of a political party that is always in opposition and never in power? Opposition is all talking and no doing.

In contrast party leaders, as far as Weber is concerned, are attracted to the "ethic of responsibility" and need to dominate the party to prevent the "ethic of ultimate ends" excluding the party from power. Leaders are driven in this direction, partly because they wish to be in power and make a difference, but also because power and office brings more prosaic rewards. Cars, salaries, offices and the prestige and the status which go with them are attractive to most of us flawed human beings and to those from fairly humble or working class backgrounds in particular.

The "iron law of oligarchy" ensures that the "ethic of responsibility" dominates over the "ethic of ultimate ends". The top down nature of political parties is rooted in the need to be an effective contender for power. For most of this century the Conservatives excluded the party grassroots from decision making by simply giving the conference no say over policy and using the party membership as spear carriers in election campaigns rather than as people capable of having a say in where the party should be going. Until 1965 the party leader did not even bother to attend the conference but spoke at a rally of representatives on the afternoon of the last day. Votes on resolutions were few and far between and the whole event was stage managed so that awkward voices were seldom heard.

Labour was very different. The party conference aspired to be the supreme policy making body of the party. Policy was what the conference said it was. Neither the National Executive Committee nor, even the leader, decided it. That was why the block vote of the trade unions was so important for the leadership. It provided the shore defences of the "ethic of responsibility" against the breakers of the "ethic of ultimate ends" racing in from the constituency parties. As Perry Anderson has said of the block vote, "it raised up a Leviathan of dead souls, whose mythical millions enabled party leaderships to crush rebellions and to finance elections - enforce discipline and amass funds - without duly exerting themselves."

The transformation of Labour during the 1990s has been remarkable. The shift has been away from representative democracy towards plebiscitary democracy. We have seen the introduction of One Member One Vote (OMOV) in the election of the leader and the National Executive Committee plus postal ballots on policy and constitutional issues. These have created a party where the membership is periodically activated to support the leadership, either in internal party ballots or in knocking on doors and delivering leaflets in an election campaign.

A party organised around infrequent referenda on policies and leaders is likely to be very different from one where the leaders are held accountable to a series or strata of representative structures. The leaders can expect little serious opposition from a membership that is asked to fill out postal ballot papers now and again.

Arthur Lipow, in his comments on Sidney and Beatrice Webb's The History of Trade Unionism points our that the Webbs saw the use of the referendum in early trade unions as "primitive democracy". Lipow goes on to remark that in short, "given the atomised state of the membership, the absence of any provision for a system of representation and the monopoly of communication exercised by the executive, the referendum was transformed into an instrument of domination over rather than by the membership. If democracy must mean this kind of 'direct' democracy, the Webbs conclude, then the result will either be 'inefficiency and disintegration' or in reaction to this, 'the uncontrolled dominance of a personal dictator or an expert party bureaucracy'."

Party leaders have clearly come to the conclusion that the party is less important than was once the case. The rise of the mass media has given leaders the ability to communicate with voters without the need for a grassroots organisation. Spin doctors, media advisers, fund raisers and campaign experts become the new elite which replaces the old one of trade union bosses, Tory grandees and habitual meeting attenders.

Both major parties have constructed systems of control that involve leaders and their policies being periodically confirmed by votes of party members. Party leaders legitimise their power by claiming that the direct voice of the party's members has anointed them with the holy water of democracy.

Party memberships are falling and have been for a very long time. Changes in society are at the bottom of this. Old loyalties, based on class and family background, are weaker than they used to be. Work and leisure compete for time and enthusiasm. Women no longer provide an almost inexhaustible supply of free labour for party organisations. The collapse of the Conservative Party grassroots has been well documented by Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson in True Blues, and elsewhere. Labour bucked the trend from Blair's election as party leader through to 1st May 1997, a period when membership increased dramatically, but the long decline seems to have reasserted itself.

As traditional party structures slip into crisis so leaders seek to bypass them or replace them with a pattern of organisation that reflects their top-down orientation. The abolition of representative structures within the Labour Party is now a declared aim of the leadership. Committees and resolutions will be replaced by rallies at which a stage army of selected members can make evident their faith in the wisdom of their leaders. Joseph Schumpeter once argued that a "party is a group whose members propose to act in concert in the competitive struggle for political power". If a party is to act "in concert" it needs some notion that it is a joint enterprise or common endeavour, not simply the domination of leaders over the led. In fact, in the modern world, where authority is less taken-for-granted than was once the case and deference has all but disappeared, such a top down party is hard to imagine. The modernisers who want to remodel the Labour Party are living in the past not the future.

The most striking thing about the new world of politics is the way that the elite are people who move effortlessly between the worlds of politics, public relations, business, the media and show business. Politicians look and act like chat show hosts, when they are not acting as PR consultants or twin tracking as journalists. Turning the party into a voiceless agent of the powerful, an unspeaking tool of the charmed circle, is the next step in hollowing out the democratic process. The elite, the privileged, the well connected are able to dominate the decision making process regardless of which party is in power. Political parties once gave ordinary people a say in the political process. Whilst claiming to modernise them the intention of some is clear: abolish them. The iron law of oligarchy is replaced by the iron law of malarkey.

November/December 2000