Saturday, 26 March 2016

Labour's experiment in expanding party affiliation

Jessica Garland

Few if any in the UK Labour Party anticipated the consequences of the decision back in July 2014 to change how the party selects its leader. The decision to move away from an electoral college and open up rights to supporters as well as members and affiliated trade unionists has led to the election of a party leader who has stood outside the mainstream of his party for decades. A leader who stood because it was his turn and was nominated by his colleagues merely to ‘widen the debate’, finds himself unexpectedly leading his party.

This procedural change has had profound consequences for the party. The party’s leader now has a mandate from the majority of members, trade union affiliates and overwhelming support amongst registered supporters (many of whom have since become full members), but he does not command the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The party at the grassroots has seen huge increases in membership and party meetings have burgeoned with new attendees but there is fear of entryism and suggestion of moves to deselect existing representatives. Yet whilst these outcomes are specific to Labour at this point in time, the move to expanding affiliation and opening political rights to leader selection is not.

In an era of individualised political participation and apparent decline in formal memberships (in older parties at least), political parties across Europe are experimenting with opening up selection and policy influence and offering a wider range of ways to affiliate. It is a shift described by Susan Scarrow as ‘multi-speed’ membership - retaining traditional formal membership whilst expanding looser affiliation options - and it has the potential to create tensions within parties, particularly when new affiliation options are layered on top of existing membership structures.

Even before the results of the leadership contest were announced, the party was struggling with the realities of a ‘multi-speed’ way of organising. During the summer of Labour’s leadership contest under the new rules, the party found itself engaged in a vetting operation involving a large number of party staff in reviewing supporter sign-ups. Newly registered supporters were checked for past behaviour such as supporting other candidates or online activity that would appear against the party’s values. The vetting process may have primarily been driven by concerns over a potential legal challenge but it also suggests that the party was struggling with something new. After all, Labour is a party that has always engaged non-members in its internal processes and the vetting of voters was not considered necessary in elections previously when up to 2.7 million ballots were sent to union affiliates regardless of the degree of their support. The discomfort the party experienced as a result of widening that constituency suggests a deeper problem.

In my article for Political Quarterly I argue that Scarrow’s theory of the relationship between multi-speed organising and organisational ideology helps to explain this tension. The change in rights and privileges within the party can be seen as a challenge to the party’s ‘narrative of representation’. Parties, like Labour, which have traditionally represented group interests and cemented their links to these groups through membership, have a particular concept of political legitimacy, with membership (and affiliation) at its core. Though Labour has moved a long way from a group representation model, the move to a partially open primary represents a further shift in who the party represents, in who it is accountable to, in where authority resides. It explains why opening up to a wider group of supporters was difficult for the party and it is a tension that continues to make itself felt as members of groups supporting the new leader debate whether or not non-members and members of other parties should be allowed in.

As Labour struggles with the dramatic changes a switch in procedural rules has occasioned, it is important to look beyond the factional debates at the broader shift in representation and legitimacy; a shift that raises fundamental questions of where power resides and who owns the party.

You can read Jessica’s full article 'A Wider Range of Friends: Multi-speed Organising during the 2015 Labour Leadership Contest' here.

Friday, 18 March 2016

On the retreat and self-erosion of democracy

Adrian Pabst

Since Francis Fukuyama prophesised in 1989 the ‘end of history’ and a global convergence towards liberal market democracy as the final form of human government, democratic rule has been in retreat. With some notable exceptions, the transition from communism to capitalism has led to authoritarian democracies. The example of China shows that the capitalist market is compatible with a collectivist state ruled by a one-party leadership that shows little interest in democratically self-governing institutions or the rule of law. Across the Middle East and beyond, the attempt to combine democracy with Islam lies in ruins – at least for now. Turkey and Indonesia, the greatest hopes for such a reconciliation, are fast sliding into autocracy. Elsewhere too, rival systems of government are spreading and with them corruption, the denial of fundamental freedoms, war and famine.

Mass migration, terrorism and globalisation have brought these external threats closer to countries where democratic rule is established. While democracy has so far not collapsed (unlike in the interwar period), it is often weak, ineffective and increasingly post-democratic – as Colin Crouch argues. Together with other theorists of democracy such as Peter Mair and Sheldon Wolin, Crouch is right to suggest post-1945 democratisation has given way to a concentration of power in the hands of small groups that are unrepresentative and unaccountable. This is perhaps best illustrated by the nexus between ‘big governments’ and ‘big business’.

However, in my contribution to the latest issue of The Political Quarterly, I contend that the thesis of post-democracy and cognate concepts are ultimately unable to theorise the self-erosion of democratic government. This self-erosion refers to the tendency of democracy to undermine the very principles which it purports to uphold – the separation of powers, the rule of law, freedom, equality and core constitutional provisions such as fair detention, fair trial or the presumption of innocence. This tendency has its roots in the functioning of democratic rule itself, starting with the mutation of representatives into self-serving elites.

Indeed, in democracies that privilege common rules and formal procedures over shared ends or substantive values, many elected representatives end up representing their own interests at the expense of the public good – the MPs expenses’ scandal in the UK is merely the tip of an iceberg that includes numerous politicians, bankers, regulators, business tycoons, journalists and policemen who collude in flouting the very rules that apply to everybody else.

My article goes further to suggest that democracy can engender oligarchy, demagogy, and even new forms of tyranny. We are seeing the rise of a new oligarchy that strengthens executive power at the expense of parliament and people – and not just in individual cases such as Berlusconi. Democracy is characterised by the exponential growth of executive legislation (often rubber-stamped by a parliamentary majority beholden to executive writ) and the growing power of technocracy relative to the legislature.

The lack of accountability and popular participation is compounded by a process of ‘self-corruption’ whereby an elected executive claims legitimate authority to exceed its own mandate in the face of circumstances that the electorate cannot vote on. Recent examples include post-9/11 counter-terrorist legislation that suspend core constitutional provisions, or responses to other emergencies such as the 2008 financial crash that led to taxpayer-funded bailouts without popular consent. In each case, democratic rule ends up providing an oligarchic defence of the bases of oligarchic control – whether an emergency response to a threat or an opportunity to extend power (or both at once). Either way, democracy is compatible with an oligarchy that goes well beyond the power of global firms – the focus of Crouch and Wolin.

In relation to demagogy, it is true that democracies face the permanent threat of populist forces that seek to destroy individual liberties paradoxically in the name of free speech – as in the case of far-right racist groups, religious fundamentalists or ‘insurgent’ candidates like Donald Trump. However, democracy itself can be a catalyst for populism and demagogy in three ways. First, the tendency to exploit fear and manipulate opinion becomes an endemic feature of democratic government. Contemporary democracy often revolves around supposedly guarding against alien elements: the terrorist, the refugee, the foreigner, the welfare-scrounger and those deemed deficient in ‘entrepreneurship’.

Second, democracies manipulate opinion, and populism seems to be an inevitable consequence of the democratic primacy of procedure over substance. Ever-greater use of techniques derived from PR and the advertising industry reinforces democracy’s tendency towards demagogy. The ‘culture’ of spin, media stunts, focus groups and seemingly endless electoral campaigns has turned politics into a spectacle of general mass opinion that can be described as a form of manipulative populism – promising ever-greater freedom of choice but ‘the conditions under which choices are made are not themselves a matter of choice’ (as Zygmunt Bauman argues). In turn, the manipulative populism of the ruling elites fuels the anti-establishment populism of insurgent movements such as the Tea Party in the US, Front National in France, or the UK Independence Party in Britain.

Third, contemporary democracy deploys spectacle and new forms of propaganda. Of course this is not the same as in dictatorial regimes. Compared with twentieth-century totalitarian rule, democratic politics wields more indirect power, working through influence on people’s minds and more effectively securing control via compliant behaviour and the demobilisation of the citizenry than does an extrinsic imposition of force.

In consequence, democracy risks sliding into a form of ‘democratic despotism’ that maintains the illusion of free choice while generating ‘voluntary servitude’ (Tocqueville) – a form of subtle manipulation by ostensible consent whereby people subject themselves freely to the will of the ruling oligarchy. As Tocqueville anticipated, democratic oligarchy and demagogy produces tutelary power:

[…] the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannise, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. […] servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind […] might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

You can read Adrian Pabst's full article for free here.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Public service broadcasting: What research tells us

Ken Newton, Emeritus Professor
University of Southampton

Public broadcasting matters. In spite of the revolution brought about by the new digital means of communications, watching TV news is still the main way in which most people keep up with current affairs. Compared with commercial broadcasting, research from Europe, North America and Japan shows that public channels usually carry more news, more hard news, more frequently, and at peak viewing and listening hours. Public services are also more highly trusted by the general public for the accuracy, reliability and impartiality of their news coverage. Public service TV channels and radio stations underpin democratic politics by contributing to higher levels of political knowledge, a smaller knowledge gap between the well and poorly informed, civic attitudes of cooperation and engagement, political empowerment, social trust, confidence in political institutions, political participation and voting. Furthermore, there is a ‘rainmaker effect’: just as the gentle rain from heaven falls upon the just and unjust alike, so also a general climate of trust affects all members of society, whatever their personal inclinations and whatever TV channels they favour.

The growing body of research findings on public and commercial media systems has clear implications for current policy discussions about the future of public service broadcasting in an increasingly commercialised world. If the findings are taken seriously, there is a strong case for maintaining a substantial public service element in national broadcasting systems and ensuring that these are well funded and robustly protected from government interference and commercial pressures, as this will contribute to the quality of democratic and social life. Policies that undermine public service broadcasting are likely also to undermine the public understanding and knowledge of politics as well as civic behaviour more generally.

Entertainment programming matters too. A public service shorn of its ability to present popular programmes, whether sport, drama, soap operas, reality shows or music, will fail to exercise a beneficial effect on those who fall into the news rather than seeking it out.

This, of course, results in a conflict between the public interest, on the one hand, and party political and powerful commercial interests, aligned on the other. The public interest lies in maintaining a trusted, reliable and balanced source of easily accessible news. Political interests lie in commercial news sources that faithfully repeat the words of politicians and their spin doctors. Commercial interests want a larger slice of the media cake and the profits they produce. Together they favour the commercialisation of the public service media, partially at least, but preferably wholesale.

You can read the full article 'Public Service and Commercial Broadcasting: Impacts on Politics and Society' here.