Jeremy Corbyn lost a fair bit of his loyal following immediately after the Brexit vote because he stood there and told reporters we should now action Article 50 (I think it was called) and start the Brexit process. He lost quite a bit more in the following weeks, when he was asked questions about the process and for the first time ever, we saw Corbyn doing what lesser politicians do all the time – fumbling around blocking questions.
It wasn’t natural to him and it wasn’t fair. It happened because he knew he’d been elected on a mandate to make politics fair and democratic, to make the Labour Party democratic, and responsive to membership votes – well you can begin to see the problem right there. What if the membership (at that time, nearly half a million people) don’t want what the rest of the population want? Or what if the membership are bitterly divided amongst themselves? (It’s the job of a leader to keep the membership together, remember?)
But Corbyn had a bigger problem than that stopping his mouth at that time. He had a bunch of MPs who had no intention whatsoever of doing what the Labour Party membership wanted, let alone what the country as a whole wanted. I think he should have told us that, right then.
Brexit was the point where it became visible to most of us that the Corbyn project had failed, and those who had idolised Corbyn as a saviour finally began to see that with the best will in the world, he couldn’t do democracy alone amongst the wolves of the establishment. I think the movement should have taken to the streets before then, to be honest. It was clear after 2017 that our ‘democracy’ was not real.
How faux democracy works
Our MPs are not required to even attempt to follow our wishes. Once they are subsumed into Westminster, any community awareness they had at the start is soon lost. If your MP has the good fortune (that’s how they look at it) to become a minister, they will have no time at all to keep up with what’s going on in the town they are meant to represent and, even as back benchers, they will be associating with corporate lobbyists in Westminster at least as much as they are at home listening to you.
People in the Labour Party during the Corbyn years spent vast amounts of time and energy investigating policies, attending lectures, reading up on economics, international relations, all kinds of things, then drawing up motions and making policy. Then, in the run up to the election, the parliamentary Labour MPs and their political bag-carriers got together and drew up a manifesto informed by whatever lobbyists, advisors or colleagues had recommended to them. They put in as much or as little of the membership’s offerings as seemed right to them.
Why doesn’t our democracy work?
Two reasons. One is about education, the other about representation:
We need to be much better informed. Take ‘The Guardian’ for example, a mainstream corporate newspaper that used to be run by a trust, and is now a trust-look-alike thing run for corporate profit. It is called ‘The Guardian’ as an abbreviation of ‘the Guardian of democracy’. It runs a vast amount of journalism and opinion articles by anyone who can get the paper’s attention and approval under the heading ‘Comment is free’. We freelancers like to quip that that’s because contributors don’t get paid, but the title originally comes from a statement by C P Snow that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’.
The cynicism of the Guardian knows no bounds. Democracy cannot work unless you have an educated, well-informed electorate. Hence, free journalism is the true ’guardian of democracy’, and whilst journalists should be free with their opinions, they should also be attempting to give a fair and wide-ranging view of the facts – something neither the Guardian nor any other mainstream media outlet has been doing. Here’s one example of how the Guardian and its brothers and sisters misused facts during the era I’m thinking about…
This situation often leaves even the most honest of MPs thinking they don’t want to do what the majority of the public wants, because the majority of the public just don’t get the issues (I’d cite dissembling MPs muttering something to that effect whenever the issue of ‘capital punishment’ comes up). Or where you have a relatively well-informed public they end up seething with frustration because their MPs are no longer in the ‘real world’ and they just don’t get the issues (I’d cite all those MPs who were miles behind many of us in realising that virtuously shouting ‘transwomen are women’ was in effect assenting to males in women’s sport, and male sex-offenders ‘identifying’ in and out of female prisons and hostels at will).
Representative or participatory democracy?
As I said above, the idea behind representative democracy is that people get to choose someone to represent them, then trust that their choice is good enough that that person will broadly do what they want for the rest of their term in office. That can’t work unless there is a free choice of candidates, and the chosen candidate is honest with the electorate about their goals. Nothing about our party-political system, our electoral system or our media facilitates that happy outcome. We can only solve that by dismantling the corporate media and the blatantly dysfunctional, first-past-the-post, two-party electoral system.
Participatory democracy is a system where the people remain involved after the elections. It exists, to a small extent, in our trade unions. Quite a lot of union votes are run by a form of PR that makes sure your votes don’t end up benefiting someone you utterly disagree with, should your first choice fail, and unions (and occasionally the Labour Party) have mandating meetings after elections, where the electorate get to instruct their representative on what they do and don’t want them to do.
For as long as we have a corporate media and a dysfunctional electoral system though, we need much more than mandating meetings. We need an electorate who will be – well, more French – who will get collectively angry, and do whatever our equivalent of parking your tractors in the city square is. When MPs don’t do what we want, we need to be out there, together, blocking them.
The referendum effect
There have been three much agonised over referenda in our mainstream news in recent years – in the UK, one on Scottish independence and one on EU membership, and in Ireland, one on abortion law. One of the three was run in a participatory manner – the Irish one. I say that because those two vital ingredients, education and participation were there. The people had plenty of notice, plenty of opportunity to discuss the situation, learn about and campaign on the issues, and to arrange to come home and vote if they were elsewhere.
Scottish friends tell me they’d struggle to find an honest word or deed from Westminster MPs during the Independence one, but I reckon the EU one was the worst. There was not enough time, we started from a position where people had been consistently lied to about the EU by both media and government for decades, and hardly any politicians attempted to address the situation like honest adults. The result was bound to be close to civil war. It was faux democracy — so whether a Remainer or a Leaver, next time you hear someone ranting about how Brexit turned out, please do point out it was David Cameron’s fault. He sprung it on us for his own convenience, and did nothing to show the people what a vote this way or that would entail.
So, to return to my opening point, Corbyn was stymied after the referendum because his first instinct was to follow his mandate – be democratic – so he called for an immediate start to the Brexit process, in honour of the referendum result. That proved useless because at that point, no-one knew what it meant or how to do it, let alone whether it was the right thing to do. We should not have been voting on it in that state of blissful ignorance. Then when the inevitable rows started, Corbyn’s only remaining option was to fudge and block and try to avoid questions that forced him to make things worse by siding with one half of the fuming population against the other, while we still weren’t clear what it was we were getting into.
So what do we do now?
The potentially fatal problems build up — the wars, the climate crisis, the energy companies and predatory landlords bankrupting us, the destruction of our NHS, whilst the media hang onto the fiction that we all care which dishonest member of our dysfunctional government has next go as Prime Minister. Their endless coverage assumes we want to listen to every pointless word the candidates utter, despite knowing full well they aren’t obliged to stand by anything they say.
Education and participation are still key
We can do the education bit as individuals or together – we all need to constantly build on our critical reading/viewing skills – don’t waste time on what the media tell you are the big stories. Try to find out more about what’s really going on and what the options really are, then debate (not instruct, debate) what we learn with others, to spread those skills.
The participatory bit is about building collectivism and solidarity. That can be very difficult in an angry, mendacious atmosphere, and relies on those critical skills…
I ran into difficulty last week, when I shared that ‘dontpay’ website, thinking this was a fight-back we could all do together, then found some people were very worried about who was running the site – were we being conned again? (Thanks, Helen, Jane and others, for the critical reading and the research!) So I backed up on that, but was left wondering what we can do about the government allowing energy companies to drive us all into poverty. So were lots of other people. It has to be us, collectively, that do something. It’s clear the government won’t.
Then, because of all the community questioning and talking, a better-informed message started going around – don’t cancel your direct debit and just not pay, you’ll get into trouble on your own – but let’s all contest our bills in October, together. You won’t get into trouble for delaying payment while there is a query being dealt with, and if we all do it, we’ll be holding back a lot of money, putting pressure on the energy companies and creating a situation our government will eventually have to react to. In the meantime, we all need to talk a lot and write a lot about what we’re doing, and when, and why, so lots of people know, and join in (and lots of people check and improve on our ideas!)
Community Action on energy bills is one example, and a good place to start. Supporting trade unions where they are battling the cost-of-living crisis is another, but we do need to inform ourselves about all the issues that are hurting us and our communities, and act together on everything, if we’re to get out of this mess.
It can start very small and very simple. Please read more, listen more (and question sources) please look around in your street, your town, your workplace, and join in more things where you see people working together to force government action. If nothing’s happening where you are, start something. Little groups, local actions, can join up and grow, and there is a tipping point, where even your average British person will find the UK equivalent of driving our tractors to the city square, and do it.
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