I must admit to indulging in a fair amount of sarcasm in that last post, partly because that was how the writing happened, but also because I was a bit miffed at being told how to vote by someone who’s been a member of the party for five minutes and who only joined to support a leader whom I consider to be disastrous.
But, sarcasm apart, Christine’s email gets to the nub of it by exposing a fundamental difference in understanding of meaning of “democracy” between those who espouse what I might call a “social movement” style of democracy, like Christine, and those who espouse the style of democracy practised by both Great Britain and by the Labour Party, which is representative democracy. In representative democracy, the electorate elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf and, if they don’t like those decisions, they unelect them. There is an excellent article by AC Grayling from The New European which explains it much better than I can. He is writing about the result of the EU referendum, but it applies just as much to the current subject. I have quoted extensively from it below.
The key point about what is democratic and not democratic lies in the difference between an election and a referendum. In an election, electors confer temporary and revocable license on representatives to attend parliament. In parliament the electors’ representatives are required to act in the best interests of their electors, which they chiefly do by acting in the best interests of the country. They are mandated to enquire, debate and decide on legislation, and to hold the executive to account. They are not messengers or delegates charged merely with reporting or acting on their electors’ views; they are plenipotentiaries, acting by their own best lights on behalf of their electors. If they do a bad job they can be dismissed and replaced.
This is representative democracy. The whole point of representative democracy is that its forms prevent the political system from descending into crude majoritarianism (‘the tyranny of the majority’* over minorities is a danger that systems of representative democracy are designed to prevent) or, worse, ochlocracy or mob rule. In an ochlocracy – consider the chaotic situation during a revolution, for example – the crowd overturns the rule of law, inflamed sentiments prevail, decisions are made on the spur of the moment, and reason is usurped by demagoguery.
Representative democracy is a filter that guards against descent into forms of populism. It consists in a due process intended to allow for all factors to be taken into account, and for mature deliberation to select the best way forward on the basis of those factors.
Demagoguery and sentiment might play their part on the hustings and in debate, but it is precisely to ameliorate their effect that the institutions and practices of the democratic order exist. Representative democracy accordingly provides a way to ensure that decisions are taken on a reflective basis.
It means that the legislature will sometimes act in ways that are unpopular, because – having the relevant information and the opportunity to weigh that information properly – its mandated duty requires it to act by its best lights. But this mandate is temporary and revocable; democracy thus based is characterised essentially by the constant democratic supervision that electors apply to those they elect, through the mechanism of periodic elections.
The mistake that Christine (and a lot of other people) have made is to view the decision to exclude people who joined after 24th January from the leadership vote as undemocratic. It isn’t. It may be unpopular, or a bit stupid (personally I think the NEC should have excluded anyone who joined after 23rd June from the leadership election, as that would exclude anyone who joined in the aftermath of the Referendum and subsequent events purely to support Jeremy Corbyn, but would not have been as controversial as the six months figure) but hey, that’s life. I didn’t agree with the decision to allow Jeremy Corbyn onto the ballot paper without the support of the requisite number of MPs, because whatever the letter of the rule in question, the spirit was clearly intended to ensure that no-one who couldn’t work with the PLP could stand as leader, but again, that’s life. I didn’t like it, but that didn’t make it undemocratic.
*(My comment: or the tyranny of those who have the money to bring court cases over the rest)