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Analysis #31

Democracy and the Left: A Marriage of Convenience?

Michael Crowley

3 July 2019

The Left has always been divided over whether democracy is a cardinal principle, or – as the Stalinists proposed – just a disposable means to an end. Today’s anti-democratic Leftists dislike democracy because they see ordinary citizens as an obstacle to socialist transformation, rather than its vehicle.

The provenance of the terms “left” and “right” in politics lies in the division between democracy and authoritarianism. They originated in the French Revolution when, at the National Assembly and subsequent Legislative Assembly, members loyal to the king and religion, sat on the president’s right, while the revolutionaries, who advocated universal male suffrage, sat on the left. Thereafter, the left became synonymous with widening political authority to the population at large and the right with confining power to the few.

In today’s Britain, however, the situation is back to front (see Analysis #22 - Who Shall Rouse Him Up? Brexit: The World Turned Upside Down). The majority of the left favour ignoring the biggest democratic mandate in UK history in order to keep the country locked into an institution that is de-democratising Europe (see Analysis #1 - The EU's Democratic Deficit: Why Brexit is Essential for Restoring Popular Sovereignty). Of course, there are exceptions, but only seven Labour MPs initially supported Leave, and the pressure is now building on Corbyn to make Labour unequivocally support re-running the referendum to get the “correct” result. Those who want to want to respect the referendum result are typically seen as being on the right, while those that do not are on the left. This perspective has, in part, been fashioned to assist the Remain case, but it is broadly accurate. What does this mean for the left in the UK?

In reality, the relationship between the left and democracy has not been straightforward. Throughout the nineteenth century, British socialists and the labour movement campaigned for widening suffrage, from Peterloo and the Chartists, arguing that extending the franchise was integral to achieving social justice. In February 1918, The Representation of the People Act received royal assent, enfranchising most adults. However, a few months later the leaders of the world’s first socialist revolution suppressed rival parties in the Soviet Union in their desperate struggle to stave off defeat at the hands of counter-revolutionary armies. The Soviet Union was to remain a one-party state, and this consolidated a lasting rift within the left. For many working people in Britain and beyond, democracy was and still is, an end in itself, an important article of faith. For many socialists, though, it was merely a means to an end – the achievement of a socialist society. Democracy could, in fact, become an obstacle to achieving that end.

The ideology has changed somewhat since 1918. Class has been replaced by identity – the red flag by a rainbow. The contemporary left is mercurial, unsure of exactly what it believes or desires, cut adrift from its own traditions. In the left that I inhabited, from the late 1970s to the 1990s, most had read Orwell, Marx, and Connolly. In the Labour Party that I recently quit, the required reading is more likely The Guardian and Judith Butler. However, the left is still quite sure of is its moral superiority, perhaps even more so. The contemporary left believes that right and history are on its side, breeding a self-righteous sense of entitlement that has little regard for “the democracy of the dead”, as Chesterton put it. It has sufficient moral certainty to ignore 52 percent of a 72 percent turnout (more votes, relatively or absolutely, than Atlee, Blair or Thatcher ever received). The Labour Party has turned from praying for a high turnout in elections to worrying that it risks the wrong kind of person voting for the wrong kind of outcome.

We should situate the left’s attitude to Brexit in the wider context of its no platforming of speakers, its increasing censorship, its compulsion to regulate, and its tendency to casually defame opponents as racist or worse. The left has adopted a new kind of Stalinist handbook, where Leave supporters are described as far right, even fair game for assault. This not only betrays an intellectual laziness, but also expresses their self-appointed status as society’s moral and political arbitrators: their ethical commitments should trump democracy.

This sense of certainty is also found on the Labour right, however; but here what should trump democracy is a sense of economic, not moral, rectitude. The interests of “the economy” have often been put above questions of democracy and civil liberties. For two decades, William Wilberforce’s bills on the abolition of slavery were voted down in the interests of trade. Today, big business lines up to oppose Brexit, with Amazon’s UK chief warning that there will be riots on the streets if Britain leaves the EU without a deal. The Labour right has echoed capitalist rhetoric since the referendum campaign, cloaking it in pro-workerist talk of “saving jobs”. The defence of “just-in-time supply chains” has somehow become a socialist principle, with the protection of multinational companies’ smooth operations being elevated over the votes of ordinary workers.

Both the Labour left and right are now in conflict with a significant section of Labour’s traditional constituency, because they despise them or despair of them. There is nothing new in this: Brexit has only magnified it. During the Thatcher years, it was a given on much of the left that many working-class voters were naïve, stupid, easily taken in by the tabloids. The Harry Enfield character “Loads a’ Money”, a cashed-up plasterer, personified the problem for them. It was during this period that the left abandoned its historical opposition to European integration, for EU regulations were seen as constraining Tory attacks in a way that the electorate was failing to do (see Analysis  #6 - Why Did Britain Vote to Leave the EU?). Today, having lost the last three elections, the left continues to see the EU as a more reliable ally than the tabloid-reading working class.

The left’s current divorce from democracy has clearly been long in the making. In the 1980s, Labour had a problem with the middle classes that aspirational Blair smoothed out. Increasingly, under Corbyn it has a problem with the working classes that is more difficult to resolve. This may not prevent Labour from securing office, but to do this they will have to betray democracy and outflank the Liberal Democrats. They seem resigned to this course, while knowing that it will haunt them for a long time. Support for Leave has been resilient over the last three years because at the heart of it is a belief in and a desire for democracy. This desire has roots that long pre-date the modern left, surfacing as early as 1647 with the Levellers at the Putney debates. It lived on within the twentieth-century left through the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and left opposition to the transfer of powers to Brussels, spearheaded by Tony Benn. Yet Jeremy Corbyn, a protégé of Benn, now seems set to cut a Faustian pact, sacrificing democracy to attain power. But history will judge a prime minster who betrays Brexit more harshly than one that sees it through – for they will have done a grave injury to democracy, an idea that will outlast the crumbling left-right divide.

About the Author

Michael Crowley is a writer and dramatist. His latest publication is The Stony Ground, a novel about the penal settlement at Sydney Cove. 

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.