Tuesday 23 August 2016

Different types of democracy

Years ago, the Labour Party’s version of internal democracy included taking policy decisions at conferences where all members had a direct vote in determining party policy.  In theory, anyway – the crucial decisions were usually taken by ‘card vote’ where each delegate cast the number of votes which the organisation (s)he represented was allowed.  So leaders of the big unions could and did cast a million or more votes each at a time.  And the number of votes available to them was the number which the union chose to register as ‘members’, without those ‘members’ ever needing to be named.  That number was usually based on a calculation of the balance between the cost of registering them and the influence thereby purchased, and bore little relationship to the actual political views of the ‘members’ concerned.
Still, it was democracy, of a sort, and it gave the members some sort of feeling of ownership of policy.  Mind you, if the leadership didn’t like the policy that the members voted for, they simply ignored it.  Sometimes people think that this is a peculiarly Blairite tendency, but I can remember Harold Wilson happily ignoring conference votes half a century ago.
Over the years, the right of the party’s membership to determine policy through an annual conference was slowly whittled away, and that process certainly came to a peak in the Blair years, leaving members with little real ownership of anything – and I’m sure that that has been a factor in the falling membership numbers of the party.
Yesterday, Owen Smith declared that he would, if elected leader, seek to restore the right of members to determine policy, and that he would then abide by decisions taken by the membership.  That’s certainly in line with what many of Corbyn’s supporters would like – but is he really serious?
What would happen, for instance, if a Labour Party conference voted for nuclear disarmament?  It’s happened before (and was duly ignored by the leadership), and with the influx of Corbyn-leaning members, it must be highly likely that it will happen again.  Is Smith really saying that he would suddenly drop his support for Trident renewal, and admit that he was wrong all along, because the members have now spoken and that must therefore be his new position?  And would all the other rebel MPs fall in line behind him, in a way that they have not done for Corbyn?
That seems an unlikely scenario to me, which leads me to a rather different conclusion.  It’s easy for someone to commit to something if he believes that he will never be called on to deliver on any promise.  The game is no longer about winning, but about trying to reduce the gap in order to provide a ‘justification’ for running the process again in the next year or so (and again thereafter if necessary) until the members finally take the ‘right’ decision.  It’s a form of democracy that he’s supporting, but it’s not democracy as we know it, to adapt a phrase.


Democritus said...

What this points to is the obvious truth that it is one thing for a party to determine what their collective policy is - quite another to impose it on elected representatives who profoundly disagree on a particular element (nuclear weapons or nuclear power makes a good example across many parties as it largely cuts across nationalist, socialist, conservative or liberal philosophies but there is no convention of free votes because energy and security policy are too important to decide in isolation from other policies) no matter how strongly they adhere to the party's cause more generally. Practically an MP like Jeremy Corbyn or an AM like Rhyn Ap Iorweth who takes a stance at odds with their party line which is backed-up by their local party members at re-selection time and wins election by the voters in their constituency enjoys an effective invincibility provided they don't have ambitions for preferment - but it does not improve the leverage they can exert with colleagues, given that this largely rests on bonds of loyalty, mutual confidence and the appeal of party unity.

Pete said...

May I ask you a question. I understand you are no longer a member of Plaid and that, plus your past involvement, would seem to me to make you the person uniquely qualified to answer this fairly.
These days who makes the policy for Plaid Cymru? Is it the membership at conference, or is it the elected politicians?

John Dixon said...


I tend to the view that not being a member of an organisation makes me uniquely unqualified to talk about its current internal processes! But, referring to the time when I was a member, I can say that there was a clear difference between the de jure position, that policy was made by conference, and the de facto position, which was that policy was made by the elected politicians. This tendency came to the fore after the establishment of the Assembly (when the number of elected full-time politicians increased greatly) and reached its peak during the One Wales government (2007 - 2011) when, on more than one occasion, I found myself reading in the newspapers a policy announcement which struck me as being different from, or even in direct opposition to, what the membership had actually decided. As for what has happened since, I simply cannot comment.

Democritus said...

Interesting use of 'de jure' and 'de facto' there John.
Whatever obligation an elected representative may have to follow her/his party line it is clearly not directly actionable in the sense of a binding contract. In law before 1937 I don't THINK political parties were acknowledged at all (what a difference a century makes - imagine Lord Curzon running to a court to complain about the procedural shortcomings of the Tory 'coup' in 1922). The sanctions available for use against 'rebels' tend to be either derisory if the rebels are sufficently implacable or politically impracticable if they enjoy any significant traction within the party or in their constituencies. One only has to consider the repeated failure of past efforts to keep Daf El, Paul Flynn or either David Davies in line to see that this applies across parties. When neither carrot or stick is likely to prove effective the wise Whip will advise the leadership to cut their losses.
In government the dynamic swings still further away from the party toward the controlling political Group(s) because of the imperative of holding onto office and exercising the perogatives of government. It is both practically impossible for Ministers to consult their parties memberships on every policy decision and it would at least be ultra vires for any non-governmental organisation to try and give orders to one of Her Majesty's Ministers on a matter concerning their portfolio.
Ultimately the voluntary party rank & file get to properly pick them from open competition the first time; and then are effectively stuck with them unless they screw-up big time or lose the seat!

John Dixon said...


I was intending 'de jure' in this context to mean 'according to the party's own rules' rather than ascribing to it the wider legal meaning.

I take the point about the exigencies of urgent decision-making meaning that it is impossible for all decisions on policy which a minister has to take to be referred back to the party first. It was an issue with which I struggled as Plaid Chair; we tried various mechanisms to provide party input to the elected members on urgent policy issues; none of them worked terribly well. That was partly down to the need for a rapid response, but it would be an incomplete picture if I didn't also add that it was partly down to an unwillingness by some elected members to accept that the party had or should have any role here.

There is a difference, though, between urgent issues which no-one had really given a lot of thought to in advance, and issues where there was a very clear policy laid out in advance. And there are two sub-divisions there as well; the first being where a change in circumstances requires a tweak, and the second being where someone just decides to do the opposite. I have a lot more sympathy with the first than with the second.

Your final two sentences ("... it would at least be ultra vires for any non-governmental organisation to try and give orders to one of Her Majesty's Ministers on a matter concerning their portfolio. Ultimately the voluntary party rank & file get to properly pick them from open competition the first time; and then are effectively stuck with them unless they screw-up big time or lose the seat!" are an accurate summary of the staus quo; the question I would raise however is whether we necessarily have to accept the status quo unchallenged - on either point. I can see why any party whose main goal is to win power would be happy to accept the status quo; but any party which seriously seeks to bring about significant change is much less likely to succeed if it allows itself to be hidebound by 'what is'.

Spirit of BME said...

I concur with your view of Plaid up to the point when you left the party.
Since then things have moved on a-pace and the structure, culture and practice of decision making are now based on what is known as the NKM philosophy, which Plaid has taken on board with some enthusiasm.
Under this system if you criticise the leader you are an enemy or at best a bigot. Large strategic decisions that go wrong are not laid at anybody’s door and in fact are past off with “it could have been worse”. Princelings that are close to the leaders “family” are forgiven any transgression, which does not apply to the underlings. Language is controlled and the Lords is called the second chamber and while most parties are bending over backwards to hail themselves as a “broad church”, this is totally haram.
Oh! – forgot to mention, NKM stands for North Korean Model.

Democritus said...

Since I see little alternative to a representative based form of democracy in the near future I agree that finding effective mechanisms to hold said representatives to account is vital. My hesitation is in assuming that the political party machine is really these days the best or only viable instrument for performing that task.
One idea I am coming around to for example is term limits. Another is recall byelections (although the triggers proposed by Zac Goldsmith were a bit flawed in my view). Ultimately I think multi-member STV Eire style would on balance be a good thing. The shortcomings of referenda have been highlighted very recently, but i'd prefer to address these (possibly by drawing some clearer constitutional distinction between 'consultative' and legislative commencement referenda for example) than abandon the practice entirely. I'm impressed by Boris's idea (since retracted) of 2 stage referenda being the norm giving the chance for reconsideration or commencement after a set time limit or negotiation procedure which puts flesh on the bones so to say. This is pretty urgent given the momentum toward another secession vote in Scotland.

Spirit of BME said ... Thing about the NKM is that it only works when talented people only have 1 greasy pole to choose & can't just walk across to other parties a la Guto Bebb, Alun Davies etc. I think I generally agree with the strategic sense of Plaid's overall effort to build up Leanne and reach out to non Welsh speaking voters in the valleys. Picking some careful fights with the wilder side from the Fro can possibly help overall with the message that Leanne is a different sort of welsh nat. Her challenge is to define how far short of hard Wexit independence Plaid does actually want to take things on the constitutional status of Wales front ...

Anonymous said...

"Picking some careful fights with the wilder side from the Fro can possibly help overall with the message that Leanne is a different sort of welsh nat"

This is a misreading of Leanne. She emphasises quite strongly with that type of nationalism despite not being of that background. There is reciprocal good will to her in places like Caernarfon and Blaenau.

Democritus said...

Anon 11.07;
Probably not the best phrasing I agree. Accept that my conflation of the Fro with militant nationalism doesn't in fact wash well at all. Where Plaid are already hegemonic they tend (insofar as one can generalise at all) if anything to be slightly more staid and responsible than their colleagues beyond. If I had read back & reflected before posting I should have erased "Fro" & instead wrote: "Picking some careful fights with the wilder side from the Welsh Alt-Right can possibly help overall with the message that Leanne is a different sort of welsh nat". I don't claim to know Leanne well but in my limited conversations with her I get the impression that she is determined to ensure that Plaid does not acquire a similar sort of 'cybernat' troll army to that which swept Alec Salmond along for a time but is now acutely uncomfortable for his successor. She's undoubtedly been on the receiving end of enough unpleasantness, misogyny and suggestions that monoglots aren't properly Welsh to be aware of it. Ty Glyndwr are keen to simulateously raise their game on social media while weeding out those who cross still poorly defined (and arguably impossible to define) lines of taste, personal attacks or defamation. Alt-Right is still a new term for many this side of the pond ... but it strikes me as a fair enough label to attach to those people inclined to disparage Ty Gwynfor's well intentioned if a rather futile and arbitrary efforts to discourage irresponsibility & abuse in social media political discourse with absurd comparisons to the Kimocracy above the 38th parallel.