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Editorial The by-election question should spark debate on our democracy

THE petition calling for MPs who resign their party whip to automatically trigger a by-election deserves support — but it should prompt a broader debate about democratising British politics.

The departure of seven longstanding Jeremy Corbyn critics on Monday is no cause for panic, and is certainly no cause for indulging the dishonest pitch from deputy leader Tom Watson demanding that Labour “change direction.”

The “Independent Group” has no policies — that was embarrassingly clear from Chuka Umunna’s radio interview with Nick Robinson today, when the query as to which of Corbyn’s policies he disagreed with elicited a long silence.

 

 

Or rather, they have no policies they can risk articulating. The “chicken coup” of 2016 saw Angela Eagle similarly struggle to define her differences with Corbyn before making way for an Owen Smith leadership campaign that promised to pursue the same policies as the existing leadership but with less credibility because it had no previous association with those policies.

Eagle and Smith were aware of the huge appeal of socialist policies to Labour’s members, having seen them win the 2015 leadership election. The so-called Independent Group need not worry about Labour members, but it has a bigger headache: the huge popularity of the 2017 Labour manifesto with the public.

This is why taking Watson’s advice would be disastrous. Labour has tried pitching Tory-lite austerity to the electorate. Its vote was in steady decline up to 2015, and the collapse of social democratic parties across Europe shows Labour’s likely fate if it tries to take that road again. 

Liberal critics of Corbyn’s claim that given the dismal record of the Tory government, Labour ought to have a commanding lead in the polls rather than merely be neck and neck (or, in less accurate descriptions such as those favoured by BBC Question Time, miles behind).

But if the public were crying out for a pro-EU, economically and socially liberal party, they could opt for one: the Liberal Democrats, whose support remains in the doldrums.

What the liberal media and many Labour MPs have not grasped is the sea change in British politics that has been building since the bankers’ crash of 2007. No party whose pitch is to maintain the status quo has a hope of succeeding in such a climate. The battle is between the politics of hope, exemplified by Corbyn’s Labour, and those of fear and hatred, skilfully played on by the Tories and the fouler creatures lurking to their right.

MPs who oppose the shift left by Labour’s enormous membership claim a greater legitimacy through their election by the public. But as YouGov found in 2017, only 6 per cent of Labour voters said they voted primarily for their local MP — less than half of the number who voted Labour because of Corbyn (13 per cent) and less than a quarter of the number who voted for its socialist programme (28 per cent).

We saw exposed in the expenses scandal the sense of entitlement that pervades Westminster, seeing MPs who thought nothing of hounding so-called “benefit cheats” happily allow the public to generously sponsor their own lifestyles.

Part of that corruption comes from the untouchable status of MPs, who in safe seats can effectively be given jobs for life. And the unrepresentative nature of Parliament explains why so many MPs lag so far behind the political developments that have changed Britain. 

Mechanisms to make MPs more accountable should include a requirement to go back to the electorate if you abandon the programme and party you were elected to support.

But from atrophied local government to our unelected Lords, the whole model of governance in this country needs a radical overhaul.

Our movement should be looking at how we democratise our communities from the workplace to the town hall — and in so doing strengthen and deepen the advance of socialism and its resistance to institutional and corporate counter-attack.

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