Saturday, 28 November 2015

Chartism and Jeremy Corbyn

The ‘Six Points’ of the People’s Charter is something that I have written about on many occasions in the last few decades.  They are central to any discussion of Chartism and formed the foundation for what was arguably the most widely supported working-class movement since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.  Millions of men and women saw in the Charter the solution to their economic, social and political woes.  Although Chartism was deemed a failure by many contemporaries, five of its six points were ultimately translated into law.  That we today have universal suffrage, the secret ballot, paid MPs, single member constituencies and no property qualifications baring anyone from standing for Parliament is a direct result of the Chartist agitation of the 1830s and 1840s.  That annual parliaments—the sixth of the six points—has never been implemented, has been largely forgotten.  Yet it was potentially the most revolutionary of the electoral principle adopted by Chartists and has a particular resonance to the current situation in the Labour Party.

Kennington Common, 10 April 1848

The essence of annual parliaments for Chartists was its participatory nature.  MPs would be elected by their constituents and their actions in Parliament would be closely monitored with, for instance, how they voted and how many sessions they attended would be published in the press.  To keep their seats, MPs would need to consult not just their own supporters but all who could vote in their constituencies regularly to ensure that they represented their opinions.  This did not mean that they were delegates mandated by their electors to vote in particular ways but certainly did mean that they would be held accountable for their actions by those electors.  The link between MPs and their electors would inevitably be more personal, more intimate and more defined. 

Although I suspect that annual parliaments are not part of his thinking, there is much in what Jeremy Corbyn has said in the past suggesting that he favours a more participatory approach to politics, an attempt to push decision-making away from Westminster and placing it more in the hands of the electors.  The Labour leader has sent out a survey to party members asking for their views on bombing IS in Syria and urging them to respond by the start of next week.  He has also told his MPs to go back to their constituencies this weekend and canvas the views of members.  Jeremy's supporters are convinced that his views are closer to Labour’s grassroots than those of dissenting MPs while his opponents suspect him of trying to bypass the parliamentary party and appeal directly to the members who emphatically elected him in September. 

But we do not have a participatory but a representative democratic system—one reason why annual parliaments have never been introduced.  Once elected MPs represent their constituencies as a whole not just the narrow number of activists who may have helped them get elected.  So MPs should not simply be canvassing the views of members, as Jeremy suggests, but seeking the views of electors from across the political spectrum before they make their decision on what is essentially a matter of ‘conscience’.  Even if the notion of a free vote can be seen as the only way Labour can get out of the hole they’ve constructed, when John McDonnell says that MPs should not be ‘whipped or threatened’ and that they should follow their ‘own judgement’ on possible air strikes over Syria, he is restating this long-established principle that there are some issues that are above party politics. 

Friday, 27 November 2015


The question of whether Britain should be involved in bombings inside Syria to confront IS has in some respects been made easier by the massacres in Paris a fortnight ago.  Does IS pose a direct threat to Britain?  Yes.  Should IS be confronted in Syria and Iraq?  Again yes.  Will Britain adding its planes to those already bombing Syria really make a difference?  A marginal effect at best but of far greater symbolic importance.  Did David Cameron make the case for immediate bombing yesterday?  In part I think he did…though he was less clear about how this fitted into plans for defeating IS and he made some grandiloquent statements about the Syrian forces opposed to IS of some 70,000 fighters…I was reminded of Tony Blair’s statements about weapons of mass destruction over a decade ago.   Will bombing make Britain safer?  In the short-term, probably not as there will almost inevitably be consequences. 
Jeremy Corbyn has made his position clear in a letter to Labour MPs.  This will not come as a surprise to his supporters or critics…he has long opposed Britain’s involvement in foreign interventions and has, in most cases, been right in his analysis.  The question is whether as leader of Labour, he has the luxury of putting his own well-established views before what many people see as the necessity for action to stem the threat from IS.  Those critical of his leadership see this as yet another example of the shambolic depths to which Labour has sunk and in a week with the Little Red Book dominating the news rather than Conservative U-turns over tax credits and police funding, the letter simply reinforces their view of him as a liability to both party and country. 
Public opinion has shifted since 2013 when 2:1 were against intervention in Syria—albeit against Assad—to 2.1 in favour…even amongst Labour voters though not amongst the Corbynistas of whom 71 per cent want a free vote on the issues.  The disconnect between the 300,000 activists and the 9 million who voted for Labour in May is very clear.  For MPs, their mandate comes from those who elected them in May rather than the minority of activists and therein lies the problem at the heart of Labour’s dilemma.  The choice appears to be between an activist-based party that lacks the numbers to win an election and Labour voters who are more ‘conservative’ in their views of a range of issues including Trident, welfare and education.  With Labour currently polling at 27 per cent—15 points behind the government—and with public opinion broadly behind bombing, by making clear his stance Jeremy threatens to make the divisions within the Parliamentary Labour Party even worse.