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Centrists Don’t Really Care About Democracy

Democracy is under threat, but it won’t be saved by centrist technocratic solutions – the only way to revive it is through the grassroots movements that elite liberals despise.

Labour has U-turned on its 2021 pledge to increase sick pay and guarantee it to all workers. (Hollie Adams / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Recent years have seen liberal democracy—using the term advisedly here—suffer a succession of major shocks to the system. These shocks have piled up: the global financial crisis, the subsequent emergence of left populism, the rise of Donald Trump to the White House, Britain’s exit from the European Union, and now the prospect of a far-right presidency in France. Liberal democracy limps on, but it does so in the absence of real popular enthusiasm, with its thinkers and leaders patently unequal to the crises of our time.

Against this backdrop, a veritable cottage industry of introspective ‘crisis of democracy’ literature has emerged, some of it more insightful than others. A quick glance at fairly recent titles like Astra Taylor’s Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends and Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy After the Crises (previously reviewed) is sufficient to give a decent idea of the general tenor of the discussion over the last few years.

Now another, more modest contribution to this debate comes in the form of Road to Renewal, a new report from centre-left think tank IPPR. Despite its brevity, weighing in at only thirty-one pages including references, the report—authored by Parth Patel and Harry Quilter-Pinner—aims to lay out the causes of the current crisis of parliamentary democracy and outline some tentative solutions. This is well-trodden ground, but as the root causes of liberal democracy’s crisis remain essentially unaddressed, it bears further exploration.

In particular, the authors remind us that recent decades have seen growing disaffection in the long-established parliamentary democracies of the Global North, a process which—despite the recent upheavals—still continues. Some have reacted by disengaging from electoral politics altogether, while others have responded by breaking their traditional loyalties and finding new political vehicles to express their discontent. Social democratic parties across Europe have borne the brunt as their popular bases have collapsed.

Despite this, there has been a failure or refusal on the part of establishment parties to respond accordingly. Insofar as centre-left parties have responded to voter disaffection, this has mainly been to adopt increasingly regressive anti-immigration policies. (They’ve also fought off, we might add, any attempts to change them from within.) But in doing so, they have merely undermined themselves in the longer term, pushing the reactionary right’s fixations up the political agenda and driving the whole centre of gravity further to the right.

Political institutions stand discredited in the eyes of voters, while party membership across Europe has fallen sharply from its post-war highs. In the UK, the authors point out, just one in fifty people is now a member of a political party, down from one in twelve in the 1950s. Doubtless, the earlier figures were gerrymandered in various ways, but the underlying trend is real; Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void, which is cited here, analyses at length how parties have consciously withdrawn from their bases in civil society and retreated into the state.

Some voices, needless to say, have been more marginalised by this process than others. Working-class people, younger people, and racialised minorities find it especially hard to make their voices heard via traditional political institutions, which they find are largely closed and indifferent (if not plain hostile) to them. More affluent, middle-class voters, though often still disgruntled with parliamentary politics, are more able to impose themselves on political leaders using established methods than those who’ve been driven to the margins.

Patel and Quilter-Pinner argue that the upshot of this is an increasingly unresponsive political system, as parties ‘maintain smaller and increasingly unrepresentative party memberships’. It should be noted here, though it isn’t in the report, that one major exception to this trend was seen in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn—but as hundreds of thousands were enthused to join Labour, the common complaint from the media was that they were making it less representative than the hollowed-out party it was in the Blair years.

But the hollowing-out of liberal democracy goes beyond the internal life, or lack thereof, of political parties. External trade treaties and multinational institutions like the European Union have imposed tight constraints on national governments, with the easy mobility of capital making the implementation of social reform programmes—even if the political will existed—extremely difficult. Any government which attempted to do so would risk finding itself rapidly besieged by capital flight and disinvestment, which serves as a powerful disincentive.

The authors of the report recognise this, but resolving issues as thorny as this is inevitably beyond the remit of such a short document. Instead, Patel and Quilter-Pinner urge parties—specifically those of the centre-left—to ‘strengthen their relationships with mass civil society organisations’, while also reaching out to ‘modern digital civil society communities’. As well as economic policies to deliver ‘a broad base of security and prosperity’, ‘democratic reforms that increase the sway of citizens over public policy’ are suggested as remedies.

However, the problem with this is that putting it into effect would require a willingness to challenge elite interests and to harness popular energies in a way that is completely alien to the current Labour leadership. In fairness, Keir Starmer is reverting to the norm of Labourism here rather than breaking from it: his conception of politics is entirely bureaucratic-statist and deferential to established power both in the form of private capital and the state apparatus, characteristics he shares with almost all of his Labour predecessors.

There is an unfortunate reluctance in the IPPR report to discuss Corbynism and how its efforts to bring about a meaningful redistribution of political and economic power were thwarted. (Corbyn himself is mentioned once, in a footnote.) These efforts were met with the ferocious and fundamentally anti-democratic opposition not only of the media, but the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party. People who guard their privileges so jealously, and who only regained them after such a protracted struggle, are not about to surrender them.

Indeed, for Labour centrists, crushing the Corbynite insurgency is the biggest win they’ve had in years. Far from priding themselves on how many people they can inspire to join Labour, they now brag about how many they can drive away. Starmer’s primary objective is to concentrate all power among office-holders and bureaucrats, and to stamp out any lingering traces of the Corbyn era. With Labour back in the hands of its most anti-democratic elements, we cannot expect any wider democratic renaissance to come courtesy of them.

If the hollowing out of liberal democracy under neoliberalism teaches us anything, it should be that there is no substantive democracy without strong working-class movements. Just as these were indispensable to winning the mass franchise in the first place, they remain indispensable for democratic renewal today. But absent that working-class counterpower, the likelihood is that liberal-democratic forms—emptied of substance and ever more remote—simply shamble on in zombie form, fostering more alienation and fuelling reactionary rage.