Formalism as Strategy: How to Succeed in Politics Without Really Trying


If the Labour movement really wants to reflect the views of ordinary voters, Labour officials and activists are going to have to go beyond outsourcing tough decisions about political leadership to the public through electoral and internal party voting reform schemes.

At the recent Fabians Summer Conference(so called despite having taken place in Spring, weirdly), a panel consisting of four elected Labour officials in local government took on the big issue which emerged from every really serious discussion of the May 3rd local elections: what happened, and how can Labour do better next time?

This wasn't an occasion for straightforward self-pity. It's not as if Labour was annihilated, or even as if it lost much of the ground it gained in Theresa May's snap election of last year. The results were simply not as good as they could have been, and in certain places where expectations for victory had been high - like London's Barnet - the particular factors behind defeats highlighted the very real limitations the Party has come up against in forming healthy relationships with communities that make all the political difference, particularly the Jewish community. All of this has been written about at length.

Crucially, this Conference panel highlighted one of the main reasons why the average voter is reluctant to cast their vote for Labour: the party is not trusted as a manager of our complex, globally-integrated post-industrial economy. There are many reasons why this is the case, which we do not need to get into here. Suffice to say, between the fact that the majority of British voters still do not trust the Party on the most important issue they take into consideration(Brexit, largely a proxy for economic concerns), and the fact that Labour by its choices has made itself vulnerable to the charge of not representing(or even being actively hostile towards) important social demographics, Labour has big, big problems to deal with ahead of any upcoming political contests.

So big, that to an extent it would be unfair to expect our panel of four to resolve these dilemmas in the space of an hour and a half. But the message which emerged from this meeting is of a kind with messages seen constantly in the Labour landscape. According to our panelists and many others, what is necessary to overcome these obstacles to progressive politics is an overcoming of the "democratic deficit". Properly speaking this term refers to the gap between the number of eligible voters and the extent to which they actually turn out in elections. It can also refer more generally to any gap between levels of political engagement and what might be desired, in any setting. Whenever political spaces become constrained, wherever participation is low, wherever the outcome of political discourse in these cliquish self-selected groups starts to sound self-serving and self-contained, there is a democratic deficit. Our panelists and others are right to call this a serious problem.

Another example: on the 5th of June, Young Labour's executive voted "overwhelmingly" to send a resolution to the national Party proposing that the 2019 Labour Conference "radically democratise" the selection of Labour MPs. No doubt this was viewed by all as an act of really compelling, forward-looking progressive politics. In some ways it may well be. This isn't a question of whether this particular policy move was "right" or "wrong" - in general I think it was right. But the issue at stake is much bigger. Like every other scheme to bring more people into the political process, it leaves unanswered the question of what Labour policymakers, once elected in this "radically" democratic fashion, would actually do.

It may be said that this is not for us to say, and that the point of radical democracy is for "the people" to make these determinations themselves. But this fundamentally misunderstands the way in which political consensus is actually formed: no matter how democratic the discussion, at some point, individuals do have to come forward with vision. We cannot expect such vision to emerge by magic, especially in political processes more broad than MP selection or internal Party processes; i.e., actual elections. Even or especially in relatively smaller discussions, the role of individuals in bringing ideas to the table is pronounced. All this may seem intuitive, but the fact that this narrative of democratisation has become so dominant may suggest that, rather than possessing bold and radical ideas, we are actually quite adrift. It would be one thing to pair such organisational principles with a broader package of ideas to be discussed. But wherever radical democratic restructuring is the central object of attention, as it seems to be for Young Labour and for some elected officials, there is a problem. This is doubly true if the actual programme of political vision Labour has come up with seems to have exhausted its capacity to win new hearts and minds; something which the May 3rd elections seem to demonstrate.

In the North East London Fabians, we are firm supporters of internal democracy, open debate, and participatory structures. Nothing is more destructive to the political health of a society or the political success of a particular organisation than a class of decision-makers existing entirely apart from those who must conform to the decisions. We build this commitment to pluralism into our basic structure and work tirelessly to preserve it in practice. But where we diverge from others who have made paying off the democratic deficit their answer to every political question is in taking participatory structures as the starting point of our politics, rather than as their endpoint. 

Participants in the search for answers to our movements' burning questions - activists, writers, Party officials and people in government - make a fundamental error when they treat democratisation of Party structures, devolution of political authority, or electoral reform as a solution, in itself, to the problem of politics. We could take a page from art theory and call this error 'formalism' - the placing of political form above political content. 

By "the problem of politics", I mean the problem of creating effective, evidence-based, serious policy responses to the deep, systemic problems which we face as a society. Consider again that the average voter's ultimate problem with the idea of a Labour government is that they do not believe we can manage the economy in an age of Brexit. This doesn't mean they think our "CV" is slightly less impressive than that of the Tories: it means they know we don't yet have answers to the deeply troubling problems posed by contemporary economic realities. They do not consider our economic philosophies or their policy manifestations convincing. This is a basic problem of leadership: we have not made it at all clear what we would do with the power we ask for. And if we have tried, we have done so in an unconvincing way.

This is simply not something we can outsource to some ill-defined group of abstract other persons. When people participate in politics they do so because they are looking for answers to questions and solutions to problems. Throwing peoples' sincerely-felt desire to see real change back in their faces by admitting our own powerlessness and asking, in effect, for them to sort it all out themselves is simply tone-deaf.

None of this means that political leadership cannot be democratic, community-focused, participatory, and consensus-based. Of course we need to do everything we can to ensure as many people as possible are a part of the conversations we have in search of political visions. Political leadership does need to be representative of everyones' needs and has to form a synthesis of society's different values. None of that would be facilitated by putting all decision-making power in the hands of a tiny elite. While different schemes for devolution or electoral reforms can be judged on their own merits, in general it is true that we should be doing more to make the Party and politics itself a more welcoming space for all, both in terms of our attitudes and our actual structures. As said, the North East London Fabian Society is built on such a participatory foundation.

But such efforts should not be at the forefront of anything, either in our own internal policy and theoretical discussions or at the forefront of the messages we present to the wider world. "Anyone can participate!" is only an attractive message on the condition that what we are asking people to participate in is seen to be worth the bother. If you want to critique the political echo chamber, critique the idea that what we talk about is naturally equally interesting to everybody. We can make a start on this critique by citing the same sad statistics about electoral turnout that usually accompany arguments about the need for "radical democracy".

Without at least an agenda on the table for discussion - an agenda which, at some point, some individual must put forward and spell out - we are asking people who may never have participated in politics before to do our work for us. No one is likely to be fired with enthusiasm at the prospect of this thankless task, when we - politically active citizens - are the ones supposedly entrusted with getting these kinds of national conversations started.

Overcoming the error of formalism means, ultimately, trusting - within reason - ones' own intuitions and judgments. No one should be in search of a political space where only their ideas are heard or accepted, but likewise no one should be afraid of making their views clearly heard within open and democratic arenas of discourse. Such a fear is exactly what we show when formal adjustments become the focus of our politics and the answer to questions raised about our ability to present compelling economic and social narratives. Lest anyone think this is a made-up problem, remember it is precisely what happened at our Conference panel. Such is the nature of any conversation that starts by highlighting our failure to connect with voters on the economy and ends with a recommendation that we create smaller single-representative voting districts and the like. Really it should be the other way around: start by creating democratic space and then seek consensus on hard policy questions - don't expect democracy to answer questions for you. The failure to believe in ones' own ideas manifests itself as a constant passing off of the responsibility for putting forward ideas to other, vaguely-defined people, and expecting applause as a reward for such self-effacing political magnanimity. 

If we want really participatory political communities, we are going to need to master ourselves the qualities of assertiveness and spirit tempered with reason that we expect members of the public to show when we make discursive space "more open" to them. If we can't set an example of that kind of behaviour, how can we expect politically less engaged people to, especially considering all this is meant to overcome the problem of political disengagement? Given that schemes for increasing participation have been around forever and the public seems less and less enamoured with politics by the year, clearly something bolder is necessary than another round of pass-the-buck.

And I'm not just saying this to score points: the political visions we need in the 21st century really won't find themselves, and if you're interested in seeing how the Fabians are putting their money where their mouth is, have a look at the NELF's projects here.