In Defence of Parliamentary Democracy

3rd August, 2016

 – By Sarah Atkin –

In Defence of Parliamentary Democracy

It would be ironic if, more than a century after its formation, the Labour Party was to succeed in the ultimate U-turn and end up as it began: a movement of protest.

From Keir Hardie onwards, Labour’s mission has always been to provide a voice for the voiceless, be a force for progress, improve lives, take our country forward and change our world. Idealistic, absolutely, but also deeply pragmatic. Keir Hardie was a pragmatic idealist. He worked to achieve a broad-based and inclusive political movement, but very early on concluded that the then ILP (Independent Labour Party) must learn to win elections. It is through elected representatives that change was/is achievable. From the pioneering early Labour Councillors at the turn of the 20th century through to our reforming national governments, we seek power to change things and it is through electoral politics that we have succeeded.

I was not born into Labour. I chose it. I joined the Labour Party in the mid 1980’s because Neil Kinnock looked to be somebody who could provide much needed opposition to an all-powerful Margaret Thatcher in parliament and second, I wanted to be part of making Labour electable again.

Working in London’s creative industries I saw a changing world and knew Labour needed to change with it. In the 1980s I collected money for striking miners’ families. I was one of the first to join Charter 88 and campaign for constitutional reform (before it was fashionable). I always did my ‘bit’ as a Labour member during elections and spent many evenings on the phone fundraising for the party. Over the decades I’ve given much to the party and to the cause of progressive politics.

Nothing heroic. No ‘gong’ expected. Just the everyday contributions many thousands like me have quietly made down the years. To now be corralled under the label ‘red Tory’ does rather stick in the gut.

The road to government was long and tortuous but during the Kinnock years there was always forward movement. Progress. Hope. To therefore lose the 1992 election was utterly gut-wrenching.

I suppose that confirmed to me, beyond doubt, that the Establishment never wants Labour to be in power. Patently, to advance our agenda Labour always has to be smarter, stronger and altogether better at the ‘business’ of politics than the competition. Nothing is inevitable in politics. You create your luck. Attlee knew this. Wilson knew it. And so did Blair.

Think on this. My first vote was in 1979. Up until 1997 my entire adult life had been spent under Tory governments. To see Blair and the New Labour project ‘wipe the floor’ politically and make Labour electorally unassailable was exhilarating. Oh, and we did do some great things too.

That was then. This is now.

I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn but did understand, after what had been, to my mind a post-Blair vacuum of intellectual and organisational ‘drift’ why a ‘change’ candidate won. Even my partner (a non-aligned former advertising ‘guru’) said I was daft not to see that Corbyn was the best chance of putting us back on the map (which he now concedes he got wrong.)

Nobody knows how any individual will perform as Leader. It’s generally more ‘gut’ than science.

Despite his history, there was a way for Jeremy Corbyn to unite the party around a common narrative for progressive, radically and relevant change – relevant as in resonating with the lives, aspirations and anxieties of the majority. The primary focus of his energies, though, needed to be parliament.

It is in parliament that a Leader of the Opposition has to be at his/her best. It is in parliament that the majority of the electorate see national politics at work and it is in parliament that Jeremy Corbyn has failed to make an impact.

Labour has fallen short in its vital democratic job of holding the government to account – disastrously exposed, in my opinion over Europe and Brexit. Was there anything in politics more important than Europe this past year?

80% of MPs have lost faith in Jeremy Corbyn. If you do not have the support of MPs in parliament then you cannot do your job as leader. The MPs represent all Labour voters across the UK. This has to be pre-eminent. Yes, of course Labour members matter as well but MPs do not work at the behest of party members, supporters or trade union affiliates. They work for the people who put them there – the voters.

We live in a parliamentary democracy. Electoral representation is the best way to advance the causes we believe in. The alternative is the politics of protest or, more worryingly, the muscular ‘street politics’ of intimidation and intolerance that’s been meted out to (mainly female) Labour MPs. The antithesis of democratic engagement. This isn’t ‘political passion’ got out of hand. It’s thuggery. Jeremy Corbyn may well condemn it but prior to his leadership this didn’t happen.

I would ask the many thousands who, in good faith supported Jeremy Corbyn a year ago, is this the ‘kinder, gentler politics’ you envisaged? Is the ‘Corbyn project’ advancing the cause of progressive, centre-left politics in Britain? At this moment when our country grapples with the Brexit fall-out and the years of upheaval, uncertainty and challenge this will present, are Jeremy Corbyn and his team up to the job of providing disciplined, coherent, unified, strategic and credible parliamentary opposition to this newly installed right wing Tory government?

I don’t think so.

There is no point denying that we are a long way from power but somebody else has to be given an opportunity to try and turn the tide for Labour. This time I can say I am voting for change.

By Sarah Atkin

Sarah Atkin is a Labour member living in Scotland and she writes in a personal capacity. She was a volunteer organiser for Better Together in the Highlands; a Highlands and Islands Regional List candidate in the 2016 Scottish Elections and an EU ‘Remainer’.

Please note: articles and posts on ‘Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Vision’.




8 thoughts on “In Defence of Parliamentary Democracy

  1. Good thoughtful post, thank you. Like you I didn’t vote for JC and despite my reservations (mainly on what I perceived to be a hypocritical branding of himself as a pacifist) I chose to welcome the potential for change and discussion within the party and, like you, have been woefully disappointed.
    There is no doubt it could have been different, and it is his responsibility that we are where we are. This counterfactual post is worth reflecting on……………. is it too late for him to change ?


    • Perhaps but (and I sound like my mum here when she advised me on bad relationships) – does a leopard change his spots? Also, political leadership is a gruelling business these days. A day in, day out grind. You can’t have a good day, make a good speech and then ‘rest up’. It’s relentless. Whatever people think of him Blair did make it look easy. On a purely practical basis, I don’t have faith that Corbyn can do the job that’s required.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sadly I too feel like your mum re the leopards – just thought it was a good counterfactual offering in the hopes that some of the people so wedded to JC might be able to see where and how he has gone wrong.
        At the moment far far too many that I know and meet have gone in to defensive mode and are convinced that there is a huge conspiracy against him ‘and what he stands for’. There are old activist friends that truly believe I have gone over to the dark side because I do not support him.

        I don’t believe that to remotely be the case (other than the usual bad press about a Labour leader, Ed had it far worse IMO) and believe that most of JC’s domestic vision is shared throughout most layers of the Party.

        We need to build bridges to these people but that seems increasingly difficult while they all stay in their conspiratorial echo chambers. It is a bit like talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses, only they know ‘the truth’. I think Walker’s counterfactual is a useful explainer of how it could of been if he had the will.

        I think it is increasingly clear that JC would not be able to do the daily grind either, even if he were willing to, which I don’t believe he is. I am of the opinion that now he unexpectedly finds himself in this position he has no intention of persevering Labour’s Parliamentary Democracy – which profoundly saddens but does not surprise me, which is why I didn’t vote for him either.
        On the up side I speak with lots of ordinary members that did vote for him, because they knew nothing about him, hadn’t heard of him, thought he seemed like a decent “normal” bloke, that are voting Smith this time so………


  2. Many thanks for a really excellent article. I did vote for Corbyn feeling he was a breath of fresh air, but you very fully express my disillusion. Also extremely disturbing is the behaviour of some of his followers — almost fascistic in their intolerance and viciousness. I am reminded of Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM.


    • Apologies for this late reply to your comment. Thank you for these kind words. I absolutely understand after two such devastating election defeats (my goodness, if we’d only managed a better show in 2010 with us maybe leading a coalition think what a better state we’d be in as a country) why the breath of fresh air Corbyn presented had huge appeal.

      Liked by 1 person

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