Democratic Socialism: Why the Left should demand a new Constitution

Dying Of The Sun New Version by Simon & His Camera (Parliament & Westminster). Simon & His Camera / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Even if Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 did not win their respective elections, they showed that democratic socialism is back as an electorally viable proposition. The financial crisis of 2008 revealed the shortcomings of neo-liberal capitalism, and millions of voters have responded to austerity, inequality and insecurity by looking for alternatives.

To date, the Sanders and Corbyn programmes have focussed on economic redistribution and the expansion of public provision, rather than on political reform. This is understandable. But if democratic socialism is to offer a viable alternative to neo-liberalism, it needs to concentrate as much on democratic institutions as on socialist policies. The capture of these institutions by corporate and financial interests, the distortion of democratic processes by big money, and the corruption, venality and arrogance of the political class, have done much to create the current malaise.

This tendency to favour ‘economic’ over ‘political’ reform has deep roots. The Labour Party, from its earliest days, has concentrated on securing better material conditions for the organized working class within the existing state – a state whose constitutional structures bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the 1689 settlement. Labour politicians wanted to focus on ‘bread and butter’ issues. But, as the 2008 crisis revealed, the central bank can give a lot of bread and butter to favoured sectors under the cover provided by an unreformed state.

This lack of interest in the potential of constitutions to underpin or frustrate economic objectives was part of a wider British, or more precisely, English torpor. Unlike much of Europe, the UK missed out on a 1789 or 1848 revolution and emerged from two world wars without a formal refoundation of the state on a written constitution. The Blair-era reforms, which introduced the Human Rights Act, the new Supreme Court, and devolution, retained the essential features of the ancestral state, and led to more anomaly and incoherence rather than a new democratic constitutional settlement.

With the notable exception of a few individuals, such as the Graham Allen MP, chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the 2010-2015 Parliament, Labour has generally ceded constitutional matters to the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. The latter, in particular, has developed a sophisticated critique of British institutions, culminating in radical (in UK terms) proposals for popular sovereignty and a written constitution with a judicially enforceable bill of rights.

Labour’s quietism on constitutional matters is becoming increasingly untenable. A dangerous distance now separates the inhabitants of Westminster and most of the people they rule. The UK’s unwritten system of government, which was once for many a source of pride, has become a source of confusion and embarrassment. It is not just that the rules can be changed or even ignored by any government with a bare parliamentary majority, but that the adequacy and appropriateness of those rules – even, at times, their continued applicability – has come into question. Theresa May’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act and the Miller judgment’s interpretation of the Sewel convention (which in normal circumstances prohibits the UK Parliament from legislating on devolved matters) show the fragility and inadequacy of an unwritten constitution. Opportunistic manipulation of the Fixed-term Parliament Act only adds to the sense of a system of government in disarray.

Neoliberalism was a profoundly anti-democratic ideology, an ideology which sought to replace citizens’ voices with consumer choices, and to contract the sphere of democratic decision-making in such a way as to leave private economic interests unconstrained. The institutions of the British state were not neutral in that process. There was a natural alignment between a closed, minimal, majoritarian, centralised version of democracy in the state, and an oligarchic dispensation in the economy and in society; the one enabled and reinforced the other. Other countries, with more inclusive democracies, stronger constitutional foundations and a wider distribution of political power, were able to mount a more successful – if still only partial – resistance to neo-liberalism.

If Corbyn forms the next government he will do so with a mandate for profound economic and social change.  That requires as much attention to be paid to renewing democracy on the constitutional front as to reinventing socialism on the economic front.

The 2017 Labour manifesto contained a commitment to a Constitutional Convention, but offered few details on what that might mean. Perhaps they envisaged just another lukewarm Royal Commission, proposing minor reforms. However, if this were to be a real Constitutional Assembly based on widespread and egalitarian participation, with the power to draft, subject to public ratification, a new Constitution, then it would be an opportunity for real democratic renewal – the necessary political dimension to a reformed political economy.

The unwritten constitution, rooted in ceremony and tradition, maintains a culture of deference, not of citizenship.  At the heart of any new constitution must be a commitment to citizenship and popular sovereignty: the UK’s unwritten system starts from the Crown and works begrudgingly downwards; a democratic constitution would start from the people and work up, with public institutions in the service of the people. From that basis, we can then begin to address – from first principles – questions such as how to represent the people, how to protect rights, and how to hold those in public office fully accountable.

This is not a distraction from social and economic policies, but a foundation for them. Oligarchy does as oligarchy is. It brings forth rotten fruit from its rotten nature. One can no more expect egalitarian prosperity from the ancient constitution than milk from a vulture, as Neal Ascherson likes to say. Without a new constitutional order, and the ferment of mutual education necessary to create it, any economic reforms achieved by a Labour government will not be understood by the public and will be vulnerable to the inevitable right-wing counter-attack. The left must consider not only what policies should be put in place, but also what institutional mechanisms and decision-making structures can keep policies in line with people’s real interests, and can prevent them from being captured and colonised by oligarchic corporate and financial powers, or subverted by corrupt politicians and public officials.

Constitutions have much anti-oligarchic potential. We can ameliorate the housing crisis through legislation. We will only solve it if we change the constitutional relationship between the people and the land. We can roll back privatization in the public sector, but we will only develop new forms of collective provision if we make their administration more transparent and accountable. We can curb the excesses of the private sector, but we cannot create a dynamic co-operative economy unless we create systems of oversight that take seriously Machiavelli’s warning that anyone seeking to organize a republic must take it for granted that ‘all men are evil and that they will always act according to the wickedness of their nature whenever they have the opportunity’.

Britain now needs more than a new government. It needs a substantially new state. The ambition of a genuinely popular movement should be to build that new state. The UK has the advantage of being a late-adopter of constitutionalism. Democratic nations have learned a lot about constitutionalism in the last 250 years. We do not have to look to 18th century models like the United States – a constitution that was designed to frustrate as much to enable democracy – but can turn elsewhere, to democratic constitutions such as those of Sweden or South Africa, for example, for guidance.

Even Union itself should be open to review. The UK’s constituent nations might reasonably decide that keeping the UK together with complicated federal arrangements is simply not worth the expense and complication, and that inclusive democracy might be better served by the creation of independent countries. Or maybe federalism can be made to work.  At any event, only a Constitutional Assembly can reboot democracy, drawing reforming energy into the constitutional process, and decisively taking power away from those to possess wealth and office and putting it into the hands of the rest of us – from the few to the many.

  • jobardu

    “There was a natural alignment between a closed, minimal, majoritarian, centralised version of democracy in the state, and an oligarchic dispensation in the economy and in society; the one enabled and reinforced the other.”
    Pitch perfect. The oligarchy, especially with modern surveillance and targeting techniques, is growing ever more powerful and undermining the relationship between the government and the governed.

    One cautionary note. Just as an executive doesn’t walk into a meeting without a clear set of objectives, messages and a head count assuring likely policy adoption, a Constitutional Convention should have clear goals and objectives and a good chance of having them adopted. It isn’t easy, for good reasons, to call a Constitutional Convention, and a less than successful one will hurt reform rather than help it. There are no replays and do-overs in this level of politics.

    • Alasdair Macdonald

      jobardu, I feel you are, perhaps, too pessimistic. Undoubtedly, the present ‘oligarchy’ is using modern surveillance and targeting techniques, but every oligarchy throughout the ages did the same with the most contemporary technologies. Yet, despite their Ozymandian arrogance, they fell. Often, the most contemporary technologies can be too complex and are thus prone to failures – consider the success of Kalashnikovs with some of the most ‘advanced’ US-made guns; during the Balkans War, US ‘Stealth’ fighters and bombers were detected using ordinary kitchen microwave ovens. When the control techniques reach a stage of pervasiveness the relationship between government and governed does break down. The governed always, to some extent comply in being governed and when they withdraw this compliance, the collapse of the governing oligarchy eventually follows. It is often brutal and protracted, but, history tells us, it happens.

      With regard to the constitutional issue, again, I think you are being overly pessimistic in asserting that there is once chance and no replays. We had our referendum in Scotland and although the pro-independence side lost, it came much closer than expected and has not gone away. Undoubtedly, the unionist side has, since the day after the previous referendum ratcheted up the anti-independence propaganda and, in the recent General Election the SNP lost seats, but still has a majority of MPs sitting for Scottish constituencies. It is just short of an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, but, with the Green MSPs there is a clear pro-independence majority. In Scottish Council chambers the SNP has the largest number of Councillors, the Greens, too, have made gains. With the Brexit result following majorities to REMAIN in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the situation is pretty fluid and unpredictable.

      Unionists often like to claim that Mr Alex Salmond’s ‘once-in-a-lifetime-chance’ statement when urging people to vote YES was an actual policy commitment. It was an opinion based on circumstances at the specific moment and aimed at stiffening the resolve of waverers. In a democracy we can always change our minds. Although Mr Salmond got this line wrong, he certainly has not given up on independence and still expects/hopes it will be relatively soon. Mr Salmond’s statement was not a barefaced lie like the £350 million per week for the NHS if we leave, promised By Mr Boris Johnson. At primary schools in Scotland we were all told of the legend of Robert the Bruce and the spider. After a defeat by Edward Longshanks he was hiding in a cave on Rathlin Island and watched a spider building a web. Seven times it tried to string a strand of gosamer between two cornices and seven times it failed …. but, it succeeded on the eighth!

      However, I agree that any proposals for constitutional change should be well thought out and tested robustly. If the electorate rejects them, we can amend them and try again.

      • jobardu

        I sure hope you are correct and certainly think we need to avoid defeatism and fatalism. Totalitarian oligarchies do almost always fail from internal divisions and failure to provide a better future for their people. That is the thermodynamics of the system. The kinetics is what I worry about. The Dark Ages lasted hundreds of years. But things move more quickly now. I truly appreciate your positive outlook. It made my day.

        • Alasdair Macdonald

          jobardu, thank you for the kind remarks.

          As a Physics graduate (1970 – it was actually called Natural Philosophy, by the ‘ancient’ university I attended), I am intrigued by your metaphors of ‘thermodynamics’ and ‘kinetics’. The literal meaning is too strong in me and I cannot quite grasp the distinction you are making.

          • jobardu

            My pleasure, Alasdair. I graduated in an electrical engineering/applied physics program in an American ancient university. Using scientific terms helps me ground my conclusions in universal principles and laws outside of the fashions of the moment. The music of the spheres, to appropriate a metaphor. Your, and others, mileage may vary.

            By thermodynamics I mean the steady state equilibrium attained by a system (society) reaching a minimum energy state. By this I mean that it will require the minimum energy needed to maintain it. That implies requiring the least coercive force (power) to maintain, mainly because it adds the greatest value for the greatest number of people. Totalitarian states usually promise a lot, but for a lot of reasons, don’t expand the total amount of economic and social goods available to citizens. Ergo, coercive compliance steadily begins replacing persuasive compliance with the laws. This raises the internal temperature and pressure until it fails.

            By kinetics I mean the rate at which the system attains equilibrium. Some systems can take seconds, others years ,and still others centuries. While I believe totalitarian states are very sub-optimal, some of them hang around for a long time.

            I am still pessimistic about the direction we are headed and hope we change. My fear is in how long we will be stuck there. Your comments helped with their perspective.

          • Alasdair Macdonald

            jobardu, thanks for the lucid exposition of your metaphors. They are pretty insightful analogies. I think I have grasped your meaning.

            One of the things about science (and mathematics) is that they have developed very sophisticated models which have very high predictive power. In these fields most things behave pretty much as expected almost all the time, and when they don’t, a theory can often be tweaked to provide a better ‘fit’. Even with quantum theory and probability. Richard Feynman’s Quantum Electrodynamics is a case in point.

            However, social studies – although many like to use the term social sciences – do not have that degree of rigorous modelling and predictive power. People make choices – good or bad – and bring about changes in the systems. Often, they do not know what will happen, but they do know that they want things to be different from what they are at present. Psychology, economics, politics and other behavioural fields of study have developed some reasonable theories which have some predictive validity, but the margins of error, which is soften called ‘noise’ are far wider than any science discipline would accept. So there always has to be a degree of scepticism about any of these predictions.

            The former UK Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, won a huge majority in the 1959 General Election. In an interview he was rather cautious about whether he would be able to implement his manifesto, even with such a huge majority. When pressed by the somewhat sceptical interviewer, MacMillan, who was quite patrician and languid, replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” And, sure enough, events proved his caution right.

            I think a good maxim for the political situation in dire times – and it is dire in many ways, is the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci’s – “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. Essentially he is saying, remain hopeful, most people are pretty decent and humane, but think through the potential bad consequences in a rigorous way and prepare for them. They might not be as bad as you thought, but at least you have some kinds of strategies.

            To return to the science/mathematics analogy, perhaps things like chaos theory and ‘self-organising systems’ might have some traction, but, only some.

  • Alasdair Macdonald

    This is a welcome article which identifies clearly how the ‘unwritten constitution’ works to sustain the ‘elite’ in power. Lord Butler, former head of the Civil Service speaking humorously but, admirably frankly, that it ‘allowed them to make it up as it goes along’.

    The authors rightly indicate that many of the institutions predate 1689. It was not until 1707 that the parliamentary Union of Scotland and England came into being and, supposedly, a ‘new’ parliament of the United Kingdom was established (viz, the parliament of England, continuing). It was not until 1801 that Ireland was formally made part of this union.

    While the European revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries were not ‘imported’ to the UK, there were certainly many attempts at revolution in these islands, 1715, 1745, 1798, 1820, etc, which were suppressed with severe prejudice and cruelty as malign as any of the atrocities such as those in Rwanda or the Balkans. And the effects of these continued well into the 20th century and the present. My own mother was a victim of the ‘suppression of Gaelic’; I had neighbours as a boy in Glasgow who had been on both sides of the conflicts in Ireland, which led to the independence of Ireland and, some of whom continued their malignities into this century.

    So ‘Britain’ has only infrequently been ‘strong and stable’, though certainly for longer than Mrs May was!

    The authors correctly identify that the Labour Party focussed, with a fair degree of success, on redistributing the fruits of their labours to the working classes. In its early days it was much more overtly constitutionally aspirational. But, the inertia of Westminster/Whitehall meant that success has been only partial – the House of Lords (partially reformed) remains, there is devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but as the Supreme Court judgment indicated, Westminster can overrule them. Labour politicians have also been seduced by the power of Westminster and many have become as strong advocates of the status quo as many of the Conservatives. They are BRITISH NATIONALISTS and proud of it – ‘Better Together’ and other such mendacities as we see the erstwhile Trotskyite, Alistair Darling in the Lords and on the board of financial institutions.

    The Labour Party has no real influence in Northern Ireland and seeks to hide the fact that its sister party the SDLP has always been in favour of Irish ‘Home Rule’. And, partly by its association with Westminster parties the SDLP has lost substantial support to Sinn Fein.

    In Scotland, the Labour Party crumbled and corroded internally, with corruption, cronyism, exclusivism. It was complacent because of its seemingly effortless electoral success. It existed not for the people of Scotland but for itself and some of its hangers on. In the 2014 referendum, its joyous alliance with the Tories shocked hundreds of thousands of its supporters. At a stroke its electoral hegemony vanished ‘like snaw affa dyke’ (melting snow dripping from a wall after a sudden thaw!) The Scottish branch has retreated into baleful resentment, literally blaming those who formerly voted for it – ‘the people have spoken, the BASTARDS!’ It clings to its unionist mantra, not realising that Ms Davidson’s Tories have monopolised that. It is cavilling and kneejerk oppositionist. It is fervently anti-Corbyn and anytime he makes any statement indicating even lukewarm support for some kind of Scottish self determination, they begin howling like banshees. Unless they clear out the deadwood which clogs the ranks of its MSPs and Councillors it will sulk into oblivion.

    In Wales, Carwyn James seems to have realised that speaking overtly for Wales is appreciated. The Labour Party in Wales seems to have recovered from what a poll at the start of the 2017 GE indicated was an almost total demise, to substantial gains on polling day. He does not appear to be afraid to appear along with Nicola Sturgeon and to support her and receive support from her.

    In the end, it will depend on how the Labour party evolves in all the parts of England. London has always had a pretty radical, creative and dynamic Labour party although several of its MPs leave a lot to be desired. There are encouraging noises coming from the North of England, particularly around Manchester. However, there is a huge tranche of Blairite-anti-immigrant MPs in the Midlands. Many of them still sound as Tory as the Tories. They are attracted by the power and personal aggrandisement which Westminster offers.

    The arguments for devolution, never mind federalism, are still falling on fairly stony ground in England, because so may people still subscribe to the myth of ‘BRITAIN’

  • duncan hackett

    So you’re talking about after the revolution, right? And when is that going to be exactly? Then you will have to deal with all the anarchy, purges, infighting, the abuses of state power that goes with centralised control, the backlash from reactionaries, militias, and so on. Good luck with that.

    • Alasdair Macdonald

      Duncan Hackett, I had not noticed your additional comment as I had a temporary problem with the amount my computer screen was displaying, so I was unable to respond soon after you had posted.

      You are simply deploying the ‘straw man fallacy’ and not addressing the issues which the author had raised and argued in a sincere and extended way.

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