Labour of the negative

Jeremy Corbyn’s disregard for Parliament is terrible for his party and for our representative democracy

Reason, Hegel argued, advances by negation, each thought becoming more focused as it wrestles with its opposite. This ‘labour of the negative’ is the true discipline of the mind, and the way in which we make and amend realities. Not everyone accepts the Hegelian philosophy; but it offers a beautiful image of Parliament, in which policy becomes hardened in the flame of its negation. Parliament without opposition leads to undisciplined policies, in which the business of anticipating obstacles and foreseeing costs has been put out of mind.

When the Labour party was founded, it was in order to ensure the representation of the working class in Parliament — hence its name. Representatives, Burke famously argued, are not delegates. They do not enter Parliament merely to mouth the opinions of those who elected them, and to renounce all opinions of their own. They enter Parliament in order to advance the interests of their constituents. In our system, that means advancing the interests of all those in a certain place, whether or not they voted for you. The Labour party aimed to promote the interests of the working class, while behaving as responsible representatives within the parliamentary system.

Representatives have a duty to Parliament, as well as to their constituents. They must act, speak and vote according to the rules of the institution, and with the aim of producing firm and coherent decisions that can be accepted by the nation as a whole. They are answerable to those who elected them. But they are also answerable to Parliament, which is an institution with an identity, a function and a personality of its own, an institution that is stillsufficiently trusted by the electorate that they can accept and obey its decisions.

The current crisis in the Labour party has many causes; but the principal one, it seems to me, is that the party is now led in Parliament by someone who thinks that he is answerable only to those who voted for him, and neither to his wider constituency in the country — the constituency of Labour voters — nor to the institution in which he sits. He is not entirely to blame for this. The rules for the election of the leader were changed by Ed Miliband so as to bypass the parliamentary party, a move that reflected Miliband’s general indifference towards institutions that gave a voice to those who disagreed with him.

The result is that the parliamentary Labour party is nominally under the control of someone who sits silent and impotent on the bench of the House of Commons certain only of one fact, which is that he is the elected leader. It is as though Parliament and its offices were of no interest to him; yet there is no procedure for removing him other than the one that will ensure that he is re-elected. When, a century ago, the members of the parliamentary Conservative party voted in a way of which their leader Andrew Bonar Law disapproved, he was asked what he felt, and he replied: ‘I must follow them, I am their leader.’ The wisdom of this remark would be lost on Jeremy Corbyn.

That is not all. Miliband’s rules have opened Labour’s doors in such a way that the activists and ideologues have an easy avenue into the heart of Parliament: they don’t have to dilute their vote with the votes of ordinary citizens, as is required at an election. They can put their man at the head of the whole machine, bypassing the tedious business of democratic politics. The fact that they will destroy the Labour party is a small price to pay for the joy of controlling the parliamentary party here and now.

I think this situation should be of equal concern to Conservative voters. It is not just that Parliament needs an opposition. It needs an opposition that shows the same respect for Parliament as must be shown by government. In the recent past, even the most radical members of the Labour party have seen themselves as parliamentarians and patriots — I think here especially of Tony Benn — people whose radical aspirations for their country did not eclipse their respect for the procedures that would inevitably qualify those aspirations, should they ever pass into law. When we look at the disastrous history of the 20th century, in which radical parties of left and right bypassed parliaments in order to rule without opposition, we ought surely to recognise how lucky we are, that almost everything proposed in our Parliament is also opposed there. Now, however, with the ‘labour of the negative’ removed from it, trust in the decisions of Parliament will inevitably decline. And when it has declined to zero, representative government will be at an end.


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