Labour parties and the basis of policy-making authority

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Another passage from Epstein’s Political Parties in Western Democracies:

Because the working-class party, labor or social-democratic, viewed itself as the representative (and the only true representative) of a presumed majority of the population, its organization of that majority seemed to provide the legitimate policy-making agency. The important thing was to maintain democracy in intra-party deliberations. A conference or congress fairly elected by party members could be the policy-maker for the working class. The party’s parliamentary delegation, on the other hand, was merely to carry out the policy. Its responsibility to the organized membership did not conflict with any electoral responsibility since the membership itself was assumed to embody the will of the majority of the electorate — that is, of the working class that comprised the majority.

It is only an assumption of this kind that can lend democratic credibility to an organized membership’s claim to policy-making authority. Otherwise, its credentials seem much less legitimate than those of public office-holders whose policies are tailored to the electorate. The membership must itself be conceived as representing the majority of the population before it can be regarded as any more than another interest group seeking to fashion policy.

Insofar as this conception derives only from the traditions of the working-class movement, it is likely that it will lose its force as those traditions change. In particular, as labor and social democratic parties in Western nations become less class conscious, broadening their appeals beyond industrial workers, their organized members could become more like members of non-labor parties — having neither a special mission nor a special majoritarian basis for one. In thus coming to resemble others more closely, the labor and social democratic parties should also be able to avoid the difficulties, so well illustrated in the British case, of reconciling organizational policy-making claims with the responsibilities of public office-holders to their electors. (p. 314)

The final paragraph is ironic in light of British Labour’s current challenges. For some time, it seemed as though Epstein’s prediction had come true for the Labour Party as well. But the party’s ranks have swollen since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, and although the makeup of the party is neither demographically nor ideologically representative of the broader electorate, Corbyn’s supporters have nevertheless claimed supremacy over the party as a whole. This allows Corbyn, in turn, to claim unaccountable authority over the parliamentary party by virtue of having been selected by the general membership, despite overwhelming opposition from the Labour benches. And given this view on the legitimate distribution of power in the party, continuing opposition to Corbyn’s leadership among the parliamentary party just further delegitimizes them as a source of criticism in the eyes of Corbyn’s supporters. So the current leadership appears to have settled on reconciling the extraparliamentary party’s policy-making claims with the responsibilities of public officeholders by simply shutting out the officeholders. In the long run, I think Labour will revert to the norm or else collapse altogether; I can’t imagine how an office-seeking party can long survive while disregarding officeholders’ role in directing the party.

But is Epstein right to say that only the assumption that the membership is representative of the electorate can legitimize an extraparliamentary party organization’s claim to policy-making authority? The degree of authority traditionally claimed on behalf of the members of social democratic and labour parties was probably never justified, and Epstein provides ample evidence that this claim was in practice almost never honoured. But I think there are other grounds on which a more limited degree of policymaking authority could be justified and feasibly honoured, and this will be the subject of a future post.

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