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As party politics fails, we should consider prefigurative democracy

21 Jul , 2016  

Rupert Dreyfus is the author of Spark and The Rebel's Sketchbook; transgressive black comedies which keep the spirit of rebellion alive by taking swipes at the establishment as well as those nightmarish corporations which seem hell-bent on turning our world into one giant supermarket. You can find him at

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.” – Laozi

To say there’s been some major developments in party politics following the EU referendum result is an understatement. In the last month alone we’ve seen Theresa May succeed a battered and bruised David Cameron only to elect a cabinet that’s somehow even more right-wing than the one we’ve just endured.

Elsewhere Nigel Farage has stepped down as leader of UKIP after teaching the country that you don’t have to be elected to exert more influence than those that are and the Liberal Democrats are showing signs of recovery after their dark days of propping up the coalition in return for a smidgen of power.

Most importantly we’ve seen the Labour Party in meltdown. This has been a collaborative effort by the media which has employed the age-old tactic of turning people against each other so that the neoliberal agenda can go on relatively unscathed.

The usual outlets have routinely characterise Corbyn and all of his supporters as militants, conspiracy theorists and Trotskyists. Chuck in accusations of antisemitism and to swing voters the party begins to look about as palatable as a bowl of shit.

Another driving force behind the Labour Party crisis are the centrists themselves – specifically those in parliament.

They’re dancing to the tune of the establishment by doing everything they can to remove Jeremy Corbyn despite his democratic mandate to lead. This indicates a clear ideological split which could see a repeat of the SDP days.

If such a split happens, it’ll be a gift to those at the wheel (the Tories) because more squabbling left-wing factions equals less chance of the left successfully organising a meaningful opposition.

So why do the centrists want Corbyn ousted? It appears that the consensus among Labour parliamentarians is that Corbyn is unelectable which is a euphemism for ‘too left-wing’. In some ways they may well be right.

As a non-partisan looking in I don’t agree that Corbyn is necessarily too left-wing for the electorate; rather he is too left-wing for the Blair-tainted Labour Party whose economic policies have been shifting rightward for the best part of two decades.

What’s interesting is that if we rewinded seventy years, Corbyn would be seen as a Labour moderate and some of today’s centrists would struggle to obtain membership. Positions on austerity are a good measure of this.

As recently as 2014 Ed Milliband tried to prove he had some economic nous by reassuring centrists and right-wingers that Labour would “cut spending” in line with Tory austerity. Contrast this with the following quote from Labour’s 1945 manifesto:

“Labour led the fight against the mean and shabby treatment which was the lot of millions while Conservative Governments were in power over long years. A Labour Government will press on rapidly with legislation extending social insurance over the necessary wide field to all.”

The alternative to the daily grind of austerity in today’s Britain perhaps explains why there is a boom of grassroots support for Corbyn.

The left of the party understands that if he is removed as leader and is succeeded by another centrist politician then they’re back to square one. The left more generally understands that without Corbyn as leader, they will find themselves in a position of having two mainstream parties which aren’t radically different from each other.

Yes, there are marginal differences which have profound effects on the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable but it’s clear there’s an appetite for a radical alternative which takes the country in a different direction to the one we’ve been heading in since the Thatcher years.

So how have we arrived here? Why has the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), en masse, been drifting rightward? Rather than blame individuals we have to look at the economic framework in which all parties operate so we don’t keep making the same mistakes.

One important observation I’d like to make is that the Labour Party has responded to the wrath of market forces which, since the dawn of neoliberalism, has demanded absolute obedience to the business class so that private power can continue to infiltrate every aspect of our lives.

The nature of neoliberalism is such that it’s virtually impossible for any radical departure from “business as usual” so political parties are expected to create a cutthroat business environment with little regard for the social consequences. If they don’t then they risk extinction which is something the PLP is all too aware of.

This trend isn’t exclusive to Britain either; it’s happening right across the Western world.

Until recently this rightward drift had been mirrored in American politics with Chomsky observing that the US political parties were merely “two factions” of one “business party”.

Even the parties which win elections on an anti-austerity platform find it virtually impossible to implement their economic policies in the real world because the same market forces prevent democracy from happening.

A recent example is what recently happened in Greece with Syriza ultimately going against the expressed will of the Greeks by committing the country to many more years of austerity.


It’s very likely that if other left-wing parties find themselves no longer shouting from the side-lines then they too will have to adapt to antidemocratic nature of neoliberalism.

Before discussing alternatives I would like to make it clear that I’m not advocating an abandonment of party politics altogether. While our votes are held to ransom by the first past the post system, I’d encourage non-partisans to not take the apathetic approach of believing “they’re all just the same” as this benefits the worst option.

Whether you vote or not is ultimately your decision. However, you should consider working out what the worst option is and voting against it.

For rational people this doesn’t take much brainpower and it’s not something we should beat each other up about because voting against something is markedly different to voting for something. However, if people decide to abstain from voting between eating a shit sandwich and a shitter sandwich then we shouldn’t turn against them either.

So what’s the solution? If party politics is destined to be limited to different shades of the same oppression, how else do we organise? The short answer is that we’re already doing it but we need to expand into other areas of our lives.

Take journalism for example: there’s now a lively sharing of alternative information and ideas online. This is partly the result of people realising that the mainstream narratives don’t serve the pursuit of a fairer, more democratic world and partly the result of people having the initiative to create their own alternative media.

This DIY approach not only takes power out of the hands of those journalists who want to maintain the status quo but it also encapsulates the spirit of participatory democracy.

People are no longer sitting around waiting for some corporate newspaper to hit their doormat; they’re creating their own newspapers and then distributing them. This is a hark back to the days of the industrial revolution when there were many worker-ran newspapers rivalling the bourgeoisie press.

In today’s world people are also realising that journalists aren’t some mythical beings with magical powers; we’re all journalists. Every single one of us.

The next step is to realise that we’re all politicians, too, and not just spectators. A grave consequence of electoral democracy has been that it’s trained people to accept that their role is to vote once every five years and then spend the rest of the time shouting at each other. Leave the important decisions to the experts.

In order to reverse such widespread stagnation we need to creatively organise ourselves outside of political parties and in ways that reflect the sort of world we want to live in.

Again; this is already happening with popular movements across the world (Occupy being a good example of prefigurative politics). The key is figuring out how we can further democratise the world around us and then, as the old cliché goes, be the change you want to see.

If we don’t then for as long as we invest our time and energy in the faulty belief that the next political party is going to be the one that makes everything okay, nothing will ever change. It’s time for us to organise and take our democracy back.

2 Responses

  1. […] I’ve written a new article for my friends over at Consented which is about the antidemocratic nature of neoliberalism and the importance of creating alternative ways of organising to party politics. You can read it here. […]

  2. […] Posted on July 22, 2016 by Mark Catlin As party politics fails, we should consider prefigurative democracy […]

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