“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

29 September 2015

On Labour – and the politics of ‘representation’



One of the curious things about this curious Labour Party conference for me looking from the outside has been the self-congratulation on display.

The first thing I saw when I switched on BBC Parliament on Monday was a local party delegate from North London boasting about beating the Lib Dems during the last election, praising how amazing everyone was and saying what a terrible state the economy is in due to austerity.

(i.e. ‘We’re great and right, that lot the public preferred over us are wicked and evil’, and ergo said public – except for the righteous denizens of North London – are wicked and evil too).

That’s maybe a bit harsh; after all you can’t expect ‘hardworking’ ordinary Labour folk to turn up to a conference in an expensive town like Brighton to moan and be negative and have a crap time telling each other how deluded they are. Nevertheless, the self-congratulation looks a bit off given Labour’s successive election defeats to a Conservative Party which is neither liked nor popular.

There was another little instance of this sort of thing I spotted on Twitter that I felt worth pointing out, for what it shows about our attitudes to the issue of ‘representation’ and democracy. This breezy standard-issue tweet – admittedly from someone of the old New Labour Progress wing of the party (which is now out in the cold) – seems to shine a light on some of our problems.




There are a few things I'd like to note here.

  • There is nowt wrong with an all-women panel, not least when the topic of conversation is pregnancy.
  • But praising an all-women panel for being an all-women panel means that the presence of a single male of human species on the panel would make it unpraiseworthy; indeed it would be a bad thing.
  • The tweet is about representation, primarily on panels of speakers at events. That representation is provided through identity in terms of someone’s fixed properties – in this case gender but it could also be via skin colour, religion or even sexuality. So in this photo for example we can see 100% women’s representation but 0% ‘BME’ (black and minority ethnic) representation.
  • A small point, but a pet gripe of mine: the use of ‘fab’. This is all over the place in Labour and seems to me emblematic of our transition to a party of middle class progressives who love telling each other how ‘fab’ they are.
  • I’ve nowt against Anna Phillips (I don’t even know her) and feel a bit bad about deconstructing and criticising her tweet; however it does show up these things rather well.

The account of representation we can see here is becoming ubiquitous in Labour and wider left-wing/liberal circles.  It can be quite difficult to get your head around its negative aspects because there is a basic goodness and decency in it – that women should be ‘represented’ in Parliament and professions like the media (two areas of particular interest to the activists who campaign about this stuff) is completely fair and right.

But it’s worth pointing out that this is a particular form of representation we are talking about, and what’s more it’s an alternative to the democratic form of representation – even though the campaigners and the institutions that support them, including remarkably the Electoral Reform Society – maintain that their version is vital to a healthy democracy.

The difference comes in choice, and whether those represented have any. Representation according to gender, skin colour etc is fixed, just like those properties are fixed for the most part. It flows automatically. The person doing the representing represents the person represented whether the person represented likes it or not. In the case highlighted above four female panellists are representing women, whatever their views are and whatever the individual or aggregated views of women. Democratic representation by contrast provides choice. The represented themselves decide who should represent them, though who gets the gig is normally dependent not on whether you or I or anyone else votes for them, but rather that they get the most votes.

The first form of representation is top-down and centralised while the second creates a category of person we might call ‘the voter’ who makes the decision of who represents them rather than being dictated to. They are fundamentally different kinds, and in this light the centralised form looks like something of a self-contradiction, for it quite obviously fails to provide any connection between represented and representing other than the fixed property of gender. (But that connection is more or less unbreakable, which is what provides identity politics with its power).

This sort of politics is now rife at the centre of the Labour Party as we could see from the reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet appointments. Rather than worrying about Corbyn’s politics and the company he keeps, the lightning rod of dissatisfaction was provided by the lack of women shadowing the four so-called major offices of state - PM, Deputy, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. As it happened, Corbyn stuck to the pledge he had always made to have a gender-balanced Shadow team, and indeed appointed a majority of women to it, including in the crucial Health and Education briefs.

So it was maybe a storm in a teacup. But the anger was real, and it was widespread enough in the upper ranks of Labour to lead the news. This is what we are most concerned about nowadays: it is not so much about what you do or the way that you do it, as who you are.

But who you are is not the whole story of course. Your identity is not enough for you to represent anyone, whether on a panel or in a candidate selection contest or an election. There must be some means of differentiation. Someone must choose who will represent and who will not.

This is the crucial point which remains hidden when people tell this story about representation: that it is built on someone else or other people deciding, not you. The conference event speaking panel provides the model for this process. The four speakers and chair do not turn up randomly; they are chosen by some people somewhere, but crucially this process of choosing is hidden from view from those who turn up and listen to them, or who will be represented by them. For the plebs on the ground, they simply appear.

I think the overwhelming enthusiasm for this version of representation tells us a lot about the Labour Party and the wider left at the moment. At a very basic level it shows a lack of faith in people deciding for themselves who shall represent them. We prefer to let a backroom committee or commission or administrator decide on their behalf. This puts choice in the hands of those get appointed to these positions, thereby favouring those who get favoured within the existing bureaucracy of existing institutions. In that sense it is a conservative practice, and in Labour it means the activists and campaigners themselves, for whom this narrative of representation manages to unite the holy trinity of group interest, general interest and self-interest.

This may be a micro-phenomenon that doesn’t show up in lights and make easy headlines, but it is everywhere now. Moreover, I think it is important that we are so keen on this alternative form of representation at a time when the democratic form isn’t working so well for us. It offers a great opportunity for us to talk self-righteously about securing better representation and boast about great we are while completely bypassing the voters.