TJ Coles of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and co-author of Union Jackboot examines how and why the majority of politicians on both sides of the left-right political spectrum can so consistently vote for inhumane legislation, such as budget cuts, healthcare privatisation and social security reductions.
The question is even more urgent when considering that significant numbers of MPs’ constituents are often opposed to the very laws adopted by their so-called representatives. It is perhaps too crude, methodologically speaking, to cite subservience to big business and adherence to the party line as the only major factors dictating the voting choices of individual MPs.
And They Call it Democracy?
Other factors play a part: bribery, bullying, and blackmail. Philosopher AC Grayling calls them ‘the three B’s.’ The recent revelations concerning the shady (or politics as usual?) dealings of the Brexit débacle have highlighted what goes on behind the scenes in British politics. Interestingly, the right-wing, gutter press have been the most vocal. One could, in the past, piece together information of the kind now being widely reported, but the methods of political coercion in Westminster have become so blatant that the Daily Mail has an article virtually laying it all out.
What does this mean for ‘democracy’? (And what does democracy mean?) Social democratic theory posits that members of the public directly – as well as their representatives in unions, civil society groups and elected politicians – must formulate and implement policy. According to this ideal, anything less cannot be democracy. The current understanding of representative, majoritarian democracy (i.e. of the kind we supposedly have in the UK) is that a majority or plurality of the public elects representatives (i.e. intermediaries). In reality, the intermediaries serve elite interests by formulating (often in secret) and ratifying (often against the wishes of large sectors of the public), policies that benefit the interests of a small, powerful number of constituents.
The precise political workings remain obscure, due in part to the secrecy surrounding Westminster. But the intra-Tory Brexit ‘negotiations’ have exposed some of the ways in which the general public is kept out of the democratic process.
Methods of Manipulation
Secrecy—even from MPs: When Donald Trump visited the UK, he offered May a US-UK ‘free trade’ deal behind closed doors. Apparently telling neither her party nor, for sure, the public, the news was recently reported by a figure in May’s inner circle. The implications are enormous. The pro-Brexit faction of the Tory party desperate for a ‘free trade’ with the US might have pushed even harder for a no-deal to guarantee the UK falling into the arms of Uncle Sam. The Labour Party could have used the news as ammunition against a hard Brexit. Another example of secrecy is the recent occasion on which Labour MPs were invited in secret to listen to a secret sales pitch by May to back her proposed EU withdrawal agreement, which failed miserably by all accounts.
Silence: Businesses are not currently free to talk publicly about their specific concerns over planned borders and customs arrangements. Theresa May had previously called non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) ‘unethical.’ But The Sun recently reported that the Department for Transport has issued 28 NDAs to businesses and other organisations in an effort to gag them from talking publicly about the borders and customs arrangements apparently being planned by the government. The Department for Exiting the European Union has issued six NDAs. Haulage firms and pharmaceutical companies are reportedly being silenced.
Legislation as bribery: As a child, Alf Dubs was saved from deportation and likely extermination by the Nazis. At the Labour Party Conference 2018, Dubs revealed that after he amended the Immigration Bill (which was initially defeated in the Commons), then-Home Secretary Theresa May personally requested that Dubs withdraw his amendment, which would have obliged the UK to accept more child refugees. ‘If we take these children, others will follow,’ May is alleged to have told Dubs. The media appear to have missed this rather important story.
However, now that it suits her agenda, PM May has reportedly hinted to Heidi Allen MP (who actively supports bills to protect child refugees) that if she votes for May’s EU withdrawal agreement, Britain might commit to accepting more child refugees. It is reported by the same sources that if they voter her way, May might also support legislation to protect women from cross-examination by their abusers in court. ‘Sources said Mrs May’s aides were approaching MPs to ask what they wanted to secure votes’ (Daily Mail).
Bullying and blackmail: The party’s enforcers (whips) have a reputation for bullying MPs: Telephoning them at home and harassing their families; using sexual abuse scandals as blackmail tools (i.e. protecting abusers); and threatening to withhold funding. Stories have appeared here and there in the media, but growing numbers of stories concerning blackmail and intimidation are appearing in these troubled Brexit times. The mask of democracy slips again.
There are many factors preventing the MPs elected at the local level from representing their constituents at the legislative level in Westminster. Some of these factors are outlined in this article. If we are to reduce as much as possible the number of factors limiting our participation in majoritarian democracy (not that this system is preferable to participatory democracy), we should at least press for legislation to prevent the kind of anti-democratic tactics documented here.
Buy Union Jackboot: What Your Media and Professors Don’t Tell You About British Foreign Policy (co-written with Matthew Alford) here.