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13 March 2013
We have frequently criticised the stranglehold over political life exercised by the leaders of the main political parties in western so-called democracies.
Theoretically, it is the party membership that calls the tune and elects leaders to represent its views.
In practice, it is the leaders that call the tune, securing the obedience of party members to leadership diktat by offering bribes of various kinds, such as the opportunity to represent the party in national and local elections as well as the offer of official party posts to members on whose loyalty they can rely.
It is true that most parties hold an annual membership conference which, in theory, is the party’s supreme organ responsible for formulating party policy.
However, in practice these conferences are stage-managed in advance by the party leadership, which uses procedural devices, such as leadership-appointed resolution approval committees, to ensure that no motions distasteful to the party leadership are debated on the floor of the conference.
Human nature, however, sometimes manages to intervene to upset apple cart – and then, greatly to the embarrassment of the leadership, things do not go according to plan.
Thus it was last weekend at a major conference of Britain’s Liberal Democrats party.
Since the last parliamentary election in 2010, the UK Government has been a coalition between the Tory (Conservative) Party, the dominant party in the coalition, and the Liberal Democrats.
Now the coalition is railroading a bill through parliament to establish secret courts.
The reason for this is that an avalanche of recent court cases has exposed the alleged involvement of UK military personnel in the abuse and torture of suspects, particularly Muslims unhappy with the occupation of Islamic countries in the Middle East and Central Asia by imperial armies from the west.
What to do about this?
Stop the abuse and torture? Stop invading foreign countries which have nothing to do with us?
You must be joking!
No, the answer is to create secret courts to hear any charges of abuse or torture behind closed doors, with incriminating evidence kept out of the public realm and not even disclosed to plaintiffs claiming redress for mistreatment.
No matter that secret courts are traditionally associated with despotic regimes. Think Joe Stalin or Mao Zedong. No matter that such courts flout the basic legal principle that justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done. No matter either that the bedrock of legal process is the disclosure of all the evidence to all the parties to a dispute.
The real problem is that alleged British military involvement in the mistreatment of suspects has been receiving widespread coverage in the media. As a result, Britain’s high moral standing in the world – don’t laugh! – has been seriously jeopardised.
Clearly, this must be stopped.
The establishment of secret courts is the solution adopted by the UK’s coalition government.
Unfortunately for the Liberal Democrat leadership, however, which generally rubber-stamps the decisions made by its Tory overseers, the membership at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference last weekend threw a spanner in the works by making crystal-clear its overwhelming opposition to secret courts – secret courts being at variance with the core human rights values that the party has supposedly espoused since at least the mid-19 C.
Oh dear! Rebellion by the party rank-and-file! “Theirs not to question why, theirs but to do and die”. The lower orders in the Liberal Democrat party had had the brass neck to resile from this basic principle of partitocratic control.
Nor was the rebellion restricted to the party rank-and-file. Three eminent lawyers active in the human rights field also resigned from the party in protest.
There has been no indication so far that the Liberal Democrat leadership will take a blind bit of notice of the opposition to secret courts expressed at the conference.
However, a tendentious letter in the London Guardian today 13 March 2013 explains why the rebels have – supposedly – got it wrong. The letter is from Michael Meadowcroft, President of Leeds West Liberal Democrats. It is of general significance since it encapsulates a practice observed by all political parties.
The key passage in the letter is as follows: “We are seeing a reinstatement of the important distinction in representative democracy between the party and its elected representatives. Legitimately the two have different agendas and it is a healthy tension.”
So there you have it. Out of office the party leadership depends on the membership to canvass and fund-raise. The membership can even make suggestions to the leadership (preferably about minor local matters, such as street-sweeping and rubbish collection). It may even be allowed to say a word or two about the content of the party manifesto prior to an election.
Once in office, however, at the same time as it bins the election manifesto, the party leadership can also say toodle-oo to the membership. We’re in government now, we don’t need you any more and, in particular, we don’t need your views, thank you very much. Nice knowing you. Goodbye.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
5.Ladder (21 June 2012)
6. A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
7. A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.