New type of party
Genuine democracy means collective decision-making and accountability, argues Peter Manson
It goes without saying that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party had serious hopes of winning its first MP in the June 6 Peterborough by-election. Following its triumph in the May 23 European Union elections, expectations were high, but in the event Labour’s Lisa Forbes narrowly saw off the Brexit Party’s Mike Greene.
Greene is a millionaire businessman, who had previously described himself as a “lifelong Conservative”, and had seemed the favourite to take Peterborough. But his 9,801 votes (29%) left him just 683 behind Forbes, who scored 10,484 (31%). However, while Labour’s vote dropped from 48% in the 2017 general election, the Tories’ result was far worse: its share more than halved, slumping to 7,243 (21%) - down from 46% in 2017.
Peterborough was, of course, previously a marginal seat, which Labour’s Fiona Onasanya won from the Conservatives in 2017, but she was removed by a recall petition after being jailed for lying about a speeding offence. Furthermore, the constituency had a large pro-Brexit majority in the 2016 EU referendum, so it seemed fertile ground for Farage.
However, while victory was denied, this is by no means the end of the Brexit Party’s chances. In the current situation, with the Tories in crisis over their inability to deliver an EU withdrawal, we should expect Farage to continue to benefit. Of course, should a certain Boris Johnson win the Tory leadership contest and call a general election on the basis of promising, if necessary, a no-deal Brexit, that would certainly pull the ground from under Farage’s feet. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of possibilities, and the Brexit Party is - for now - a serious player.
But what sort of party is it? As we know, like the UK Independence Party, it is based on rightwing nationalism. But Farage - together with much of the leadership and most of its 24 MEPs - quit Ukip in protest at the turn to the extreme right under the leadership of Gerard Batten, who appointed Tommy Robinson as an advisor on ‘prisons’ and ‘child grooming’. In reality Robinson’s ‘expertise’ was Islamophobia - Ukip now calls for separate prisons for Muslims and accuses the establishment of covering up child abuse, alleging that much of it is carried out by Muslims.
This extreme Islamophobia, combined with a tolerance of fascist street-fighters like Robinson, was not to the liking of Farage, who was now looking for a different organisation in which to turn his dreams of a ‘new type of party’ into reality. The Brexit Party was registered in November 2018, but was not formally launched until April 12 2019 - by any standards its Peterborough result less than two months later was no mean achievement.
What exactly does Farage mean by a ‘new type of party’? Well, much was revealed in an article published by The Guardian on May 21.1 This discusses his fascination with the Italian right-populist Five Star Movement (M5S) - Five Star is the largest party in the Italian parliament and governs in an alliance with the far-right Lega.
Back in 2014, Ukip - when Farage was still at the helm, obviously - formed a new, anti-establishment bloc with M5S in the European parliament and in 2015 he went to Milan to meet Gianroberto Casaleggio - described by The Guardian as “the genius behind Five Star”. Farage, like Casaleggio, was interested in so-called “direct democracy” - ie, asking party members their views on particular policies before a final decision is made.
There’s nothing wrong with that, you might say, but the big problem lies in the method of such ‘consultation’. What usually happens is that the leadership draws up proposals and then invites individual members to give their opinions online. In other words, a form of referendum, whereby the question asked is decided in advance through “turning everything over to the internet”. According to The Guardian, Farage wanted to bring “Five Star’s style of digital democracy to the UK”.
This is the exact opposite of genuine democracy, which is based on collective decision-making. That implies thorough discussion at meetings of a particular group of members, where the issues are debated in a structured manner, allowing an informed decision to be taken. And, of course, individual members and groups of members must be empowered to draw up their own proposals for debate.
This paper has stated its opposition to referenda on numerous occasions: it is entirely up to those at the top to decide on the question posed - and, of course, to interpret the exact meaning of the answer. With the EU referendum, for example, what did ‘leave’ actually mean? A continued customs union plus single market, no deal on World Trade Organisation terms or something in between?
But with M5S - and, Farage hopes, the Brexit Party - things are made even worse by the employment of the internet to ‘consult’ isolated, individual members. This is accurately described in The Guardian as “a new form of populism, in which demagogues use digital tools and corporate structures to direct mass movements” (my emphasis).
And there is another similarity between the Brexit Party and M5S.The latter is a “private company owned by Casaleggio”. The article states: “Five Star was in many ways less like a political party than a publicly traded company - in which members were voting shareholders, but Casaleggio had the controlling stake”. What is more, “Similarly to how Five Star is structured, the Brexit Party is a registered company striving to look like a web-based mass movement - but it is controlled from the top by Farage.”
The Guardian quotes Liz Bilney, who was a Ukip advisor under Farage and part of his 2016 referendum campaign team. She explains: “We’ve taken learnings from business, because if you look at insurance, you want people to renew their policies.” In other words, ‘consultation’ is structured entirely in the interests of those at the top.
And last month Farage himself freely admitted the actual reality: “We’re running a company, not a political party, hence our model of registered supporters, and the fact that the chairman, Richard Tice, and I are not afraid to make decisions.”2 No doubt such a mentality will remain after the Brexit Party has established a national structure.
Of course, mainstream political parties are often far from democratic - the Tories themselves being a prime example. Their ‘conferences’ are in reality no more than extended rallies, where their leaders hope to gain large-scale publicity.
But is that how we in the workers’ movement want to conduct our affairs? Well, if you are Jon Lansman, the answer seems to be ‘yes’.
Ironically, Lansman is a pretty close equivalent of Farage - he is the registered owner of Momentum. And, just like the Brexit Party leader, he makes a big show of consulting isolated, individual members via the internet. Typical is the latest ‘consultation’ on changes that Momentum’s leading committee, the national coordinating group (NCG), wishes to implement.
According to the email circulated by the NCG, the proposals have been “sent to the most engaged members” only - how do they decide that one, I wonder? However, it is clear that, after such “engaged” members have given their views, the NCG will interpret them as it sees fit and simply go ahead with the original changes.
The NCG intends to implement the following organisational measures:
Increase the number of Momentum’s regions, thus modifying the existing structure and presumably appointing new regional officers.
As a result, increase the number of directly elected NCG members from 12 to 20.
Hold such elections for the NCG via the internet every two years instead of annually.
According to the NCC, annual voting means that
… a relatively high level of resources are diverted into running elections rather than other activities. Annual elections also undermine the NCG members’ effectiveness and ability to build relationships with grassroots activists, because it takes time for new representatives to develop the capacity to serve effectively on the NCG.3
So there you have it. Using this facade of ‘digital democracy’, Lansman intends to reduce even further any trace of accountability.
I wonder if he was in Milan with Farage? l
. ‘Building the Brexit Party: how Nigel Farage copied Italy’s digital populists’: www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/21/brexit-party-nigel-farage-italy-digital-populists-five-star-movement.↩
. The Daily Telegraph May 12.↩