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On narrow parliamentarianism

ParliamentarySocialismOn Saturday 6th August the Guardian carried an article by house-journalist Jonathan Freedland entitled ‘Corbyn can’t dismiss the importance of MPs. On Brexit, they’re centre stage.’ The aim of the article was to expose the absurdity of the anti-Parliamentary stance of the “Corbynistas”. On the slightest examination, however, Freedland’s argument falls apart exposing the vapidity his idea of parliamentary democracy.

Ralph Milliband (father of Ed and David) wrote, in his book Parliamentary Socialism, that of parties around the world calling themselves socialist, Labour was the most dogmatic. That dogmatism, he explained, was not about socialism but about Parliament. Labour thinking has always been captivated, and captured, by Parliament. The same is true of our liberal commentariat. The primacy of Parliament has the status of holy writ. To question that is to cross the line between sane political reasoning and the madness of political sects.

Freedland should be more cautious about the blindingly obvious. When everyone could see for themselves that the sun goes round the earth and when centuries of scientific effort produced sophisticated mathematics that enabled accurate predictions to be made on that basis, how mad was it to suggest otherwise?

JF says that the current dispute within Labour

…is a dispute over whether the centre-left advances its goals through parliament or some other means. This is foundational for Labour: the party was created by those who believed working people could not rely on others, or wait for revolution, to improve their lives, but needed to have their own representatives in parliament with a view to forming the government.

But contrary to what this suggests, no one in the Corbyn camp is arguing that Labour’s political goals do not need to be expressed ultimately through Parliament. JF feels no obligation to produce any evidence when making this implication. Anything will do when attacking Corbyn and clearly the Guardian editors seem to be comfortable with such evidence-free journalism. After all, they might say, when diagnosing a mad person one would not feel obliged to take his or her ramblings all that seriously.

No one in the current disputes denies a key role to Parliament. The claim anyone does is a figment of Freedland’s imagination. The argument is rather about whether all political debate should be judged by what will, all other things being equal, produce a parliamentary electoral advantage in the short to medium term. It is that sort of politics of narrow parliamentarianism that is in question and it is that narrow view that is defended by the anti-Corbyn camp and by JF. Those who question the dogma say that even more important that having seats in Parliament is to know what you want them for. That is NOT, repeat NOT, a claim that Parliament is not a vital part of the political process.

JF refers to Michael Foot’s condemnation of Peter Tatchell’s call for “extra-parliamentary action” as a backdrop to Parliamentary activity. It is clearly very difficult for those convinced of the absolute primacy and centrality of Parliament for all political action to understand this suggestion. And yet extra-parliamentary action is conducted all the time by global corporations which move capital in and out of countries according to the advantages national parliaments are prepared to offer them. The honours accorded to people like Sir Phillip Green show how money talks and has the ear of politicians. Our privately owned media pumps out their version of politics setting the tone of debate outside Parliament to direct that which is conducted inside it.

Such extra-parliamentary activity is not referred to as such and mostly goes unnoticed. It is conducted by people in business suits pursuing the interests of the companies that pay them. It is only when uppity trade unionists and left-wing politicians suggest that the mass of ordinary people need to organise themselves to protect their interests against the pressures of the rich and powerful that alarm bells begin to ring and images of an unruly and thuggish horde come into play. This use of such images, usually without even a hint of evidence, has gone into overdrive to rubbish the attempt to move Labour to the left. The role of the Guardian and Observer in this process has been shameful.

JF says that some Corbynites admit that Parliament matters but that most think that building a social movement is more important. It is not “either/or” but a “both together”. Parliament is where legislative decisions must ultimately be made but is not the sole channel for debate and action. Therefore a social movement that takes up issues, campaigns for changes, provides a forum for debate and gives people a voice is a necessary backdrop for Parliament intending to shift the balance of power in favour of the great majority. It is the sense that narrow parliamentarianism is unable to do this that has caused a crisis of social democracy across Europe including that of the Labour Party.

Yes, winning a majority in Parliament, possibly in the form of a progressive alliance, is essential and to achieve that we must reject the narrow parliamentary view of old and new Labour. We need a broad social movement to both defend the interests of ordinary people, to influence public debate and, on that basis, to express its goals through Parliament.


Most people on the left will, I guess, be sympathetic to a critique of the limitations of narrow parliametarianism. But we need to recognise that this degenerate view of democracy contaminates the left as well. A local Labour councillor told me the other day that in a family gathering someone told him that he had recently joined the Labour Party. The councillor asked why he had joined. The answer was “To support Corbyn”. The councillor said “That’s good. Have you been to any branch meetings or done any party work like leafleting yet?” to which the answer was “Oh no, I only joined to vote for Corbyn”.

The reduction of political democracy to voting goes right across the political spectrum. The idea that democracy involves commitment, interaction with others and action in one’s community is one that is a long way from the minds of many who have signed up to vote for Corbyn. Reports from around the country make it clear that this is not an isolated phenomenon. CLP memberships have doubled, or more, without this having a big impact on branch meetings and with even less impact on party activity outside of those meetings.

So let’s be clear, success through Parliament is vital but it has to be an expression of what is going on outside Parliament. People who want that to happen need to be persuaded that this means doing a lot more than placing a cross on a ballot form in Labour leadership elections. It also means that we should avoid being carried away with partial successes. Paul Mason suggests that Labour has reached a critical mass required to be come a social movement active in every aspect of everyday life. The experience of the new membership would seem to suggest that such views are, so far, something of an overstatement.


  1. Robert Green says:

    Parliamentarianism, reformism. These are forms of opportunism. There is only one reason why the labour movement should want to put representatives in Parliament, and they should, and that is so that they can use that platform to expose the utter uselessness of that body for the pursuit of working class aims and to propagandise for socialism.

  2. John Walsh says:

    I’m not sure I completely go along with your analysis DP – but this is a conversation that is urgently needed.

    From what I can see, at play here are two competing conceptions of membership – the traditional hierarchical, top-down, the leader leads and the mass of the membership dutifully door knock and leaflet inspired and motivated by leaders and, on the other hand, an anti-hierarchical bottom-up, Podemos-style grassroots social movement conception of membership, where members devise new policy initiatives, work out how to reform the Party and will be at the forefront of connecting Labour with the wider electorate.

    JF is then misunderstanding the call for a social movement as meaning “and don’t bother with Parliamentary democracy” – this is the shallow nonsense we’ve come to expect from the Guardian. Whereas, Paul Mason and others are arguing that the new leftward shift doesn’t have available to it the (what has become normal) background Parliamentary machinery – hordes of SPADS, media agencies, PR companies, spin companies, focus group companies – and that the replacement for these companies, organisations and individuals will emerge from within the Podemos-style social movement. Obviously, this hasn’t happened yet and partly explains the very poor performance of Corbyn’s office on media matters (which is often then misunderstood as ‘media bias’). Part of the reason it hasn’t happened is that many CLPs are wedded to the ‘leader leads’ model which is, for them, a reason to prevent a grassroots movement emerging (i.e. it’s not that new members are simply ‘consumer members’ who only want to vote in the leadership election).

    For me, spelling out and understanding these competing conceptions of membership – within the left – is an urgent task.

  3. Peter Rowlands says:

    A good article. I have a letter in the Guardian today along similar lines. I make the point that Labour emerged in 1900 as a means whereby the activities of trade unions and other campaigners could have a parliamentary focus, but that certainly didn’t render their continued activity redundant, and neither does it today.
    I agree that Mason’s view of the increase in membership is over-optimistic. While it has been very successful in bringing people into the party, those new members do not show any greater inclination to engage in activity than those who who were members before – about 10% to 15% in both cases. Active new members are broadly of two types – older people, many of whom were previously members but left over Iraq/Blair, and younger people, recently or still at university.There is little sign of working class membership (social groups C2, D and E), as a breakdown by ward in my own constituency makes clear. ( What I am saying is based on my own observation, as an activist, in one CLP, but I would be surprised if it was not representative of the situation generally.)

  4. Karl Stewart says:

    Excellent article DavidP – thanks for this.

  5. Harriet Albert says:

    The exchange quoted between the new member and the Councillor is typical of the reception new members are getting. Instead of engaging new members in political debate, Councillors/longer-term members often judge new members by whether they are willing to be un-informed leafletters. New members are sceptical, as well they might be. Why should they leaflet if they don’t know what the Labour candidate stands for? Maybe that candidate is a member of Progress, supports the coup against the democratically elected leader of the Party and supports the academisation of local schools. If the local party wants members to leaflet, members need to know who and what they are leafletting for.

  6. Richard MacKinnon says:

    I have to admit it took a long time for me to work out what this article is about but I think, eventually I understand. I think David Pavett is trying to draw a distinction between parliamentary activities and what he calls ‘extra’ parliamentary activities such as canvassing. Why? David Pavett seems to have a problem with the recent surge in Labour members, because there are it seems some who have joined ‘only to support Jeremy Corbyn’.
    If I am correct in my reading of the point to this article then I am in complete disagreement with David Pavett’s position.
    Some people don’t vote.
    Some people never discuss politics but always vote.
    Some people feel so strongly about politics they join a party to show their support but do no more than pay their annual subscription.
    Some people are so actively involved with their party that they spend hours giving of their time working for the party for no recompense.
    Some people make a very good living out of politics.
    Every one of the above groups is a legitimate form of political involvement. It is none of David Pavett’s business how others engage with politics. If I represent David Pavett accurately his criticism of non active members is arrogant and wrong.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Richard, I did not spell out my view clearly enough and instead relied on a common understanding of the force of the term “extra parliamentary activity” (EPA) which perhaps no longer exists.

      To me the expression is much stronger than merely referring to any activities carried out outside the Palace of Westminster such as leafleting, canvassing, meetings, socials … . All those are important but I think the phrase (in my mind at least is rather more pointed).

      1. The phrase refers to the fact that Parliamentary debate are not abstract morel deliberations but reflect the balance of forces in society. What big investors are inclined to support conditions the choices Parliament makes in the name of “realism” (or “facts on the ground” as they say in Israel). The point of extra-parliamentary activity is to make a different reality or different “facts on the ground”. This means mass expression of opinion in a way that it is difficult to ignore. This can take many forms (very large demonstrations, strikes (or even the reverse, opposing lock-outs), direct action of various sorts. In short it means clear signals that people are willing to take things into their own hands.

      2. A shift in the power structures of society will always be strongly resisted by those with an interest in keeping as they are. When government try to move to the left they are undermined by the rich and powerful who move capital abroad, stop investing, incite strikes, go into media overdrive and so on all with the aim of creating an atmosphere of chaos and breakdown.

      So to me EPA activity is about the exercise of class power. The need for this seems to me to be clear from all the historical attempts to turn to the left. This is why I think the idea that the left can rely on the biased results of the current electoral system to slip in a socialist government which does not have majority support is the purest left-wing self-delusion. It has never happened and it never will.

      3. Once this idea of EPA is grasped the important thing is to distinguish it from sweeping ultra-left dismissals of the possibility of using Parliament at all (as in the contribution by Robert Green above) or in the constant demands for a general strike. A general strike can be a powerful form of EPA but such things are not a matter of pure will power. They have to have a real basis of discontent and need a good level of understanding of the causes of that discontent. All of this requires a level of organisation and understanding to which we need to build. We have a very long way to go before any of this can start to sound like practical politics. The socialist revolution is not round the corner and anyone who thinks that it is needs to lie down and take some deep breaths.

      Just how these things can/will be accomplished is a matter of creative political action and you wrongly think that I am trying t tell people how to engage in politics. There are no formula which tell us what to do. Everything depends on a good level of understanding of the problems of capitalist society and why it cannot solve them. Beyond that everyone has to think for themselves.

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        When I read your reply particular phrases such as “So to me EPA activity is about the exercise of class power”. or “A general strike can be a powerful form of EPA but such things are not a matter of pure will power.” they stick out and I ask myself, when was this written 1916, 1928? and who is David Pavett trying to talk to?
        I fear you live in your mind in a era that has long since gone.
        David may I suggest that you might find it helpful if when putting your thoughts into words you try to simplify the process. Spell it out, don’t presume the reader automatically knows what your trying to say. Avoid big words, ask yourself before typing what does (terms such as) “narrow parliamentarianism” (note I had to correct your spelling) actually mean. You might know what it means but does the reader?
        If you do try this approach not only will readers have a better chance of understanding you, I think you will come to
        realise just how rambling and incoherent you actually are.

        1. David Pavett says:

          I have to disagree with you about class power and what is necessary to change. I do not believe that class power disappeared sometime after 1916/1928. Neither do I think that resistance to any attempt to change the balance of class power will be any less determined that it was way back then and at many major confrontationsbsince then. But I guess we are just going to have disagree about that.

          Thanks for the advice on how to explain myself. In fact I do try to make myself clear in the way that you recommend, except that I would not be so patronising as to avoid “big words” if they are the ones normally used. Actually, I have often had people comment positively on my clarity. This is obviously not to your standards so perhaps I am up against the limits of my “rambling and uncoherent” self. We can but try.

          1. Richard MacKinnon says:

            I cannot believe anyone is still talking about ‘class power’ in 2016. And I never said class power disappeared sometime between 1916/1928. Where did you get that from David? I said your writing sounds like it was written in 1916 or 1928.
            David if we are going to have a constructive discussion please read what I say before replying.
            For the sake of argument and because Im not doing much this afternoon, I think there is no such thing as ‘class power’. I understand terms such as ‘knowledge is power’ or ‘money is power’. But ‘class power’? I know what ‘real class’ is but you have got me when you mention ‘class power’ .

  7. Paul Dias says:

    “The reduction of political democracy to voting goes right across the political spectrum. The idea that democracy involves commitment, interaction with others and action in one’s community is one that is a long way from the minds of many who have signed up to vote for Corbyn. Reports from around the country make it clear that this is not an isolated phenomenon. CLP memberships have doubled, or more, without this having a big impact on branch meetings and with even less impact on party activity outside of those meetings.”

    Please bear in mind not everyone’s family/professional/health situation allows them to engage fully in the democratic process. Some people will be politically active in the ways you describe throughout their lives, others less so, while others will never be more than occasional voters. The fact that people are joining Labour to vote for Corbyn is a good thing, and the fact that many are just doing that is, at worst, no worse than the status quo was pre-Corbyn.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Paul, of course I recognise that joining a political just to vote for its leader is better than nothing. I also recognise that the ability of different people to participate beyond that depends on individual circumstances. However, when party membership doubles (from 200,000 to 400,000) without anything like a doubling of participation in meetings and other activities then we are dealing with a broad social phenomenon rather that individual differences.

    2. Verity says:

      It is conceivable is it not that newly recruited Supporters and members have signed up because they think that they can make a difference? They have less or no commitment in areas of activity where they believe they will make little or difference. Seems quite reasonable to me if you have not engaged in trade union, community or political activities before.

      Weaknesses lay in the poverty of imagination or options in strategy by Labour or on the fringes of the Left. It is surely the responsibility of the followers of Corbyn’s optimism to advance political channels to further activity now that they taken one further step to engagement.

      At the very least the inept handing of new members by the ‘old guard’ has been a political lesson to many without prior experience. Many individuals will have considerable grown as a result of this factor alone. The six procedural committee members of the NEC are now so obviously at odds with the needs of the ‘new Party’ as have occasionsal Left-wingers living on past reputations.

  8. Brendan D says:

    I disagree with the argument of this article, which seems to be summarised in this passage: “No one in the current disputes denies a key role to Parliament. The claim anyone does is a figment of Freedland’s imagination. The argument is rather about whether all political debate should be judged by what will, all other things being equal, produce a parliamentary electoral advantage in the short to medium term. It is that sort of politics of narrow parliamentarianism that is in question and it is that narrow view that is defended by the anti-Corbyn camp and by JF.” I agree with the author that JF is wrong to suggest the positions adopted by the two camps are pro-Corbyn=anti-parliamentary activity and anti-Corbyn=pro-parliamentary activity. But then the author suggests alternative positions which I think are also wrong: pro-Corbyn=pro-parliamentary-combined-with-extra-parliamentary activity and anti-Corbyn=narrow parliamentarism (pro-parliamentary-and-no-extra-parliamentary activity). Instead, I think the concern of many in the anti-Corbyn camp is that keeping Corbyn as leader will mean that the left no longer has the option of parliamentary activity in a meaningful way, because the Labour Party will decline to such an extent that it will have no chance of winning a General Election and therefore will not pose a credible threat to the Tories. I feel that many in the pro-Corbyn camp are in denial about this, many others don’t understand the parliamentary/extra-parliamentary distinction, and many others don’t seem to care if the option of parliamentary activity is lost, perhaps because they take the position articulated by Robert Green in his comment on this article. So I agree with you that JF is wrong, I agree with your distinction between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, I agree with you that both are important and that narrow parliamentarism sucks, but I don’t agree with your analysis of what is actually going on in the Labour Party today.

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