Will democracy or autocracy prevail in Labour leadership contest?

Let us put aside the deeply worrying anti-democratic purge of voters from the current Labour leadership contest for a moment to focus on the relationship that Owen Smith, the clear benefactor of the purge, has towards democracy himself. As the Labour leadership campaign has progressed, the antagonistic attitude that Owen Smith has shown towards democracy has become more and more alarming. This is most obviously clear in one of his central proposals, namely to hold a second EU referendum. Corbyn insists that the actual referendum result has to be respected (in order to respect democracy), but Smith casually dismisses the result out of hand. Yet, he puts forward no arguments as to why the referendum was illegitimate, and rather repeats that he was devastated with the result and it will have damaging effects on the economy. This second point might well be true, but the rules of the referendum were agreed and ratified before the vote took place, which is what happens in a democracy. Nowhere did it say: if the vote is to leave, then we’ll do best of two out of three. If you believe in democracy, then the UK leaving the EU is a reality now, so we have to fight for the best possible outcome, which is Corbyn’s position. That Corbyn isn’t particularly fond of the EU is neither here nor there, even though Smith is trying to make a big deal out of this. In fact, perhaps this is the most worrying thing of all — Smith is riding roughshod with democracy in order to try to point score.

Smith’s cavalier attitude to democracy took an even stranger turn in the Glasgow hustings, where he attacked Corbyn for insisting on a Parliamentary vote to approve going to war when it came to defending allies under the NATO agreement. The suggestion was that if France were invaded, then they would need to know that the UK would defend them without ‘risking’ Parliament saying no. Apart from a somewhat bombastic and dated view of geopolitics, what this shows is a complete lack of faith in — perhaps even disdain for — democracy. It seems that Owen Smith considers democracy to be a risky business because it might go against the wishes of the establishment. We do not need to look very far back in history, however, to see what happens when you blindly follow treaties without any democratic oversight. Moreover, if France were invaded and sending British forces was the best course of action, then Parliament would surely vote to do so very quickly; and in doing so, they would send them with democratic legitimation — and post-Iraq we know how important that is to have.

Smith is manoeuvring these issues into attacks on Corbyn’s attitudes towards the EU and NATO, but the fact that Corbyn keeps insisting on the sovereignty of democracy has nothing to do with his attitude towards these organisations, but on the principle itself; a principle that has made him leader of Labour. Indeed, these two telling issues — Smith’s proposal for a second EU referendum and his desire to bypass Parliament before going to war — point to one underlying theme of Owen Smith’s campaign, namely a penchant for autocratic rule where deals between powerful elites are not to come under threat from democratic process. This is perhaps to be expected given that: a) his candidacy was born of an anti-democratic coup against a newly elected leader with a massive democratic mandate, and b) his only chance of winning is a mass-purge of Labour members.

This is why such a huge amount is at stake in this Labour leadership contest, above and beyond the candidates or even the party. Will democracy or autocracy prevail?