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Partisanship in the age of Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable rise to become Labour party leader during the summer of 2015 coincided with the party’s membership soaring to heights not seen in British politics since the early 1980s. Discussing their new book, The meaning of partisanship, Dr Jonathan White of the European Institute and Professor Lea Ypi of the Department of Government draw on the recent developments within British politics to offer their perspective on the role of party members within democracy.

Since the 2015 general election the Labour party has increased its membership from 200,000 to 500,000 to become the largest political organisation in Europe. This development has bucked the trend in advanced democracies where both membership and voter engagement have declined over the past 30 years, and defied the predictions of many political scientists.

For Dr White, the Corbyn phenomenon has delineated two competing visions of the role of party members. He says: “One view of the political party is that you only really need members to do menial tasks, and the party leadership is more concerned with coordinating MPs and communicating with the wider public.”

“The second vision is where the membership is the very essence of who the party are, and the MPs are only the tip of the iceberg,” Dr White adds.

Corbyn

The situation has arisen largely because of changes to Labour’s internal governance in 2013, when members were given a greater say in how the party chooses its leader. Dr White says: “This has led to a tension where the majority of their MPs do not support Corbyn, but the majority of members do.”

For Dr White and Professor Ypi, the Corbyn era corresponds to a vision of partisanship as a long-term, cumulative action, which requires an enduring political commitment to achieve social change. Partisanship is therefore an association with like-minded citizens rather than an individualistic act, with party membership defined by a set of ideas.

Labour’s growth has been mirrored by the growth in membership for the SNP and the Green party. Why have party memberships experienced this unexpected surge in recent years?

For Dr White, the economic challenges in the aftermath of the financial crisis may have led to greater numbers of citizens seeking out radical political alternatives. He says: “Many of the younger, newer members will have come of age politically during a long and deep recession.

"Some of the leaders that have emerged to national prominence in the past two years, for example Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US, have been campaigning for a different economic model for a long time. They draw their credibility from being largely untainted by the economic problems of the past decade. They signify the willingness to take a position of principle and stick to it.” Dr White adds.

The rise in party members also reflects on Britain’s majoritarian democratic system, which is designed to provide single party government. In Britain, either Labour or the Conservatives have aimed to appeal to a majority of citizens during elections, and are supposed to govern for the country as a whole.

Dr White says: “The explosion in party members is partly an expression of democratic inadequacies, with institutions failing to capture the range of opinions within the electorate. This may lead to demands to reform the electoral system in order to make space for those voices who feel they are being marginalised.”

Dr White adds: “Could this channelling of political enthusiasm into an established party happen in Germany for example, which has a multi-party system, and governing coalitions between different parties? Possibly not, because their system is designed to accommodate a greater array of political voices. So the peculiarities of the Westminster model are one of the drivers of this expansion.”

While these leaders have come to personify their political movements, the authors emphasise that it is necessary to look beyond individuals within respective parties, and to the wider political, social and economic forces that led to their elevation.

Professor Ypi says: “Party members are also citizens, and the fact that large numbers have been motivated to join political parties is reason for us to pause and reflect on what they are telling about the way we do politics. Corbyn merely represents a larger movement, which is not reducible to the characteristics of whoever happens to lead it.”

Posted October 2016

Further information

The meaning of partisanship seeks to retrieve a richer conception of partisanship, drawing on modern political thought and extending it in the light of contemporary democratic theory and practice. Looking beyond the party as organization, the book develops an original account of what it is to be a partisan.

Lea Ypi is Professor in Political Theory in the Government Department, London School of Economics, and Adjunct Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. Before joining the LSE, she was a Post-doctoral Prize Research Fellow at Nuffield College (Oxford) and a researcher at the European University Institute where she obtained her PhD.

Jonathan White is an Associate Professor (Reader) in European Politics.  He joined LSE as Lecturer in September 2008. Previous to this he was at the Humboldt University in Berlin as an Alexander von Humboldt research fellow. He gained his doctorate at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence.

Image: Corbyn addressing London's People's Assembly Demonstration in June 2014  CC BY-SA 2.0

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