Who can represent us?

Bexit blog

The British left are in the midst of a crisis of representation. The past three weeks could have been about economic politics and the challenge of challenging neoliberal markets – hard questions of how we might reverse the power of finance and capital whether inside a reformed EU or beyond. Instead, we have seen a different set of questions swirling – most spectacularly who and what represents us?

Where does our voice find its expression: in the people’s vote, in parliamentary decisions, or in the judges who, when it comes to Brexit or Corbyn’s right to stand, may be asked to decide?

And here appears an inconsistency. As left-wing “remainers” defer to constitutional and EU lawyers arguing parliament not the people should determine and leverage our future as a regionally embedded nation-state, Corbyn supporters (many who are EU remainers) argue it is party members not MPs who should determine the Labour Party leadership.

It’s tempting to see this inconsistency as hypocrisy. Certainly, some critics suggest, the Labour left only recognises the people’s electoral will when it suits them; other times preferring the will of parliament or even of the courts.

But I think something more interesting and important is present, and that is a deep ambivalence about what it means to be politically represented. We see this in ethnic or gender quotas; in Theresa May’s unfulfilled promise that her cabinet will properly represent women, and in news coverage of her educationally more representative front bench. Here, representation is what we can see, hear and feel – a kind of experiential capture that provides both proxy and means of attaining that other, more overtly political kind of representation – of “speaking on behalf of”. And of course it is this relationship which is denied by those who argue that shared status, even shared experience, does not necessarily lead to advocacy.

Resembling others (and we can question when such resemblance exists) may be performative in the sense of having effects, but this doesn’t mean it delivers what it promises.

But lack of a necessary connection between resemblance and advocacy highlights a more general problem of delegated advocacy: a refusal to speak on behalf of those you’re meant to. Angela Eagle’s well-publicised determination, against the wishes of her constituency party, to stand for the Labour leadership is a sharp reminder of MPs power to disavow their selecting party’s wishes – sometimes on the grounds they are representing someone or something else, sometimes because they are representing nothing at all.

Where does this take us? Does it mean we can only adequately represent ourselves? This would seem to be the argument both of those who advocate political decision-making by referenda (and some would like to see a lot more of it, like the US popular ballot initiatives which outlawed gay equality and limited school taxes), and those arguing for a very different kind of politics, which detours around formal constitutional processes to create grass-roots change in the here and now.

But can we even represent ourselves? If a second EU ballot is opposed because it might produce a different outcome, what does this say about the “will of the people”? Is the people’s will like a football match score – not only dependent, but recognised as necessarily dependent, on a set of conditions change in any of which will produce different results? Do we set too much political stock – give too much political legitimacy – to highly fragile outcomes simply because they once were chosen? Why do we continue to assume that proper collective decision-making should resemble a contest, whose primary output are winners and losers – clearly defined and playing their part… especially when it comes to falling on their sword and losing well?

I wonder what elections would look like if they didn’t function as contests.

One example, in a very different voting context, is the community meeting at Summerhill – the well-known free school AS Neill established almost a century ago. At Summerhill, members can “bring up” adults and children who’ve broken school rules (of which there are many) or who’ve been a nuisance or hurtful. If you’re brought up at a school meeting, the meeting will vote whether to “fine” you and what the “fine” should be – it might be a restriction on where you can go, what you can do, loss of pocket money, or having to run around the school swimming pool three times. But what’s interesting about the “fine” is that the offender can bring up their case the next day or later on (perhaps because they’ve remembered new relevant facts or thought of a new argument as to why the “fine” is unfair), and the school will vote again on whether they should be “fined”. In my research visits to the school, nobody suggested the right to have repeat votes was inefficient or unjust. It seemed to them reasonable that if people’s minds had changed (or could be changed) then a new decision should be enacted and enforced. Why should a past moment be represented by a future it no longer represented?

Repeat votes or referenda may seem hard to scale up and, in its description, may sound easy to abuse (although the court appellate system provides an institutionalised version of this). But it begs questions about why we so easily accept a system in which huge decisions (forming governments for instance) rest on the “will” of a single moment, a will which may be as precarious as a throw of dice.

I don’t want to argue against referenda, although I think there’s a challenge in imagining what they could be like if they didn’t take the form of contests. I also don’t want to argue against political representation, which also has its place.

But rather than think about representation-by-another as a way of depicting what is, we might think of it as depicting what could be. In a sense this is like the team member who moves to where the ball is going rather than where it was. Representation is prospective. It needs to judge the arc and movement of political life and keep moving ahead to remain relevant.

And in a sense, despite its claims, all political representation is a form of ever-changing re-presentation – expressing and constructing interests or “what is” in ways that advance certain outcomes rather than others. This can be seen in SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that EU membership is in Scottish interests or the Brexit claim that open borders damages British workers’ employment conditions. What gets defined as a people, their interests and the things that harm or support them is far more plastic and open to re-interpretation and reframing than mainstream politicians acknowledge.

But representing what could be, as a left-wing project, should mean more than the forward-reaching element in all representation.

One thing it might mean is prefiguration.

Refusing to let “good” ends justify “bad” means, prefigurative politics have become hugely popular and influential, particularly in anarchist-inspired grass-roots politics. But prefiguration remains some distance away from parliamentary representation, with its instrumental, goal-oriented, calculating (and calculated) politics.

What might it mean for political representatives to act prefiguratively:

  • embodying the values they believe in rather than postponing them until the better world has arrived;
  • advancing desired economic and social ways of living despite others dismissal of them as unrealistic
  • allowing ethical forms of process to generate new, unexpected desires, interests and goals.

This is a world far away from the current vicious battle-ground of electoral politics, including in today’s Labour Party. While social movements have long developed horizontal, leaderless structures, disengaged from a politics of contest and winning, left-wing parties have locked themselves rigidly into this game.

Yet, a prefigurative Labour Party resonates with Corbyn’s professed desire to bring in a gentler kind of politics and to advance a transformative agenda here and now against Kinnock’s impossibly long, winding “parliamentary road to socialism”.

Whether such a road can ever exist, what it would look like, and what energetic turbulent environment it might require to maintain its route, focus and impetus, are questions for another piece. But as Labour members, supporters and fellow travellers fight to determine who will represent them, we would do well to remember that if representation is to survive as a meaningful plank of progressive politics, we need to rethink what it’s there for and what on earth it can do.

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