Labour's swelling ranks entrench divisions with a public that doesn't much care.by David Runciman / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The one achievement that even Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies struggle to dismiss is his success in building the membership of the Labour Party. They may not like the results, but it is hard to deny that he has revitalised the party as a mass movement: the total membership is now more than half a million, nearly three times what it was after the 2015 general election. Corbyn flags up this fact as his primary political accomplishment: he took a moribund organisation and has injected it with genuine popular enthusiasm. The party, he says, is stronger than it has ever been and swathes of people who had given up on political participation have found a new reason to join in. Enthusiasm and popular participation are invariably seen as good for democracy. So how can it be so bad?
The answer is that enthusiasm and participation are not always a good thing. Take voter turnout: it is not true that the higher the turnout at elections, the healthier the democracy. Turnout was exceptionally high during the Weimar period in Germany, topping 80 per cent in national elections. That did not make it a strong and stable democracy. People voted in such numbers because they cared desperately about the result; more to the point, they were terrified of what might happen if their opponents won. Enthusiasm was a proxy for fear and insecurity. The same can be said of recent elections in Iraq, where turnout has been as high as 95 per cent in some districts. People queue for hours in the boiling sun to vote because they will do whatever they can to keep their sectarian opponents from coming out on top. Mass participation can be a sign of how little confidence people have in the fairness of the system. They join in because they don’t trust others to take decisions for them.