The worrying news from Turkey has made me think about the way in which the recent political machinations within the British Labour Party have been described (usually by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) as a ‘coup’.
I’m sure the people who use that word do not mean to suggest that the 171 Labour MPs who want Mr Corbyn to resign are equivalent to soldiers with guns. But use of the word does imply that the manoeuvrings are anti-democratic.
But they are not. They are profoundly democratic.
During the argument this week about the rules for a Labour Party leadership election, I think many people overlooked a bald fact: there are rules for a Labour Party leadership election. There are even provisions (though, not very good ones, it turns out) for how a sitting leader may be challenged. The rebel MPs have triggered a contest in the precise manner that the rules of the party specify. It is completely and exactly democratic, even though Mr Corbyn was elected by a clear majority of party members, supporters and affiliates.
Moreover, any political party that did not have a mechanism for a sitting leader to be ousted would be pretty much the definition of anti-democratic.
A few people have suggested to me that the overwhelming mandate Corbyn received last time, or the fact that the renegade MPs haven’t “given him a proper chance” are reasons why he should not be challenged. But that is neither here nor there. There is nothing in the rule-book (nor should there be) to say a leader cannot be challenged if his margin of victory was over a certain percentage. Nor are their rules placing a waiting period before a challenge may be made. It is sufficient that some MPs think they could do better and are challenging the leader.If they can gather enough nominations (as laid down by the rules) then they are not behaving undemocratically.
Indeed, by exposing themselves to the Labour Party membership, they are being very democratic. It is expected that the challengers will be seen off and Mr Corbyn will continue as leader.
By the same token, the de-selection of MPs by angry party members is often portrayed as being sordid and ugly. But there are also party rules for triggering a de-selection of a sitting MP, and I bet those who are considering that course of action will be familiarising themselves with the voting procedures as I type. If an MP is defenestrated by their own constituency party, then that will be divisive… but it will also be democratic.
The confusion with all this is due to the fact that several interlinked democratic structures overlap. Labour MPs are selected as candidates by their constituency Labour, but actually given the job by a wider group of constituency voters. A Labour Party Leader needs the support of the membership that votes him (or one fine day, her) into post. However, actually running Her Majesty’s Opposition requires the consent of Members of Parliament who all have their own electoral mandates.
This overlap of democratic legitimacy is what is causing the current problems. All the belligerents believe they have a mandate to behave as they are behaving.