Dan Jarvis is Right and Brave: MPs are not Party Delegates

It was a leadership bid in everything but name. Or not so much a bid as a tentative showing of provocative thigh to anyone who might be interested. There is, as well, little doubt that a Jarvis leadership would change his party’s fortunes. He is not ideal - and yes, he is another straight, white man in a line of straight, white men - but his backstory has undoubted appeal. And those who feign to decry such things should perhaps look at their own hypocrisy then stop talking about our current prime minister’s privileged upbringing. How people, in their every day lives and in politics, make up their mind is as emotional as it is rational. To condemn this is just vanity.

Others will belittle his speech as one full of empty sound bites. This is absurd: one man’s soundbite is another woman’s vision. What choice do politicians have but to speak in abstract concepts? Moreover this necessity is part of a process by which politician frame the policies they hope to put before the people at a general election. As May 2015 showed, you can have policies which are superficially popular but if people do not understand your aims, if they do not emotionally connect with your leader and if you are not trusted on the economy, it is only worth an electoral hill of beans.

Yes, “tough on inequality, and tough on the causes of inequality” is a sound bite. Perhaps, given its Blairite echoes, it is an unwise one: such is the strangeness of Lewis Carroll politics that the current membership views the former leader as somewhere between Attila the Hun and Dr Kevorkian. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander, eh? For all the supposed seriousness of the new politics, Jeremy Corbyn is not above such frippery: what was the “sunshine of socialism” but an easy slogan? Whatever it was, it was hardly Das Kapital.

we elect our politicians to guard our interests not to do as we want

There was another point Jarvis made in his Demos speech on which he was both brave and right: Labour MPs should not become delegates to party members but seek to represent all their constituents. “As a Labour MP I’m not a delegate for my local party, I’ve been elected to Parliament by my constituents to stand up for them and make sure their voice is heard in Parliament,” he said. It is a hugely important point, and one which will win him few plaudits from those who are currently drinking the Corbyn Kool Aid.

It is also one which is not only relevant to the left as it rages against any supposed infraction of what the party wants or Corbyn’s mandate.

The key point about representative democracy is that we elect our politicians to guard our interests not to do as we want, still less to do what an unrepresentative minority want. And that minority is unrepresentative whether it be on the far left of politics or the head-banging right. David Cameron called on members to “ignore” their parties as they made decisions on whether to support his “renegotiation” package as it is put before the British people. The ensuing row was predictable. And irrelevant as it was not about any vote in parliament but on which side a member should campaign. I doubt if the average member of parliament’s endorsement alone could persuade his or her partner to change their vote on the matter, let alone a constituent. But the sentiment demonstrates a sense of entitlement; a sense that noisy voices are more significant.


There are plenty of voters who vote for a party but do not define themselves by their choice; equally there are many who are not members or activists but who have a tribal definition. They are as much Labour or Conservative or other as anyone else. Paying £3 does not give someone democratic legitimacy or superiority over anyone else. The fluidity of party membership defies real democracy. The Labour party today is essentially a different party from the one whose members gave David Miliband the most votes five years ago. The lack of "demos" makes party democracy a self-defeating contradiction. And whether it is local constituency parties clamouring for their member - yes, "their" member - to come out for Brexit, or spurious internet referenda on the Syrian intervention or Trident, we are playing with democratic concepts for our own convenience. Party democracy is just mob rule dressed up because it suits a transient purpose.

As the political philosopher Edmund Burke put it, an MP owes us "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. ... Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." Yes, our expectations have changed as to what a democracy is and what a member of parliament is; there are ways we can be truly more democratic with a better juxtaposition of politicians and people. That is when democracy works. And sometimes it hurts and goes against our wishes. Yet Burke’s essential point holds true centuries later. Otherwise democracy just becomes a easy word to use when you want to get your way.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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