Owen Smith has decided that under his proposed leadership (looking more distant by the day), the Labour leadership would be completely bound by conference as the decision making centre of the party – even if they formed a majority government.
“My promise to the party is that I will not ignore conference. I will bind myself to the decisions made by conference about party policy.”
Direct democracy has been the flavour of the month for a lot of months now, all in the name of “bringing power back to the people”. This is an inherently false premise – all direct democracy does is let politicians off the hook. In systems in which there is a high degree of direct democracy, who precisely can be held account for bad decisions becomes blurry. It also encourages reckless policy making to solve internal party battles (see: Cameron and the EU referendum) and gives people generous state funded items that the state cannot afford (see: most of what direct democracy did for California) with the downsides to this being borne by those very same taxpayers.
I guess I’m old fashioned in saying I really like representative democracy (I was about to say “I guess I’m conservative” at the start of this sentence until I realised most Tories love direct democracy). You elect someone to take the big decisions; if they make them correctly, they get to keep making them; make them incorrectly, they are voted out. In a representative democracy, decisions must be explored from all sides – the costs, the benefits, the potential upsides and downsides. Direct democracy meanwhile encourages a look at only the most simplistic sides of an debate. The EU referendum became about Turkey joining the European Union; the AV referendum about how much people didn’t like Nick Clegg; both of those issues were complete red herrings and had nothing to do with the substance behind what people were voting for or against.
Let’s apply this to Labour conference. What if conference votes for a programme that is in fact impossible to implement? By that I mean logistically impossible for any number of reasons? Does the Labour cabinet press ahead with it anyhow knowing it won’t work? Of course it wouldn’t. What it would do is fudge it – put any really impossible or even difficult items to the back of the pile and claim they didn’t have the time to get to them. This is another feature of direct democracy – the representative figures trying to get round the pickle the voters have put them in. It creates needless work for the politicians while leaving the people who voted for the measures feeling stiffed. Because they have been stiffed, whether it be for objectively good reasons or not.
If voters in the process start to feel like they’ve been cheated, it undermines the very purpose of setting up direct democracy in the first place, i.e. giving the electorate the feeling that they are in charge. Owen Smith is essentially asking to put himself in the same position as Theresa May is in now, should he defy all odds and win the leadership contest: to be held hostage by a set of impossible demands, all caused by a fling with direct democracy.