Throughout Europe, our liberal democracies as we know them seem to be dying in the face of extremist threat.
They are struggling to be re-born in a new form that is appropriate for the 21st century. This is what we argue in our recently published book, “The Death of Liberal Democracy?”. In what form should our democracies be re-born?
In our book we argue that we need to re-invent our institutions and political structures to creation of an open society - one that shakes up the established status quo and where institutions are open to challenge from below. Corbyn seems to have the right instincts for such a transformation. He has never been a creature of the Establishment which he has always challenged from below. He is now challenging the complacent Westminster status quo and using grass roots mobilisation and people involvement to defy the established power structures within the party and beyond. These are characteristics that have the potential to create an open society as we have defined it. And to do so in a way that Blairism never did. The much vaunted “Third Way” was no third way at all. It took centralisation to a new level and itself became progressively captured by the Establishment and the ruling elite.
Where Corbynism falls down is that, rather than attempting to energise the public through the creation of a new political and social model, it comes across as trying to revive the dead – mid-20th century socialism. (We accept that the idea of JC trying to resurrect the dead may appeal - and even be credible - to some).
In our vision of an open society, we see traditional conservativism and socialism as two sides of the same coin. Both of them believe that power should rest with a ruling elite. They only differ in which elite they believe should hold that power. Extreme conservatives hark back to the days of imperial power and paternalistically believe that all power should rest with a meritocratic elite groomed for power from age 11 in public schools or selective grammar schools. Socialists, on the other hand, are somewhat more modern. They only hark back to the 50s and 60s and would like to make us all wards of a state that still concentrates power in Whitehall and with trade union bosses. The only ‘solutions’ on offer are nationalisation and seemingly endless government spending.
Aneurin Bevan said that the purpose of gaining power is to give it away. By which he meant that the state should use its power to ensure that a ruling elite and entrenched vested interests do not usurp power for themselves. That our institutions and power structures are open to challenge from below. This is the vision of an open society that we put forward in our book. It is a vision of a truly liberal democracy and it appeals to all those who believe in such – whichever political party they happen to call their home.
Corbyn does not seem to comprehend the inherent intellectual conflict between his stated belief in grass roots democracy and his desire for a return to traditional 20th century socialism. The tragedy is that those who oppose him within the Labour party do not have a convincing, energising, new, forward-looking vision for how we can re-vitalise our democratic structures. We suggest that they can do worse than explore the concept of creating truly open societies.