Why the Labour Party Will Win

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Why the Labour Party Will Win

I write this entry less than a week before the country ‘goes to the polls’. On July 4th, the British electorate will vote, and it will pick – as it always does – the best option before it. This will mean electing a Labour Government. I say these words, to use one of Boris Johnson’s favourite expressions, “with a heavy heart“. Goodness knows I have not the smallest crumb of affection for the Labour Party (being raised in a Labour-voting household in a Labour stronghold thoroughly inoculated me in that regard). I wish that the people had better options to choose from. But that is not the way democracy works. The voters have to eat what is in front of them on the dinner table, not the Michelin-starred feast they could be having if only they had Michel Roux in the kitchen. And they will, naturally, choose the bland over the actively distasteful – the spam sandwich over the bowl of cold sick.

I have no time, in other words, for – I am choosing my words carefully – the wilfully purblind drivel that is currently being served up by much of the conservative commentariat (David Frost is one of the honourable exceptions), to the effect that voters are mistakenly ushering in a Labour Government without realising the full import of what they are doing, as though what is going to happen on July 4th will be some sort of accident, or the result of petty vindictiveness against the Tory Party which the public will some day end up regretting. The contempt for ordinary voters that is revealed in that sort of hogwash in fact goes to the root of the problem. People don’t vote on the basis of wanting to “punish” the Government or because “they don’t know what they’re voting for”. In aggregate they vote on the basis of a rational choice. And the Tory Party has simply presented the U.K. electorate in 2024 with only one such choice: not to elect it into Government.

Let me explain what I mean by this, because it goes beyond the observation, often made, that there is “no real difference” between the parties in terms of policy. Policy obviously matters. But it is not the main thing in politics – the main thing is the structure of the framework of government.

I have written a lot about Machiavelli (see, for example, herehere and here). This is for a good reason: it is because he had a way of getting to the bottom of things. (I am hardly alone in observing this – there are few thinkers in the history of political thought who have been more productively and widely read and commented on, by people with as little in common as Frederick the Great, Isaiah Berlin, Leo Strauss, Antonio Gramsci, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Louis Althusser.) And one of the things which he got to the bottom of was the basically dualistic nature of politics in modernity. Machiavelli, standing at the dawn of the modern era, saw that there were going to be two modes of governance from here on in to pick from, and more or less everything could be understood in those terms.

These two modes of governance are that of the Republic and the Principality. In the former, government represents the people, and gives effect to their norms and values on the basis that it respects those norms and values – it considers the people to be imbued with the capacity to govern themselves, by and large, and seeks therefore to create the conditions in which they are able to do so. In the latter, government rules the people: it governs them for their own good on the basis that without it they are corrupt, weak, incapable and immoral, and need government to rescue them from that predicament.

There is an awful lot more to be said about that basic dichotomy and its philosophical origins (as I have done in the posts linked to above) but I am keen here to be more direct than I would normally be. The point about the distinction between the Republic and Principality is really that it represents two different justifications for the prevailing governing framework. In a republican mode of governance, government is justified because it represents; in a princely mode, government is justified precisely because it governs: it does things.

These are qualitatively (I am tempted to use the word ‘metaphysically’, but I will restrain myself) distinct. Republican government says to the people: the reason why my government should exist is that I embody and put into effect your norms and values, which are good, because I want the polity to endure in recognisable form across time. Princely government says to the people: the reason why my government should exist is that you need me, and I will competently meet your needs. It follows that the former’s proposition is really about the creation of a relationship between governor and governed which respects the governed as equals, and the latter’s proposition is about the creation of a technocracy which is absolutely and necessarily predicated on knowing better than the people themselves what their interests are and how to realise them.

This makes principalities fundamentally unstable in the medium-to-long term, because as Machiavelli was anxious to make clear, technocracy never works. It is based on a fundamental misconception, the most serious misconception in all of politics, which is that government in general knows better than the people where their real interests lie. The only way to secure stability in perpetuity for Machiavelli was hence through maintaining the conditions of republican government where they existed, or creating those conditions through temporary ruthless princely expedience where they did not.

You can already I am sure sense the direction in which this post is going and it is almost insulting to your intelligence to spell it out. But the problem the current Tory Party is facing is that it has got itself precisely into the position of the bad prince, in that it has been in government for 14 years, and things have over that period become appreciably worse. The prince’s only claim to legitimacy, remember, is that he knows better than the people and meets their needs competently. It obviously and necessarily follows that to govern in the mode of a prince is to make yourself a hostage to fortune – if it it turns out that you can’t meet the needs of the people competently, and competently meeting needs is the only basis for your occupying the position of ruler, then why on earth would the people want you to stick around if they have the choice in the matter?

What people are in other words concluding (let’s face it, what they concluded long ago) is that Tory government hasn’t worked on the basis of what it has purported to offer. It has said to the electorate – squarely in the princely mode – that it will govern them competently and meet their needs, on the basis that they are in fact needy, vulnerable and corrupt. It turns out it hasn’t governed competently or met their needs on these terms (to repeat: this is because no government can), so they are kicking it out and electing another prince, which they reason might do a better job.

It is as simple, then, as that: if you are going to govern as a prince, you have to do it well. Sooner or later you will fail, because technocracy cannot in the long-term work. And when that happens, in the absence of some other option, a different prince – a different technocrat – will take charge instead. And there will be no reticence about the shift in preferences within the public. That shift will be decisive and thoroughgoing, because the people definitionally have no residual loyalty to a princely technocracy that does not represent them. They are willing to suffer such a form of government only if it can always present a plausible image of itself as governing expediently and effectively. The moment that stops, their tolerance ends.

We are seeing the consequences of having ruled badly as a prince playing out for the Tories before our eyes. I hope I will be forgiven for crowing about the accuracy of my prediction, made in a post back in March which covered much of this ground in greater depth and detail, that “the odds of a Labour majority [in the next General Election] are if anything significantly undervalued”. When I wrote those words the bookies were offering odds of 2-17 on a Labour win. Well, the average is at the time of writing 1-41.

I am then a veritable Paul the Octopus. But one doesn’t need to be a mystic cephalopod to understand what will happen after the election. The punchline is that the same thing that has happened to the Tories will happen to Labour in government, because the underlying logic will not change. In the medium-long term, technocracy – princely government – does not work and is unstable. Stable government is republican in nature. The Tories would do well to dwell on that ancient insight as they lick their wounds in opposition (if they’re lucky to even occupy that status on July 5th): my advice would be to forget the focus groups and go back to the Discourses on Livy and start to think very hard about what an actual alternative to Labour would look like. That alternative will not, I hope it now goes without saying, be a different set of policies within the princely mode. It will be a different mode of governing entirely.

Dr. David McGrogan is an Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School. You can subscribe to his Substack – News From Uncibal – here.