A piece I wrote on Brexit and the UK party system has just come out in Democracy. More than anything else, I wrote the article to get people to read Peter Mair. I didn’t know Mair at all well – he was another Irish political scientist, but was based in various European universities and in a different set of academic networks than my own. I met him once and liked him, and chatted briefly a couple of times after that about email. I wish I’d known him better – his posthumously edited and published book, Ruling the Void is the single most compelling account I’ve read of what has gone wrong in European politics, and in particular what’s gone wrong for the left. It’s still enormously relevant years after his death. The ever ramifying disaster that is the British Labour party is in large part the working out of the story that Mair laid out – how party elites became disconnected from their base, how the EU became a way to kick issues out of politics into technocracy, and how it all went horribly wrong.
The modern Labour Party is caught in an especially unpleasant version of Mair’s dilemma. Labour’s leaders tried over decades to improve the party’s electoral prospects in a country where its traditional class base was disappearing. They sought very deliberately and with some success to weaken its party organization in order to achieve this aim. However, their success created a new governing class within Labour, one largely disconnected from the party grassroots that it is supposed to represent. Ed Miliband recognized this problem as party leader and tried to rebuild the party’s connection to its grassroots. … However, as Mair might have predicted, there weren’t any traditional grassroots out there to cultivate. … Mair argued that the leadership and the base were becoming disengaged from each other, so that traditional parties were withering away. Labour has actually taken this one stage further, creating a party in which the leadership and membership are at daggers drawn, each able to stymie the other, but neither able to prevail or willing to surrender.