Acertain tension lies at the heart of New Labour’s style of government. On the one hand, the Blair government has been engaged, almost from its first day in office, in what amounts to a constitutional revolution, dispersing power across a variety of new institutions, and confounding the traditional reliance on single-party government by a new emphasis on cross-party alliances. On the other, the Labour leadership seems set on establishing a degree of control within its own party without precedent in modern British political history. At the institutional level, pluralism holds sway. Within the party itself, only one voice may be heard.

In the second edition of his valuable Progressive Dilemma, David Marquand explores this tension at some length.footnote1 For Marquand, this Blair ‘paradox’ is both intriguing and contradictory: although the current party leaders ‘have imposed a Prussian discipline on their own followers, exceeding anything attempted by any previous Labour leadership . . . the logic [of their constitutional reforms] is pluralistic, and the end product will be a series of checks and balances at variance with the tacit assumptions of the democratic-collectivist tradition.’ For Marquand therefore, ‘it is not clear whether Blair and his colleagues understand what they are doing’.footnote2 Political strategies often lead to unintended consequences, and new governments are particularly prone to misjudgement. Strategic fallibility might therefore seem a reasonable hypothesis: the advancement of Labour control of the political process may be the endgame, and constitutional reform simply the wrong strategy. With time, it might be believed, the Labour leadership will become aware of the contradiction and learn from their mistakes. The commitment to institutional pluralism will be reined in, and the party will revert to a more traditional style of governing—or see power slip from its grasp.

There is an alternative hypothesis, however, which not only begins to make sense of the apparent paradox but also knits together the approach to internal party discipline and external constitutional renewal as part of a wider, more coherent, and quite deliberate strategy aimed at transforming democratic governance. At its core, this new strategy is designed not to promote party government but rather to eliminate it: instead of seeking to enhance partisan control, New Labour strategy seems directed towards the creation of a partyless and hence depoliticized democracy. Ensuring that all Labour representatives are on message is not in contradiction to this: it is a necessary first stage. The process by which the current Labour leadership has sought to eliminate internal party dissent—marginalizing representative procedures inside the party, introducing plebiscitarian techniques, going over the heads of the party conference and the activist layer in favour of widespread membership ballots—is well known. Appeals to the ‘ordinary’ party member, and internal mandates on the basis of individualized postal ballots, have ensured a more deferential and permissive consensus inside the party. Through ‘democratization’, the leadership hoped to smother dissent—although later, when even ordinary party members seemed recalcitrant, the leadership had no qualms about resorting to more manipulative techniques to ensure their intended results. Thus other key steps included attempts to engineer the outcome of elections to the party executive and so ensure that candidates selected for Westminster, the European Parliament and the newly devolved national assemblies in Scotland and Wales, as well as those elected to the party executive itself, would be those most willing to follow Millbank’s lead. Meanwhile, within these institutions themselves, the leadership’s control of members’ behaviour has increasingly reflected ‘the Prussian discipline’ to which Marquand refers. Even the traditional regard for Westminster has withered, as Anthony Barnett has recently pointed out,footnote3 while collective decision-making has been further eroded by the downgrading of the Cabinet—which now scarcely functions—and through a renewed emphasis on more specialized government committees. Echoing the rallying call of fascist Italy, albeit now in a democratic discourse, what we see in this modern guise is a case of un partito, una voce.

At the same time, the first three years of New Labour government have been marked by a very substantial commitment to institutional pluralism, and a distinct and unprecedented shift towards consensus democracy. Traditionally, the British system of government has enjoyed a unique status among the advanced democracies by virtue of its unequivocally majoritarian features. Arend Lijphart, in what has now become a standard approach to the classification of democracies, has drawn a crucial distinction between majoritarian and consensus democracies,footnote4 with the former being characterized by the centralization and exclusive partisan control of political power, and the latter reflecting a commitment to shared decision-making among a range of different political actors across a plurality of institutions. Lijphart’s distinction was built deliberately on the exceptionalism of the British case, with the majoritarian model of democracy being typified by the institutions and practices then associated with the Westminster system: the majoritarian model was characterized by a unitary state, single-party government, a majority voting system, the absence of a written constitution or a process of judicial review, and the concentration of parliamentary power within a single legislative chamber. It was also characterized by a fusion of powers in which the executive branch of government, while ostensibly responsible to parliament, effectively dominated the legislative branch.

Since coming to power in 1997 Labour has done much to dismantle this traditionally majoritarian system of government and has moved the UK substantially closer to Lijphart’s alternative model of consensus democracy. The devolution of substantial decision-making powers to Scotland and Wales has undermined the unitary nature of the British state; the promise of regional devolution within England, together with the restoration of a single democratically elected authority to London, will take the decentralization process further—perhaps even to the extent that various English regional parliaments will work together with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a multi-level federation. The majority voting system has already been abandoned for the regional assemblies and for European elections, and some form of proportional representation may even be adopted for Westminster elections. The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British domestic law brings the UK closer than at any time in history to an internal system of judicial review. The abolition of the voting rights of hereditary peers offers the potential for the creation of a more legitimate, and hence more active, House of Lords—perhaps promising a more genuine bicameralism. Finally, through the inclusion of Liberal Democrats in key cabinet committees, and an emphasis on the desirability of closer Lib-Lab co-operation, the Blair government has taken the first serious steps away from the wholesale reliance on single-party government—despite its own massive parliamentary majority. These are the new ‘checks and balances’ to which Marquand refers, and however much they may be at variance with ‘the tacit assumptions of the democratic-collectivist tradition’ they certainly differ from the traditional emphases of majoritarian democracy. Indeed, the only key element within the majoritarian model that New Labour seems intent on maintaining is that of executive domination over parliament, even though the devolution of power to regional assemblies and moves towards judicial review will clearly temper the efforts of the executive to exert control within the wider political system.

The structure of consensus democracy involves the dispersal of power across a variety of institutions with varying political majorities; it therefore runs decidedly counter to the traditional British notion that a single party, in possession of majority control in parliament, govern with reference only to itself. More than two hundred years ago it was precisely the capacity of such institutional pluralism to counteract majority partisan control that so endeared the proposed American constitution to the authors of the Federalist Papers. For James Madison, the value of the then novel republican constitution lay in its capacity to prevent a system in which ‘the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.’footnote5 And since, for Madison, it was more or less impossible to do anything to cure these ‘mischiefs of faction’, the best strategy was to seek to control their effects. Hence the need to separate and disperse the exercise of political power across different institutions, whose incumbents would be given ‘the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others . . . Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.’footnote6

Consensus democracy is therefore not only an alternative to majoritarian democracy but also antithetical to the emphasis on British-style partisan democracy—at least as this has been conceived within British political culture. It is in this sense that New Labour’s promotion of institutional pluralism, together with its deliberate fostering of cross-party alliances, can be seen to limit the potential for majority party control. In Madison’s terms, the Blair project is seeking to limit the effects of faction. It is easy to conceive this new commitment to institutional pluralism as sitting uneasily—and paradoxically—with concurrent attempts to eliminate internal party dissent and to deny intra-party diversity. What is being given with one hand—the new checks and balances—appears to be taken away with the other, through the top-down control of internal party life. The question then becomes, why bother? If overall party control is sought, why should power be dispersed? Or if power is being dispersed, why close down internal party pluralism? Or again, if the goal is to establish something akin to consensus democracy and political power-sharing, why place so much emphasis on party management and political engineering? It hardly seems enough to suggest that Blair and his colleagues don’t know what they’re doing.