There has been much debate (not least on this site) about ways to improve the political process. Various suggestions have been made, designed to improve the way we govern ourselves, and to encourage greater involvement. This is an attempt to list, define and assess them, with a view to selecting the best bits for a rethink of the system. Some may be in conflict, but hopefully will still be worth consideration. Views of members on their preferences would be valuable.
First, though, the issue of the relationship government and governed, as it exists, needs to be considered. Why are we so exercised by what we think of as a failed system? Or is it just that it gives the wrong result? After all, if some recent votes had gone very slightly differently, we wouldn’t be having this anguished debate.
The will of the people: The failure of political processes
The legendary Brenda from Bristol went viral last year with her reaction to the GE “You’re joking?! Not another one? For God’s sake I can’t honestly – I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment, why does she need to do it?” which gives us all pause for thought. Are we all thinking the bother of an election outweighs the need to make decisions about society, because if we are we have a major problem. (I speak of course as someone who can’t have enough elections).
And what could “too much politics” possibly mean? Is she serious, or just expressing a widely-held view that there is something vaguely deceitful about elections? It is curious that so many possible voters consider themselves excluded, but take little interest in the one opportunity they have to make a change. Presumably they don’t think that change is on the menu at a General Election; manifestos proclaim change that no one believes in or expects to happen. The implications for democracy are alarming.
As Phil says “The default condition of thought in contemporary societies is … not scepticism, but cynicism. Or, to put it more accurately, naive cynicism. This is the assumption that everyone is out for themselves, are self-obsessed and concerned with feathering their own nests, and would happily sell their relatives into slavery if they stood to profit from it. Where this sensibility informs our relationships with institutions, the latter are taken to be untrustworthy, uninterested in “little people” concerns, and conspire with one another to frustrate the individual and bolster the power and cash of various elites. It is the petit bourgeois mindset writ large, a logical outcome of the individuating cultural logics of neoliberalism, aided and abetted by the easy networking the internet affords the like-minded.” Well, maybe, but the implication is that we distrust politicians while voting on the basis of the questionable lines they push. Populism is too big a subject to consider here, but its inherent contradictions are only just beginning to be acknowledged.
So we don’t want elections, but, if we must have them, we shall vote with no regard to our interests. Maybe the idea of “choice” has become devalued by the neoliberal misuse of the word. The only appeal politicians can make is then to the voters’ selfishness, or at least the reinforcement of their prejudices, and to say “me too” rather than offer a vision. Remember “Are you thinking what we’re thinking”?
I think there is more to it than that. I think there is a general sense of impotence, leading to a kind of defeatism. If the politicians can’t make a difference (and they like to imply TINA), then how can the voters? Which is not to say that the electorate is exactly dying to express its view.
But there is a dilemma with what is being presented at elections. The parties’ approach is “it’s the economy, stupid”, inviting the voters to choose between technical financial offers rather than ideals, with the government of the day being judged retrospectively on its financial propriety, rather than on its social provision, and everything comes down to “how are you going to pay for that?”, which is a non-question.
So politicians’ attempts to elicit popularity crash into the reality of a political elite that hasn’t a clue what to do a lot of the time. Or, as Natalie Bloomer points out, spends its time with its head in the sand. If politicians can’t stay in control of events, how can the rest of us hope to?
Brexit is a clear example of failure both of leadership and being led – we gave Cameron a mandate to go ahead with his dare and then called his bluff. Leavers voted that way for a number of different reasons, as did remainers, but we’ve all shrugged it off back to the politicians to sort out, when there wasn’t even a problem. But we can’t have it both ways – either we accept that we voted for a mess and try to find a way to clear it up, or we decline the offer of a vote at all. And, in Parliament, the government has given a free hand and then taken it away again, and we now have the absurd situation of the results of a non-binding vote being treated as mandatory and being debated in the sovereign parliament that was meant to be taking back control , where the executive, because it lacks a majority, is agreeing to any critical motion and then ignoring it, which can only imply that any parliamentary vote is now to be treated as non-binding. Democracy as laughing stock.
In passing, it would be interesting if it was eventually decided to forget Brexit and stay as we were, to see the effect on the leave voters; would they set up mass demonstrations and direct action in favour of the will of the people against the traitors? I doubt it. I think they would revert to a traditional sullenness and a search for a group to designate for blame. As long as somebody can be held responsible for our misfortunes – immigrants, Europe, the media, the elite, whoever – that seems to be sufficient. The British electorate’s preferred self-image seems to be that of “victim”. As Peter says, we still vote for austerity and against our interests. Major’s preposterous “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” trope seemed to get a remarkable amount of traction, I recall. It’s a bit like thinking that being disruptive in class will win you long-term success rather than a visit to the headmaster.
Not strong or stable: what’s wrong with Parliament?
It is generally agreed that Parliament is, in the most-favoured dismissive expression of our time, not fit for purpose. Well, not if the purpose is to pass laws quickly and efficiently and to provide legislators with space and support, rather than being a tourist attraction. The arcane procedures are a drag on carrying out the tasks in hand. More importantly, the process doesn’t allow for the big issues to get a proper look in. There are any number of bills about cigarette packets, but none about council tax revision, because it’s too difficult to manage. At present, the one successful area in the process is the select committee system, where debate is more nuanced and bipartisan, albeit limited in scope and power. The problems with the party system, whipping, the lack of real life experience among MPs, the reliance on performance in the House for personal promotion – these are all well-known. What I think is as significant is the dominance of the executive in terms of time available, ability to pass bills and power to crush the will of the House. Later, I want to consider subsidiarity, and whether Parliament is always the right place to enact legislation, particularly if the local /regional arena is more relevant. For now, I merely note that governments , even minority ones, can get their way too easily, not least by their calling on national security needs if necessary, definitely the last refuge of the scoundrel.
The sainted Clement Attlee once dismissed a minister, barely looking up from his desk, with the muttered words “not up to the job”. That invites the question of why we should expect our rulers to be good at the job; after all, it’s not something you can train for. Most MPs try their best to improve the lives of their constituents, but it’s at a low level, and not really what they are there for. The whole vision thing becomes merely a manifesto device.
Jacob Stringer argues that the democratic deficit is a failure of management:
Elections every four or five years do not undo management: elections are a method by which we find the correct managers, not a form of self-rule. Those who think that a single decision every four or five years means we are in control are invited to reflect on the absurdity of the proposition: mere ownership of your house involves dozens, even hundreds of decisions in a year. How then can ownership of your government require fewer decisions?
But then, as Lisa Hill has pointed out, democracy does not work on the basis of coming to “correct” decisions, but rather on the basis that voters give their consent or otherwise to the actions of their representatives, and to being participants in the process. Indeed, to quote Camus “Democracy is not the law of the majority but the protection of the minority.” Much ink has been spilt discussing the tyranny of the majority; it’s particularly problematic at times like these when the electorate is pretty much split 50:50 left/right, stay/leave, and a small nudge can make a big difference, and the impact is probably greatest on those least likely to vote. Within Parliament, bills are finessed in committee and in amendments on the floor – maybe the principle could have been applied to the EU referendum, and we could have voted on amendments on an ongoing basis (no, not seriously, it would be chaotic, of course – still, why not?)
Nothing has changed : Framing the debate
As Rick puts it: “Something [has] happened in over the last thirty years … The Overton Window, that range of policies that politicians and commentators deem to be politically acceptable, moved … It was as though a deal had been struck; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts. The effect of this was to take policies that were popular with the public off the agenda on the grounds that they were publicly unacceptable. Politicians proposing renationalisation and high taxes on the rich or the restoration of capital punishment and cuts to immigration tended to be dismissed as eccentric, even though many voters were in favour of such things. Or, as David Goodhart put it, the two liberalisms won, the economic liberalism of the right and the social liberalism of the left:
Framing is the key to future policy – getting on the agenda, and getting new approaches debated. We are good at think tanks, but not at getting them paid attention to. Authority and media talk of “Maxing the government credit card” or “There is no magic money tree”, and we believe them, rather than asking why they might be pushing such slogans. It is partly a matter of getting certain myths exploded, partly of questioning entrenched attitudes. Sadly, all the fact0checking in the world will not defeat cognitive bias, it seems, at least in the short term.
A coalition of chaos: Identity politics
This piece has been rather predicated on individual behaviour (albeit full of generalisations). I wanted to finish this part by taking a societal view. I fear that a lot of the revival of interest in politics among the young has come from identity politics; while it is fine for minority and vulnerable groups to improve their status, I don’t think it’s a substitute for general action. As Kenan Malik says: “ The universalism that once fuelled radical movements has largely evaporated.” I think this is dangerous; LBGTQ etc. and nationalism both have legitimacy, but they are in my view displacement activity from the needs of the whole society. Identity does not just have to be about where you were born or your sexual preferences; it might just as well be about your age, height or favourite colour. It is important to direct these concerns towards the common good, rather than merely claiming rights, justified though they may be.
20 years ago, when I was working in social research, there was a popular area of research known as “Citizens and Consumers.” The idea was that people react differently if they are asked about a service or policy according to whether they are being asked their view as a prospective user or their view as a member of society. As voters we are treated as consumers (we promise to give you this) rather than citizens (vote for us to help improve other people’s lives). I think this is part of the dysfunction of the system; occasionally a party will say we’ll put a penny on income tax to pay for the NHS, but everyone knows that it’s just grandstanding and ignores it. Our failure to engage mirrors politicians’ failure to give us something to engage with. It would be interesting if a party were to say “Vote for us so that you can do this, rather than leaving it up to us.” Or at least “Vote for our policy because it is a good thing, even if it doesn’t increase the value of your house.”
Taking back control : what to do
So, what are the possible options for improvement? In no particular order, here are some that have been mooted…
A written constitution
A written constitution would seem like a good idea, regardless of its effect on the political process. Sadly, constitutions suffer from the American obsession with its rigid application, and the European habit of constantly starting again. Nevertheless, the claim that our unwritten constitution is better seems to me unproven, not to say risky. Relying on precedent may provide work for the judiciary, but leaves the rest of us uncertain, in the absence of a new Bagehot.
If the populace claims (as I think it would) that no taxation without representation is a valid argument, then it is morally obliged to exploit its representation IMAO, if a justification of compulsion is needed. I would, though, allow for a “none of the above” option, and, in the event of NOTA winning, the vote to be declared invalid…
It would be of interest to see how different election results would be if voting were compulsory – not very, one suspects, but the degree of thought expended on making the choice must be higher, and the end result perhaps less quixotic.
It’s difficult to imagine what would be a suitable incentive to vote. Money would be ethically unacceptable, and any reward would be equally liable to be seen as voter influence. Penalties for failing to exercise one’s rights seem like a safer bet, if rather questionable ethically.
Other voting systems
I’m not convinced that PR (or AV for that matter) are necessarily more democratic that FPTP. They just produce a different construct (my argument has always been that FPTP produces a legislature, PR produces an executive – it may be that in the 21st century the latter is more important, but it’s still debatable). The issue is more likely that PR produces a more nuanced picture of the total political spectrum, whereas FPTP naturally tends to a more confrontational (probably 2-party) legislature. It is an intriguing thought that, with PR, Labour would not have a Brexit problem; on the other hand, it would still have the problem, just not as an electoral issue. One’s opinion of coalitions is probably key here – for myself, I would go for a two-chamber system with both methods in play, even if they are in conflict.
The idea of producing a parliament by lot is certainly intriguing. David Van Reybrouck makes an interesting case in his book Against Elections, but I would suspect that the time demanded to bring participants up to speed, and the brevity of their employment would be counter-productive in the end. It also depends on whether you think the current jury system works well…
If tried, it should obviously be at as local a level as possible to begin with, with a phased rollout to the next stages, and maybe initially applied to less contentious issues.
Epistocracy and noocracy
The Platonic approach has received a boost with the work of Jason Brennan and David Estlund, among others. The idea of effectively putting a bar on some people from voting, as they are not knowledgeable enough, is distasteful, if not immoral. It could anyway be argued that what voters know is less important than what they feel – even if it leads to Trump. Brennan’s idea of incentivisation to become sufficiently smart to be a voter is also distasteful, but more interesting. Philosophically, it grates against the idea of rights, though, as rights are not earnable in that way.
Frankly, disenfranchisement is not the way to go.
The aim would be to reposition legislation to an appropriate level. One of the problems of Brexit is that voters blamed the wrong people for their woes. If it was clearer who decides what, the electorate would be better able to make a decision. Obviously, politicians will seek to blame others for their failures, so a clear demarcation of roles can only be good. If the national government wants to cut health service expenditure and then pass the problem on to local authorities, with a proper form of subsidiarity they would be caught out.
Deliberative and explanatory democracy
Much ink has been expended on this, and it’s a worthy idea. The difficulty would seem to be the amount of effort needed to explain complex issues to a lay public, and the relatively small body of people who could go through the process at any one time. Short of compelling voters to turn up for drilling, it is difficult to see it working, and that would be a bit like qualifications, again. Not to mention the obvious difficulties faced by groups of activists. As Carne Ross found:
Whenever you get a public opportunity you always get a contingent of arseholes who show up. That’s what happened at Occupy. People are so angry now that when they get the opportunity to talk they just rage. But if you continue with the meetings, that begins to stop and you’re left with the people who want to get on and work
Use of expertise in decision-making
Again, there’s nothing to object to in requiring policy to be evidence-based, and in bringing expertise to bear, where applicable. It’s just that this should be what the civil service does anyway, and, if it doesn’t, that’s a different question. Also, perish the thought, but Mr Gove may have a point, in that voting is not a science, and expertise is usually confined to a limited field.
Abolition of political parties
I have posted elsewhere on this topic. I still like it. Though I could be persuaded of the need for more parties to choose from, as an alternative.
Back in the day, local elections were annual events, with one-third of the council retiring each year. This had the effect of both applying continuity (good), and creating a permanent sense of impending election (not so good), but I would be tempted by the idea of applying it nationally (disregarding cost for now). It would, I think, make for slicker government, with new brooms able to be applied more readily, and with a greater level of accountability.
This is effectively having permanent referenda, and is probably utterly impractical. It also raises the question of the representative’s role – is it to do what the constituents ask, or to be a Burkean user of his/her discretion? Or, as Chris Dillow puts it “Should politicians serve our preferences or our interests?” And how might the issues to be decided by popular vote be defined?
Also, how would it work under PR? Who would be being mandated? The party as a whole or individual members? I can see Labour activists liking that, but not perhaps other parties….
As proposed by Paul Evans this is essentially an anti-democratic answer. “Evans’s modest proposal, presented with a touch of Swiftian irony, is that rather than give every citizen the vote, the state should give each citizen an equal sum of money to spend on politics. They could then form consortiums of like-minded people to sponsor not just politicians but everyone involved in the political process – civil servants, journalists, lobbyists and so on. Only ‘players’ who secured broad support would then be able to play the game.
Paul’s proposal here is to give everyone a “personal democratic budget” which they could spend on all the possible forms of political influence – lobbyists, thinktanks, journalists and so on. People could spend this directly, or they could delegate it to syndicates of professional buyers. Political parties would then compete to appeal to these influencers” (Chris Dillow).
I’m a bit mystified by this one. Everyone his own lobbyist has a certain appeal, but it sounds like a recipe for not getting things done. It also feels like an admission of defeat at the hands of neoliberalism and market forces, surprising coming from a member of the Labour Party.
..which leads neatly on to:
Leave it to the market
Libertarians would argue that the communal (citizen’s) aspect of voting deprives the individual of the benefits he/she might gain from his/her choices under market forces, and distributes them too widely to be of value to him/her. Thus democracy is essentially counter-beneficial. As David Friedman puts it: “ At its simplest level, the problem is that the political mechanism means that I have a tiny voice in making choices whose effect is on everyone, instead of a very large voice in making choices whose effect is mostly on me–such as deciding what to buy or what job to take.” My feelings are the same as for Evans’s idea. Politics should be about the good of society writ large, not an attempt to buy off individuals with conflicting desires, especially in a wealth-inequality society.
So what do we conclude?
Most of these suggestions have good or useful aspects to them, but as often as not they are in conflict with each other. With polarisation currently as prevalent as it is, the possibilities of compromise do not look rosy. However, the effect of Brexit, Trump and the European far right has been to concentrate minds on the difficulties of democracy (or, to put it another way, how to get people to vote the “right” way.) This is not as cynical as it sounds, as the ramifications of voting for certain policies can be catastrophic (and predictable) in ways that the voters might not consider. In my view, everything comes down to Stringer’s idea of ownership – if the electorate really want the kind of Brexit we are going to get, so be it, but let’s be clear (sic). Taking back control isn’t just a slogan, it means doing the work.