Time to defend politics – not liberties


by Paul Evans    
12:25 am - February 23rd 2009

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Try as I might, I can’t help feeling that this week’s Convention on Modern Liberty addresses far more of the symptoms that our liberal democracy exhibits than the actual diseases that it suffers from. I say this because I’d argue that the biggest threat to individual liberties is not the particular instances of illiberality in themselves by governments, as much as what the late Bernard Crick described as the populist mode of democracy that we are drifting into.

Here’s an example. I would argue that the Conservatives have – this week – promoted perhaps the most reactionary and dangerous set of proposals that any party with a realistic prospect of victory has ever announced in this country.

In their local government proposals, they have adopted the very worst excesses of populism. And by populist, I don’t mean any half-arsed Phillip Gould-type attempt-to-push-the-party-where-focus-groups-tell-them sort of populism.

ConvetionThey are proposing:

  • an extension of the concept of ‘elected officials’ – particularly police commissioners
  • referendums on council tax rises
  • referendums on any issues on which citizens demand them
  • directly elected mayors (at the behest of a local referendum whether you want one or not)
  • direct participation in structural change at a local level

In addition, the proposals include a general attack on regional government which can only be seen as a means by which the centre can obtain further control over local government.

It is a beguiling kind of politics. In each case, these measures provide a veneer of accountability while removing the deliberative policy making processes. These will be replaced with tools that will only further empower the most active privileged citizens in any community (and, of course, those with access to the media or the resources provided by pressure groups) at the expense of the vast majority of us.

The plans to sideline local councillors – and this is what these proposals add up to – are indicative of a poisonous disregard for everything that is good about democracy.

That these measures will result in worse policy-making goes without saying.And for those of us who believe that collective action can bear valuable fruits of some kind, the creeping populism of the referendum and the directly-elected officials (the promotion of which Labour have not been entirely innocent) presents a huge danger.

Imagine the nightmare of a thoughtful train of policy-making on a huge issue like …. say …. climate change …. being entirely derailed because a demagogic right-wing newspaper decided to poke its readers into an oppositional frenzy.

I know, I know. That could never happen here.

This populist politics in general and referendums in particular hand enormous powers to newspaper proprietors. High-profile journalists, opportunistic pressure groups like the Taxpayers Alliance, and anybody who has a lot of time on their hands can become a political playmaker.

Some years ago, Matthew Parris illustrated just how poisonously illiberal unmediated public opinion can be. And as the Swiss experience shows, it promotes the of grossest illiberalism, the high point of which was a near-miss last year that could have led to public votes to ratify individual citizenship applications.

Paraphrasing Tim Garton-Ash a while ago, when politicians were able to win elections and start the process of government, they often exhibited what Machiavelli called virtù – the capacity for collective action and historical vitality. It is politics – the whole reviled shebang – strong yet fractious political parties, that are the engine of that vitality.

Referendums remove that capacity at a stroke. If you are looking for an explanation for illiberalism – for the promotion of a bureaucratic / policing agenda – look no further than a Parliament along with local and regional assemblies that have had the virtù sucked out of them by the constant imperative to consult with stakeholders, negotiate with veto-wielding vested interests, disruptive agenda-led newspapers, opinion-polls, well-heeled pressure groups, bureaucrats and managerialists.

With declining political parties and more footloose electorates, when politicians talk to the public, they often find that the concerns that we will hear expressed this week are not widely shared by any means. The public want more CCTV – not less. Orchestrated public opinion is now more disruptive than ever before. It is quite simply not possible to adopt principled medium-term strategies in many areas of government any more while media interests and single-issue pressure groups remain unchallenged.

Only the distributed moral wisdom of Parliament can protect civil liberties and good government. History has shown us that populist politics can have disastrous consequences – in terms of liberty, equality and prosperity.

Yet those who seem most exercised by the need defend our liberties seem to have little to say on the subject. The near-silence this week on the Tory local government proposals illustrates this perfectly.

It’s a tough, slightly inelegant argument to make, but the liberal left really does need to recognise the importance of representative democracy and political parties in safeguarding the gains European social democrats have made. We need to get off the backs of elected politicians – this anti-political obsession with minor corruption is the agenda of the right and not the centre-left.

A great deal of energy has been expended in recent years demanding transparency and accountability from elected politicians while similar demands upon their rivals – pressure groups, bureaucracies, the media – have been almost non-existent.

We need to collectively hold our noses and get involved in local political parties again instead of lifestyle politics and single-issue pressure groups that sit on soft end of the direct-democracy continuum.

Similarly, a great deal of energy will be expended again this week on a Modern Liberties convention with it’s local outriders. Many of the participants are either vocal advocates of pressure-group politics and more direct democracy, or opportunistic promoters of the same. If it were, instead, dedicated to demanding the highest standards of representative democracy and a defence of politics, I suspect that these worries about civil liberties would be just a bad memory within a few years.

Populism – not authoritarianism – is the biggest threat that we face. And if you look at any instance if illiberality that will form the narrative of this Convention, you can bet that it is a product of populism, media inspired moral panics and the adversarial demands of single issue campaigners rather than anything more superficially sinister such as the ZaNuLieBore thought police.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Paul has blogged at his 'Id blog' Never Trust a Hippy since 2005, and has recently established the Local Democracy Blog with a number of local democracy / social media practitioners. He's also active in the Northern Irish blogosphere, promoting the Slugger O'Toole awards and working on a number of politics / social media activities in Northern Ireland.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Conservative Party ,Events ,Local Government ,Westminster

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Reader comments


This is a really excellent article on many levels. I have looked at the programme for the convention on modern liberties and am really unconvinced it is worth my money. As you say the focus is very much upon reiterating those threats to liberty which we have already been worked up into a panic about rather than illuminating some of the more mundane but very real threats to liberty that we currently face.

Yes Populism is right now a threat to liberty. The big question facing us – as I suggested in a previous comment here – is how far the demos should have the right to interfere in the lives of the individual. Or put another way, how far the individual has the right to make choices which are disliked, unfashionable or unpopular.

I do disagree however on the question of pressure groups. One of the effects of Labour’s referendum/public opinion fetish is to rebrand citizens as consumers. In other words, as people who do not influence politics through getting organised and excersizing a bit of collective strenght and perhaps even setting the agenda, but simply, but simply answering a set of questions – set by the government – to determine what we want.

“It’s a tough, slightly inelegant argument to make, but the liberal left really does need to recognise the importance of representative democracy and political parties in safeguarding the gains European social democrats have made. ”

So in short if people don’t actually want social democracy the political elites must force them to put up with it anyway. I’m no fan of illiberal laws but nor am I a fan of ignoring public opinion just because I disagree with it. I wonder if the same argument would be made if public opinion was overwhelmingly left-wing and liberal?

“Imagine the nightmare of a thoughtful train of policy-making on a huge issue like …. say …. climate change …. being entirely derailed because a demagogic right-wing newspaper decided to poke its readers into an oppositional frenzy.”

Oh gosh, I do hope so!

I think that people can do some pretty shitty things, but I also think that politicians do too. So it might well be best to have a system that has both, and thus can play the two off against each other. Switzerland, in general, is a pretty well run country. Willingness or not to accept a certain set of immigrants should not be the only way to judge a country that ranks pretty highly in terms of civil liberties generally.

Not that direct democracy has anything intrinsic to do with liberty. It may or may not be an instrument to help secure it. Considering the our slow envelopment by the EU is one of our greatest longterm threats to liberty (at least without significant reform of EU institutions) is opposed by the majority in this country and supported by most people running the country, supporting direct democracy might tactically be quite a good thing.

‘nor am I a fan of ignoring public opinion just because I disagree with it. I wonder if the same argument would be made if public opinion was overwhelmingly left-wing and liberal?’

Well no it wouldn’t. The validity and applicability of any argument is dependent on the wider context. I do not begrudge Mr Evans for having a paritcular disposition as to waht consitutes good government, and hence a non-universal attitude as to what is necessary to protect.

*protect it

Incidentally, as Yes Prime Minister showed, we should be pretty careful of treating any opinion poll as a real indicator of how people are likely to vote on a particular issue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yhN1IDLQjo

I am not saying I like what the public will vote on in many cases, but the fact that they have a choice might alter the way that government’s behave in such a way that they actually have to address an issue when making a decision, rather than just excusing it.

Paul,

For a post telling us that we shouldn’t worry about state authoritarianism, it’s a bit odd that you haven’t actually discussed Labour’s authoritarianism; only mentioning “minor corruption” and “instances of illiberality”. I suspect – largely based on the quote below – that if someone saw a broader agenda of illiberality you’d see them as some sort of bore or “conspiracy theorist” (leading up to a very original joke about Henry Porter being a little on the vain side).

“…if you look at any instance if illiberality that will form the narrative of this Convention, you can bet that it is a product of populism, media inspired moral panics and the adversarial demands of single issue campaigners rather than anything more superficially sinister such as the ZaNuLieBore thought police.”

Don’t bet too much on that, or you’ll end up making Gil Gunderson look fortunate.

While authoritarian “anti-terror” agendas have been bolstered by the ravings of the tabloid press, Labour has used spin and fabrication to inspire fear and garner support. Hell, the ravings that preceded the Iraq War were almost entirely based upon spin and fabrication. Presently, they’re colluding in the cover-up, or even act, of torture (not for the first time), and apart from racists and Blairites, the press is – for once – opposing them.

I think that Labour is pursuing dangerous aims, and so, naturally, I support those that – while sharing my principles – challenge them. I imagine that you oppose Guantanamo Bay, but would you see the ACLU’s campaigning as being part of some sinister populism?

Incidentally…

*hug*

Tomorrow’s commenters may be blown away by your arguments but I think that you know that you’re – how shall I put it? – cruising for a bruising…

So, referendums are bad because the people might not vote the way you like? That’s a bit elitist, isn’t it?

“Switzerland, in general, is a pretty well run country.”

It’s nice to visit, but you couldn’t live forever in a place so beautifully bland unless you were Swiss yourself (or a political exile).

Switzerland isn’t a great model because it is peculiarly situated geographically and culturally and has avoided the massive urban sprawl which dictates western consumerist society. It is conservative, class-ridden and very dull. Have you ever gone for a night out in Geneva or Zurich?

10. douglas clark

Am I failing to see the point here? What, exactly, is populist about the Convention for Modern Liberties?

I’d have thought, correct me if I am wrong, that it is a counter measure to populist sentiments, as expressed by politicians who act as mouthpieces for media tycoons.

[We have a culture, engineered by the media it must be said, that assumes that because one twelve year old got his leg over we are in a 'failed state'. It was an exception, which was why it was newsworthy. The commentariat wrung their hands right enough,and now we all believe that Johhny should have had a vascectomy at birth.]

You do know, the sort of politician that reacts to that sort of public outrage as engineered by, oh, I don’t know, the Daily Mail maybe.

I’d be against the Convention if it took notions fed by populism like that at face value. As it doesn’t, I don’t know what your point is.

Do you think it is populist to argue against ID cards, or the like?

Politicians are, generally, not as nice as you’d like to pretend, and not as bad as I’d like to think.

11. douglas clark

I would accept that pressure groups, such as the slightly insane Policy Exchange, do deserve to come under greater public scrutiny. Think tanks, as opposed to Charities like Liberty, get far too easy a ride in getting their viewpoints across without a critical analysis. Especially of their funding sources and their generally dodgy philosophic underpinnings.

So, we need to be as ready to criticise the agenda driven lobbyists as we do the politicians.

That, I would agree to.

Which still has absolutely zero to do with attempting to engage folk in a Liberal Conspiracy.

This is a great post. Its attack on the Convention is slight of hand, but the issues it raises are central to the future politics of Britain. Of course the call to secure Modern Liberties is not a Tory appeal to demagogic populism any more than the Labour government – elected by less than a third of those who voted – is an expression of sound representative democracy.

Why can’t the government defend democracy in the way that Paul seeks to do? The question answers itself. Those closer to the government than I are convinced that the prime motivation behind support for the surveillance society and the database state is politicians desperate for populist support and convinced that their weakness can be overcome by ‘tough’ central control that appeals to the tabloids.

The main arguments of the Convention – to support fundamental rights and freedoms – is anti-populist and seeks good government secured by democratic support.

Paul’s critique of the Conservative’s “radical” plans for decentralisation is very strong. Their consequence is most likely the hollowing out of politics not its renewal. Referendums, which I support, need to be embedded in a constitution. But why can’t the government argue as Paul does? Because it too hollows out democracy. And where there has been decentralisation that has worked, as in Wales and Scotland it hates the results and attempts to impose British wide ID cards to roll them back.

Paul Evans well demonstrates the liberal hatred of the masses…how very dare they have (the wrong) opinions. None of which are really their own, of course. Unlike him the lower orders have their views dictated by the tabloid press along with a bunch of sinister “think tanks” which 99.99999% of the population has never heard of.

Amazingly, the same pattern keeps repeating itself on this site. Any threat to the established order of access to political decision-making is denounced because you are mostly comfortable with this and know your way around it.. You all (with the exception of Sunny Hundal) did this with David Lammy’s proposals last year and inevitably when proposals come from the Tory enemy the revulsion is even greater. Sitting here in one of the worst corners of the beautiful and democratic Borough of Haringey, I find it hard to swallow that local councillors are everything that’s good about democracy. It seems to me more like they have an inbuilt electoral interest in keeping Tottenham a deprived area. Local councillors here reach out to local youth, for instance, about as effectively as Spurs – most of the kids round here wear Arsenal shirts because Arsenal provides many more positive role models.
I find it increasingly hard to believe that an electoral and democratic system which was devised for vastly different circumstances should be sacrosanct and never subject to change. David Lammy was shot down in flames when he tried to suggest ways it could be improved and now proposals for change are coming from the right. Pity! Enjoy your dinner parties!

…for those of us who believe that collective action can bear valuable fruits of some kind, the creeping populism of the referendum and the directly-elected officials (the promotion of which Labour have not been entirely innocent) presents a huge danger.

It’s very gratifiying to hear a left-liberal admit that he cares nothing for majority conservative opinion or for individual liberty, and fears the collapse of the collective.

Yes, direct democracy will make it much harder for lefties to push their collectivist, Statist agendas. This is of course an utterly fantastic thing.

The basic point: the Tories are awful and can’t be trusted to run the country in either a liberal or a democratic fashion. Ok, we get it. I doubt you’ll find many here who will disagree.

There is a basic argument here between centralisation and decentralisation, with the liberals (Lib Dems and liberal Labour people) on the latter side and much of the current Labour party and the Tories on the former. Elected mayors represent a centralisation of power currently dispersed amongst councillors; the Tories dressing this up as decentralisation is a pretty bare-faced lie.

I do think that much of this article runs the risk of being attacked on the grounds that the author’s main objection to ‘populism’ is the possibility that it might result in things happening to which he is personally opposed, the precise same accusation that he’s levelling at the Tories (that they want to institute a certain type of democracy because they believe that it will produce results that they approve of, viz. Tory mayors). That doesn’t leave us with much more than tribalism as a reason to agree with the article, I’m afraid.

Only the distributed moral wisdom of Parliament can protect civil liberties and good government. History has shown us that populist politics can have disastrous consequences – in terms of liberty, equality and prosperity.

Whilst I certainly agree that a distributed decision-making process is far preferable to a Presidential one, government in the UK isn’t particularly distributed. It could be much more so. And yes, that may involve creating new elected posts to manage the resources currently in the control of unaccountable regional bodies. As someone who lives in North-West England, I have absolutely no say in the running of the regional bodies which have a fairly dramatic impact on local public services and the local economy. If I lived in Scotland, Wales or London, I’d have much more of a say, and it’s this inequality that the Tories are exploiting.

Secondly, I would also say that history has shown that civil liberties are defended by having a liberal constitution. Constitutional reform, including reform to the electoral system and the strengthening of local government in relation to central government, is sure to be one of the topics at the convention you deride.

I totally agree with the idea that local politics matters and may be the best way of turning the tide against illiberalism and populism, but it’s not the only approach to tackling the problem. I don’t see why people are so keen to draw dividing lines and set out from the beginning why they absolutely refuse to work with others unless they share the exact same priorities; it seems destructive and pointless to me.

‘It’s a tough, slightly inelegant argument to make, but the liberal left really does need to recognise the importance of representative democracy and political parties in safeguarding the gains European social democrats have made. We need to get off the backs of elected politicians – this anti-political obsession with minor corruption is the agenda of the right and not the centre-left. ‘

It is at least honest. The left have a vested interest in keeping politics hierarchical so as to exclude opinion with which they disagree , this is largely achieved by herding conservative opinion into the Labour Party by buying the votes of one group that hate progressives with money stolen form another group who dislike them as much if not more . There has been no better example of an elitist betrayal than recent hum bug about selling the country out over Lisbon. This is why the BNP are such a worry to Labour , a split to the right has happened before and it would be the end of the progressive con
The argument Paul Evans is making comes down to this . ‘I know I am unpopular but as I am so very clever in my own opinion the structures tat allow my views to prevail should be retained.’
This is of course why the left love PR which empowers politicians and removes the people almost entirely form the negotiation .

Ironically the people who are so convinced of their unique access to knowledge are usually rather dim witted parasites infected with the scourge of little knowledge .

18. david brough

“Yes, direct democracy will make it much harder for lefties to push their collectivist, Statist agendas”

That’s right. Because the majority of people want to go on being exploited by the City of London, they don’t want any action being taken against banker scum. Those who are being laid off don’t want to get Jobseeker’s Allowance because it infringes on their freedom to starve.

You don’t have a fucking clue, do you? If we had real democracy the last thing that would happen would be for your discredited neoliberal shite to get taken seriously.

‘Only the distributed moral wisdom of Parliament can protect civil liberties and good government’

Jesus Christ, what planet are YOU from? If the public are such a shower of cunts, why not abolish democracy entirely? Do they suddenly aquire collective wisdom once every four of five years?

“I totally agree with the idea that local politics matters and may be the best way of turning the tide against illiberalism and populism, but it’s not the only approach to tackling the problem. I don’t see why people are so keen to draw dividing lines and set out from the beginning why they absolutely refuse to work with others unless they share the exact same priorities; it seems destructive and pointless to me.”

Very much so. I dislike this idea that populism is the only danger here…or that by any stretch of the imagination Tory proposals to introduce more referendums and the like is “the most dangerous thing!!!”

I don’t like it, and often blog about it, when governments make decisions based almost solely on the public mood. But you know what, they also do stuff completely against the public mood, on all levels of government in the country. The common thread in both situations? Neither *have* to abide by more empirical and objective viewpoints.

There is nothing in essence wrong with government doing what their people actually want them to do, even if that is ultimately not what I want them to do. However to do that against greater interests and balances is irresponsible…whether you do it through referendums or through simply taking the decision that national databases and compulsory ID cards must happen regardless of public opinion or expenditure.

What is needed is not these magical referendums…they’ll make political engagement better to a point, but not politics…as this posts says. But, I believe I said it in the David Lammy post, and indeed have said it in every post like this, more needs to be done to take on and ACT ON the views of the public while balancing that with more responsible policy making…the first step for this is, and always will be, the change in the electoral system. Sorry to be boring.

Some of this article needs translation because it is written in party code.

It is a beguiling kind of politics. In each case, these measures provide a veneer of accountability while removing the deliberative policy making processes.

Democracy is a damned nuisance if it gets in the way of a party doing what it likes once it has achieved power.

Imagine the nightmare of a thoughtful train of policy-making on a huge issue like …. say …. climate change …. being entirely derailed because a demagogic right-wing newspaper decided to poke its readers into an oppositional frenzy.

Democracy is a damned nuisance when it gets in the way of a party doing what it likes once it has achieved power. And, by the way, we know best what is good for you.

Only the distributed moral wisdom of Parliament can protect civil liberties and good government.

And, by the way, we know best what is good for you. And you had better believe it.

We need to get off the backs of elected politicians – this anti-political obsession with minor corruption is the agenda of the right and not the centre-left.

We know best what is good for you but we also know best what is good for us. Keep your noses out of our trough.

A great deal of energy has been expended in recent years demanding transparency and accountability from elected politicians

You want politicians to be honest and honourable? Get real.

It is not the populist media that pushes the electorate into supporting a right wing agenda- It is the kind of attitudes shown in this article that do so.

Not boring, Lee: I think you are right about changing the voting system. The current system allows the government to claim a mandate while having only minority support. We need PR to ensure we DO have a representative government so there isn’t a NEED for referenda, and we need to stop acting like we have the right system and the wrong electorate.

We need PR to ensure we DO have a representative government so there isn’t a NEED for referenda, and we need to stop acting like we have the right system and the wrong electorate.

And are you clapping your hands with glee at the process in Israel ?

Newmania: What exactly is wrong with Israel’s process, given they are getting the government representative of the people’s desires? The fact the result can’t be defined at 6am the next morning a bit too annoying for you?

‘Secondly, I would also say that history has shown that civil liberties are defended by having a liberal constitution. Constitutional reform, including reform to the electoral system and the strengthening of local government in relation to central government, is sure to be one of the topics at the convention you deride.’

Actually, I would say that history shows that constitional change is often associated with change for the worse, and even when not, the very fact of change inherently weakens the strength of the constitution.

Changes to the written form of a constitution that do not correspond to pre-existing changes to institutions and popular belief are particularly likely to be worthless.

I may be missing something but Israel seems to having problems which have little to do with whether it is run by PR, populist referenda or the kind of dictatorship proposed above.

And why the fuck do right-wing and left-wing nutjobs alike bring everything back to Israel?

They are not Lee they are being held to ransom by small king maker Parties and the most popular Party is being frozen out ( Of course this is why the Liberals would like it ). The voter no longer elects the government he establishes an environment in which politicians organise an administration.. Now why should the left want to disempower voters ….. this article shows us why ……

Progressives like PR because they think it will lead to a perpetual Lib Lab pact excluding all conservative opinion . This you think reflects a majority for progressive policies in the country . There is of course no such thing as polls on international aid crime immigration and so on show ever day . In effect then PR offer progressives the opportunity to use class hierarchy to disenfranchise the overwhelming Conservative majority by buying some votes with money taken from others .
Any such gerrymandering will be countered by further direct democracy and removing Scottish and Welsh MPs from English votes which really should be done anyway .

I have no problem with a referendum on PR . You would lose. You will never sell the British any system that removes their ability to kick the bastards out .

Lee, if you think you really do represent mainstream opinion I don’t see why you have a problem putting that to the test of PR. Its the current FPTP system which is keeping New Labour in power.

You and Evans both share the idea that the public are a lynch mob, its just that in your case you think this is a good thing while Evans think the mob need holding in check. I, on the other hand, think most people are essentially decent.

Oh, bollocks: meant Newmania, not Lee.

Sorry, Lee! I think your contribution to this thread has been largely correct!

“I have no problem with a referendum on PR . You would lose. You will never sell the British any system that removes their ability to kick the bastards out .”

This sentence alone just goes to show your complete lack of knowledge of PR, and your warped view of our FPTP system that allows some 70% or so of MPs to remain in their seats with almost 0% chance of being removed for over a decade.

Also, (do correct me) I believe that the most popular party in Israel was more popular by ONE SEAT, with the majoirty of the country being in preference to much more hard line right-wing politics. If they’d simply use the system we have then the country would be led by a government that most of them didn’t vote for or even have noted a compromise on, much like we have here.

Shatterface ,as I said . Should the electorate vote in a referendum that they want PR then fine , what are you so scared of ?

Lee , what would have happened under another system is pure speculation and almost certainly wrong . People are not insects , they make sophisticated calculations when voting , this right is removed by PR because they have n idea of the effect of their vote . The fact that most seats are safe seats is a product of the sensitivity the Party in power shows to an electorate which can get rid of it as well as the bleeding obvious fact that in a democracy the singers have the appearance of disproportionate power . That swingy part of the spectrum in reality could easily move.

Take an example , how would PR assist the often polled dislike of the British for the EU being better reflected by its representatives ? As in this case politicians are making agreements future voters cannot rescind there is a special need for a clear and open and direct mandate .

How do you see PR empowering voters here ? Hmmmmm ?

“Shatterface ,as I said . Should the electorate vote in a referendum that they want PR then fine , what are you so scared of ?”

People that want PR want a referendum so that we can have the debate. We were promised it by Labour and after much “review” we’ve had that referendum denied. I don’t know what you’re talking about with any of us being “scared” of a referendum…it’s what we’ve always wanted at the very least.

“Lee , what would have happened under another system is pure speculation and almost certainly wrong .

I’m not saying what would have happened, I’m saying that under the system in Israel they are going to get a coalition government that largely represents their views, rather than like here where we get a government that two thirds of us didn’t vote for.

“this right is removed by PR because they have n idea of the effect of their vote ”

This is a myth

“The fact that most seats are safe seats is a product of the sensitivity the Party in power shows to an electorate which can get rid of it as well as the bleeding obvious fact that in a democracy the singers have the appearance of disproportionate power . That swingy part of the spectrum in reality could easily move.”

You clearly don’t understand constituency voting or the situation that lends itself to “safe seats” otherwise you wouldn’t be defending “sensitive” politicians having seats that they’re extremely unlikely to lose with 35-45% of the popular vote.

“Take an example , how would PR assist the often polled dislike of the British for the EU being better reflected by its representatives ?”

What an asinine example you’ve convoluted. It would assist all central policy making to be more derive of localised political views, essentially reconnecting the person to the state in representation, due to the greater danger of representatives losing their seats on smaller shifts of public opinion.

By the way , what about a compromise . What about a partly elected House of Lords on a PR basis . That would stop tactical voting in the main election which would be a good thing but also balance the suppsed fault of FPTP which is to provide an elected dictatorship.

I could see the value of that ( it would kill the Liberals of course who few voters actually like )

Pagar @24, spot on.

Some thoughts:

There are some things that are or should be out of bounds. Regardless of how many people are against habeas corpus, fair trials, due process etc, these are minimum standards that should not be infringed.

The notion that members of Parliament and the Government are any more competent than the general public interests me because the evidence seems to strongly suggest otherwise. What qualifications does one need to be an MP or Cabinet Minister? Only one Health Minister is a former frontline health worker. No Home Office Ministers are former police or security services personnel. What made a speech-writer and researcher the best person to tell a million people that they were wrong about road pricing? We have journalists and career politicians presuming to tell seventy million people how to live. And their decisions are often not based on what is best but rather what is politically expedient, which may of course not be the same thing.

There seems to be a general consensus that the public’s disengagement from mainstream politics is a bad thing. People have disengaged because they feel they do not have enough of an influence and because political parties require commitment to too broad a range of policies. I imagine the heads of the mainstream parties were rather surprised when Independent Kidderminster Health Concern did as well as they did.

Why not distribute more power from the centre? Leave the centre to only manage things of national importance – say, the defence of the realm. Create education and health vouchers to let locals vote with their feet. And if they want something like CCTV, let them spend their local tax on it rather than have the Home Office blindly promote it and propagandise it from the centre, with central funds, without anyone knowing how effective it is in different contexts. In short let’s try to adjust the system as much as possible so that when politicians (or indeed the people) screw up, they can only screw up their own area, not the entire country. Make the centre more representative – it is unreasonably that only a fifth voted for the party that runs the country.

“By the way , what about a compromise . What about a partly elected House of Lords on a PR basis . That would stop tactical voting in the main election which would be a good thing but also balance the suppsed fault of FPTP which is to provide an elected dictatorship.”

That’s not a compromise by any remote standard, it’s a diversion away from the real issue. If anything the House of Lords should be the house less voted for to ensure populism stays away from the final vetting stage (as far as I’m concerned, I know other PR proponents would disagree with me).

“I could see the value of that ( it would kill the Liberals of course who few voters actually like )”

It would kill the liberals, because it would continue a system where Liberals are under-represented by half in parliament.

What an asinine example you’ve convoluted.

How so? It is the clearest example I can think of ,of the political class acting against the wishes of the electorate .Presumably this is exactly what you want to see stopped ?

You Don`t like that one ok ? What about the utter disinterest of the electorate in “International ” aid , how does PR help that almost universal dislike to be better expressed ? By what courtly machinations behind closed doors are the electorate going to get what they want on that ? What about reducing , to about zero , money spent on rehabilitation of offenders , what Parties do you envisage emerging from this PR induced huddle that better express that ? Or what about the rights of the Scots and Welsh to vote on English bills , the vast majority of the English object as we know .What Political pact or temporary working arrangement t do you imagine is going to get that ?
What about immigration it has been top of the list of concern for the electorate for a long time now and there is an almost universal wish for it to be dramatically cut .
How do we stop politician ignoring that .What grouping do you see providing an expression of the will of the electorate here ?

Are these all asinine then ?

“kill” meaning, of course, keep things as they are..

“how does PR help that almost universal dislike to be better expressed ?”

a) you’re *assuming* a universal dislike when it comes to these issues, but taking your over-zealousness to predict the mass opinion of the public to one side,
b) Let me ask (since I’ve already said why policy would be better formed under PR, go read) how exactly is FPTP working out for you on getting these issues heard and acted on?

“What about immigration it has been top of the list of concern for the electorate for a long time now and there is an almost universal wish for it to be dramatically cut .
How do we stop politician ignoring that .”

Newmania, you seem to be spending the entirety of this thread talking about an opposite alternate reality….honestly…

It would kill the liberals, because it would continue a system where Liberals are under-represented by half in parliament.

Says who ? How many people do you think vote Liberal because they actively like the Liberal Party ? Any centre Party is swollen by being the disproportionate recipient of protest votes Now you would like second choice votes to be as important as first choice votes
Anyway if you absolutely rule out the imposition of the undemocratic attempt at gerrymandering without a referendum( on which the Liberal Party have a poor poor record ) , then fine . When you have lost which as far as we know is a certainly then we aint going back to it until you get he answer you want. Its not Zimbabwe here yet .

PR

RIP

Newmania, you seem to be spending the entirety of this thread talking about an opposite alternate reality….honestly…

I am refferring to surveyed opinion . You are living in a dream world .

I’m saying that under the system in Israel they are going to get a coalition government that largely represents their views

Only in the sense that driving down the middle of the road fairly represents the views of both those who want to drive on the right or the left.

Newmania (42): a ‘protest vote’ is still a vote.

A good proportion of Labour’s ‘support’ is from Liberals afraid of the Tories and a good proportion of Tory votes come from those more afraid of Labour. That’s a result of people knowing that votes for the Lib Dems are largely wasted under FPTP.

Its the present system which forces people to vote for their SECOND choice because they don’t want to waste a vote for a preferred choice with no chance of winning a majority.

And incidentally, a Lib Lab pact is only going to happen under PR if a majority support policied which are both socially liberal and economically redistributive, neither of which you think they do.

So again, what are YOU afraid of?

It appears I’ve drifted into this a little late, but Paulie’s asked me to lend a hand so I’ll just say to Newmania, Cicero and cjcjc.

How would you feel if rather than being a decision about council tax it was a decision being made by Welsh miners about whether their coal mines should have been closed?

“I am refferring to surveyed opinion .”

I’m referring to your idea that the government are ignoring the immigration fears and doing nothing about it. Patently untrue, as much as I dislike that fact.

“How many people do you think vote Liberal because they actively like the Liberal Party ?”

This is an irrelevancy. The fact is that 22% of people did vote for the Liberal Democrats and yet they only have half the number of seats that number should give. Protest vote or simply liking the colour of Vince Cable’s hair, people deserve to get the representation they ask for. Given that is PRECISELY what you’re arguing for I’m finding it entirely funny that you are trying to oppose me on this.

“Only in the sense that driving down the middle of the road fairly represents the views of both those who want to drive on the right or the left.”

The Israeli’s voted for something in the region of 60-70% for a right wing party of one form or another. Despite the closeness of the “left” (which is debatable in it’s terminology) and the right’s main two parties, the people clearly want right wing, and that’s the government they will get.

Also, if the country is absolutely split down the middle in terms of lefties and righties, then why exactly is the best democratic solution to pander to only half of the population? Middle of the road is such an evocative term, but if the people need both those views considered because they’re that split, then that’s what needs to be done to be representationally fair.

Newmania: Let me repeat my question, given you’re all for avoiding and diverting today (top form work by the way)

b) Let me ask (since I’ve already said why policy would be better formed under PR, go read) how exactly is FPTP working out for you on getting these issues heard and acted on?

47. “How would you feel if rather than being a decision about council tax it was a decision being made by Welsh miners about whether their coal mines should have been closed?”

Let’s flip it on it’s head, how would you feel if your local traffic management policy was mostly influenced by central government and the funding they’re prepared to give to councils that tow the line?

There’s winners and losers in both scenario’s, but you know what? It’s scandalous that local people aren’t even properly asked for that opinion so that it can be considered, it has to be forced upon the decision makers by protest groups and lobbyists because they know full well they won’t be listened to otherwise.

Paul,

First of all it would help if you would dispense with the kind of silliness that your piece ended with – I can guarantee that no-one at the Convention will be talking about “ZaNuLieBore thought police”.

I do think you are right to highlight the dangers of politicians pursuing a populist agenda. Of course politicians have to give proper consideration to public opinion but that is not the same as allowing them to be totally driven by this to the point when they are putting what is popular above what they feel to be right, and when they are unduly influenced by newspaper headlines and pressure groups that is even worse (I think you overstate the evils of referendums and directly elected officials though – they are not always appropriate but can both have their place within our political system). But then I don’t think that most of us here would disagree with that and, as has been pointed out, the agenda of the Convention is decidedly non-populist.

But if populist politics is a problem whose fault is this? Politicians always have a choice – when, to take your example, right wing newspapers whip up their readers into an oppositional frenzy about climate change they can either stand up and say that they will make the right choice based on scientific opinion or they can water down their carbon-reduction proposals even more to avoid unpopularity. It is their choice, just as when faced with borderline racist newspaper headlines about immigrants and asylum seekers it is their choice whether to challenge their rabble-rousing, hatred-stirring agenda or whether to pander to it by trying to show how “tough” they are determined to be.

You say
A great deal of energy has been expended in recent years demanding transparency and accountability from elected politicians while similar demands upon their rivals – pressure groups, bureaucracies, the media – have been almost non-existent.”

But that’s because politicians have power whereas pressure groups, the media etc. only have influence. That does not mean they should be able to act without restraint or scrutiny but we should expect politicians, as the ones ultimately wielding power to be held to a level of scrutiny above and beyond this. And to suggest we should “get off their backs” when they abuse their positions for personal gain is nonsense – you say that you want to strengthen and safeguard our representative democracy whilst at the same time wanting to gloss over the kind of behaviour by our politicians which is undermining it.

That’s not to say that you are wrong to highlight the problems with our democratic system and with politics in this country in general. Again, I’m sure that most of us would agree that in order to safeguard our liberties it is essential to have a properly functioning democratic process and institutions and there is a lot of debate here about the problems with our political system and the need for constitutional reform.

The fact though is that these things are addressed at the Convention; there are for example sessions on “Democracy and Liberty”, “Parliament’s Role”, “Who rules, is there a media-political class?”. You could have checked this by looking at the agenda instead of just portraying us as a load of obsessives shouting “down with ZaNuLabour”.

What is really bizarre though is to claim that because we can identify some of the major problems which result in politicians creating ill-judged legislation we should not also focus on this legislation and the real practical effects which it has for people in this country. Illiberal and authoritarian legislation is not just a slightly unpleasant and unfortunate “symptom” it is dangerous and harmful in itself and won’t suddenly go away if you manage to somehow cure the “disease”. Saying that we are suffering from excessive populism and a broken political process is meaningless unless you can point to the actual outcomes of this and demonstrate they are doing real harm. Otherwise, why should we care?

How would you feel if rather than being a decision about council tax it was a decision being made by Welsh miners about whether their coal mines should have been closed?

It was a decision about to what extent the tax payer should go on supporting the mining industry. If they could live on what they killed the question would not arise.

Shatterface – You are ignoring the point I make about the way economic redistribution is used to lever in other “progressive” soi disant policies . Ok you think I am talking rubbish , then let the great British public , in their infinite sagacity, decide for once and all if they think PR reflects their views better than the system we have .. Lets have a referendum. Provided you are not plotting this gerrymandering without reference to the electorate I do not greatly care that you count the 30% of Labour voters whose second choice is the BNP as a pro immigration vote
I think what you say about a vote is vote is fair enough actually . I also think you will find that when Cameron wins he will want the involvement of Lib Dems and in some crucial policy areas that some Conservatives will not like .

The Labour Party blew kisses at the Liberals until they had a large majority and then they blew them off. Right ? . Do you think Sunny Hundal really cares about the Liberal Party ? New Labour do not , he does not and the only people who do are Conservatives who are willing to listen to the many good ideas that come from Liberals
I like some of the ideas on crime, I like some of the localist ideas ( although not all). At heart Liberals come from 18th century thinking that assumes individual rights that Sunny Hundal wishes to be destroyed in his far left utopian fantasy. Ultimately Conservatives and Liberal have far more in common than Liberals and the authoritarian left .

that he cares nothing for majority conservative opinion or for individual liberty,

What absolute bollocks. Most of the country isn’t conservative – it’s left wing on economic issues and fairly liberal on social issues.

b) Let me ask (since I’ve already said why policy would be better formed under PR, go read) how exactly is FPTP working out for you on getting these issues heard and acted on?

Conservatives do not expect and in fact suspect notions of perfection . FPTP is the least bad on the table thats all.

What absolute bollocks. Most of the country isn’t conservative – it’s left wing on economic issues and fairly liberal on social issues.

No it is almost universally self interested on economic issues and on every issue I can think of way to the right of the current regime . Immigration , crime , education , abortion even , international aid . The EU obviously .

Newmania – It would only not come up if you stick to your own selfish worldview, a government not respecting such selfish notions as private property. Why should the need to fit into a capitalist worldview override the views of these local people exactly. Because I’m sure the people of our fictional mining village would qite like to keep their mine, their livelihoods and their community.

Why is their opinion less important than the need to conform to a particular world view? Or could it possibly be that you as someone with a political opinion are equally guilty of thinking yourself so very clever in your own opinion and your belief that your system should be adhered to.

“Conservatives do not expect and in fact suspect notions of perfection . FPTP is the least bad on the table thats all.”

Every review in to electoral reform has stated categorically that PR is, in even it’s worst form, no worse than FPTP, and has the potential to be much better. So, as with the rest of this thread, you’re talking out of your arse.

Andreas I think you will find that the Miner’s wish to retain their jobs at everyone’s else’s expense was not entirely motivated by the disinterested love for their fellow man.
I do greatly sympathise with the miners actually , I visited a mine recently and I was struck by the echo of a whole community that was lost . There was no choice in this case , we ran out of money under Labour , nothing changes eh
I wish you would express your innate conservatism with more vigour to Sunny Hundal however. He wants to change everything about the country not because we have to, but just because he does not like it much . He cares not for the beloved traditions of the nation that he sweeps aside in his mad dash for some dimly imagined modernity .
I agree with you Andreas change is usually a bad thing . It appears Mr Brown is coming to our opinion as well by way of a return to traditional banking .Why stop there Gordon ?Traditional education , traditional family , traditional country , in fact undo the last ten years of fidgety onanisim and you will have my forgiveness .

“Think tanks, as opposed to Charities like Liberty, get far too easy a ride in getting their viewpoints across without a critical analysis.”

I am pretty sure Policy Exchange is a charity, and a lot of think tanks are either charities or have charitable arms. But it is a funny thing how different organisational presentations alter radically how the media receives reports or opinion from it. I personally think that Liberty is given a slightly easy ride in some respects, but it would be very good to see all pressure groups regarded with greater scrutiny (including how they are funded).

The government’s own review, which it intended to quash the idea of a referendum on PR, said this Newmania. When a government department sets out to kill PR in the water and the best it can do is say “it’s no better or worse than FPTP in these situations” doesn’t that say something to you?

I `m sure you will wish to make the profoundly telling point that the government asked a few boffins and they spat that out at the referendum we agree is required Lee. Good luck with that

Oh and as under Labour PR has been a dead parrot your point is rather redundant . Perhaps New Labour thought the Liberals would rather tell themselves they were right than get anything done . Perhaps they thought if they threw their vanity a bone they would go off and gnaw it for years . Goodness knows where they would have got that idea

So we’ve established that the government IS acting on issues where Newmania thinks they aren’t albeit in a populist manner, that he agrees that giving people more of a say in how policies are made through better representation, and that he cannot dispute that PR is a potentially better system for the UK. So he resorts to the weird tribal babbling we see above, devoid of any point and that he hopes will provide a smokescreen from the truth he’s been trying to avoid all day.

Lee, that newmania babbles incoherently is obvious. Maybe it would help if you guys ignored the troll because it just makes him feel more important. Watching his rantings descend into “uber socialist dictator Sunny Hundal” is most amusing to watch. Let him descend into more stupidity.

You must admit that “uber socialist dictator Sunny Hundal” does have a certain ring to it!

Perhaps we should have a badge made up.

By allowing this thread to be diverted into a discussion of PR, you are allowing Paul Evans to get away with one of the most intellectually bankrupt posts I have read on this blog.

In the context of the most illiberal government this country has had the misfortune to endure, he berates a convention set up to discuss how individual rights might be better protected because he believes that to do so panders to the right!!!.

His argument is for local and central authoritarian party rule. His argument is anti-democratic, anti-liberal and even anti-probity. In his own words he does not feel politicians need to be transparent or accountable.

The thinking behind this post explains why the population are disconnected with politics and why his party will be out of office for the next ten years. We’ll see how keen he is to protect the “thoughtful train of policy-making” from dissidents then.

Pagar – Paul Evans is currently away, but as an official envoy from the Zanulab Fortess of Authoritarian Doom let me say this.

First, “intellectually bankrupt” is a phrase stupid people on CiF use to sound smart but is generally left out of intelligent argument.

Next, I was going to offer a point by point rebuttal on your inital post, but since all you did was offer your “humourous” translations of what Paulie said without making any clear coherent point.

Finally, lets take a look at one policy in particular, the council tax referendum. Now lets say that the people reject a council tax rise. Who decides what to cut? Was it the right thing to cut? Will such a cut just be storing up problems for later?

By reducing a complex question to a simple yes/no question in a referendum the centrally imposed government has tied the hands of an elected council. Asking “Would you like to pay less council tax” is like asking “Do you like fluffy bunnies?”. It’s a no brainer.

Taking a complex issue and breaking it down into a simple yes/no question is in no way good for local democracy.

‘But that’s because politicians have power whereas pressure groups, the media etc. only have influence. ‘

I think that’s precisely where you make the basic error from which everything else follows. The government may have some theoretical power to have someone arrested, or just shot, but that has very little to do with the day-to-day constitutional arrangements for running the country.

Outside some kind of zombie apocalypse scenario, it is the pressure groups and the media who have actual power, ministers who have only influence, the right to suggest things which journalists and pressure groups then accept or veto. A newspaper editor, or even senior journalist, has the de-facto power to sack any minister except the PM. No minister has a matching capability to sack a journalist. If a junior FO minister and the UK head of Amnesty got into a political feud, only one would walk away with their job, and it wouldn’t be the elected one.

The procedure for sacking a prime minister is slightly more involved and time-consuming, requiring a quorum of editors, but is equally hard, real power, not mere influence, as any recent departee from the office would testify.

If you want to make a constitutional change to this country, there is no point in fiddling about with the details of who has formal but not actual power. Ignore the Queen, Parliament and ministers, target those who get to frame and make the decisions.

Allocate seats in a reformed House of Lords by giving everyone 10 votes for pressure groups – one person might vote Quilliam Foundation, CBI and Greenpeace, …, another Friends of the Earth, Immigration Watch and the National Secular Humanist Society.
Set up a fund of say a billion a year for staffing and communication by Lords members, and forbid any who accept it from taking outside income. Have the voting list changeable at any time by showing up at a post office, so if a representative pisses you off, you can go out the next day and do something about it.

Change the terms of the BBC license fee so that it covers the cost of producing a weekly colour magazine, in Newsweek format, largely based on its existing free web content. Make this available for free in Post Offices, at postage costs by subscription, at a subsided 10p in Tescos, or free to any commercial paper that wanted to merge it with its own added-value content.

Give everyone who gets a seat in the new Lords the right to editorial space in the news magazine.

Liberalism and democracy are not easy bed-fellows. That’s been known since the birth of liberalism, but it’s been denied all too easily in recent years. I’m glad someone has had the courage to acknowledge it openly – no-one actually standing for election would dare do so and I think that partly explains why politics is so weak.

Why is it so difficult to defend politics? Well, I think the answer lies in another piece of forgotten political wisdom – faction sucks. When politicians band together to seek election/arbitrary power they initially seek to do so in order to achieve change they believe to be positive, over time the goal changes and becomes the achievement of power itself. Everything else becomes a means to that end. Machiavelli called it corruption. Western politics is so factionalised and so corrupt that we’ve institutionalised it and don’t even try to criticise it any more. The entire tenure of political debate, comment and even process is focused on winning power, not on what is done with that power.

So, if you want a renewal of politics, the way to go is not referendums, but go with what people actually are doing – leaving political parties because they don’t believe in anything but themselves, and joining campaigning groups that believe in something. Political parties should be transitory, they should survive for as long as they can raise the money to support themselves from their membership. The bloated, state supported monoliths we have now are strangling democracy and liberalism alike.

Ahem.

Andreas,

Yes, the council tax referendum is a bad idea but to try and spin that into an argument against the Convention is just silly. And no-one here is using the word ZanuLab except you and Paul.

Andreas,

Why should the need to fit into a capitalist worldview override the views of these local people exactly. Because I’m sure the people of our fictional mining village would qite like to keep their mine, their livelihoods and their community. Why is their opinion less important than the need to conform to a particular world view?

Why do you expect the taxpayer to subsidise jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist?

Martin, one of the reasons it is so hard to defend politics is the behaviour of our politicians. When people see Jaqui Smith milking the system to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds it’s just another nail in the coffin of the public’s respect for our elected leaders. So what does Paul Evans, who wants to come to the defence of politics, want to do? Does he want to bring in tighter rules, make sure that MPs are subject to proper scrutiny to reassure the public that they are working on our interests and not theirs? No, he wants us to get off their backs, and in fact he previously argued at length on his blog why expecting MPs to be accountable was a bad thing.

Martin @ 66, I’m very much inclined to agree with your comment.

It was interesting (and somewhat concerning) when, during the party funding debate (what happened to Hayden Philips?), there seemed to be not only a consensus that political parties were essential to democracy but also that Labour and the Conservatives were essential to democracy (I did not get the same impression from the LibDems). The current system and the recommended system seems designed to keep the current parties and make it difficult for competitors to get a look in.

Ukliberty (63): you mean like bankers?

No, he wants us to get off their backs, and in fact he previously argued at length on his blog why expecting MPs to be accountable was a bad thing.

You along with the majority of commentators on this rather dispiriting thread are rather missing the goddamn point. Paulie is making the case for representative democracy – where representatives are, um, accountable to a thing called the electorate. What he is arguing against is the sort of demagogic simplification of political issues that is inherent in local referendums and the like. This could have been fleshed out a bit: plebiscites artificially polarise and simplify issues that would benefit from deliberation and compromise. This kind of anti-politics is done in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘accountablility’ – and to be seen to disagree with what is proposed in the name of these is to invite the sort of idiotic comments that we see on this thread. Thus the sort of populist politics that Paulie is arguing against inexorably creeps forward – and most of you are rather making his point for him.

‘Let him descend into more stupidity.’

Oh dear poor Sunny does for the snappy rejoinder what the KGB did for tailoring . Never mind . I do not agree that this thread has been diverted into PR I think it is the same subject. The purpose of PR is to remove direct control from voters and pass that power through a political system . In this country the main effect of that is to be able to nominally count millions of socially conservative working class voters into the New Labour progressive camp .
Were these voters given a chance to directly affect voting then little would be left of the progressive agenda . Of course FPTP is unfair on smaller Parties , but then PR is just as unfair on larger ones as the already over mighty centre become the decision makers . For me the knock out blow for PR is the difficulty of removing an entrenched alliance . In the past this has lead to corrupt and eltist politics quite at odds with the British idea of accountability . There is also the problem, of lists and so on.

This post is saying that leftist ideas will not stand up to direct voter power they require that power to refined and filtered through a hierarchy of ideas and competencies for the best government to result .
Oddly enough this is a very old Conservative idea and with which I have a certain sympathy . I did not agree for example that our foreign policy should be the subject of a referendum over Iraq .

There is a deeper division here though , the left rely on a public language to close down arguments ,. In this unreal world you are not allowed to say for example that you chiefly worry about yourself and your family .It must be couched in terms of “society”. In this world the NIMBY is a laughable figure whereas in fact all reasonable people are nimbies . The left therefore wish the private world to intrude on the political world as little as possible and for it to remain what they call ”Political”. The prospect of direct democracy is then a terrifying one for them . They loathed the so called anarchy of the middleclass under Thatcher. The anarchy of the working classes terrifies them . Why?

Because in their hearts they despise and fear them just as their Fabian forbears did

Shatterface,

Ukliberty (63): you mean like bankers?

If the cap fits… I wouldn’t know.

(74): Sorry, having a bad thumb day.

Just making the (rather facetious) reply to comment 68 that the government is willing to bail out some workers and not others.

Left to the market most bankers would be wanking sailors for coins right now.

“Taking a complex issue and breaking it down into a simple yes/no question is in no way good for local democracy.”

No, but the alternative which we actually live under is no better than that either.

“Liberalism and democracy are not easy bed-fellows”

They get along fine, it is interesting indeed that liberalism seems to be the enemy now of “democracy”…and I can only assume you mean that in a working sense and not it’s truest sense.

Things that need to happen to ensure appropriate accountability and functioning of our democracy:

1) Much better consultation and community feed back
2) An electoral system that doesn’t discourage the majority of voters from having their say
3) A revised system of parliamentary scheduling and policy creation
4) More investment and work from outside the political bubble on things such as Public Whip, TheyWorkForYou, etc.

4 is the only point that we’ve even remotely been getting better at as a people in the last decade. All other points have arguably got worse. All four points are liberally motivated, everyone having their say, everyone’s say being considered, merit based decision making and everyone being able to judge their own conclusion to the whole entities worth.

Sorry – I’ve been unable to get to a connected PC all day and I’ve not been able to respond more quickly to some of the points above. It’s quite odd that – even though my views on referendums have provoked a generally hostile reaction, I’ve not seen anything that would qualify as evidence or argument. Only opinions.

Of the points that have engaged with what I’ve written, Douglas (comment 10), I’m not saying that the convention is populist. I’m saying that poor quality populist democracy is the cause of bad governance, and that illiberality is but one symptom of that. One thing that I didn’t say in this post but I’ll say it now is that the apparent outrages against our ancient liberties seem to be foregrounded in a disproportionate way given the fact that poor governance manifests itself in lots of other ways. I really don’t buy this argument that we’re somehow sleepwalking into a police state of some kind. It’s a shrill and hyperbolic argument that suits columnists and doubtless helps Liberty’s fundraising efforts, but it misrepresents where we are and leads to the kind of faulty diagnosis that I’ve covered in this post.

Anthony B (comment 12)

Thank you *blush*. I’ll return to your ‘slight of hand’ charge in a sec.

A few points in response beforehand: Firstly, I really don’t understand your willingness to embrace referendums. I’ve never seen a convincing argument as to why they are *ever* a valid or fair way of reaching policy decisions or framing legislation, or evidence that they don’t inevitably lead to more authoritarian, conservative and badly thought-out legislation as well as placing citzens on a trajectory that ends in totalitarianism. I think that this comment thread illustrates fairly well that direct democracy is a project of the (very) right wing.

I’d love to have this argument out with you in a bit more detail if ever you get a moment, because I think it’s a hugely serious question that no-one seems very willing to discuss. When we get to it, I’d also like to get into your argument about constitutions: You seem to be arguing that our lack of one puts our liberties on a sticky wicket. I’d argue that the adversarial legalistic politics of states that have a constitution that can’t be reconfigured easily is much more worrying in that respect.

I’ve been absent from this comment thread all day because I’ve been on a plane to a country with a written constitution. I was fingerprinted for the first time ever before being admitted.

Writing a detailed attack on the very idea of plebicites is too big an ask for this comment thread, so I’ll confine myself to perhaps the most contentious argument in favour of my position … which is….

The R word. It’s always been very annoying that political scientists weren’t more choosy in going along with John Stuart Mill’s choice of the word ‘representative’ to designate the form of democracy that he advanced so spendidly. It has a dual meaning (‘a representative sample’ / ‘you are my representative and I authorise you to exercise your judgment on my behalf.’ While it mainly means the latter, you could argue that the magic dust of representative democracy doesn’t absolutely require a legislative assembly that matches the ethnic / class / confessional / partisan make up of the demos.

It would be nice, but not essential. The essential bit is the periodic general recall and the deliberative one-nation (or one-demos) nature of it.

To my mind, the optimal settlement is the one that ensures that the parliamentarians are free to exercise their judgement on our behalf for a fixed period before facing the electorate without being subject to coercion from pressure groups (of any stripe), bureaucracies or media interests.

Of course, the assembly should be as representative as it can be without compromising this clear priority, but I don’t place anything like as much store beside this element of the question, and I’d argue that it’s all of a piece with your (hard-to-defend) support for any form of referendum,

This would frame any argument I’d make on PR. It’s a means – not an end (though FPTP clearly struggles to meet the needs of a country that has more than two totally dominant class-based / partisan political parties in the way it had until the 1970s).

Where I’d defend my digs at the Convention is on the question of liberty v democracy. Both are yay-words and I think we often regard them as inseperable. They aren’t. There are often tensions between the two ideals and we often have to make trade-offs. When we do, I think that we – on the liberal left – tend to fall on the side of democracy rather than individual liberties.

It’s a sign of the times that all of this energy isn’t going into a Convention on Modern *Democracy* instead. It badly needs discussing at the moment as the technological shift and the change to the media industries that has happened over the last few year has really materially effected a precious part of our settlement.

As I argued in this post, the fashionable – and highly inflated – fixation with civil liberties is a damaging piece of misdirection. I’ll point you to Conor Gearty’s argument that these concerns are inflated as he makes the case far more effectively than I can – here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/07/comment.politics

What you want Paul is an elected dictatorship then . Demos comes from the Greek system which did not envisage any part being played fby the slaves . Essentially you want to update that.

The point you make overall is one that Conservatives have been wrestling with for far longer than you and I am not out of sympathy entirely . This country however has a system where power is notably concerntrated in an unaccountable executive and on many subjects the poltical class act against thr wishes of the people in total .( Europe , crime ,education abortion etc.) A Conservative would wasnt to work with that position and ameliorate it rather than supress it which is your aim.
The suppression of the views of the electorate over Europe ( which I only use as an example ) has enraged the voter and stirred up populism.

It is interesting though how Conservative style arguments beginto come from the left who have so much more to lose from direct democracy or populism as you would call it . This is because we have been given socilaism by stealth and the argument was never won or even had. I fear wishing away developments in democratic accountability is not a long term answer for you

To my mind, the optimal settlement is the one that ensures that the parliamentarians are free to exercise their judgement on our behalf for a fixed period before facing the electorate without being subject to coercion from pressure groups (of any stripe), bureaucracies or media interests.

But how can this ever be possible? MPs have to operate in the real world and there will always be people trying to influence them. There is not neccessarily anything wrong with this – it is part and parcel of our democracy. They should give their arguments (and opposing ones) due consideration and (leaving aside questions around following the party whip) act according to what they believe to be right – if they don’t have the integrity to do this and instead allow themselves to be unduly influenced by such external forces then no one is to blame but themselves.

This is a very good post. I can’t read all the replies so excuse me if I’m repeating anything or missing the thread of the discussion, however I’d make the following observations and points in reply:

Firstly democracy is not majoritarian rule. It is the rule of ‘the people’, that means ‘all’ the people. It is based on the notion of equality of citizenship, meaning we all have equal rights to govern ourselves. Electoral systems are not democracy either, they’re just mechanisms for managing decision making in a democratic society. What this all means is that the rights of minorities must be protected and the majority can’t just do as it pleases.

The upshot of all that is that referenda should be used (because the people are in charge), but sparingly (because they can lead to majoritarian rule). Parliament is the best forum for proper in depth debate that can consider the rights and needs of minorities as well as popular/majority opinion. However, as ‘the people’ should be in charge we should be able to use referenda for certain issues – namely deciding the rules of the game, how politics should work. In other words they should be used for writing and changing the constitution.

By having referenda for constitutional matters and a strengthened parliamentary democracy we can go a long way to protecting our rights and liberties from politicians who want to attack them for whatever reason.

The key here is to not give too much power to any single block of opinion, so consensus is needed rather than the domination of one group over another. The people should be able to act as a check on parliament and parliament should be able to filter the public debate toward a consensus that protects minorities while delivering the essence of what the people want.

At the moment our political system puts virtually all power into the hands of the PM. It’s an unacceptably poor system of politics and one which needs to be replaced root and branch with a democratic republican constitution based on popular sovereignty. Our parliament should of course be fully elected and both houses should be elected by some form of PR. All this would strengthen consensus politics over majoritarian rule.

While I fully support the stated aims of the Convention I do sympathise with the view that it is mainly addressing the symptoms rather than the fundamental problem of our undemocratic constitution.

I don’t suppose, given the very broad range of partners involved, that much agreement will be reached on Saturday about the underlying constitutional problems, but these are the issues that need to be tackled.

Ultimately the answer to the question ‘why do governments take more power and reduce our rights?’ is simple: because they can. Take that power away from them and we change the whole debate.

“Where I’d defend my digs at the Convention is on the question of liberty v democracy. Both are yay-words and I think we often regard them as inseperable. They aren’t. There are often tensions between the two ideals and we often have to make trade-offs. When we do, I think that we – on the liberal left – tend to fall on the side of democracy rather than individual liberties.”

You’re right, they’re very separable. They’re also able to go hand in hand with one another, which is why I question your motives for taking such a stand against moves for regaining liberties lost?

You can argue, and I’d largely agree, that the problems are caused by an underlying problem in democracy and the process, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t also try to ensure this “populist” system recognises an increasingly populist strand on our liberties at the same time. Both can be done, and neither contradict one another.

“They aren’t. There are often tensions between the two ideals and we often have to make trade-offs. When we do, I think that we – on the liberal left – tend to fall on the side of democracy rather than individual liberties.”

I can’t help but feel that when you envisage democracy in your mind if it some socialist only version of democracy that is harmed by liberal thinking in some way…because when I think of our democracy and our liberty I fail to see how you consider improving one without improving the other. I’d fall on the side of never making a trade off.

“This would frame any argument I’d make on PR. It’s a means – not an end (though FPTP clearly struggles to meet the needs of a country that has more than two totally dominant class-based / partisan political parties in the way it had until the 1970s).”

Of course it’s a means, everything is a means, all of which go towards both enhancing our liberty and our democracy.

Paul @78 – good response. However, there’s something that’s bothering me.

On the one hand, you’re saying that we (that is, the liberal left, broadly defined) should be more concerned with promoting democracy than with promoting liberty. I think you’re saying this on the assumption that liberty will be a natural consequence of better democracy (again, following your definition of what constitutes “better” democracy), although I could be wrong about that. And if that is what you’re saying, I’m yet to be convinced that it’s true.

On the other hand, when opposing referendums, you’re doing so on the basis that they will produce “authoritarian” outcomes (and I’m not disagreeing here). So if the problem with referendums is that they would be insufficiently liberal, does that not imply that liberty does indeed trump democracy in the way that you say it does not? Would referendums be OK if we had a strong liberal constitution that could not be overturned by referendum, thus preventing people from voting for truly awful consequences?

In trying to fashion a working liberal democratic system, there are always going to be some liberties that are absolute. We cannot have a system that allows 99% of the people to vote to enslave a tiny minority. Therefore there are situations in which liberty trumps democracy. I’m tempted to suggest that part of our problem is a lack of such limits on what governments can do, particular as their claims of a popular mandate are often flimsy at best. Now, my desire to limit government focuses on some very narrow areas – I’m not talking about limiting the government’s ability to fund and run public services, or to pursue social policy, although I think it would occasionally be wise to be a bit more considered in how these goals are pursued, so there is no reason for a social democrat to fear such restrictions (and, in my view, plenty of reasons to welcome them).

I would like to see some firmer rules set down about what relationship the citizens have with the government, with more power and rights for citizens. Once that’s established, I think that a lot of the calls for referendums will actually dissipate; if people feel more empowered in their daily lives, they won’t be at all interested in some snake-oil salesman’s promise of a referendum on their council tax (which, by the way, represents a tiny portion of the total tax many people pay anyway!). I think what’s driving this is the palpable sense that the government is explicitly in the business of trying to manipulate and monitor the behaviour of the citizens in a way that people are uncomfortable with, and the Tory proposals are a trick designed to make us think that, if we only had referendums, we’d be much more in control.

On that basis, can you not see a reason to get behind a campaign to guarantee and promote people’s sense of their own liberty and security from potentially (and, at this stage, mostly only potentially) dangerous government actions? Wouldn’t that be a useful first step in rebuilding trust between the electorate and the government?

I’m aware that there are plenty of people, such as yourself, who really dislike the CoML. I don’t entirely blame you, as there are some people involved that I’m not thrilled about either. But when you oppose it, and defend (albeit in a slightly ironic way) the present government, I think you’re undermining yourselves. The government has to show willingness to trust the people with more liberty if it wants to be trusted itself. Ironically, I think that’s a prerequesite for the achievement of any of the goals you set out.

Andreas@64

“intellectually bankrupt” is a phrase stupid people on CiF use to sound smart but is generally left out of intelligent argument.

A little rich, I feel, considering the original post contained such phrases as “half arsed” “demagogic right-wing” and “poisonously illiberal” but I accept your criticism.

Regarding your point on local democracy, I entirely agree that you cannot use referenda to create all policies, set budgets etc but the malaise in local democracy is largely caused by the dominance of the political parties in the councils. This creates a collection of elected dictatorships up and down the country and results in some appalling decision making- often caused by party officials trying to apply national party policy to a local issue.

My preference would be to see party politics removed from local democracy and have all candidates stand as independents and then to ask them to think independently when elected. I would also like to see directly elected key officials- Mayor and Chief Constable. This would create some direct local accountability. (The CC might stop to ponder before implementing his ACPO created policy to think about the effect on his popularity).

Finally, I would like to use referenda used to make decisions on major decisions relating to policy or expenditure (see recent Manchester congestion charging). Whilst you are correct that it is a no-brainer to respond to “would you like to pay less Council Tax” it would be interesting to see the response to the following questions-

Do you wish to see your CT used to continue to subsidise public libraries/swimming pools/arts centres/museums?

In many cases, I suspect you might not like the answers you would get to such questions but you have to agree that the process would be be more democratic than the current arrangement.

We cannot have a system that allows 99% of the people to vote to enslave a tiny minority.

Actually, what you _really_ can’t have is a system that, if 99% of the people wanted that, could stop them.

I think you’re using ‘can’t’ in slightly different senses, there.

It’s interesting that Paul believes he has arguments but his opponents have mere opinions. I’m not entirely sure why he attempts to antagonise people that he otherwise appears to want to persuade.

Regardless, it strikes me as odd is that people either don’t see a sustained assault on our liberties or they don’t see it as a problem, or a problem greater than any other.

That there has been a lack of respect and a sustained assault on our liberties seems unarguable – the evidence is in the legislation, in Hansard, in interviews, speeches, and detentions.

I happen to believe our Government isn’t malign and I don’t see a malign Government getting in power in the foreseeable future. I’m not sure we have a police state by a reasonable definition but we certainly live or are about to live in a surveillance society (one where a large proportion of the population is under pervasive surveillance). This also seems unarguable.

Nevertheless we do have a Government (and executive) that is not only willing to abuse the rules but also to deny responsibility for doing so, to deny doing it, and to deny remedy to those who are harmed by abuse. Such abuse ranges from Parliamentary machinations to legal processes… and more. And they are supported in this by a large number of people, among them many elected representatives. The evidence is for this is in Hansard and judgements and in the media.

To argue that these abuses are a failure of other people, by people outside that Government and its supporters, without which it would be unable to act in those ways, seems a bit absurd, particularly when people outside Government haven’t actually called for many those assaults and abuses to take place. Paul for instance links to a survey that suggests the public is largely uncomfortable with the idea that their emails and telephone calls will be monitored as a matter of course (as opposed to when an individual is suspected of being involved in criminality). Yet this is going to happen because the Labour Government laundered this policy via the EU (EU Data Retention Directive), possibly because it felt it couldn’t get this through the UK Parliament (indeed there was a struggle to get it through the European Parliament).

To argue that such problems can be fixed by improving the quality of our representative democracy neglects the issue that what also needs fixing is the quality of our representatives and their ability to do harm.

@Rob (84), I think that representative government has often proved much more effective at defending the rights of minorities than most people acknowledge, and I’d argue that only when it drifts into populism (as it has done in recent years) that it becomes a problem. I’m certainly not arguing for business as usual – I think that political centralisation needs to be reversed with some urgency – thus my bafflement with the focus on liberties when the causes of illiberality in government go largely unchallenged.

There’s always the problem that – when you write one long post like this – the conclusion that you draw from reading the comments is that you should have written another long post in advance of it.

If I’d done that, it would have been a post rejecting every aspect of referendums – their legitimacy, effectiveness, fairness, their usefulness in framing good policy or their ability to show lawmakers what the public actually want. They allow the weak preferences of a majority to over-rule the strong preferences of a minority and give too much weight to cheap, ill-thought opinions. They are usually used to answer a different question to the one that has been asked. They privilege reflexive reactions over considered ones and give an extraordinary amount of power to well-heeled pressure groups and to newspaper proprietors. They are hugely open to manipulation by the people who frame the questions and they have always been an instrument of demagogic politics.

They are plainly and obviously so useless and anti-democratic on so many levels that I’m surprised that anyone advocates them (apart from a handful of right-wingers who are rather keen on empowering well-heeled pressure groups and newspaper proprietors).

I suppose that – if I had to write *another* post preceding this, it would cover a history of populism, it’s tendancy to produce reactionary governments of low quality and the degree to which states always have to abandon populism when it becomes aparent that their survival depends upon it (US ‘America First’ isolationism in the 1930s springs to mind as one example of this).

I’m prefectly prepared to accept that reactionary governments can make good policies and there are plenty examples of right-of-centre governments being produced by the European model of representative democracy.

I’m at a bit of a loss to understand why what I’m arguing for here is understood to be something that will provide a political advantage exclusively to the centre-left. In the UK, and throughout Europe, it has generally benefitted the centre-right rather their leftish rivals.

thus my bafflement with the focus on liberties when the causes of illiberality in government go largely unchallenged.

We focus on civil liberties because we believe they are important in their own right, vitally so. And yes, in some cases it is down to the government being overly populist, and we have hardly been slow to point this out, but that is not the only explanation.

“thus my bafflement with the focus on liberties when the causes of illiberality in government go largely unchallenged.”

As I said, one is something that we can actually make some ground on in the short term, the other is going to take…at the very least…decades of campaigning and action. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be doing both, but making liberties matters in itself and to democracy, and getting politicians on board with restoring liberties lost is a means towards greasing our progression to democratic reform.

If you are going to stand there and cry that people are trying to get things done before democratic reform then you’re going to be standing there, doing very little, for a long time.

And surely if overly populist government is as big a problem as Paul says (and I don’t disagree) then surely it is entirely right that people are highlighting the resulting iniquities. If you want to put pressure on governments to change the way they make policy then you need to demonstrate why they need to change.

[troll]
The writer of this post takes being a cnut to new levels. Ban me if you like, but I’m glad I got that off my chest.

91. douglas clark

Paul Evans @ 89,

When you say this:

I’m at a bit of a loss to understand why what I’m arguing for here is understood to be something that will provide a political advantage exclusively to the centre-left. In the UK, and throughout Europe, it has generally benefitted the centre-right rather their leftish rivals.

I don’t actually care who it would favour in the short term, which was your point, no?

In the longer term folk would become more responsible.

On a side note, I once smoked a joint in Switzerland and was horrified that they could have stuck me away for eighteen years.

Now look at them.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7757050.stm

I think we were that advanced before Thatcher. Now look at us, a daft wee backwater.

Compare and contrast.

I’d prefer the Swiss model to the UK model.

And it was the people that decided that.

A little faith in folk would do you good.

Yeah, Switzerland is pretty liberal, I hear at they even let women vote nowadays.

Sorry Douglas – I can see why you think that the comment you quoted looked like a response to what you said, but it wasn’t. It was a wider point on other commenters’ position.

94. douglas clark

Paul @ 97,

Well, do you want to reply to my point at 95 or not?

Just so you can get a handle on what I am trying to discuss with you, I would reiterate my first comment on this thread – to summarize – your faith in the political establishment as is, or more generally politicians, is an exact mirror image of my atheism in respect of them and the process they represent.

I would not even be engaging with you if politicians were evidence led administrators, rather than candles in the wind of the popular press. I see merit in what you had to say about auditing the motives of think tanks. On which I stand corrected, and disgusted to discover, are themselves charities.

There is an issue over pressure on politicians to react, to answer the short term media agenda with populist sentiments. In a rather Utopian sense I think that can only be corrected by replacing the media agenda by the sort of agenda we have here. Which is to appeal to an educated electorate, even educate the electorate.

The likes of Unity should be required reading in schools. Not because he is always right, but because he brings evidence to his arguments. Which ought to be the basis for all political debate.

It’s your call.

Are you arguing that Switzerland has a better system of government because it has a policy on heroin that you like, so we should adopt it wholesale for the UK?

Is that the argument you’re making? I ask, because you’ve not really made it any more than I’d make the case that you’re a murderer by showing that you have a sharp knife in your kitchen draw.

“Yeah, Switzerland is pretty liberal, I hear at they even let women vote nowadays.”

Well it was thanks to women’s votes that the Tories stayed in power so much during the 20th century. By the same logic that you oppose direct democracy, perhaps you should also oppose votes for women as it tends only to help the “centre-right”!

Did you know direct democracy helped introduce directly elected senators in the US, and minimum wage laws for the first time in several US states, and was used to introduce workday limits against the interests of the then business establishments. At the time that was what the people wanted so I think it can cut both ways. Right now, direct democracy is usually used to effect tax limits but that is probably due to the situation we find where there is a lot of waste in public services. And people tend to vote on them fairly intelligently even the in the US: http://www.iandrinstitute.org/New%20IRI%20Website%20Info/I&R%20Research%20and%20History/I&R%20Studies/Piper%20-%20I&R%20Tax%20Measures%201978%20-%201999%20IRI.pdf

And in Switzerland, it seems that direct democracy is associated with efficiency gains in public services: http://ideas.repec.org/p/ces/ceswps/_1628.html

@100 Nick: it was thanks to women’s votes that the Tories stayed in power so much during the 20th century

And Hitler.

Really? Women voted for him in greater proportion? That rather puts an arrow through my “women, just a bit more sensible on average” thesis. It turns out they are just more right wing! I suppose I should have been tipped off by my listening in on radical feminists fantasies about exterminating porn users and re-educating transsexuals.

@102,

There is very little correlation between the shape of one’s genitals and the sense of one’s politics.

Of course, not in essence. But my understanding is that for a long time women disproportionately voted Tory compared with men. I think that correlation has either disappeared or is slowly disappearing. So there was a correlation but it was probably reliant on various other factors associated with gender.

101. Shatterface

Middle-class and aspirant women are more likely to vote than working class women which tends to give the impression that women in general are more conservative.

And the same doesn’t apply to working class men/middle class men. Perhaps the labour unions were just traditionally much better at reaching the men.

103. Shatterface

Yes, I think there might once have been some kind of link between the labour movement and the Labour Party, but I’m afraid that was before my time.


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