Rethinking democracy, more fundamentally


10:05 am - April 24th 2010

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contribution by Josh Mostafa

The leaders’ debates are great spectacle: Cameron’s bemused, Bertie Wooster-like frown, Brown’s inopportune troll-like chuckling, and Clegg’s unnerving resemblance to an earnest Legoman. But they aren’t democracy.

I wouldn’t even call them political theatre; they are entertainment in place of politics, a theatrical diversion to disguise the fact that three parties’ big ideas are small, plagiarised and diluted: fiddling with the shrinking set of parameters left to the realm of politics by the demands of capital. As Alain Badiou puts it:

If we posit a definition of politics as ‘collective action, organised by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order’, then we would have to conclude that the electoral mechanism is an essentially apolitical procedure.

I was struck also by the role of the audience: a roomful of people selected as proxies for us, the voters. Every question had a certain plaintiveness to it. I don’t mean the individuals themselves were whining; but the role they were allotted in the occasion shaped their utterances into one of the following: complaint, request for assurance, challenge, protest.

Voters are infantilised by our political system: they cry for help, to be heard, and the politicians show phoney empathy and pass down solutions from on high.

People are not apathetic, they are disillusioned: they see through the charade, and they feel powerless and angry. It’s not because politicians are ‘not listening’, but because our input as citizens is limited to a choice. Like consumers, the only ‘power’ we have is to choose different brands of basically the same product.

The standard narrative we hear from the media and the political classes-isn’t it awful how apathetic people are about the elections-misses the point. For real democracy, people need power over their own lives, not just a largely symbolic drop-in-a-bucket choice of who gets to call the shots-and that’s if you’re lucky enough to live in a marginal seat.

The most radical ideological current in Cameron’s big tent, so-called ‘Red Tories’, is full of deliberately obfuscated, incoherent nonsense. A Cameron government would put more power into the hands of private capital, leave the needy at the mercy of charity, and make Britain more like Belize.

Nor am I suggesting PR as a silver bullet. The problem, as I see it, is much deeper: the extremely narrow definition of democracy, of participation in politics, as merely the election every few years of an MP. The consumer-choice model of democracy tends to encourage the same behaviour from political parties as from corporations: marketing, branding, advertising and other forms of mendacity, which in turn generate cynicism and a distaste for the political system – a deserved distaste.

Honesty and principle are punished; the scum rise to the top. The expenses scandal was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ordinary people don’t like politicians, don’t trust them, don’t respect them. Nor should they. It is no wonder the Tories are led by a PR man.

To get closer to real democracy, we need a radical rethinking of our democratic systems. Devolution of decision-making to the lowest possible level is a prerequisite of real democracy. But in a large, complex society like ours, constant plebiscites would be impractical, so we still need some kind of representation.

The problem is election itself. Perhaps surprisingly, elections were not originally a central feature of democracy.

In ancient Athens, most positions were filled by random selection, the drawing of lots, like jury duty today: if selected, it would be a citizen’s duty to take on that role for a standard length of time.

Stephen Shalom goes into some detail on possible mechanisms in his contribution to a larger discussion on participatory society at the Reimagining Society Project; it’s well worth reading.

Of course, these kind of changes would mean a complete reinvention of the idea of what it means to be a citizen: a much greater responsibility, a demand on our time. But democracy requires active citizens, and a culture that fosters such citizenry.

I can’t help but look back with admiration on a society that-for all its faults-coined the word ‘idiot’ to mean someone who does not participate. Unlike us: we leave our politics to a bunch of idiots.

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Reader comments


Yes, true ‘deliberative democracy’ models are part of the way to go. Why not have the House of Lords replaced with a representative second chamber chosen by lot, for instance.
Fishkin is the best theorist to read on this.

@1

I think the main reason is because ‘Lords’ duty would be as unpopular as jury service, except it would necessitate a several week long stays in London.
Perhaps the best thing would be to have Parliament write the laws, and then hold a trial of sorts where a Jury has to decide whether the government has made the case that a change in the law is needed, and that the bill represents the best way of doing so.

It would have the added advantage of ensuring that badly written law can’t be passed simply because the government has a large majority in the commons.

3. Earnest Ernest

Good article…I dare say.
Just thought I’d nip over and just check out how Lib Con’s New Left Alliance has managed to push itself to the fore of political commentry. All I here about across the rest of the internet, the papers and broadcast media is: “Sunny said this…”, “Sunny thinks that….”, “Yeah, but on Liberal Conspiracy it said…”

Hats off to you Mr Hundal. I never thought you’d do it, but you’ve managed to drag your little blog to the top of the political heap. The nation waits with bated breath for your next gnomic statement. I heard two old women on the bus yesterday talking about the Leaders’ Debate. “No, don’t bother with that load of nonsense…just log onto Liberal Conspiracy if you want to know what’s what” one of them said. “Oooh, yes, I do” replied the other “I love that Sunny H…he’s got a very trustworthy face…I wonder if he’s married?”

“The most radical ideological current in Cameron’s big tent, so-called ‘Red Tories’, is full of deliberately obfuscated, incoherent nonsense. ”

That’s because Philip Blond is full of deliberately obfuscated, incoherent, nonsense.

I’ve called him a Francoist or Salazarist fascist before now…..Jonathan Raban actually had it better, it’s Distributionism, cooked up by Belloc and Chesterton as part of their Mussolini love in in the 20s.

It’s simply incoherent nonsense.

For an article bashing Phillip Blond, it’s rather ironic that this vague, substance-less, handwaving, big on soundbites small on actual proposals (pace token reference to civic participation a la Greeks) piece could have been taken directly from pretty much any Blond speech or article.

The acceptability of the British Party System of government is quickly losing credibility in 21st century. It is no longer fit for purpose.What is required is a Constitutional Convention. This is the first step to democracy in Britain. Object a written codified constitution.

For a UK written constitution, what I consider, the most important aspect, the parties have to be removed from the process of selecting our representatives (including the Prime Minister) right down to local level.
The present system of party whips forcing MPs to vote along party lines distorts democracy and gives excessive power to the parties.

The Problem the UK Political System, as it presently stands. Is that it is an evolved, unwritten non codified constitution. The system has been hi-jacked by the PARTIES, unionist, nationalist and everything in between. It holds parliament as sovereign, not the people.

Even in our unwritten constitution, one vote for each eligible citizen is inferred. But under the party system, party members have more.
They vote for which candidates are put forward. They vote for who is to become Prime Minister. Some of these party members are not even eligible to vote.
The candidates’ only “competency to carry out the job description” being that they are members of that party and will carry out the policies of that party.

The only choice available, to the electorate, is which one of the parties. In recent years the choice has been BAD or WORSE.
The promised policies and legislative programme (manifesto) is not legally binding and contains no costing or time scale. It is almost never carried out.

Her Majesties Government Consists of
The Prime Minister
The political leader of the government, a post not created by act of Parliament nor mentioned in legal documents. It evolved and was manipulated, by the political parties into what we have to-day.
The modern day PM leads a political party. Is voted into the post, not by the House of Commons (the Legislature), or the electorate, but by his party colleagues and thus by a political party.
He then chooses the Executive (the Cabinet) from members of his party, not necessarily elected members of parliament. As leader of the Cabinet he wields, Executive and Legislative powers, many of which are “Royal Prerogative” and still legally vested in the Sovereign.
Hence one party has control over Her Majesties Government, both Legislative (MPs)
and Executive (Cabinet).For a term of five years.

Members of Parliament
The candidates, for the job of representing the electorate in parliament, are not vetted or selected by that electorate, but selected and put forward by the parties to represent the parties.
As the candidate are frequently completely unknown to them and have never made themselves available for questioning or consultation on the needs of the constituency they are to represent.
The choice of the electorate is therefore, which party to vote for, (based on the published manifestos)

This government is accountable to, Sovereign, Parliament, political party and LASTLEY to the ELECTORATE, supposedly by virtue of a majority of seats (MPs) elected at a general election. This majority it is claimed to be of the popular vote. In reality is of the TURNOUT.

In the 1997 General Election, the TURNOUT was 71.3% or 30.7 millions. Of a total electorate of 39.5 millions approx.

Labour party 13.5 million = 44% of turnout = 31.24% of total electorate.
Conservative party 9.6 million = 31% of turnout = 22% of total electorate.
Liberal Democrat party 5.2 million = 17% of turnout = 12% of total electorate
Others 2.45 million = 8% of turnout = 5.6% of total electorate.
“None of the above party” 8.8 million, did not vote for any candidate, therefore 17.25 million voted against having a Labour party government.

Turnout at elections in UK have been declining since 1950. Assuming total electorate roughly constant, the last Tory governments (1979-1997) were elected with similar results.
Everyone should recall it was the 13,697,923 votes in the 1979 general election which ushered Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street.

May 1979 GE
Con 43.9%: 13,697,923 votes, Lab 36.9% : 11,532,218 votes, Lib 13.8% : 4,313,804 votes.

The electoral commission should add NON OF THE ABOVE to the voting paper.

@5 Clearly I have to disagree that the gist of my post corresponds to anything the Red Tories might say. But to the charge of ‘soundbite’ I have to plead a rueful ‘guilty’. The post was originally twice as long. As Nick Clegg might say, I had to make some rather savage cuts to get it onto this blog, and ultimately size does matter – I fear I have lost some of the substance of my original post. Maybe I’ll it up on my own website in its full form.

Also, now I’m reading again, I think that it’s lost all its links in its transition to blog format. I suspect that’s my fault, as I haven’t got the

The most important links in the post were these:

LRB article trouncing the Red Tories:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n08/jonathan-raban/camerons-crank

Stephen Shalom’s article on participatory democracy:
http://www.zcommunications.org/parpolity-and-indirect-elections-by-stephen1-shalom

The Reimagining Society Project:
http://www.zcommunications.org/zparecon/reimaginingsociety.htm

The origin of the word “idiot”:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athenian_democracy

And this “Belize tax haven” one which isn’t terribly important but did make me chuckle:
http://belizetaxhaven.com/

8. Nick Cohen is a Tory

Good posts

9. Stuart White

Tim @ 4: there are grounds aplenty for criticising ‘Red Toryism’, and even more for criticising Philip Blond’s prose, but can we please put the ‘fascism’ charges or comparisons to one side? Chesterton and Belloc were indeed idiots, and Blond is too partial to them, but the intellectual roots and affinities of Red Toryism go wider than this pair, e.g., John Neville Figgis, a theologically conservative but politically radical Anglican who certainly can’t be linked with anything resembling fascism – indeed, his Churches in the Modern State (1913), anticipates the dangers of fascism and seeks to defuse them by breaking up state power.

That unfinished sentence on my comment #7 should have said: “I suspect that’s my fault, as I haven’t got the features on my new laptop quite figured out yet”. (I’m clearly having a tech-spaz day!)

The palpable public sense of frustration with politics and politicians is because the public have not quite worked out yet that politicians are really not that powerful anymore. In a world of mobile capital economics calls the shots not politics. The illusion of power but in practice nothing much changes is what leads to the frustration. Politics does retain the ultimate power through the ability to change the rules.. However, in a mobile capital world the risks of acting alone far outweigh the advantages of the status quo. Therefore, even the politicians in the most powerful states have their ambitions reined in if they want to be reelected. Rarely are the interests of different states aligned so cooperation might seem at face value rational but lobbying power and prisoner dilemma scenarios come into play.

“but can we please put the ‘fascism’ charges or comparisons to one side? ”

Why? Blond really does come across like the clerical fascists of Spain and Portugal.

Oh, Mr Mostafa, I meant to ask: if Ancient Athens is the political model you aspire to, will you be advocating a system of slavery and female disenfranchisement in order to allow the male citizen class to have enough free time to sit around in the Assembly doing politics and being free?

As Rousseau said, true liberty may indeed require slavery.

Are you biting that bullet? Or just pointing vaguely at a 100 year experiment in Ancient Greece that couldn’t possibly be replicated now because the world is profoundly different?

Oh, and have you noticed that your civic participation mantra looks rather a lot like…David Cameron’s “big society”? Which has, we are told, been dying on the doorsteps because ordinary people don’t want to spend their free time running services or going to deliberative democratic meetings. They want to spend it reading the newspaper or walking the dog or chatting to friends.

Tim Worstall,

Are you still a member of UKIP, whilst happily living in Portugal?

@Paul Sagar. I won’t bother to answer your rhetorical questions, but if you really want to know the kind of thing I’m advocating, follow the link I posted above to the participatory society website.

@Joshua Mostafa,

My questions aren’t just rehetorical, they’re important. And judging by that link, you’re just living with your head in the clouds. I know some of the academic literature around deliberative democratic models, and I know that there’s big gaps between advocating “more civic participation!!!” and having workable models of how to introduce that into a modern, post-industrial liberal democratic society.

Lots of vague fluff about Athens isn’t going to get you anywhere.

I’m saying that it’s *desirable* to have participatory democracy, and some reasons for thinking so. Fitting that into 500 words wasn’t easy. Plotting a path between here and there is a different, and much bigger, topic, and unsuitable for a blog post.

“Are you still a member of UKIP, whilst happily living in Portugal?”

Yes, we’ve been through this endlessly here before. UKIP is against a specific political structure, the European Union. Not against “Europe”, the countries, people, languages, cuisine, wines or weather.

Yes, it is possible for me to live here without asking permission as part of the EU deal. But so would it be if I were Swiss, Norwegian (there’s a Weedgie lives down the road) Icelandic….as part of EEA. You can also check out the Port labels next time you visit the offie to see that many English people lived in Portugal centuries before the EU was thought of.

I’ve also lived in Russia (7 years,) and don’t feel the need to join a political party protesting about political union with Russia because no one is stupid enough to be proposing such. Nor did my 6 years in the US lead me to think that the UK should be in “ever closer union” with that country. Or not, as the case may be.

As you can tell from the number of years I’ve lived outside the UK I’m hardly a “Little Englander”. Nor a xenophobe.

In my business life I have customers and suppliers in Russia, Kazakhstan, Mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, the US, UK, Germany, Austria…..

It really is simply the political strucuture, the European Union, that I’m against. I think the world would be a better place if it didn’t exist and most certainly the UK would be better off out of it.

Capisce?

Good article.

“People are not apathetic, they are disillusioned: they see through the charade, and they feel powerless and angry. It’s not because politicians are ‘not listening’, but because our input as citizens is limited to a choice. Like consumers, the only ‘power’ we have is to choose different brands of basically the same product.”

Indeed, and we have no power to develop those products. We are forced to choose between very similar products on the basis of advertising jingles that seek to avoid the key issues and to exclude the possibility that potentially there are other products. Developing new products however depends on a deliberative democracy that looks at issues in depth, and that encourages a debate that isn’t constrained by taboos and that develops beyond sound bites. In the Labour Party it appears to be an article of faith that the era when party meetings did have long debates on issues was “the bad old days”. It is ironic that voters are more educated than ever before but are presented with an infantile political debate.

I don’t think that there is one answer to that problem. Breaking the power of the tabloid press, breaking the power of the whips in parliament over voting and membership of select committees woudl be a good start.

Tim Worstall,

Hmm…

Capisce?

More defensive than I expected.

It is the UKIP bit of the equation I don’t understand. You seem to be a bit of an ex-pat, what with all that time in Russia and Portugal. And your apparently international business. Fair does to you about the EU, but you do realise that you can’t make a difference on what UK residents think about that if you are swanning around in Portugal? Least I hope not.

Me?

I’m cool with folk living in foreign parts. I’m not so cool with your parties idiotic policies. Or your hypocrisy. Which you are too blind to see, apparently.

And no, I don’t want you back……

“but you do realise that you can’t make a difference on what UK residents think about that if you are swanning around in Portugal?”

I did that last year. Came back and worked for the party for a year running the press office leading up to the euro elections.

Might come back and do more but thre’s also making a living to be done unfortunately….

There is an interesting article about Blond’s book on Open Democracy.

http://www.opendemocracy.net/michael-merrick/red-tory-liberalism-and-loss-of-liberty

I agree with Tim Worstall that there are some overtones of Salazar and Franco. As the review says ” for Blond, it is liberalism that is the chief enemy, for liberalism erodes liberty.”

Tim Worstall,

Well, at the very least you are a UKIP buff?

Dunno how swanning about on planet Portugal squares with your politics. Still, that’s for you to defend, or explain or summat.

Advice on the expected futures on scandium would be more interesting, perhaps 🙂

Guano

You’re right, there’s no single answer; but it’s the money that’s rotting the system. Richard W is right – national governments are constrained by the flow of money, which can punish countries when they elect governments that enact policies that restrict possibilites for exploitation of workers and natural resources.

George Bernard Shaw summed it beautifully:

Our solution of the economic problem is the Capitalist system, which achieves miracles in production, but fails so ludicrously and disastrously to distribute its products rationally, or to produce in the order of social need, that it is always complaining of being paralysed by its “overproduction” of things of which millions of us stand in desperate want. Our solution of the political problem is Votes for Everybody and Every Authority Elected by Vote, an expedient originally devised to prevent rulers from tyrannising by the very effectual method of preventing them from doing anything, and thus leaving everything to irresponsible private enterprise. But as private enterprise will do nothing that is not profitable to its little self, and the very existence of civilisation now depends on the swift and unhampered public execution of enterprises that supersede private enterprise and are not merely profitable but vitally necessary to the whole community, this purely inhibitive check on tyranny has become a stranglehold on genuine democracy.

Still spot on today. Except the stakes are higher: for “existence of civilisation” read “survival of the species”…

25. Matt Munro

“Voters are infantilised by our political system”

Is it our political system or our learned dependence (for many) on big state as the solution to all problems ? some were even blaming the government for “not doing anything” about the volcanic ash cloud this week

I think we should have meta democracy. All significant legislation is voted on by the entire country – internet makes that possible

@24

All significant legislation is voted on by the entire country – internet makes that possible

Except that only 64% of the country has internet access. So 36% of the population would be disenfranchised.

“Dunno how swanning about on planet Portugal squares with your politics”

Well, because it’s possible to have a political view without striving sinew night and day to bring your desired end into being?

You know, live where you want to, look after the pets, keep the wife happy, earn a living and yet still have a political view?

“Advice on the expected futures on scandium”

Well, if you could have a quick look behind your sofa? Globally we’re short about 10 tonnes this year, the price has just quadrupled and I’d happily pay £1,200 a kilo for any that might be down behind the cushions?

My mooted new factory won’t be working until the autumn so there’s an opportunity if you find any.

🙂

28. Matt Munro

Still more than vote in General (or any other sort of) elections. Lots of places provide public internet access, or could be made to.
I was expecting some objections – the main one being the complexity and time it would take, and who decides what “significant legislation” is, given that the public probably wouln’t be interested in the third reading of some obscure finance/administrative bill

@27

You know the objections already, no-one else needs to mention ’em 😉

30. alex sloan

Matt Munro

“I think we should have meta democracy. All significant legislation is voted on by the entire country – internet makes that possible”

This is far worse than first past the post, run by the parties.
Look at the farce of opinion polls run on the internet. Who knows, who said what, where they Torness or Timbuctoo and where will they vote from next.

The problem with national referenda is that you can end up with contradictory and impossible sets of decisions. A majority of people would vote for getting public finances out of the red, for instance; but if you couldn’t get a majority for raising taxes or cutting services (or a combination of the two) then the decision is meaningless.

As I said in my original post, you do need representation or delegation; but right now, our system provides disproportionate representation to various different interests of business and finance, only incidentally and marginally to the country as a whole. A big part of this has to be equality (or lack of it). The Scandinavian countries, for instance, are structurally similar to ours – they’re liberal democracies like us – but the consensus there is a highly redistributive tax system and excellent public services. The centre-right party there is to the left of New Labour on economic issues. That situation could not be obtained without relatively low levels of inequality between social classes.

@31 Joshua

“The Scandinavian countries, […….]. That situation could not be obtained without relatively low levels of inequality between social classes.

Ah, there’s the rub eh? I think a hell of a lot of people in the UK would be happy with the Scaninavian model. I’m not simplistic enough to think the UK is just the same, but the whole problem as I see it both with our political system over the past 50 years, and the current Red Tory vs. New Labour vs. LD’s debate, is that levels of inequality haven’t been dealt with.

The true failure of the progressive Left in this country is that it hasn’t brought about greater equality, because it was co-opted by the structures of the existing system, and was never truly radical.

For the first time in generations there is a prospect of shattering the corrupt, fusty 19th century consensus that has held this country back for so long. Red Toryism and pious hopes of increased civic participation aren’ the answer.

Few people actually think Nick Clegg is the new messiah, but if he and his party can help bring the rotten edifice down around the ears of the politically bankrupt Lords of Misrule currently in power, we should be helping him, not carping from the sidelines. Things aren’t going to change overnight, but hopefully we can see a new dawn ahead.

“The Scandinavian countries, for instance, are structurally similar to ours – they’re liberal democracies like us – but the consensus there is a highly redistributive tax system and excellent public services. The centre-right party there is to the left of New Labour on economic issues. That situation could not be obtained without relatively low levels of inequality between social classes.”

Umm, no, actually, no.

Let’s take Sweden. The tax system is *less* redistributive than ours. It’s also less progressive. They have a much higher VAT than us and they also have lower capital and corporate taxes than we do.

Their *spending* system, that is much more progressive than ours. They also raise more in tax as a percentage of the economy than we do which is why they can make so many redistributive payments.

Before the effects of the benefit system Sweden is not notably more equal than us. The Gini is about .48 (roughly the same as the US) to our .51 or so.

And you’re very wrong about left and right in terms of economic issues. The Swedish system is, on economic matters, very much straight neo-classical/neo-liberal.

http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2007/06/doing-it-by-the.html

They focus on growing the economy as much as possible….then redistributing the proceeds. Not on using the tax system itself as a means of equalising the society.

34. Matt Munro

I’m not sure how anyone can call a country that pacticed Eugenics as recently as the 1970s “a liberal democracy”, and Tim Worstall is right, they use the tax system to fund public services which are beneficial to the *whole* populance (it is of course easier to do this if society is uniform in the first place), rather than using tax policy to try and equalise incomes, and spending policy to target the “disadvantaged group” de Jour.
This is the bit the left don’t get, people will pay higher tax for public services *if* their benefits are evenly distributed.

I didn’t realise that, Tim – very interesting. Surely though comparison “before the effects of the benefit system” is irrelevant, since the benefit system itself reduces inequality of outcome?

I stand by my comment that the Swedish government, centre-right in Swedish terms, is explicitly more committed to equality than New Labour with its love of meritocracy. From the government website:

“The objective of welfare policy is to reduce the gaps between different social groups while giving people security, the opportunity to develop and an acceptable economic standard.” – http://www.sweden.gov.se/sb/d/2061/a/122937

All the talk of abandoning FPTP in favour of PR begs the question:
Are people happy with BNP representation in the House of Commons?
I’m not. FPTP may not be ideal but it is filters out fringe loonies.

“Surely though comparison “before the effects of the benefit system” is irrelevant, since the benefit system itself reduces inequality of outcome? ”

Well, as Mr. Venning (my old English teacher) said, the correct answer to any question that begins with “surely” is “no”.

I’ve upbraided Polly before now on this very point. She’s claimed that the reason Sweden doesn’t need (as indeed it doesn’t have) such things a a minimum wage or inheritance tax or any of the other things I like about the place is that it’s a naturally more egalitarian society. That there’s less inequality before all the things that people do to reduce inequality.

Which, as the actual numbers show, isn’t true.

The second reason it’s important to note the distinction is that we should note the method they use to reduce inequality of outcome. They *don’t* do it by taxing the rich (there are no wealth taxes), they don’t do it by taxing returns to capital (capital taxation is low by our standards) and they don’t do it by taxing companies heavily.

What they do is levy a huge VAT to raise pots and pots of money that can then be spent. Yes, a VAT is regressive but that is the way to raise the money needed to run a large welfare state without entirely crippling economic growth.

In terms of the economics of their taxation Sweden is a very “liberal”, as in classically liberal, place.

Fun fact for you. That actual living standards (correcting for different prices, after tax and after benefits) of the bottom 10% in Sweden are the same as (within 1% of total income) as the bottom 10% of the US.

The level of inequality may be different…..but not the absolute living standards.

38. Nick Cohen is a Tory

All the talk of abandoning FPTP in favour of PR begs the question:
Are people happy with BNP representation in the House of Commons?
I’m not. FPTP may not be ideal but it is filters out fringe loonies.

So those loonies will either create problems on the streets because they feel outside the political system or they infect other parties.
Look at the Tory migration watch, Anthony Browne and their supporters, major immigration principles are no different. Hence the support of the BNP to Browne’s policy exchange work.
Or militant’s infiltration into the Labour party.
I would rather see them in parliament and if they represent a large number of people, then they have a right to representation

39. Nick Cohen is a Tory

Also democracy should not be 3 horse race who all the participants come from the same stable

@36 Kojak

If the parties are legal, that would probably be the result – but you can’t have your cake and eat it. The BNP may be a nasty bunch, but unless you are going to ban the party altogether, then there is an argument that it’s better to have the nutters like the BNP where you can keep an eye on them. Of course some PR systems have a minimum support hurdle to avoid having “micro-parties”. from memory the Germans used to have a minimum 5% hurdle, tho I think that may have been lowered in more recent times.

41. Nick Cohen is a Tory

Also every time the policies and the leaders of the BNPare examined in the arena of public debate, question time and debates, they lose support. They gain support when they become the forbidden fruit for the working classes.

Tim Worstall: interesting info, thanks. I will read up on it. I have to say, from my personal experience of the Scandinavian countries, I would be *very* surprised to learn that inequality is no less there than in the UK.

Galen10: I can’t agree. I heard the same arguments in 97, that people who rejected the Labour Party after their repudiation of the aspiration to common ownership of the means of production were living in a fantasy land, making the perfect the enemy of the good, etc., now we had the chance to turn the page on Thatcherism.

On the contrary, it was the willingness of the Labour Party – and the unions, for the most part – to shut up and knuckle down to a regime of spin, triangulation and privatisation of public services, that entrenched the damage done by Thatcher. My argument is not that we should not vote for the least-worst option; it’s that we should not kid ourselves that there is anything radical about Clegg, or that we should leave our politics in the hands of politicians.

“I would be *very* surprised to learn that inequality is no less there than in the UK.”

Note v. carefully what I said. Pre tax and pre benefit inequality is about the same. Post tax and post benefit is much smaller. But they do this mostly through benefits, not the tax system.

@42 Joshua

I agree with the first part of your last para: that kind of proves my point doesn’t it? The Labour movement, whether Blair’s spin obsessed wonks, or the old Labour class warriors who did so much to help bring about the conditions which enabled ghastly Thatcherite regime, were part of the problem, not part of the solution.

My point is not that Clegg, or a Lab/LD (or LD/Lab?) coalition is the least worst option. I think that by breaking the 2 party duopoly, and introducing PR, we can at least begin to see the beginnings of a “new” democracy. Clegg and the LD’s may not be THAT radical, but they are a hell of a lot better than either of the alternatives.

As for not leaving politics in the hands of politicians…. well, increasing involvement is one thing, but Red Toryism or a “Reimagined Society” seem equally unlikely (and to be frank equally unpalateable) alternatives. We need better politicians, yes. We need a reformed system, yes. What we don’t need is Cameron’s self help utopia or a classical Athenian based direct democracy.

Ending the two-party duopoly would be good; PR would be good; agreed. But not good enough, in my book.

Participation in decision-making is not a pipe dream. In the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, the community decides on the budget for the city:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Participatory_budgeting#Implementation_in_Porto_Alegre.2C_Brazil

(The Athenian reference was just to show that the parliamentary system is not the be-all and end-all. This was clearer in the original version of the post. I think the lesson here – for myself – is that I should not agree to edit down beyond the point at which essential content begins to be lost…)

Can you explain why you find the idea of people deciding on public policy, how to use public money, etc “unpalatable”? How is control by an elite, albeit elected, more palatable?

I realise the Athenian reference wasn’t meant literally. It’s not that I don’t see value in participative systems or aspects of more “direct” democracy: perhaps I’m just being too cynical and jaded about our political system “as is” to see the potential of other models?

I suppose I’m trying to say, I’m open to persuasion about the merits 😉 .. I’m just not sure how well systems like this would work in practice? I take your point about elected elites having their bad points too…. but I’ve seen some of the types who get involved in local issues and I’m not sure I’m happy with some of them being allowed out alone, never mind deciding on the city budget!

Can you explain why you find the idea of people deciding on public policy, how to use public money, etc “unpalatable”? How is control by an elite, albeit elected, more palatable?

Well, it depends doesn’t it?

It wasn’t so long ago that blacks, gays and other minority groups were oppressed in our society just because they were black, gay, or some other minority group. It was even more recently that polls suggested people were quite willing to support long periods or even indefinite detention without charge so long as a politician had pointed at someone and called him a terrorist. Even today there are too many people satisfied to interfere with the freedom of others For Our Own Good. If power is to be returned to the people, we need some means of mitigating the risk of adverse consequences.

The OP seems rather unbalanced; too much generalisation and criticism. Not all politicians are such dreadful creatures as described – there is a wealth of experience in Parliament.

Galen10 re comment 40:

“If the parties are legal, that would probably be the result – but you can’t have your cake and eat it. The BNP may be a nasty bunch, but unless you are going to ban the party altogether, then there is an argument that it’s better to have the nutters like the BNP where you can keep an eye on them.”

That’s why I prefer FPTP rather than PR – definately not banning anyone, just keeping an eye on them outside parliament not in the House of Commons.

Or we could look back and say “2010 ……. wasn’t that the year we let the BNP become a mainstream political party?”

@Galen10. Good point. There would need to be a cultural, not just structural shift (although the latter might encourage the former). If it’s not just going to be the usual suspects of the local community hogging all the decisions, there needs to be much greater inclusivity. The responsibility of the citizen would need to be reformulated so that people in general have a duty to participate. I am using that old-fashioned word “duty” intentionally – I don’t think the opprobrium surrounding now it (smacking of hierarchies and obedience) would be valid in a society in which the people govern themselves.

@ukliberty. Tyranny of the majority? I believe that’s a separate issue. Human rights and civil liberties should be enshrined in a written constitution with a separation of powers in which people could appeal to courts and laws could be struck down if they infringe on constitutional rights. We need this anyway, regardless – look at New Labour’s infringements on civil liberties.

As to politicians. There’s plenty of experience, yes. But how many decent people – on the front benches? Robin Cook was a good person; but he had to resign. You don’t get to the top of the tree without selling your principles down the river.

Joshua,

@ukliberty. Tyranny of the majority? I believe that’s a separate issue.

To me it seems integral to the debate, but YMMV. But I wasn’t just talking about the tyranny of the majority – that is but one risk of not having adequate checks against incompetent decision-making.

As to politicians. There’s plenty of experience, yes. But how many decent people – on the front benches? Robin Cook was a good person; but he had to resign. You don’t get to the top of the tree without selling your principles down the river.

What I’m trying to get at is that politicians aren’t all the same. If you listen to or read some of the discussions, particularly in committee where they take outside evidence… well, there is on occasion some serious thinking going on, they aren’t all thick or unreasonable, there is experience, there is greater access to evidence and expert opinion than the average member of the public has, and I think you ignore that at your peril.

Yes, it is a downside of our current system that political expediency often trumps what is right or what is based on evidence. But under a system of public participatory democracy we would see a larger number of incompetents directly involved in decision-making (after all, half the population is of below average intelligence). It is not enough in itself that the public would be more involved – the burden is on the proponent of a new system to describe how we would be better off under it.

ukliberty re: comment 50,

“Yes, it is a downside of our current system that political expediency often trumps what is right or what is based on evidence. But under a system of public participatory democracy we would see a larger number of incompetents directly involved in decision-making (after all, half the population is of below average intelligence). It is not enough in itself that the public would be more involved – the burden is on the proponent of a new system to describe how we would be better off under it.”

Sounds remarkably similar to the argument supporting grammar schools as opposed to comprehensive education?

Kojak @51, I’m not aware of the argument supporting grammar schools as opposed to comprehensive education.


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