Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour

David Miliband’s playing his cards very shrewdly, isn’t he?

Based on his past behaviour, and my accumulated sense that he’s a bit of a coward, I’d have guessed up to last week that he’d probably follow a “wait until the premiership falls into my lap” kind of strategy, and that that would probably fail, so full credit to him for trying something different. It certainly makes the prospect of a Milburn / Clarke / Byers comeback a bit more remote, and that can only be a good thing. And, my goodness, he couldn’t have scripted the last 48 hours or so any better than they’ve turned out for him.

As I’ve more or less indicated before, although various mostly-Labour-supporting bloggers like to harrumph around these times about how people inside and outside the party should shut up, stop doing “Kremlinology”, focus on the issues, etc., these periods when parties are in meltdown over leadership crises are just about my favourite chunks of political time, and I’m going to enjoy this one to the full.

One other observation to those who deplore the current situation. One of the reasons quite so much happens in smoke-filled rooms, unattributable briefings, behind-the-scenes shenanigans these days is that the Party rules make it quite so difficult to mount a formal leadership challenge to an incumbent Prime Minister. When the leadership is obviously hopeless, therefore, backstairs channels are often the only ones available. I’ve just been re-reading Machiavelli’s Discourses, and one of the points he makes very early on is that you want your political institutions to be such that formal public challenges to authority are very easy, precisely in order to discourage what he calls calunnia, “calumnies”, or doing everything in semi-private unattributable ways through insinuation and rumour. Both parties (sorry Lib Dems, you still don’t count) have tightened up their rules over the last fifteen years or so, in order to make challenges to the leadership harder, but the not-especially-unpredictable result of all of this is that we’re likely to get more rather than fewer episodes like Duncan Smith (2003), Blair (2006-7) and Brown (2008) over time than we would otherwise, and it’s at these moments that party democracy gets sidelined in favour of the demi-semi-public machinations of political elites.

89 Comments


  1. They’ve also tightened up their rules with the encouragement of media Westminster correspondents because the general view of media Westminster correspondents is that the leadership should be in the gift of media Westminster correspondents.

    Quote | Posted 31 July, 2008, 10:33 am

  2. If Brown gets replaced by Milliband, and then Cameron replaces him, that’ll be four PMs in four years. I was going to ask if that would be a record, but Wikipedia tells me that the 1865-1869 provided FIVE PMs.

    And of course neither Milliband or Cameron are PM yet, so I’ve rather jumped the gun.

    Quote | Posted 31 July, 2008, 11:14 am

  3. As ever, modern Britain’s got nothing on ancient Rome:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_of_the_Four_Emperors

    Quote | Posted 31 July, 2008, 11:18 am

  4. You want to be careful with that stuff. You start reading history and you start seeing parallels everywhere. I’m in the middle of Salway’s History of Roman Britain right now as it happens….

    Quote | Posted 31 July, 2008, 11:20 am

  5. Btw, a rather strange article about Milliband by Anne Penketh in the Independent today.

    “A former African diplomat commented that, unlike his predecessors, the Foreign Secretary lacked “gravitas and star quality”.

    Margaret Beckett? Jack Straw?

    Quote | Posted 31 July, 2008, 11:27 am

  6. Tony Blair? Its just possible that the wires got crossed somewhere, or maybe they think in Africa that Blair was the foreign secretary – he went gallivanting around the world enough times.

    Quote | Posted 31 July, 2008, 3:05 pm

  7. I wondered about that, too. Also with his wretched stuff about Africa as a sore on the conscience of the world, or whatever it was he used to say. But does “African diplomat” mean a diplomat working for an African country, or an FCO chappie (or chappette) working in an Embassy in an African country?

    Quote | Posted 31 July, 2008, 3:18 pm

  8. Have you seen (and can you understand) the Harry’s Place denunciation of Bob Marshall-Andrews? Apart from anything else, I think Neil D has parsed BM-A wrongly, and it’s Brown he’s saying has a “probably undeserved reputation for being indecisive”.

    Was Harry’s Place always anti-Brown or is this one of those eerie volte-faces which characterised the machinations of the Party in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’?

    Personally, I’d be quite happy if Miliband ended up as a stalking horse for Alan Johnson. The minister, naturally. Not the other one.

    Quote | Posted 1 August, 2008, 1:57 pm

  9. You’re right about the wrong parsing. It should be: ““And if he [Brown] doesn’t [sack Miliband], the danger is that he will compound a probably undeserved reputation for being indecisive.”

    My guess is that HP doesn’t like BM-A because he’s (i) antiwar (ii) leftwing and (iii) funny, three things they often have a problem with.

    I’ve no idea about the history of that site with Brown, but on the whole Blairites have always been against Brown, haven’t they, since about, well, Nineteen Ninety-Four? But *everyone* dislikes Brown these days, though, so HP’s opposition isn’t especially remarkable.

    Quote | Posted 1 August, 2008, 2:08 pm

  10. I’d agree with you that this is all good fun to watch at the moment. However, when you say “… various mostly-Labour-supporting bloggers like to harrumph around these times about how people inside and outside the party should shut up, stop doing “Kremlinology”, focus on the issues, etc., “, I felt my ears burning, and I’d say it’s a bit more complicated than all of that.

    Am I right in understanding the inference that – as long as a Labour government is in office, then social democrats will whine about how awful the Westminster press pack is, and that we’ll go quiet once the Tories are in and they are back on the receiving end of all of this?

    If that’s the case, there is another explanation: It’s that there is a strain of leftish social democrat that is methodologically democratic. That the promotion of a high standard of *representative* democracy – one in which the press play a different role to the one they are currently playing, and one that sees a shift away from obsessions of ‘court’ in public discussion as being important in changing politics.

    It’s the view that good democracy itself results in better progressive policies than the lower-grade Bennite notion of democracy (single issues, mandated politicians) that nevertheless appears to make all of the right noises. (Oddly, the left used to understand this point a lot better than it does these days).

    I can’t speak for HP, but personally, I detest BM-A more than almost any politician I can think of because he’s a cynic. These tossers are like self-styled ‘left-liberals’ – they fold under questioning (see David Davis’s recent stunt and the supporters that it attracted).

    A detestation of cynicism is all of a peice with that harrumphing about kremlinology.

    Quote | Posted 3 August, 2008, 1:28 am

  11. Oh, sure, democratic politics is vastly preferable to court politics. But what we’ve got – thanks in no small part to too many years of New Labour – is court politics, and while we might wish it were otherwise, we ought to start from where we are.

    I’ve known BM-A for over a quarter of a century, and like him enormously. So I doubt we’re going to agree on anything about him. And I’m not quite sure I know what you mean when you call him a cynic, or why being a cynic is supposed to be such a uniquely detestable feature in a politician.

    Quote | Posted 3 August, 2008, 11:57 am

  12. I’d be surprised if you really think that New Labour were the cause of this rather than a response to it, but … well, suit yourself.

    I’ve met B-MA a fair few times as well, and he struck me as a supercillious posh dilettante, so – yes – we probably won’t agree on this.

    I can offer you a distressingly long answer on the cynic question here:

    http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2008/07/political-axis-few-alternatives.html

    Or a shorter one: This cynicism is antithetical to the practice of representative democracy. As a sideshow, it’s moderately useful in small doses, but nothing more than that. We seem to have a media that fetishise these people – they are good copy I suppose, and they are (in BM-A’s case I hope we can at least agree on this) not the people that you would call in a crisis. Or even in a situation where you needed a decision made.

    They’re always the objective allies of reactionaries. David Davis called them last month and they all came running. You could have listed them before they answered. Benn, B-MA, Geldof and so on. They always will.

    Quote | Posted 3 August, 2008, 12:18 pm

  13. Re-reading that, it comes off more snarky than intended. The B-MA bit probably comes under the ‘abusing hospitality’ heading, for which apologies.

    Quote | Posted 3 August, 2008, 1:49 pm

  14. “Objective” is good.

    Quote | Posted 4 August, 2008, 9:04 am

  15. What can “objective ally” possibly mean?

    Paulie, idealism and cynicism are not the same thing. They may for the purposes of your argument have similarities, but that’s not the same thing at all.

    Also, your post is actually arguing against a particular type of cynicism rather than cynicism per se *, one which is mocking of everything. Well yes, sort of, Hislop annoys me also (though Brigstock bores me). Thing is these people are usually successful because the public like them. They are entertainers. You’re sort of arguing that people should be more serious and not like these people, which is probably not going to get you very far and is in itself a kind of idealism.

    I really don’t see the connection betwee referrendums and idealism/cynicism. Not sure what you’re getting at there.

    and this is just odd:
    Making things difficult for elected politicians without doing the same to their rivals is the same as setting yourself up in direct opposition to representative democracy.
    The thing about the opposition is that they don’t actually do very much, not governing the country and all – makes for less news. But I don’t know if you’ve seen Have I got News for You, but they do mock the Tories as well.

    (*) I was cynical about Tony Blair before he won office, and by Jove I was right to be.

    Quote | Posted 4 August, 2008, 12:06 pm

  16. I’m finding Paulie’s view a bit hard to construe, too.

    Let’s try this. He might be saying that there’s a spectrum that runs from “idealism” (let’s gloss this as people who focus too much on abstract principles in politics, and not enough on sordid realities, especially as they relate to narrow self-interest) to “cynicism” (let’s gloss this as vice versa), and he’s saying he thinks both “idealists” and “cynics” really have a lot in common with each other — so the kind of people who will beat the drum against, say, 42 days’ detention on principle are really quite similar to the kind of people who will turn up on Have I Got News For You and crack jokes about how awful the government is. And he might further be suggesting that the politicians who look and sound the most like the idealists tend in practice to be the cynics — and Tony Blair might be thought a prime example of this (though he’s not an example that I think Paulie would be likely to use, though I might be wrong about this, and – actually – Blair is still really difficult to interpret, or, at least, I think so).

    If this is the kind of thing that he’s saying, then I sort of understand it, and sort of agree with it: a sensible approach to politics doesn’t overestimate the role of abstract principle (turning politics into a certain kind of applied moral philosophy) and it doesn’t reduce everything to calculations of material self-interest (turning politics into a certain kind of applied economics).

    But I don’t think that’s all that he’s saying — and this is where I get confused (which in turn suggests that I might be confused as to what he’s been saying so far). Based on what I’ve just said, we’d probably think that good politics is about getting the balance right (i.e. plonking ourselves somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, at the Aristotelian mean, avoiding the vice of economistic deficiency and the vice of moralistic excess, or however we’d want to describe it). But I don’t think Paulie is suggesting this — he seems to be suggesting that there’s a completely different approach to politics altogether which bypasses the idealism/cynicism opposition, which is somehow bound up with ideas about “representative democracy” and a vision of politicians deliberating over the common good (“general will”), and it’s connected to the political claim he seems to want to make about how we should trust politicians a bit more than we do and agree that they (or, at least, the ones Paulie likes) are good people doing a difficult job in unpropitious circumstances, and so on, and this is the bit I’m finding unclear.

    Quote | Posted 4 August, 2008, 1:21 pm

  17. Oh, and just an addendum: when it comes to “representative democracy”, I don’t really see why people like Bob are such a threat. I can’t find a copy now, but years ago he wrote a funny newspaper column about how he thought it was an MP’s job to be doing stuff at Westminster, in and around the House, but that the Labour Party wanted him to be spending far too much of his time banging on doors telling his constituents how marvellous the Labour Government was.

    Now of these two activities, the first one is much closer to what’s generally understood as “representative democracy” than the second – the MP represents the constituents in parliament, rather than the MP lobbying those same constituents on behalf of the government – but here we’ve got an alternative account here in which whatever Bob is doing, it’s somehow antithetical to whatever representative democracy is supposed to be, and I’m still confused about that.

    If the point is just that the skills required in government and the skills required to be good on Have I Got News For You are different ones, then I agree. (Though the only person who seems confused about this is Anthony Browne, who once claimed that it was the politically correct alternative comedians who swept to power in 1997, rather than the Labour Party). But I think something else is being claimed, and, again, I don’t quite see the shape of the argument.

    Quote | Posted 4 August, 2008, 1:47 pm

  18. I think that what’s needed here is a Paulie/English glossary. Paulie’s stock in trade is having a very detailed political philosophy, explaining it very badly indeed and then acting like it’s other people’s fault that they don’t understand him. So …

    “Progressive policies” = somewhere between Third Way and corporation socialism. Uplifting the feckless masses with various degrees of compulsion, education and the dole, until they approximate a vision of the “decent, honest working class” out of “The Road to Wigan Pier” by way of Soviet Realism.

    “Representative democracy” = Elected technocracy. The practice of allowing the population out to vote Labour once every five years then demanding that they shut the hell up in the interim so that politicians can get on with the difficult business of government. Quite why we ought to bother with the elections, when the Parliamentary Labour Party (and/or local councils) know what’s best so much better than we do, I never understood.

    “Political involvement” = participation in the form of paying the political levy and supporting the soft-right candidate in Labour Party leadership elections. Plus, going along to a “town hall” consultation meeting, not complaining that the decision’s already been taken and voting in favour of the local government.

    “Cynicism”, “Negativism”, “Idealism” = something akin to the ordinary English definition of “political involvement”. You’re a cynic if you think that the government is self-dealing, a negativist if you think it’s making a mistake and an idealist if you don’t agree with the policy. This exhausts the spectrum of possible criticism of a sitting Labour government, which is therefore out of the question.

    “Media” = in many ways the most important institution in politics, it affects what people believe in a way in which the government never can. For this reason, it must be subject to the strictest standards, far more so than, say, declaring war on Iraq. The only legitimate role for the media is in making long, dull rambling TV programmes and articles, preferably produced by Lord Birt and narrated by Lord Jay, explaining how complicated everything is but that the Labour Party manifesto is probably as good as we’re going to get. Any departure from this path risks the government being paralysed, unable to govern and compelled to spend all of its time frantically tacking with the focus groups and employing Alastair Campbell figures.

    “Hippy” = Tony Benn

    “Punk” = Michael Gove.

    Quote | Posted 4 August, 2008, 8:09 pm

  19. Cian. Cynicism and idealism *are* the same thing. I must admit that I didn’t always think so. But one thing I’ve always been sure of is that the propensity for cynicism is directly correlated with the propensity for idealism. One proceeds from the other precedes it. This is not an original observation – haven’t you come across it before?

    There is also nothing at all complicated about this line:

    “Making things difficult for elected politicians without doing the same to their rivals is the same as setting yourself up in direct opposition to representative democracy.”

    Politicians have rivals. Hobble politicians and not their rivals and you know the result. Why is that difficult to get?

    Chris: “Blair is still really difficult to interpret.” Agreed. I was wondering why you were using him to illustrate anything for just that reason. I’m also baffled as to why you think I’m a Blairite of any kind (I’m not). One thing that has always been fairly obvious is that Blair may have been many things, but an idealist was never one of them. I used to wonder if people who used to refer to him as ‘Bambi’ were talking about the same man.

    If you take this line (I’ve removed the bits that I disagree with)….

    “…completely different approach to politics altogether …. which is … bound up with ideas about “representative democracy” and a vision of politicians deliberating over the common good (”general will”), and it’s connected to the political claim he seems to want to make about how we should trust politicians a bit more than we do and agree that they … are good people doing a difficult job in unpropitious circumstances,

    … that is what I’m arguing. Can’t see why you need scare-quotes though. I’d qualify it by saying that the term ‘good people’ is relative. They are at least as good as the other people that rival them for power – it’s just that too many people give those rivals something of a free-ride while not doing so for politicians.

    On B-MA and doorknocking v Annies Bar (which is what he meant) Burke was quite good on the role of representatives: “Close communion” or something like that from memory. MPs should spend more time in their constituencies in closer contact with the public. Not hectoring them with New Labour flipcharts though – more a sort of benign eavesdropping upon their wisdom.

    Dsquared: This isn’t the first time you’ve come up with a completely imaginary version of what my views are and then gone off on one like this, but there seems to be an audience that likes it, so, well done!

    Really, a fairly classical argument for representative democracy isn’t at all complicated. I don’t know why any of you imagine that it is?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 12:24 am

  20. Really, a fairly classical argument for representative democracy isn’t at all complicated. I don’t know why any of you imagine that it is?

    given that literally nobody understands you, Paulie, and one of the people who doesn’t is actually the Isaiah Berlin Research Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Oxford, do you not think the fault might be on your side?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 6:34 am

  21. Here’s the bit of Burke you want (I think), from the Speech to the Electors of Bristol (it’s the famous bit):

    *** Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. ***

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 6:52 am

  22. “A fairly classical argument for representative democracy isn’t at all complicated…”

    Oh, I get the argument for representative democracy. I don’t see what it has to do with cynicism and idealism, and how these two things (which are generally thought to be different) are in fact the same.

    So, again, we could put things this way: a Burkean MP is one who judges freely according to what s/he takes the common interest to be (whether of the constituents or of the national population as a whole – I doubt this matters here).

    But there are two kinds of MPs who fail to do this. One is a cynic. A cynic doesn’t think there’s such a thing as the common interest, and so makes his or her judgments in accordance either with his or her own private interest, or (which may be the same thing) in accordance with what he or she takes the private interests of a significant subset of the voting population (perhaps in order to curry favour with them, come the next election).

    An idealist is, what? An idealist might be someone who is committed to abstract moral goals, and doesn’t reflect enough on whether their pursuit really is in the common interest of his or her constituents. (Is that more or less what you think an idealist is? I thought Blair might be an idealist because of the number of speeches he made in which he banged on about his ideals, and how important they were to him, but that’s not it, apparently.)

    If that’s right, then I think I just need help with two things. First, what’s the sense in which cynicism and idealism are the same? Again, there are various ways in which this might be true, but I’m not sure which one you think is the right way of putting it. Is this an argument about how you think people who are prone to one are also prone to the other (so we get schizophrenic politicians who are one moment sounding off about high moral principle and the next selling out to the highest bidder), or is this an argument that goes further, and that says that I’ve been wrong to gloss cynicism and idealism in these various different ways, because you think ordinary language is wrong and these are, in fact, the same thing after all?

    Secondly, why do you think Bob Marshall-Andrews fails as a Burkean MP? Does he go round saying that he shouldn’t do anything his constituents don’t want him to (or, does he do this any more than other MPs?), or that he’d prefer to be mandated and instantly recallable by the Paris Commune, or anything like that? On the whole, I’d have thought Bob is really quite a Burkean figure, in that Burke was defending MPs who exercise independent judgment, and it’s a bit difficult to claim that that’s what you’re doing when your “independent judgment” always exactly matches what the whips tell you to do.

    (He’s a Burkean figure in another sense, too, which is that there’s far more to his life than just politics — a very successful career at the bar and a couple of novels — and that you can more or less imagine him sloping around eighteenth-century London clubland, but I suspect those are what you file under “supercilious posh dilettante”, so perhaps we’d better not go there.)

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 7:26 am

  23. This might help explain what I understand Burke to have said about the relationship between and MP and constituents (again, apologies for the length – brevity is not one of my shortcomings):

    http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2007/02/do-weblogs-make-democracy-more.html

    I can see why my argument is slightly confusing about cynicism/idealism because of B-MA being mentioned here. I’m not saying that B-MA necessarily conducts his parliamentary work in this way – but in the wider public sphere, it is how he presents himself. Endorsing a Tory MP standing on a supposedly single-issue election, for example, would not really fit anywhere close the the Burkean ideal, would it?

    And for an MP – of all people – to promote a general disdain for the way that politics is conducted is, I would suggest, almost close to the workplace charge of ‘gross negligence.’

    By ‘cynicism’, I mean a cynical outlook – a disdain for politics, politicians, democracy. I understand the other meaning of the word – i.e. the ‘cynical tackle’ – that’s not what I mean here.

    I did say earlier that “the propensity for cynicism is directly correlated with the propensity for idealism. One proceeds from the other precedes it.”

    We are in the most fortunate position imaginable to live in the kind of democracy that we do. The combination of wealth, liberty, equal opportunity and security that has been enjoyed by Western Europeans over the past half-century is something that no preceding generation has ever enjoyed, and it is largely so because of the way we order our society and make our decisions. There is no certainty that we will continue to enjoy this success either. I find a cynical outlook under these circumstances to be close to idiocy. We have a very good system of government indeed. It has imperfections of course, but they are minor. Yet the view that…

    - they’re all as bad as one another
    - there’s no point in voting
    - why can’t we have a ‘none-of-the-above’ option on the ballot

    … etc, is a very common one. And I think that what I’ve just described is what most people would understand to be the argument against cynicism in politics. And I’m always keen to hear fleshed out ideas on how politics could be improved from cynical critics of our current settlement, but waiting for this is a fools errand.

    And then on idealism, in the context of politics, it is the political advocacy of a position that parliament is extremely unlikely to adopt for reasons that are in plain sight, or (as advocacy is rarely the strong point of an idealist) opposition to something that parliament is doing because of the circumstances that parliament finds itself in.

    I have no problem with people arguing any position that they like. I have plenty of political positions and arguments that I’ve put that have no chance of getting anywhere near a statute book. But to demand something improbable and to then declare yourself disillusioned when you don’t get it illustrates this cynic/idealist business fairly well, don’t you think?

    I’ll admit to being something of an outlier on this one though. Most people think that parliamentarians should negotiate with pressure groups – for the most part, I don’t. I think that parliamentarians should regard pressure groups as hostile rivals. If you aren’t elected, you still have a legitimate role in public life -in the same way that witnesses can influence a court. With argument, and not weight of numbers.

    I realise that this is a slightly idealistic position, of course ;-)

    In the past, I’ve suggested that all of this may be leading us to a more judicial / jurist type of representation – and I’m not sure that it’s a good thing.

    Oh, I hope dsquared isn’t embarrassing you with that credentialism by the way?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 9:26 am

  24. Sorry – re-reading, … this:

    “opposition to something that parliament is doing because of the circumstances that parliament finds itself in.” overstates my argument. Of course bad legislation should be opposed – but it should be also be counterproposed if it is to be taken seriously.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 9:38 am

  25. On the basis of the above, I think my glossary of 4 August, 2008 at 8:09 pm looks more or less spot on.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:07 am

  26. Most people think that parliamentarians should negotiate with pressure groups

    Do they? Do you have any specific examples? What is meant by “negotiate” here?

    I think that parliamentarians should regard pressure groups as hostile rivals

    Why hostile? Is that not a dramatic overstatement of the case? If we accept the charactersiation of “hostile” what practical conclusions should politicians draw for their work?

    We have a very good system of government indeed.

    Compared to who?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:17 am

  27. Thanks for all that. I think I can see where you’re coming from now.

    Endorsing a Tory MP standing on a supposedly single-issue election, for example, would not really fit anywhere close the the Burkean ideal, would it?

    I’m not so sure. Burke broke with his party on a single issue (attitude to the French Revolution), and there were lots more by-elections in the 18th century than there are today (partly because if you were appointed to government office you had to resign and fight a by-election, to make sure that your constituents were happy for you to serve in the ministry), and I don’t quite see why we couldn’t imagine Mr Burke giving a speech in a local constituency somewhere saying that we should support Mr Pitt’s candidate rather than Mr Fox’s candidate because of his sterling opposition to whatever it was the French were up to. That’s not quite a perfect analogy, but it’s probably about as close as we’re going to get, isn’t it?

    Bob M-A doesn’t like Mr Blair, and a lot of the things he was associated with, but that’s a perfectly respectable political position. And one reason he’s been a trouble-maker in Parliament is that the Party hierarchy never gave him anything interesting to do. Being a loyalist backbencher is crashingly boring, and the only reason for doing it slavishly is if you think it’ll lead to a future ascent up the slippery pole of ministerial office, etc. Bob entered Parliament in his mid-fifties, was never part of the New Labour crowd, and was never likely to hold much by way of government office. But had he been put on – I don’t know – the Home Affairs Select Committee, or some other body where his legal expertise would have been valuable, he might have had the chance to use his very considerable talents in a way in which both he and you might have preferred. But the powers-that-be judged otherwise, and so he carved out a different kind of political career for himself, and gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure along the way.

    And, to repeat, I don’t think there’s anything significantly cynical about the way he conducts his affairs, nor anything about which Burkean partisans of representative democracy should be concerned. As I say, the person who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks and can walk away from politics at any moment, because he has a life and a job and friends a reputation outside politics, is a *vastly* more Burkean parliamentarian than the thirty- or forty-something time-server on the make, who is under immense personal and political pressure to fall into line behind the party leadership, and who has never earned an income outside of the world of politics.

    Sure, you’re right that if people demand that politicians do something and then profess themselves disillusioned with the system as a whole when they don’t, they are often being foolish. But not that many people are in that position, and while you’re right that if that’s the sum total of their political engagement, that’s a shame, and probably not a good thing, there’s also something ethically admirable about it, which is that when people do make their demands of parliament to do the right thing (whether it’s to abolish slavery, give the vote to women, not drop bombs on foreigners, or whatever) they are investing their hope in the ordinary workings of the political system, and that’s something which, my goodness, your own brand of politics seems to require in a big, big way — and disillusion is a perfectly understandable response to having your hopes dashed, even if it isn’t always optimal, either for you or for the wider political community as a whole.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:18 am

  28. Oh, and for more on Edmund Burke, you might enjoy Don Herzog’s Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, which is a really good exploration of quite how repulsively anti-democratic a lot of the politics floating around Burke were (Herzog wants to show just how central Burke’s remarks about the “swinish multitude” were to his politics more generally, as well as giving us a smashing chapter on the cultural hysteria surrounding hairdressers in the 1790s — it’s a really good cross-over of political, intellectual and cultural history, and it’s great fun).

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:25 am

  29. “Cynicism and idealism *are* the same thing.”

    Well, no. Virtuously demanding the impossible is only one kind of idealism. Dismissing the mediocrity of actually-existing politicians is only one kind of cynicism.

    I think you’ve made quite a good case that a certain kind of idealism can coexist with a certain kind of cynicism. If I were you I’d stop there.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:26 am

  30. I really think there’s a large element here of telling people that they’re under an obligation to be loyal to something – be it the Labour Party or The Way We Order Our Society – and if they do not, they’re fair game and pretty much anything can be said about them. It’s not an approach I much admire.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:41 am

  31. On B-MA and doorknocking v Annies Bar (which is what he meant)

    I’ve just noticed this little aside and would appreciate some clarification of what the blinking heck you mean by it, because on the face of it, it looks like a slur.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:50 am

  32. Do they? Do you have any specific examples? What is meant by “negotiate” here?

    OK. I would say that if you stopped people in the street and said “more than a million people signed a petition against road pricing – should the government press on regardless” that most people would so no. I would say yes – and I’d go further and say that the government should state clearly that it never responds to petitions or public demonstrations of any kind and will always ignore the results.

    Pressure groups are – by definition – organised groups of people who wish to pressure parliamentarians into doing something that they wouldn’t otherwise do. And we’ve argued about things in the past ejh, and understating my argument never got you to reveal what any of yours are, so you can’t really blame me for overstatement, can you?

    “compared to who?”

    Compared to almost any government or system of governance anywhere in the world at any point in history. I think I’d probably prefer Sweden and be prepared to consider a few modern northern European states, or perhaps Canada as being more democratic and liberal places to live than the UK at the moment, but the general point that governments that are democratic, and where that democracy is mainly characterised by being representative rather than direct makes for the best form of governance that is available.

    Chris, on B-MA, again…

    “And one reason he’s been a trouble-maker in Parliament is that the Party hierarchy never gave him anything interesting to do. Being a loyalist backbencher is crashingly boring, and the only reason for doing it slavishly is if you think it’ll lead to a future ascent up the slippery pole of ministerial office, etc.

    To the first sentence, I’d suggest that if you were in the party hierarchy, you’d have done the same? As it happens, I agree with you generally that parties overstate the need for party discipline these days, though there are other things that parties would need to do before they were to relax in this subject (and one of them would be take measures to ensure that MPs can’t be ‘captured’ by pressure groups.

    To the second half, call me old fashioned, but I quite admire people who relish the idea of being a hard-working back-bencher that has a bit of ambition for their locality. Parochial, I know, but I think that you are allowing the aesthetics to trump everything else here. I’m aware that my argument seems a bit puritanical, by the way, but arguments like this do lead one to slightly overstate a case sometimes in order to make the point.

    I’m sure you understand why B-MA was never going to be a very effective parliamentarian when you think about it?

    I do, however, completely agree with you about the virtue of mavericks, though ‘being able to walk away’ can make that maverickness fairly cheap to exercise, can’t it? Surely the Frank Field type is the real adornment to parliament (though I can’t think of much I’d agree with him about). And we’re not at odds about people investing hope in parliament either. I’d like to see a set of circumstances where people were more able to make their views known and to bring evidence than they are currently – I just object to them being encouraged to do it in aggregate.

    Sorry to do this, but I wrote yet another tedious post on this subject.

    http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2007/08/political-parties-good-or-bad.html

    (nb – I changed my mind on Ken, but I’d still stand by most of it)

    dsquared is probably right about me not being great at explaining my position though.

    I’ll have a think about your points about Burke’s own life – but my point largely comes from Burke’s ‘how-to’ manual that he gave to the electors of Bristol.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:57 am

  33. ejh: “…telling people that they’re under an obligation to be loyal to something.” No. Arguing. It’s an ancient tradition. You say what you think and make supporting points. It’s always good to find out what the people you are arguing think about things – in my experience, when someone argues against something, they are usually arguing *for* something else. I’ve now lost count of the amount of times that we’ve disagreed and that you have ducked when I’ve asked you where you’re coming from.

    dsquared: BM-A isn’t a friend of mine, but we have a number of mutual friends, and I’m fairly confident that he’d be less outraged by the implication than you are. I don’t think that B-MA has ever denied being a bon viveur. It was a throwaway, let it dangle.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 11:06 am

  34. understating my argument never got you to reveal what any of yours are

    As you know, I very frequently “reveal” (i.e. express) my arguments on many questions. I don’t, however, respond to questions requiring me to reveal my views on the subject of the interrogator’s choice. I don’t admire that way of doing things either.

    I’d go further and say that the government should state clearly that it never responds to petitions or public demonstrations of any kind and will always ignore the results.

    And that will help the public to express its opinion in what way precisely? Would not the clear effect of this to be to render popular opinion entirely ineffective, while of course retaining the access to power enjoyed by the wealthy and the proipriteors of newspapers?

    Compared to almost any government or system of governance anywhere in the world at any point in history

    I personally think that as a system it has become substantially less democratic and accessible over the course of my adult lifetime, and that among the reasons for this could be advanced:

    (a) the whittling away of party democracy and the consequent concentration of power among the metropolitan professional political class ;

    (b) the increase in the power of lobbyists and the conveyor belt taking ex-ministers into lucrative jobs with companies whose interests they had the power to affect, both of these having a corrupting effect on democracy ;

    (c) the decline in the range of political discussion, with the effect that politics is about personal advancement rather than the advancement of ideas, more than was so previously ;

    (d) in general, the rise in economic inequality, granting more and more power to wealth at the expense of the less affluent part of the population.

    and so on.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 11:20 am

  35. To the first sentence, I’d suggest that if you were in the party hierarchy, you’d have done the same?

    Not at all. The persistent rumour is that Bob was on the list in 1997 to go onto an important select committee, but that he was struck off at the request of one of Blair’s cronies, who didn’t like him because he’d recently cracked a fairly mild joke in public about him, and he was sensitive about that kind of thing. I don’t know if that rumour is true or not, but it’s entirely believable, because there are very few competent lawyers on the Labour benches, and legal expertise is something you badly need on Parliamentary committees, which is why his name would have gone on such a list in the first place (Tocqueville and his latterday disciple Larry Siedentop massively overstate the virtues of having lawyers in politics in general, but you do need to have a few, and probably a few more than we have at the moment).

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 11:23 am

  36. I’ve now lost count of the amount of times that we’ve disagreed and that you have ducked when I’ve asked you where you’re coming from.

    I think the answer’s “one”, to be honest, though you can increase that number by doing the same again.

    No. Arguing. It’s an ancient tradition.

    So it is. It’s not one which, howver, you’re prepared to extend to Bob Marshall-Andrews, which was and is my point. He gets the “fair game” treatement.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 11:25 am

  37. ejh: I completely agree with your four points on how we’ve become a less effective democracy. They are all recurring themes of mine as it happens. Your a + b fall very clearly into the ‘decline of the representative nature of democracy’ argument.

    Public opinion can be expressed in many many ways apart from petitions or demonstrations. And I agree with you about the power of newspaper proprietors and well-heeled pressure groups as well.

    Again, one of my recurring themes is that they should be subject to far more by way of scrutiny and regulation than politicians are. Not to relieve politicians of all scrutiny, but to even things up a bit.

    (btw, I know it sounds naff to keep pointing people off to previous positions made elsewhere – I’d restate them at more length but I’ve just realised that I’ve spend most of the morning on this and I’m self-employed these days)

    Chris: My limited (these days) access to these stories is different to yours. I think that B-MA (and many others) had their careers stymied by more than just one Blairite clone. The whole ‘Third Way’ thing was a bit like what Louis Armstrong said about Jazz – not easy to explain, but if you didn’t get it and go with it reflexively, you were stuffed. Blairites knew their enemies on sight. They didn’t reflect on it, ask themselves ‘is-he-isn’t-he?’. It’s like Derek Draper said about Blair’s ‘Clause 4 speech’ to Labour conference. Most delegates didn’t even realise that he’d made it even though they were in the hall. Derek said that *that* marked out whether you were New Labour or not.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 11:44 am

  38. OK. I would say that if you stopped people in the street and said “more than a million people signed a petition against road pricing – should the government press on regardless” that most people would so no. I would say yes – and I’d go further and say that the government should state clearly that it never responds to petitions or public demonstrations of any kind and will always ignore the results.

    Be careful with the hypotheticals. (It’s one of Nick Cohen’s many bad habits these days, that he sometimes asks you to imagine what would happen if such and such happened, and while it tells you a lot about NC’s imagination, it tells you very little about politics, because what he imagines would happen has very little in common with what sensible people imagine would happen, or, indeed, with what does in fact actually happen in relevantly similar cases.)

    If a million people sign a petition against road-pricing, and the petition gives sensible reasons as to why it’s a bad idea, then of course government shouldn’t “press on regardless” — it should consider whether the reasons given are good ones, and how they might inform better public policy.

    You might say that in that case it doesn’t matter whether one person signs or a million sign if the reason’s a good one, but of course politics doesn’t work that way — politicians can’t adequately consider and respond to every conceivable argument (good and bad) that can be made about public policy, so organising the big petition is one way of making sure that the politicians have to confront these particular reasons.

    The last time I signed a petition was, I think, a bit like this. Cyclists were annoyed about proposed changes to the Highway Code (which would have made it an offence not to use a cycle-lane if there were a cycle-lane, which is a really bad idea, as often cycle-lanes are in pretty terrible condition or repeatedly blocked by parked cars, or whatever, and there are all kinds of reasons for not riding in them), and having thousands (or however many) of us sign a petition was a good way of making the point that a large group of us thought these changes would have a negative impact on our lives, and that could they not appear in the final version of the Highway Code (and, indeed, this bit was struck out of the new code).

    Petitions are a good way of injecting information into politics (this is what some people care about) and have a deliberative content (the arguments presented in the petition), which is why the right to present petitions to Parliament has always been rightly regarded as one of the key political liberties in this country.

    And in a world in which commercial lobbying is an efficient way of reaching the ears of politicians, petitions which rely on grassroots organisation (rather than writing a cheque) inject a certain kind of democratic content into the policymaking process. That’s not to say that petitions shouldn’t sometimes be ignored (of course they should be, sometimes, often, perhaps).

    If politicians were to declare that they would “never respond to petitions or public demonstrations of any kind and will always ignore the results”, then they would justly be held in even lower esteem than they are already.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 11:49 am

  39. No politician will ever say that, obviously. And I take your point about cyclists. Small-scale exercises like that are very useful to politicians and I doubt that the subsequent change in the highway code was the result of any electoral calculation. Your point was taken because it was a good one, and wouldn’t have been noticeable if one lone individual had made it. You avoided being marginalised, and good arguments go unconsidered if their advocates are marginalsed.

    But some matters of policy are like that. But big strategic ones (like road pricing) aren’t. And those 1,000,000+ signatories didn’t advance a counterproposal that addressed the issues that road pricing was intended to solve.

    I take your general point though – my ‘never’ and ‘always’ is a bit stiff really. Can I replace them with ‘almost never’ and ‘usually’?

    btw, I’m all for huge restrictions on commercial lobbying.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 12:00 pm

  40. Thinking about it, my objection is to ‘mass’ petitions and demonstrations. Millions of people can be against something, but if you were to ask them what they are *for* you get dozens or even hundreds of different answers. And you get no sense of trade-offs either.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 12:18 pm

  41. Just to check in on how the discussion’s evolving — do you still hold that Bob M-A is detestable because he instantiates the kind of cynicism that is antithetical to representative democracy, or have you moved on from that position, too?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 12:25 pm

  42. Cheeky. I find his public persona really annoying (HIGNFY especially). And – for me – backing David Davis was one of those litmus tests. Nick Cohen backed DD as well, if that helps clarify things?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 12:33 pm

  43. Paulie: I’m glad you’ve clarified the cynicism/idealism point. There’s a difference between the realist cynic and the passive cynic. Realist cynics can be highly effective and very dangerous because they understand how the system works, and see it as a tool to be (ab)used. The more ruthless business man (I briefly worked for a man like this), Lyndon Johnson, Kissinger, etc. Sometimes they have ideals, if highly abstracted ones (Kissinger I guess), sometimes not (Johnson). But they’re not idealists, and most of them probably never were.

    Myself I was cynical about New Labour for reasons that have proved entirely justified. I don’t particularly like the fact that I was right (better government is always good), but I was; in fact I probably wasn’t cynical enough.

    I consider the argument that Britain is today in the postion that it is because of its form of government rather simplistic. I think luck, historical legacies (that had little to do with democracy) and post-colonialism play a rather big part there – and you rather neglect culture.

    “But big strategic ones (like road pricing) aren’t. And those 1,000,000+ signatories didn’t advance a counterproposal that addressed the issues that road pricing was intended to solve.”

    Well maybe not, but if 1000,000+ signed up, then its possible that 1,000,000 people feel strongly on the issue. It could be more, not everybody signs a petition after all. That is information, and its dangerous for a government to just ignore it. In worst case scenarios you get the poll tax situation where people riot, or simply ignore an unpopular law. Or you get the situation with the EU where resentment (possibly unjustified) simmers because it isn’t given an effective outlet (the EU being a pretty undemocratic body in practice), and when people are given a choice they vote NO. You can’t simply ignore the fact that people disagree with you because they’re wrong, its your job as a government to at least manage that resentment as best you can, lest it turns into something unmanageable – that’s politics.

    Oh, and incidentally, on a majority of controversial issues Labour have been wrong. Which is not to say that their critics are right, but it does seem like a problem for your argument. Perhaps if they were enlightened technocrat philosopher princes it would work, but they’re not.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 12:52 pm

  44. Cheeky. I find his public persona really annoying (HIGNFY especially).

    OK, but finding someone’s public persona annoying and thinking that they are antithetical to representative democracy are two very different things, and most people don’t have a problem holding them apart.

    I think David Davis was a bit of a prat, and it’s hard to see how he did his cause any good: obviously from his point of view, if civil liberties were what he cared about, the rational course of action was to hold tight and stay on course to become Tory Home Secretary, whereupon he could have basked in “most liberal Home Secretary since Roy Jenkins” accolades from the liberal press as he repealed various bits of New Labour legislation. So the fact that he didn’t prefer to go down this route says something important, but quite what it says (he’s a loon? he can’t stand Cameron?) isn’t quite clear.

    But his stand did create a political problem for pro-civil liberties non-Tories (as the discussions over at, say, Liberal Conspiracy demonstrate), and since the Labour Party decided not to field a candidate (therefore creating a situation in which it wasn’t against Party rules, as I understand them, for Party members to urge a vote for Davis), it’s easy to see why Bob and others did what they did.

    I can see why some issues are regarded as “litmus tests”. But it’s hard to see why this highly anomalous situation should be so regarded.

    (I thought for a moment that you were sounding a bit like those weird moral philosophers who think it’s incredibly important what intuitions we might have in response to crazy, crazy science fiction scenarios about possible situations we might find ourselves in, involving runaway trains and brains-in-vats and so on, except that at least those crazy scenarios have been very carefully tailored in order to bring out a particular technical or conceptual point; the Yorkshire by-election was, by contrast, all over the place.)

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 12:54 pm

  45. I consider the argument that Britain is today in the position that it is because of its form of government rather simplistic. I think luck, historical legacies (that had little to do with democracy) and post-colonialism play a rather big part there – and you rather neglect culture.

    Geography is quite important, too — those 21 or so miles of sea that meant that we weren’t invaded and occupied by the Nazis in 1940, and which meant that postwar politics were about trying to cope with no money and the end of the Empire, rather than about how to cope with what to do with the significant proportion of the political class in particular and the population in general that had collaborated with fascism.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 1:03 pm

  46. I think luck, historical legacies (that had little to do with democracy) and post-colonialism play a rather big part there

    Personally I think that Britain’s in the happy position it’s in today because of its active and sceptical media and tradition of popular mass protest and its offsetting and countervailing interest groups.

    The poll tax really is the reductio ad absurdum of this baleful view of popular protest – did everyone who protested against the poll tax really have the obligation to become an expert on local government finance?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 1:17 pm

  47. And on the tradition of popular mass protest, I recommend (again!) the magnificent webpage of the London Riot Re-Enactment Society:

    http://anathematician.c8.com/lrrs.htm

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 1:22 pm

  48. Personally I think that Britain’s in the happy position it’s in today because of its active and sceptical media and tradition of popular mass protest…

    And, amazingly, to get back to the content of the original post, this is something (more or less) which Machiavelli argued with respect to ancient Rome, in those same opening chapters of the Discorsi mentioned above…

    (Well, he argued that plebeian dissent helped generate laws conducive to liberty which helped to generate territorial expansion and domination of Rome’s neighbours, but I think we can overlook a few points of detail.)

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 1:36 pm

  49. On DD, it’s the approximation of a referendum. I think I’ve made the argument that being open to the idea of referendums is an under-recognised threat, and that an unwillingness to promote representative democracy at the expense of other ways of making decisions is a major mistake on the part of the left. I’m not sure that making it again will add anything here.

    I spent a week in concussion after the hiding I got from plod during the poll tax riots, but I never believed that it was us that stopped the tax from being implemented.

    It was the fact that lots of Tory voters (with their reluctance to pay taxes) opposed it – and in lots of cases, dropped of the electoral register to avoid it. Parliament stopped it in the end.

    What it was replaced with wasn’t particularly good either tho’ but. And I’m really *not* arguing that everyone should go off and do an MSc in local gov finance before they express a view – my line is pretty much the opposite of that.

    I’m quite keen on us getting a sceptical media sometime soon though. When do you think that’ll happen?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 1:53 pm

  50. Paulie, do you think the fact that people refused to pay the poll tax had anything to do with it?
    And I think one of the reasons why the EU is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy is that its technocratic leaders seem to share most of your views on democracy. The French political system is closer to your ideal, though whether riots and coup d’etats are a fair price to pay is an open question I guess.

    Actually I’m having a tough time seeing what’s so democratic about your system. I see that you think it leads to better government, or a more progressive result – but that’s hardly the same thing. The argument that you’ve made, as I understand it, is that people should vote upon some mysterious criteria, and then get the hell out of politics for five years. Am I missing something?

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 3:08 pm

  51. It was the fact that lots of Tory voters (with their reluctance to pay taxes) opposed it – and in lots of cases, dropped of the electoral register to avoid it.

    I am finding it hard to understand the political theory under which demonstrations are illegitimate, petitions are illegitimate, but refusal to pay taxes is legitimate. Since I surmise that there is in fact no such political theory, this point doesn’t help your case at all – it remains the case that millions of people protested against the poll tax (in various manners) and they were 100% correct to do so; there certainly wasn’t any other way in which the poll tax would have been removed.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 4:18 pm

  52. I’m not sure that making it again will add anything here.

    That’s probably a good thing, ‘cos if we start arguing the merits of referenda here, then we’ll probably be chatting away about Proportional Representation before too long, and then people will think this is a Lib Dem blog.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 4:48 pm

  53. Oh I see what Paulie was saying – I misread. Ignore my comment above. What DSquared said.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 9:03 pm

  54. “I am finding it hard to understand the political theory under which demonstrations are illegitimate, petitions are illegitimate, but refusal to pay taxes is legitimate. Since I surmise that there is in fact no such political theory….”

    I’ve certainly not advanced one that’s anything like that.

    I do so enjoy our exchanges Daniel. Really. But sarcasm aside, I’d like to read a post that made the argument that…

    “…Britain’s in the happy position it’s in today because of its active and sceptical media and tradition of popular mass protest and its offsetting and countervailing interest groups.”

    Don’t write it yourself though, eh? You could read mine though?
    http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2008/05/reasons-to-be-cheerful.html

    Chris, on plebian dissent, it promotes certain liberties but not others. That road-pricing petition was got up by The Daily Express and the AA. It creates a space for minor demagoguery, and I suspect that it would further disenfranchise the less politically active sections of society (notably, the poorest).

    I’m not sure that that it’s very attractive from a social democratic point of view. Tories would love it though.

    I didn’t comment on your orignial post about formal challenges, party because people tend to pick up the bits they disagree with in posts like this. The degree to which the political centre is allowed to build it’s own bureaucracy in the last thirty years is one of the most damaging things that has happened to British politics.

    There is a flipside, however. Harold Wilson was a really devious bastard. The relative ease with which he could be challenged (though it was hardly a peice of cake even then) meant that you needed either an incredible amount of guile (Wilson) or a reasonably effortless command of a fairly undivided party (Heath, before Thatch’s coup).

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 9:32 pm

  55. Paulie, you’re now dodging the question about the poll tax protests and trying to pretend that the only mass protests Britain ever sees are like the road pricing petition (as in, astroturf by interest groups) rather than like the poll tax or Iraq War protests (genuine, mass movements by people who were actually right) or like the Countryside Alliance (a genuine mass movement that I personally believe to be in the wrong, but which very clearly represents a point of view that isn’t served by the political parties).

    These cases are important because they do a lot of damage to your entire theory – you regard popular politics outside the political system as being threatening to “representative democracy” and think that’s a bad thing. So it’s really very damaging to your theory that it’s so very easy to dig up examples where non-party political activity was so obviously in the right.

    To take an even more important example, it’s very obvious indeed that the Green Party have done a hell of a lot of very important political work in the UK over the last twenty years, hardly any of it through “representative” means.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:16 pm

  56. “….you regard popular politics outside the political system as being threatening to “representative democracy” and think that’s a bad thing.”

    I don’t.

    Quote | Posted 5 August, 2008, 10:57 pm

  57. Well (through gritted teeth) what the hell do you think then? Two word answers like that are really quite insulting when people are making an obvious and good faith effort to understand you. To repeat – you are not in a position to patronise anyone.

    You said:

    I’ll admit to being something of an outlier on this one though. Most people think that parliamentarians should negotiate with pressure groups – for the most part, I don’t. I think that parliamentarians should regard pressure groups as hostile rivals. If you aren’t elected, you still have a legitimate role in public life -in the same way that witnesses can influence a court. With argument, and not weight of numbers

    Your caveat of “with argument and not weight of numbers” does not help you here; this sentence is clearly a statement that mass politics outside the parliamentary system is “hostile” to parliament and not “legitimate” unless it is based on “argument” rather than the existence of a popular movement. Either you have inconsistent beliefs here, or this paragraph is extremely badly drafted. Both of these are your fault and require rather more than a two-word pretence that you never held this position as soon as it becomes inconvenient.

    The example of the poll tax protests was raised. This is clearly a case in which (as you have agreed) the anti poll tax campaign did not influence the government through argument; it influenced the government by demonstrating that the poll tax was not a viable tax because it was not regarded as a legitimate tax by a sufficiently large minority of the country, who refused to pay it.

    The poll tax protests were an absolutely paradigmatic example of a case when a large popular movement forced the elected government of the day to change an important policy, not through argument (the Thatcher government remained convinced that the poll tax was the fairest method of local government finance) but through sheer weight of numbers. If you want to be consistent, you have to either drop your claim about pressure groups made above, or agree that the poll tax protests were illegitimate and should have been condemned by progressive opinion (which last one would, I think, be a fairly fatal hole below the waterline of your theory).

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 7:22 am

  58. Oh do fuck off with your ‘good faith’ you smartarse. You wouldn’t know good faith in argument if it were to bite your nuts off. Ask around. Everyone says so – even the people who take your side in your snarky little rants.

    You seem to have decided that I’m really saying that parliament should ignore everything apart from its own deliberations.

    I’m saying that parliament should eavesdrop upon the quality of public discourse and not be bullied by large numbers of people advocating particular positions that won’t in themselves, make particularly good policy. I’ve not said anything that you could interpret as saying anything other than that. It’s what I was saying in the post I linked to earlier:

    http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2007/02/do-weblogs-make-democracy-more.html

    I’m not saying that parliament should ban pressure groups (which would be the logic of what you’ve decided that I mean), I’m saying that it should ignore attempts that pressure groups make to force politicians to act against their better judgment. I used a jurist analogy earlier and it is exactly the sense of Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol which I’ve cited repeatedly here and elsewhere.

    It wasn’t a protest movement that convinced the Tories that the poll-tax was unworkeable. It was the fact that it wasn’t collectible. It was a bad policy – it was unpopular even among the people who paid it, Tory voters were dropping off the electoral registry (this came as a real surprise to Labour who thought that the ‘protest’ element would hit their registered voters when ‘tax avoidance’ actually hit the Tories more – I think that this makes the point about how far protest v quality of policy influenced the final outcome). Responding to evidence that a policy is unworkeable is very different to caving in to pressure groups that have interupted the parliamentary process. You would be right to conclude that I were bonkers if I were arguing that Parliament should go around wantonly introducing wildly unpopular laws regardless of public opinion – yet in order to get your little digs in, that’s what you seem to want to do.

    The Tory party were so swayed by the belief that they’d never win another election that they ditched the policy and ultimately the leader that was daft enough to introduce it. Parliament worked. The poll tax was not a good example of pressure group politics influencing government policy.

    There were lots of factors, and parliament undoubtedly took notice of the public, giving evidence that it was an uncollectable tax. I’m arguing for parliament to be *more* responsive to public debate – not less. I’m just saying that parliament shouldn’t allow itself to be bullied by a weight of numbers.

    The poll tax failed because it was a bad policy. Ill thought out, and with very authoritarian consequences. It semi-criminalised a great many people. Protest undoubtedly contributed, but ‘absolutely paradigmatic’? Certainly not.

    I don’t think that the poll-tax protests were illegitimate. I got my head nearly knocked off at the top of Whitehall that day, as it happens. I do think that politicians should be influenced by quality of argument and not the numbers that support it, so protest numbers should only be treated as evidence of disquiet that politicans may wish to note in advance of the next election.

    I think that Chris’s line about bikes earlier illustrates how numbers can add to the quality of evidence and I agree with him there.

    Oh – and do me a favour? If you’re going to carry on with this, see if you can stick to the argument without the commentary? “… do a lot of damage to your entire theory ….. a fairly fatal hole below the waterline of your theory….. and so on.” You’re really not in any position to patronise anyone when your idea of argument is to re-imagine someone else’s position and then be sarky about it.

    Shall we carry this one on under that non-aggression pact that we agreed a while back?

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 8:51 am

  59. No, after that little tantrum I rather think we won’t carry it on at all.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:20 am

  60. (except to note that, of course, road pricing would be “incollectible” if the million people who signed that petition were to refuse to pay the charges; any policy is “unworkable” and therefore “bad” if there is a sufficiently large protest against it).

    I’m discontinuing my part of this argument out of respect for Chris’s comments policy, not because I think there’s an atom of merit to your attempts to gerrymander your clearly expressed views on public protest to fit around a glaring counterexample.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:28 am

  61. Does ‘gerrymander’ mean the opposite of simplify-reframe-ridicule? I thought it was something different?

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:36 am

  62. Harold Wilson was a really devious bastard. The relative ease with which he could be challenged (though it was hardly a peice of cake even then) meant that you needed either an incredible amount of guile (Wilson)

    Eh?

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:39 am

  63. I think, by the way, that it would be a brave historian who maintained that the government’s decision to abandon the Community Charge was unconnected with the problems of public disorder that resulted from it. It’s hard (at best) to prove these things, of course, but as a thesis it is, shall we say, very far from self-evident.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:42 am

  64. I can’t remember who it was that said it of Wilson, but he was described as someone who would “swallow a sixpence and shit a corkscrew.” All I’m saying is that Wilson has a reputation for being very devious in his dealings with his colleagues. I’m also picking up Chris’ point that parties have made it harder to challenge leaders.

    (Ben Pimlott’s biog is more sympathetic to Wilson than I’m being here, and it’s a v.good book, so I should temper that remark probably).

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:45 am

  65. If I disagreed with you Justin, I wouldn’t have said… “protest undoubtedly contributed, but ‘absolutely paradigmatic’? Certainly not.”

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:48 am

  66. To be honest Paulie, you’re pissing about here.

    You started off with:

    I never believed that it was us that stopped the tax from being implemented.

    You then want to reify your position and say that it “contributed”. Well, y’see, that’s the point other people were making. And that it was legitimate that they contributed.

    The point about your Wilson posting is that you appear to have Wilson challenging Wilson. I doubt that this is what you meant.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:53 am

  67. I think that Tories dropping off the electoral roll contributed a great deal more. I think that the Tories realising that it was unpopular and uncollectable contributed a great deal more.

    And whether or not the protests were the straw that broke the camels back (for which we’d need your brave historian) it doesn’t alter my fairly bland defence of the principle of parliamentary democracy as Burke outlined it.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 9:59 am

  68. What’s the evidence that it was Tories dropping off the electoral roll in 1990-2, rather than other kinds of people?

    It makes intuitive sense that poorer / non-Tory voters were more likely to drop off the rolls than richer / Tory voters (given the sharply regressive nature of the poll tax), and I’ve certainly heard anecdotal reports of Tories claiming their victory in 1992 owed in part to an absence of non-Tory voters from the electoral rolls as a result of the poll tax. But I haven’t heard your claim before.

    (Do remember that whatever else Burke was, he wasn’t a democrat: he was defending parliamentary government, at a time when very few people had the vote, and he was jolly concerned to keep it that way.)

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 10:08 am

  69. Here, for example, is a charming bit from Burke on democratic politics, which gives a nice indication of the kind of man we’re dealing with:

    *** I can never be convinced that the scheme of placing the highest powers of the state in church-wardens and constables and other such officers, guided by the prudence of litigious attorneys and Jew brokers, and set in action by shameless women of the lowest condition, by keepers of hotels, taverns, and brothels, by pert apprentices, by clerks, shop-boys, hairdressers, fiddlers, and dancers on the stage… can ever be put into any shape that must not be both disgraceful and destructive. ***

    [Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791]

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 10:20 am

  70. As I said Chris – it’s the formulation that Burke used in that speech – it’s such a handy succinct shorthand. I suppose I could have quotes from elsewhere as this defence of parliamentary sovereignty is hardly an unusual one.

    I’m damned if I can remember where I got the evidence on Tories dropping off the electoral roll now – it was so long ago. I remember that it formed the argument in someone elses’ essay when I was swotting up for an exam in the mid-1990s (they made this case about the poll tax at a great deal more length) and I also recall it being referred to in a NSS article at about the same time. The reason that it stuck in my mind was that it was slightly counterintuitive though, so I see what you mean.

    With the same fuzzy memory, I also recall the ‘it was the polltax wot won it’ argument being roundly rebutted. But none of this really proves very much.

    I’ll dig around and see if I can find it – but I’m not sure where to start looking now without making phone calls.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 10:34 am

  71. I’m still having trouble seeing this system as particularly democratic.

    Essentially the idea is this, yes?

    The country is run by elected technocrats (i.e. people good at policy and administration from something like the French system of elite schools). We the public get to vote every 4-5 years, and just to annoy Chris, we’ll even allow them to be voted by some perfect form of PR so there’s no complaints about how they’re selected.

    However, pressure groups are ignored, the public are ignored and implicitly, or explicitly, have no say. Am I right?

    And there’s some kind of limitation (cultural, legal – whatever, we’ll assume for the sake of argument that its benign) on the press such that they have to conduct some form of constructive criticism.

    Now leaving aside how one might achieve such a thing, is that roughly what you are arguing for? And if so, how is this democratic? I have this possibly unfair suspicion that you are conflating progressive government (whatever that might be) with democracy – am I wrong?

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 10:39 am

  72. As I said Chris – it’s the formulation that Burke used in that speech – it’s such a handy succinct shorthand.

    Well, you like Burke for his eloquence. So it’s good to be reminded what he used his considerable eloquence for, much of the rest of the time. And his anti-democratic politics and his defence of parliamentary representation are linked, surely? It’s only if you’ve got a sharply restricted franchise that the political nation (the wealthy property holders, with considerable common interests) can have any kind of confidence that the representatives will be the kinds of people to whose judgment it’s reasonable to defer.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 11:17 am

  73. Pressure groups are not ignored if they have evidence that is useful. It’s just that MPs default position is that – like jurists – they weigh only evidence – not weight of opinion. The public certainly shouldn’t be ignored anything like as much as they have been ignored to date. That’s the sense of that deliberative democracy post I linked to earlier (again, apologies – sending you off to read posts elsewhere is a bit high-handed – please bear with me here?)

    You may recall that Dsquared and I argued in the past (I had comments from someone called Cian I think – was that you?) about ‘improving the quality of public debate’ – this is because (IMHO) the quality of public debate isn’t as good as it could be, and that it could yield up information of some quality that is currently crowded out. I’m aware of the ‘rough-and-tumble sometimes sharpens things up’ argument as well though, and I think it’s a reasonable point.

    On the press – I’d certainly argue for more regulation on media ownership and concentration, and I’d like to see journalists being a bit more assertive about the standards of their own profession.

    Now, I think that the model as I’ve outlined here is the best form of democracy available to us. It is very inclusive and it serves the general will, and is likely to be fairly even handed. Respecting Chris and his ‘No PR!’ injunction, I’ll only say that more bicameralism (in the UK’s case a fully elected Lords NOT elected on party list systems) and staggered elections would reduce your five-year horizon significantly. I’d also add an argument for stronger regional government to dilute it even further. Again, apologies for chucking all of this in, but it’s a regular feature of my own blog.

    From my writing-essays days, I recall that an economist called Mancur Olsen had a really good line (‘The Logic Of Collective Action’) that pointed out the sub-optimal quality of policymaking when pressure groups were strong, and so I don’t have problems mixing up ‘good government’ with ‘fair government’, or – indeed – ‘democracy’. I’m not sure that there is a big tension between the two.

    I’m busy a lot of the time. I have kids and a mortgage in London and I don’t have a private income or an inheritance to fall back on. I would be very annoyed if government were obliged to spend more time listening to paid lobbyists or time-rich busy-bodies than they spend listening to me – that’s a prosaic outline of why I’d argue that this form of government is the *most* democratic.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 11:31 am

  74. Gah! Posts crossing!

    Chris:

    “It’s only if you’ve got a sharply restricted franchise that the political nation (the wealthy property holders, with considerable common interests) can have any kind of confidence that the representatives will be the kinds of people to whose judgment it’s reasonable to defer.”

    If there were only a small number of representatives, I’d agree with you. But there is also the notion of ‘distributed moral wisdom’ – I remember an ex-Labour MP called Tony McWalter was on the Today programme a while ago making this point, so I wrote it down:

    http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2007/02/oh-yes.html

    McWalter starts off by making what I think is your point: That political decisionmaking that relies upon a small number of characters (in both senses of the word) it will lead to poor governance. And if it helps you with the Burke problem, McWalter cites Paine instead? Anyway, I think he makes the point very nicely.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 11:43 am

  75. Here’s Burke on Paine: “He is utterly incapable of comprehending his subject. He has not even a moderate portion of learning of any kind… Payne possesses nothing more than what a man whose audacity makes him careless of logical consequences, and his total want of honour and morality makes indifferent as to political consequences, may very easily write. They indeed who seriously write upon a principle of levelling ought to be answered by the Magistrate…” (Letter to William Cusac Smith, 22 July 1791)

    Anyway: distributed moral wisdom in parliament, my arse. The British parliament is dominated by a thin fragment of the British population — middle-aged, ambitious, white, mostly male, middle-class, university-educated party hacks. The idea that the mechanisms that political parties use for selection of candidates in winnable seats coupled with the UK’s electoral system (whoops, there I go again) produce a parliament with lots of “distributed moral wisdom” in it is a bit crazy.

    [If McWalter is just making the point that sensible people thought the war in Iraq was a bad idea, but that Blair didn't like listening to sensible people, then, that's true, but you don't need a theory of "distributed moral wisdom" to make that point.]

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 11:58 am

  76. I’m not quite as pessimistic as you are about the quality of parliamentarians generally, though there’s plenty of room for improvement. There are a lot more women now than there used to be.

    They are currently the least-worse source of ‘distributed moral wisdom’ that we have available to us, and they have been elected – no matter how imperfect the dominance of parties makes those elections.

    And I suspect that even our fairly narrow parliamentary caste is wider and more representative than the one that would dominate all discourse if pressure groups were stronger.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 12:14 pm

  77. Well, yes, parliament has been elected — and I don’t think anyone in this discussion thinks that’s an irrelevant point.

    What’s odd about the way you present your politics is you switch from bland commonplaces about the UK’s political system (parliamentary democracy is on the whole a good thing, it would be bad if lobbyists ran the country, we shouldn’t have mechanisms to mandate MPs, and so on) to weird insinuations that actors like Bob Marshall-Andrews, Make Poverty History (insofar as it put bodies on the streets rather than just published position papers), the anti-poll-tax movement, and so on, are somehow anathema to that system of parliamentary democracy — when sensible people think that’s preposterous.

    Do you not see that? Or do you just think that we’re a bunch of arseholes who wilfully misread what you’ve got to say again and again because we’ve nothing better to do, or something?

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 12:30 pm

  78. Oh, and if you like Mancur Olson, you should read (interest declared: my old PhD supervisor) Richard Tuck’s new book, “Free Riding”, just published, which is probably the most interesting philosophical and historical study (and rebuttal) of Olson’s argument. It’s a fun book.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 12:33 pm

  79. I’ve argued with dsquared about a few things, and I don’t think even his mates would suggest that he doesn’t argue like an arsehole sometimes. I’ve never found it very pleasant and I’m surprised you are pulling me up, given his first posting on this thread. Perhaps you know him better than I do?

    You refer to my ‘bland commonplaces.’ Does that mean you agree with them? I’m not certain you do, though I think I’ve been prepared to give fairly full replies fleshing out my position.

    I’ve not said that that the poll-tax movement is an anathema to parliamentary democracy. I. JUST. HAVEN’T. I’ve said that pressure groups are rivals to elected representatives and that those elected representatives should be prepared to make this case more than they do, and that policymakers should weigh arguments, not numbers. As you say, a bland commonplace. This is not an argument that I’m always surprised to see few people making and many people ignoring which is why I raise it. Apologies if this bores you.

    I’ve not said anything about Make Poverty History (I’m quite keen on it as an initiative – it was about kick-starting a public debate and raising public awareness – something that help politicians – I think I even had of those bits of MPH javascript on my site at the time) and it’s very different to protest movements that seek to change politics simply by a weight of numbers.

    I didn’t raise the poll-tax – someone else did. I’ve made the point a number of times that I don’t think it’s a particularly good case in point because it was about more than just pressure group politics.

    I’d be interested to see Richard Tuck’s book. There seems to be quite a market for this kind of thing at the moment, so it’s a good time for it.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 1:21 pm

  80. Sorry – that sentence should read:

    This is an argument is made less often than I would like it to be and I’m always surprised at how often it is ignored which is why I raise it.

    It’s still appalling grammar but I’m in a hurry. Soz.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 1:26 pm

  81. ’m surprised you are pulling me up

    I’m not.

    given his first posting on this thread

    Which was funny, and I like funny.

    Does that mean you agree with them?

    This isn’t a Trot blog. Most people who take part in the conversations at the Stoa aren’t committed to revolutionary politics, and I doubt there’s much call in these parts for replacing the House of Commons with workers’ councils. I certainly don’t plan to issue such a demand any time soon.

    But if you want a disagreement, why on earth say that pressure groups are “rivals” to elected representatives? They just aren’t. Even when they exert pressure, as the name implies, rather than making the kind of arguments you’d like them to be making.

    I’ve not said that that the poll-tax movement is an anathema to parliamentary democracy.

    I didn’t say you had; I said you’d insinuated it. And you have.

    You’ve sketched a vision of parliamentary democracy in which the job of actors outside parliament is to supply MPs with information, to help their deliberations, and if they do anything else, like try to exercise pressure of any kind, they are to be considered as “hostile rivals” to MPs. You haven’t said anything balanced and moderate and reasonable, like “I can see why MPs might not like getting heat from campaigning groups, but it’s all part of the rough and tumble of electoral politics”, and you’ve consistently implied that this kind of pressure group politics is in sharp tension with what you call “representative democracy”.

    You clearly think this representative democracy is in a pretty fragile state, because you think that the incredibly mild antics of Bob Marshall-Andrews MP, involving taking part in Have I Got News for You and showing up at a weird by-election with David Davis and a bunch of loony candidates makes him a “cynic”, and you’ve explicitly linked “cynicism” to opposition to the kind of democracy you like (in a somewhat circular manner, but let that pass).

    Now, Bob’s behaviour is almost entirely inconsequential, but you nevertheless find him “detestable” in virtue of it. The anti-poll tax campaign, on the other hand, seems to combine all the elements of the politics you don’t much like (it’s not especially deliberative, mobilisation goes on almost entirely outside parliament, the people involved in it have contempt for the opinions and the authority of the parliamentary majority, and so on), and it was highly effective in achieving its aims, playing a major (even if perhaps not decisive) part in the removal of the sitting prime minister and the abandoning of the policy the following year.

    Your response is to deny that the campaign was especially effective. But if it weren’t effective, that’s yet another reason for you – following the implications of your own commitments – to denounce it. They smash up Trafalgar Square, organise a mass law-breaking campaign, denounce the “distributed moral wisdom” of the Conservative parliamentary majority — and all for nothing! What stupid, destructive, cynical/idealist, Bob Marshall-Andrews-loving people they must be!

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 1:58 pm

  82. Alright, alright! Bob isn’t detestable, OK? I retract it.

    Where I differ from you maybe is that I do think that parliamentary democracy is more fragile state than it has ever been. I think that a confluence of developments (media concentration, the collapse of local media, decline of cabinet government, increased indifference to political parties, key-seat strategies and increasing power of the parties, partisan and class deallignment and so on) means that parliament has to recast itself.

    I think that parliamentarians need to think about – and change – the way they approach their work and the way they present themselves. I use my blog to think aloud mostly (and other people’s comments boxes as well – ta for that!) and I’ve thought aloud about recasting representatives as being similar to clerics (i.e. vocational, highly overseen) or as jurists. I’ve not reached any conclusions but this is what interests me.

    I’m not sure whether I think that political power is an indivisible lump, but if it were, the way that it is being constantly re-carved is at the expense of elected representative, and commercial lobbies would like to pinch bits from them. I do think that pressure groups are rivals, and not complementary to elected representatives, and pressure groups are betting better at what they do. Don’t you buy my argument that parliament has rivals that compete for the powers that it exercises?

    That’s why I think that the question of whether you agree with those bland assertions or not isn’t a lightweight one. I’m all bubbly and enthusiastic about representative government. I make grand claims for it. Sometimes, I even do it to get an argument going (keep that under your hat, will you?)

    I think it’s great and it could be greater if we just stick to the formula and tease it out. For me “I suppose it’s OK” is a position that I’d disagree with as much as anything.

    We’re still at cross purposes about the anti-polltax issue, but I’ve already said that it’s not a very useful case-in-point.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 2:33 pm

  83. Soz – there should have been an ‘often’ in that sentence – near the end:

    “I do think that pressure groups are rivals,”

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 2:58 pm

  84. Where I differ from you maybe is that I do think that parliamentary democracy is more fragile state than it has ever been.

    I think people have been saying this in every political generation. Burke was, well, Burke. Opponents of Parliamentary reform were terrified that letting much of the middle class vote, let alone welcoming the People’s Charter, would wreck British politics. Conservatives opposed women’s suffrage (even though they knew they would probably benefit from it themselves politically). The formation of a Labour Cabinet in the 1920s made a lot of people very nervous indeed (though fears were allayed when the ministers turned up to the Palace in their black tie). The creation of the NHS was the biggest state landgrab since the dissolution of the monasteries. England was ungovernable in the 1970s. Thatcher tore up the traditional British way of doing things. The EU undermined the basis of parliamentary sovereignty. And now Oxfam is going to ruin everything for everyone, or something. We’ve been here before, and in thirty years time, when some version of parliamentary democracy is muddling through as usual, people will be making more big claims for why it’s never been so fragile (maybe it will be challenged by giant space ferrets from the Planet Zong).

    Sure – there are structural forces at work that are changing the nature of organised political competition in this country, and some of them don’t look good for the future of aspects of the current system that we might have good reason to like. But that’s always been true, and in the face of these kinds of transformations, I’m not sure the suggestion that things would get better if MPs became more like vicars (or whatever) is a terribly plausible one, or that the change will come about if enough of us suggest it’s a good idea on our blogs.

    Do I think pressure groups matter much? No, not really. I mean, sometimes they do. The Catholic Church played its cards very shrewdly over the drafting of the ECHR, for example, and now secular republicans can’t close down Catholic schools in the way that they once could. And obviously no one wants to live in a world in which corporate lobbyists write legislation on the scale that they do in the United States.

    But more generally — and certainly compared to lots of other tendencies in modern political life — I don’t spend significant time worrying about pressure groups, any more than I do about thinktanks or churches or sports clubs. One of the virtues of the UK parliamentary party system is that politicians don’t get bought by special interests in anything like the way they do in the US, and I don’t see that as likely to change any time soon (whatever my old friend Hopi Sen is busy implying about Alan Duncan).

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 3:25 pm

  85. One of the virtues of the UK parliamentary party system is that politicians don’t get bought by special interests in anything like the way they do in the US

    Well, in the sense that they have two real masters rather than one, yes, perhaps, but if the secondmaster (the party) doesn’t particularly mind about the influence of the first (which it doesn’t seem to) then does it really make a lot of difference?

    If we’re going to do electoral systems after all, by the way, I can bore on about the iniquities of the party list system. In that instance it seems to me to encourage corruption precisely because it makes people utterly dependent on the party system.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 3:35 pm

  86. (I don’t think party list systems are going to find any defenders at the Stoa.)

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 3:38 pm

  87. ejh

    “If we’re going to do electoral systems after all, by the way, I can bore on about the iniquities of the party list system. In that instance it seems to me to encourage corruption precisely because it makes people utterly dependent on the party system.”

    Total agreement. Bore away. Chris may want you to do it somewhere else tho…

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 3:40 pm

  88. Well, just briefly: it’s the way elections work where I am. You vote for a party, and simply they get as many people elected as is appropriate to their proportion of the vote. Which has several dubious consequences, including:

    (a) whoever is towards the top of a list for one of the two main parties is absolutely untouchable, they are bound to be elected ;

    (b) as your likelihood of being elected is dependent on one’s place in the list, you are wholly dependent on where the party places you. No mavericks here.

    Of course this means that council chambers are full of placemen, people you’ve never even heard of because it’s on the top one or two whose names appear on the posters. They are, as I said, untouchable: and they therefore have a lot of power but no accountability except to a party full of people exactly like them. So you get people who are invisible to the public, who have decision-making power, who are interested only in getting on and voting the way the party wants…. it’s a recipe.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 3:49 pm

  89. It’s worse than that even. The selection processes are loyalty tests, and this is quite explicit as well. The panel are selected from the party centre (and certainly when Labour did their first Euro seats panels in 1999, they were nominated by the NEC – not representative of the NEC).

    The local link is hugely diluted (you represent a much larger area) and the party members have very little say in who is on or off, or the ordering. The processes that they DO give them some say are mechanical and bureaucratic. Because the process is larger, local parties don’t really get involved even in the arms length way that they want to, so the organic personal link with local activists is gone.

    There isn’t an upward path from local government this way – you get selected by creeping around HQ so it exacerbates the ‘professional politico’ problem. Leading candidates are often ‘parachuted in’.

    Those near the top of the list have no incentive to campaign so – in a region where ten candidates are on the list, only two of them regard their future as being ‘in the balance.’ You can get elected without ever having to do any public campaigning.

    It’s a complete disaster in every way.

    Quote | Posted 6 August, 2008, 4:27 pm

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