» Politics ¦ What You Can Get Away With

My post earlier reminded me of something I’d read before that was even more illustrative of belief in the One True Party than the article I linked in it.

This piece, in response to the Guardian’s endorsement of the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 election, is a perfect illustration of how some will argue that you must support the One True Party whatever it has done or might do. I really can’t describe the full oddness of it, but if it was about religion instead of politics, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written by a cult member. It’s that special.

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I don’t normally read LabourList, but this morning someone on Twitter linked to this article about Labour’s fight against the Greens. It starts out almost sensibly, then descends into such a pit of belligerent tribalism that I began wondering if it was a parody. (Then I noticed it was by arch-Blairite ‘moderate’ Luke Akehurst, and was assured it was serious)

There’s a certain category of politico – and I’ve seen them more in Labour, but they exist in every party – who are convinced that theirs is the One True Party and argue that case with a near-religious zeal. In this world view, anyone who disagrees can only do so because they are evil or misguided. There are only two sides to any political debate – the right side and the wrong side – and the One True Party is invariably on the right side. Anyone who disagrees with the One True Party is obviously evil, and anyone who suggests there might be a way to achieve something that’s not the One True Party’s way is misguided.

This is what lies at the root of Akehurst’s assault on the Greens – that they’re getting in the way of Labour, his One True Party. His arguments aren’t based much on ideology (and when they are, it’s all about how hard it is to triangulate Greens) but purely on the principle that Labour are always right, thus Labour need to be in power, and thus anyone who gets in the way of that is harmful and needs to be stopped. The Greens didn’t actually win a seat in Hackney – in Akehurst’s view, they ‘blocked’ someone from Labour getting their rightful place on the council. Greens aren’t people with different views and arguments, they’re ‘a huge drain on campaigning resources’, because all that matters is how the One True Party does. It’s probably the statement that ‘if you want PR for councils at least let your primary motive be improving Labour representation in rural areas, not giving a free pass to the Greens in councils where we have been fighting for years to stop them getting elected’ that shows the One True Party view most clearly. The idea that PR might be a good thing in itself cannot even be processed, and everything must be judged in terms of how it helps or hinders the party.

One True Party types exist in all parties, though, not just Labour and we shouldn’t pretend that they’ve never served a useful purpose for their parties. In a time of tribal and class-based politics, where voters (and even activists) generally had little information to work on, it was important to build loyalty to the party as an institution, not necessarily the ideas behind it. When most elections were just about two parties, descending into tribalism ‘the One True Party is always right’ partisanship does make a certain kind of sense.

We’re not in those times any more. Obviously, for some people politics still is a predominantly tribal affair, or even just a game between opposing sides where winning is the only important thing, no matter how you get there. However, I’d argue that with the breakdown of strong loyalties to parties amongst the voting public, this sort of approach isn’t likely to attract support in the way it used to. Trading insults back and forth with your opponents might feel good to the One True Party activist, but it’s not likely to attract the voter who knows that there are no true parties, just a group of different parties that might do different things. When offered with ‘you must vote for us because we’re right about everything’ in several different forms, is it any wonder when they go for something entirely different?

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Until I’d read this Guardian story about it I’d never heard of KidZania. That was possibly a good thing, because now I’m despairing that we live in a world in which it exists. If you’ve never heard of it until now, here’s how they describe themselves:

KidZania provides children and their parents a safe, unique, and very realistic educational environment that allows kids between the ages of four to twelve to do what comes naturally to them: role-playing by mimicking traditionally adult activities. As in the real world, children perform “jobs” and are either paid for their work (as a fireman, doctor, police officer, journalist, shopkeeper, etc.) or pay to shop or to be entertained. The indoor theme park is a city built to scale for children, complete with buildings, paved streets, vehicles, a functioning economy, and recognizable destinations in the form of “establishments” sponsored and branded by leading multi-national and local brands.

Yes, your kids can have a fun day out learning that their lives will be worthless unless they hand themselves over to a multinational brand. KidZania, it seems, allows kids to have a small amount of fun at the start, but then they have to go and earn themselves some ‘KidZos’ by working before they can do anything else. Yes, someone’s finally found a way to drain all the fun out of kids dressing up and role-playing, and made sure it’s now a ‘learning experience’ where kids can ‘acquire real-life skills, learn about working and having a career and are introduced to the fundamentals of financial literacy’. Because that’s a fun day out, not a hideous penetration of the adult world into the child’s. What is wrong with letting children just have a good time? In other contexts, child labour is a bad thing, yet somehow KidZania strives to make it acceptable.

I’ve written before about how we’ve let workism conquer the world, and this is a perfect example of it. People don’t usually accept and adopt ideologies out of the blue, and they often just accept the ideologies they’re exposed to as a child. Just like Soviet children could join the Young Pioneers to develop Marxism-Leninism from an early age, so KidZania can instil the value of workism and loyalty to corporations from an early age. There’s something sickeningly admirable in how it takes something kids already do by themselves, removes all the imagination from it, sticks some advertising on top and then charges for the privilege of doing it. (And, of course, makes sure that the parents have plenty of opportunities to spend their money in the nearby shops while their kids are kept busy)

I’m all for giving kids a chance to play in their own world and not be told what to do by adults, but KidZania is only pretending to be that. Read through their site and you’ll find that this supposedly child-run world is anything but:

“Zupervisors” are on hand to introduce AND provide support for each activity. Zupervisors are trained adults who guide and help kids accomplish their tasks as they work and play.

Everything in KidZania is planned out and organised, with children being led through an experience, not set free to discover for themselves. It’s perhaps a perfect metaphor for a world run by workism, where big corporations have laid out the unalterable framework of experience and everyone’s task is to process along the appointed routes, with supervisors in place to make sure no one wanders too far from the crowd. Notice that the ‘jobs’ on offer are all about working for someone in a prescribed role, not about anything involving creativity, individuality, learning for its own sake or researching.

All it needs to completely represent their future is to allow rich parents to buy currency for their children so they don’t have to do any work while they’re there and can just enjoy watching all the others work while they don’t have to, but still get all the rewards. Or maybe that would lead to the kids learning too much too young?

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***BESTPIX*** Labour Launches Scottish Independence Referendum CampaignAs the Scottish Labour Party breaks from tradition to form the circular firing squad before the election and find itself without a leader, speculation has begun on who could replace Johann Lamont as the holder of one of British politics most coveted poisoned chalices.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Scottish politics, so I’m not going to comment on the potential of all the candidates but one name that’s been floated has caught my attention: Gordon Brown. At least one MP is pressing the former Prime Minister to stand, and his role in the referendum campaign would make him a strong contender for the role.

However, if he were to do it, Brown would be unique amongst former British Prime Ministers in choosing to get involved at another level of politics after leaving Downing Street. of course, this is mainly due to their not being many other meaningful levels of politics in Britain that former Prime Ministers could get involved in prior to 1997, but even if we look internationally to countries with more federal systems there’s are very few similar examples.

Indeed, the only example that readily comes to mind is that of Jacques Chirac, who served as French Prime Minister from 1974-6, then became Mayor of Paris in 1977. However, the French Prime Minister is very much subordinate to the President, and the mayoralty of Paris was a newly created/restored role in 1977, making it a perfect position for someone like Chirac to stand for to keep his political prominence high.

After that, the best examples I could find were Richard Nixon, running for Governor of California after being Vice-President of the United States, and (thanks to Richard) Eduard Shevardnadze, going from Foreign Minister of the USSR to President of Georgia (though that was after the dissolution of the USSR). Even in countries with strongly federal systems, the direction of travel for politicians appears to be relentlessly upwards and towards the centre. Once one has reached the peak, there’s no stepping back to a lower role. (Another British exception, in a slightly different way is Alec Douglas-Home returning to his previous role as Foreign Secretary in Edward Heath’s government)

Of course, one major explanation for this is the question of age. Leaders tend to leave their roles at a time when most people are retiring, and they’re probably not to blame for, in the most part, deciding that a period of lecturing, memoir-writing and well-paid advising is a much better way of spending their time than getting involved in a completely different politics. However, as leaders become younger and leave office at a younger age while health improves and being 65 isn’t an end to everything, isn’t there a temptation to continue on in politics in some form if possible? In a system that now tends to throw leaders out after they’ve lost one election, rather than let them try to return to power, isn’t seeking another arena a logical choice?

All that said, I’m still not convinced that Brown becoming leader of Scottish Labour is much more than a very late silly season story, but someone has to be the first to do something, so why not let it be him?

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The Tories have clearly decided that they have to win the Rochester and Strood by-election, and are willing to throw everything they have at ensuring they get their victory. As happened with Newark, they’ve told all MPs they have to pay a number of visits to the constituency, and David Cameron may well go there for five campaign trips. (Another sign of my advancing age is that I can remember when Tony Blair’s one visit to the 1997 Uxbridge by-election was regarded as a major change in protocol for a Prime Minister)

Throwing the kitchen sink at trying to hold a seat in a by-election from UKIP isn’t a rare event any more, but some of the news that’s coming out is making me wonder if the Tories are so focused on the short-term gain of holding the seat, they’re not seeing the potential damage they’re doing in the long run.

First up, there are already rumours floating around that someone is doing push-polling that’s attacking Tory MP turned UKIP candidate Mark Reckless. (‘Push-polling’ is a practice common in US elections where negative messages about a candidate are spread by means of purported phone polling) Whether this is happening or not, the idea that it is has caught traction amongst UKIP supporters, as I discovered when I mentioned it on Twitter on Sunday. Now, there may well be nothing in these rumours, but they fit in with the mindset and narrative of UKIP supporters that they’ve got ‘the establishment’ frightened, and the only way it can stop them is to fight dirty.

As part of the Tory campaign to hold Rochester and turn back UKIP, they’ve used an open primary to select their candidate, giving everyone in the constituency a postal vote to choose between the final two contenders on the Tory shortlist. As you might expect, mailing every voter in a constituency (and paying for their freepost return envelopes) costs a lot of money. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, as Tories tend to have (or be able to get) a lot of money and election spending limits don’t usually apply to candidate selection. However, that might not be the case in Rochester. As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reports here, the Tories are working under advice from the Electoral Commission that this spending doesn’t count towards the £100,000 spending limit for the by-election, but other lawyers aren’t so sure that’s the case. As Crick points out, this raises the prospect of the Tories winning the by-election, but then having that victory invalidated in an election court. Given the time it would take for a complaint to be filed and an election court to sit, it’s unlikely there’d have to be a second by-election before the General Election, but I don’t think that’s the important point.

The key about the push-polling story isn’t whether or not it’s happening, it’s that it feeds into the existing UKIP narrative. We’ve all seen the way they rant about ‘the LibLabCon’ and complain about how they’re excluded by the metropolitan elite consensus. Now, I’m quite sure that the regular media commentators would probably dismiss a challenge in an election court as just some arcane quibbling over the rules, but imagine how that story would play out amongst UKIP members and supporters? Cries of ‘they had to break the law to beat us!’ and ‘we played by the rules, they didn’t!’ would be rife amongst them and what’s more, it would feed into the narrative they give to their voters. We’re proper hard-working people who believe in doing the right thing and playing by the rules, but those politicians up in Westminster don’t think the laws should apply to them. They broke the law to stop us winning in Rochester, what makes you think they’re going to listen to you? and so on. As with Matthew Parris’s comments on Clacton, media commentators dismissing any legal challenge would be portrayed as out of touch and ignoring the concerns of the ‘real people’. It’s the perfect way for UKIP to show that they’re the victims of an Establishment stitch-up. It might not appear that way amongst the commentariat, but it would play well on the social media grapevine.

For their sake, I hope the Tories aren’t just relying on the Electoral Commission’s advice that their spending on the primary doesn’t count towards the by-election, and have taken some other legal advice. If they win in Rochester and Strood, they need to do it fairly and be above challenge, otherwise the short-term anti-UKIP firewall it creates could be buried beneath the greater costs they’ll pay for winning it.

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snp_cards_and_coin_0A comment by Andrew Hickey got me thinking this morning about how the SNP’s surge in membership fits in a European context. In the post-referendum period, the party now reportedly has 80,000 or more members which makes it the third-largest UK party by membership, but also means its membership is about 2% of the total Scottish electorate. (As a comparison, to achieve that UK-wide, a party would need a membership of over 900,000)

Luckily, to place that into a European context, I don’t need to do a huge amount of work because someone else has already looked at party membership in general across Europe. Van Biezen, Mair and Poguntke looked at the decline of party membership across Europe and their original paper not only includes the overall membership figures for each country, but breaks it down by party. By looking through their figures, I’ve found the following parties that all have around 2% or more of the electorate as members:

Austria: Peoples Party – OVP (700k members/11% of population) and Social Democratic Party – SPO (300k/5%)
Bulgaria: Bulgarian Socialist Party (210k/3%)
Cyprus: Democratic Rally – DISY (40k/9%) and Democratic Party – DIKO (19k/4%)
Finland: Centre Party – KESK (192k/5%)
Greece: New Democracy (350k/4%) and PASOK (210k/2.5%)
Spain: People’s Party (725k/2%)

(Note that these figures are from around 2008, so don’t include new parties that might have reached the 2% milestone by now, or reflect any drop in members since they were obtained. I’d be very surprised if the Greek figures were still even vaguely accurate, for example. They also don’t include regional or national parties like the SNP like the Catalan nationalist parties or the Italian Lega Nord that might make an interesting comparison.)

What these figures do show is that the SNP’s relative size is definitely a rare feat in modern Europe. To have 2% of a population as members of a single political party is rare, even when there’s a general trend of higher party membership than there is in the UK. Most of the countries with a higher percentage achieve that by having membership scattered across several parties, with none reaching 2% or more of the electorate.

While the trend across Europe has been for a gradual decline in party membership, I do need to re-emphasise that these figures aren’t based on current data and so don’t reflect the appeal of new parties and movements. While I suspect the SNP’s tripling of membership post-referendum isn’t common, it would be interesting to see membership trends in other nationalist/regionalist/separatist groups since 2008, as well as the membership levels and trends of new political movements like Greece’s Syriza or Italy’s Five Star Movement. The interesting question is whether the downward trend in membership is set to continue inevitably or if it’s linked solely to the persistence of existing parties and can be reversed by introducing new ones to a political system.

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I mentioned Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracyin a post during the week, so thought it was time I explained the area of his theories that has possibly had the most impact on politics.

Downs_Figure_2Downs’ work originates from the work of twentieth century rational choice theorists. Downs was looking at all areas of how rational individuals approach politic, but for this post we’ll just be looking at the ‘Downsian Model’ (also known as spatial theory and the median voter model). This assumes that voters are arranged in a normal distribution, with the bulk of voters in the centre and gradually reducing numbers of voters to the left and right of that centre. (See the diagram, where 50 is the ‘centre ground’, 0 is extreme left, 100 is extreme right and the vertical axis is the number of voters of that view) It’s important to note that this is a model of the real world, an approximation of the actual position in order to create and test theories, not a claim that this is exactly how people are organised. Downs was seeking to explain why political parties in a majoritarian system like the USA’s tended to converge ideologically upon the centre ground.

Downs assumed that a rational voter would vote for whichever party was closest to their views. For instance, a voter at point 70 would be more likely to vote for a party at point 75 than one at point 50, and a voter at point 50 would be more likely to vote for a party at point 40 than one at point 65.

The key to electoral victory – and why this is also known as the median voter model – is capturing the centre ground and the median voter at point 50. In a two-party system, whichever party best appeals to that mass of voters at the mid-point (which includes the theoretical median voter, whose views are the exact ideological centrepoint of the nation) will win a majority of the vote. As Downs assumes that parties are vote-seeking and power-seeking, this gives them a clear motivation to appeal to that median voter. As an example of how this thinking works:

If we assume that a ‘left’ party exists with an ideology at point 25 and a ‘right’ party exists with an ideology at point 75, what we would expect to see is votes splitting 50-50. The median voter (the one sitting at the ideological centre point of 50) will be equidistant between the two parties, while everyone to the left of them would be closer to the left party and everyone to the right of them closer to the right party. If the left party then moved its ideology towards the centre (say to point 35), things would change. The midpoint between the two parties would now be at point 55, and everyone to the left of that would back the left party, giving them a majority as they are now closer to the median voter than the right. The right party would then be expected to react by moving its ideology closer to the centre, and so on and so forth until both parties are right up against the centre.

It’s important to note that while this is the most commonly seen use of Downs, he didn’t say that all societies had preferences distributed in the same manner, and also looked at what might happen with different distributions of voters. For instance, in one where voters were distributed roughly equally between views, or with a number of peaks in the distribution, parties wouldn’t have the same pressure on them to move, and there would be more of an opening for multiple parties to emerge. It’s also missed by many that Downs was proposing a model, and models in political science are always simplifications. As with many rational choice theories, Downs was trying to establish a framework of how things would be if everything was fully rational, not saying that was the way it had to be. Indeed, by setting up a model of what should happen if everything was rational, we can see where things are actually irrational, which are more likely to be interesting to study. After all, where’s the fun in writing ‘everything went exactly as the theory predicted’?

That hasn’t stopped people – including many who advise, or want to advise, political leaders – of assuming that Downs was making recommendations, not theories, and since the publication of his work in the 50s, we’ve seen many people assuming the only way to assure political victory is to head to the centre. Note that this is to take all of Downs’ assumptions – including the left-right spectrum and the normal distribution of voters along it – as given, when they might not necessarily be the case.

There’s been a lot of writing that’s followed on from Downs in the decades since An Economic Theory Of Democracy was first published, and it’d be foolish to try and summate it all in a single blog post. Suffice to say, though, that there’s been plenty studied and written on every aspect of it, from the question of whether people form coherent enough political views to be able to judge which parties are closer to them to the ongoing issue of whether the left-right spectrum is the best way to look at people’s political views. So, the objections you’re already thinking of have likely been asked already, but it doesn’t mean they’ve been answered.

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