What You Can Get Away With » Politics

Verso_978_1_84467_324_7_Ruling_the_void_300_Site-6c16fc1a36f99a2f191ca0f19b6cb162I’ve been reading a couple of interesting books this week: Colin Crouch’s Post-democracy and the late Peter Mair’s final book Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy.

Both of them share a common theme: that our understanding of how politics works, including the nature of our democracy, is wrong. For Crouch, post-democracy represents a time when corporate interests now overwhelm those of a citizenry that is incapable (and perhaps unwilling) to rpresent itself as effectively. Mair’s thesis is set out quite succinctly on the first page: “The age of party democracy has passed.”

The political systems of the 20th century developed around mass parties that served as intermediaries between the state and the people. However, across the past few decades and across almost all established democracies, the number of people who are members of or involved directly in political parties has dropped dramatically. In the 50s and 60s, almost 10% of the population of Britain was a member of a political party, but party membership has now dwindled so much that we’re almost at the point where it could round down to 0%.

The problem we have is that because this decline has been gradual, in the short term everything has looked as though it’s perfectly normal and any decline can easily be turned around. For instance, in the first few years of Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour membership started going up significantly, after decades of steady decline. However, after a few years, the downward trend continued again, but even faster this time, soon reaching the point it was already for before Blair. (See the graph on page 4 of this report for lots of peaks in all parties that fail to mask the long term decline)

The problem we have is because the breakdown has occurred so slowly, we’ve failed to notice that anything’s changed. Post-democracy is the end of a long process, not a sudden transformative change – we can’t point at one date or one event and say that all was fine before it and all was broken after it. What we have, though, is a system that has (in Mair’s words) been hollowed out and mass parties representing the whole population have been replaced by cartel parties that compete over a small patch of ground. We assume that people naturally identify with a party, when evidence suggests that is increasingly unlikely, and regarding a party as something that can automatically link the government with the people is becoming a weaker assumption every day.

Neither Mair or Crouch have solutions to offer for this issue, but given that the diagnosis hasn’t been accepted widely, why would the remedy? I think both books are definitely worth reading for anyone involved or interested in British politics, just to get a radically different view of how things are and to ask what we need to do to make things work again in the future. The Scottish referendum has shown us that there’s a huge wave of discontent with the system and how it works, and I don’t think we can close our eyes to it and pretend it’s not happening, or that carrying on with politics as usual is going to fix it.

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(Sal Brinton was the third to respond to the questions I posed in my earlier Presidential post, and here are her answers in full after the cut, which were originally left as a comment on the earlier post. You can, of course, ask any questions about her answers in the comments.)

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A few thoughts:

1) We don’t need a Dangerous Devolution Act

After decades of people talking about Britain needs to change, David Cameron appears to have put the accelerator right down, and in order to balance Scotland’s Devo Max England, Wales and Northern Ireland are going to get new powers at a lightning rate too. It’s the British system at it’s worst, with everyone running round like headless chickens to get something, anything done as quickly as possible in order to be seen to be doing something. As has been seen time and time again and the Dangerous Dogs Act is the exemplar of this speed-driven process – this just creates more trouble further down the line. We’ve taken years to get this far, we don’t need decisions now taken in days.

2) We only need one process

We had three separate petitions for a constitutional convention this morning, we’ve got Ed Miliband calling for one separately to David Cameron’s proposals and I’m sure other people are putting together their proposals and calls for action together right now. What we need is for all these people to come together and agree on one process for dealing with this, not hundreds of different competing ones that will amount to nothing. And it has to be an inclusive process, inviting people from across the political spectrum and outside of it to take part in it. Even if they choose not to, they have to have been given that opportunity to give it credibility.

3) New people need to have control of what happens next

Once the various people calling for change have got the ball rolling, they need to step back. This can’t just be a group of the usual suspects getting together to rubber stamp a few ideas floated down from Whitehall or Labour’s NEC which someone will then ram through Parliament. This has got to be a genuine process of the people, for the people and by the people, and the people not the politicos have to be the ones who run it and control it.

4) We need new language for this process

Yes, it’s a constitutional convention to talk about further devolution, but can’t we find some other words to describe it? If we genuinely want something new, then we have to be prepared to change the way we talk about it to get people involved, not just stick to the same old ways. People want change, and we need to ensure that this process delivers it with the widest involvement possible, and that change may need to involve us changing the language we talk about politics with.

Just a few thoughts at the end of a day without much sleep, so they’re loose, unfocused and subject to change. We need to be moving on this now and making things happen before the opportunity for mass involvement fades and it becomes a conversation of the elites again.

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One reason why getting more democracy and devolution is going to be a tough fight, illustrated in three tweets from the last few hours:


That’s three different petitions for a constitutional convention from three sources you would expect to have had some contact with each other in recent times and so would have been able to co-ordinate their efforts. There’s lots of support out there for the idea of a constitutional convention and lots of people wanting to be involved in the discussion of how we get a better democracy. The problem is that at just the time there needs to be some co-ordination and people speaking with coherence on this, it’s all getting dissipated because those who should be co-ordinating are all off doing their own thing.

We have a fantastic opportunity, possibly the best in my lifetime, for some genuine reform and better democracy across the UK, but we’re going to need to work together to achieve it, and focus it on one thing at a time, not multiple attempts to get the same thing in slightly different ways. Are we going to let it slip and end up with some classic British constitutional fudge dumped on us from Westminster instead?

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While I’ve been talking about the Scottish independence referendum online over the last few weeks, I’ve been careful to try not to talk about how I would have voted, or to tell the people of Scotland how to vote. If you want to understand why there are such resentments at the way the UK is governed, the tendency of many English people to assume that no one can make a decision before they’ve weighed in and given their opinion is a good place to start looking.

So, I’ve scheduled this post for a little after 10pm, when voting should have stopped and the only chance of me lecturing Scottish voters is if someone’s very bored stuck in a long queue to vote as the polls close. If you are that person, I hope you’re wait’s not too long, but be happy at the fact there’s a good chance you’ll appear in background footage on the news.

The main problem for me in thinking about how I would have voted is that a lot of the discussion has centred around two competing nationalisms – Scottish and British – and if there’s anything guaranteed to exclude me from a debate, it’s a question of which imagined community you think you belong to most. Both sides have been equally obnoxious in their proclamations that their nationalism is the best, though the hyperbole prize is surely won by Fraser Nelson’s claim that the UK is “the greatest force for good that the world has ever known.”

That leaves it to a decision based on practicalities, and I’m almost persuaded by the arguments of people like Charles Stross that an independent Scotland could be something new and different, a chance to start again in the early days of a better nation. (Though ‘break up the Westphalian system’ does sound like the slogan of the world’s most obscure Marxist fraction) However, the more I look, the more I see there’s nothing there behind the vision, and it’s far from the only vision of what an independent Scotland could be like. When Alex Salmond spends his time meeting regularly with Rupert Murdoch, admiring Vladimir Putin and getting massive donations from people like Brian Souter, I can’t help but wonder what the people with the power to shape it imagine an independent Scotland being like. For me, it’s not just the questions about the currency, but everything else about the new Scotland that hasn’t been answered that makes a Yes vote a jump into the dark, so my vote would have been a reluctant No.

But, I’m glad I didn’t get a vote, because this is Scotland’s decision not mine. Hearing people who don’t live there demand their right to a say scares me in some way because it makes me wonder about their understanding and regard for consent in other situations. It’s only a massive sense of English privilege that gives people the feeling that someone else shouldn’t be making a decision without their input, and that they should somehow have a veto over someone else’s decision. The idea that people somehow defined as Scottish but not living in Scotland should have a vote seems odd to me as well, for where do you draw the line? Should I have had a say because my grandfather was born in Scotland (it’d be enough for FIFA, I believe)? Should it just be limited to people within the UK or could people like David McAllister have a say too? The governance and government of a country should be a civic matter, not an ethnic one, and once you start complicating things with nationalism, everything gets a lot more complex.

Tonight, I’m going to sit back and watch the results come in and know whatever happens, it’s the people of Scotland who’ve decided. Quite what they’ve decided, we won’t know for a while – I think a Yes vote will lead to lots of negotiations and calls for another vote on the actual deal, while a No will lead to some people suddenly finding things much more important than devo max to talk about. Whatever the result, there’s a window of opportunity to talk about making a different and better government for a different and better UK, and we need to make sure they don’t close it.

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Having promised a while ago to try and explain some concepts from political science, I think it’s time to make a start. The first few posts on this are going to be about parties and party competition, partly because that’s an area I’ve been studying recently, and partly because I think it’ll be of most interest to a lot of you.

One thing we often here in discussions about politics is what type of party system a country has, specifically how many parties. For instance, the USA is generally referred to as a two-party system, Belgium is a multi-party system and the UK can be a two-party, three-party or multi-party system depending on who’s defining it and which election they’re looking at.

Wouldn’t it be good if there was a way to make a direct comparison across systems as to the relative number of parties? Luckily for us, and especially for this post – the Effective Number of Parties concept of Laakso and Taagepera. This is a relatively simple calculation that gives us the numbe rof parties in a system, calculated either in terms of their share of the vote (effective number of electoral parties, or ENEP) or share of the seats won (effective number of parliamentary parties, or ENPP).

(And now seems a good time to make this disclaimer – most concepts in political science are not universally applicable or universally accepted. Like many concepts, there are many critiques and refinements of Laakso-Taagepera, but as an introductory and explanatory tool it’s very good.)

enpThis is Laakso and Taagepera’s formula, and I can already see the furrowed brows of many of you as you try and work out what it means. What it means is that the effective number of parties in a system is calculated by taking the fraction of votes or seats won by each party, adding up the sum of the squares of those numbers and dividing 1 by that result to give the result. A couple of examples might make it clearer:

Suppose there are two parties, each getting 50% of the votes/seats. That means we have two shares of 0.5 and 0.5. 0.5 squared equals 0.25, so the total of the squares is 0.25+0.25=0.5. 1 divided by 0.5 is 2, and we thus have a two party system. The same calculation works for any system where the vote is divided equally between the parties. Four parties each with 25% will give an ENP of 4, 10 each with 10% will give an ENP of 10 and so on.

So far, so obvious and so unlikely to occur in reality. What happens when we apply it to the real world? Let’s take the 2010 general election result. In terms of votes, and only using parties who got 1% of the vote or more, we have the Conservatives on 36.1%, Labour on 29%, Lib Dems on 23%, UKIP on 3.1%, BNP on 1.9%, SNP on 1.7% and Greens at 1%. Adding the squares of all those up and dividing it into 1 gives us an ENEP of 3.72. In terms of seats, the Tories got 47.1%, Labour 39.7%, Lib Dems 8.8% and DUP 1.2% and this results in an ENPP of 2.58. (I cut off at 1% because shares below that make very little difference to the final result)

What does all this mean? Does it mean that we can now say Britain has an almost-four-party-system electorally but only a two-and-a-half-party-system in Parliament? Much as it might be tempting to use the figures in those way, that would be a simplistic view. The main use of ENEP and ENPP figures is a comparative one, allowing us to see trends across time and across countries. Luckily, I don’t now have to go through and do the ENP calculations for every British election, as here’s one someone else made earlier, and we can also find comparative ENEP and ENPP figures for other European countries.

The key point about ENEP and ENPP figures is that while they might make for vaguely interesting numbers when calculated for one election, their real use is in making those comparisons over time or between countries. For instance, the British series shows us that the trend in Parliamentary elections is for both to increase, while the European data shows that while the numbers are increasing, we’re still below the European average. However, what they also show is that ENEP and ENPP tend to be closer in other countries than they are in the UK (and France), which helps illustrate the different effects of proportional and majoritarian voting systems.

Party systems and the way parties compete in them is a very complicated field, but I hope this has given a bit of an introduction to one part of it. As I said, there are other ways to examine and calculate the number of parties (as well as amendments to Laakso-Taagepera) but the original calculation of ENP is an easy one to explain and create some useful initial data with. It’s also a good way of showing trends across time and letting us see if there has been a long-term change in voting patterns. One interesting use of ENP data in a UK context has been to compare UK-wide figures with voting patterns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, especially comparing Westminster voting patterns to voting for the devolved governments.

If you want to read more on this, I’d recommend Alistair Clark’s Political Parties in the UK or (if you can find it) Paul Webb’s The Modern British Party System (Clark was published in 2012 so is more up to date, Webb is older but has more theoretical background).

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KNOW_MAIN_01When I was younger, it was the robots we feared. The future seemed to be going in an obvious direction: as long as we managed to dodge the threat of nuclear destruction, we’d get to watch as automation drove the world towards utopia. Machines would take over all the routine work – and pretty much all work would be routine work – leaving us free to spend our time on more useful pursuits, and utilising revolutionary new communications technology to access information from around the world and keep in touch with friends, wherever they may be. Maybe we had some doubts about the possibility of holidays in space and hotels on the moon, but all we really had to worry about was the rise of the robots. What if we became too dependent on them and sank into a lotus-eating torpor, or what if they developed their own sentience and overthrew their tyrannical human masters?

The real message was clear. If we weren’t particles of fallout or soldiers in the Great Robot War, we’d be freeing ourselves from the drudgery of having to work every day, giving everyone time to what they really loved, and that would make the world a better place. By the early twenty-first century, we’d be working four-hour days or fifteen-hour weeks as work withered away and a better society would be starting to take form.

And yet somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that dream. Now, we almost make a fetish of work, denounce sloth and idleness with all the fervour of a Calvinist preacher and no longer dream of a world where the amount of work we all do is reduced. Rather than freeing us from work, we let technology bind us closer to us, enabling us to check our emails at all hours of the day, to video-conference in from holiday just to ensure we’re not missed. We mock the French for their 35-hour week – how can anyone serious only work seven hours a day? – and the Germans for the idea that work emails should be banned from the home.

An idea I’ve had floating around in my head for a while is the concept of ‘workism’ as one of the true dominant ideologies of the current age. I’ve mentioned it in passing a few times before, and it was given a nudge by David Graeber’s article ‘On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs‘, which summarises and presents the issues a lot better than I can.

I was struck by the idea of workism as a dominant ideology, subsuming others inside it, by some of my reading this week. After finishing Race Plan, I went on to Britannia Unchained“>Britannia Unchained (quick summary: Tory MPs with safe seats and backgrounds in think tanks reckon everyone else should work harder) both of which unconsciously parrot the tenets of workism. In a staggering passage, Britannia Unchained compares the working life of a tube driver (well paid, protected, 35-hour working week and plenty of holiday time) with a minicab driver (poorly paid, working 60-hour weeks with no job protection and no other benefits) and holds up the minicab driver as the example we should all be striving to emulate.

This is the triumph of workism over our dreams of leisure: we do not envy those who have managed to work less, but pillory them instead, insisting that there’s something wrong with them having plenty of time to themselves when that time could be offered up to meaningless productivity instead. Education is made subordinate to work too – schools, colleges and universities are no longer about creating well-rounded and educated individuals, but are judged solely on how well they equip people for the workplace.

The question to be asked, then, is how and when did workism came to prominence and how did it manage it without anyone noticing? There are no explicit manifestos to workism, no grand statement of ideological principles and denunciation of leisure, yet it sits at the heart of so much contemporary debate as an unchallenged assumption. We make a fetish out of work and if people can’t find it, we insist they participate in crude facsimiles of it to justify themselves.

Or is the problem that we got too lost in our dreams of the future to work out how to make it real?Did we spend too much time worrying about the problems of a leisure society – just how are we going to deal with the robot rebellion? – to realise that it wasn’t inevitable? Workism didn’t promise any utopias in the future, so had no need to challenge those dreams, but in the present there was no one to stop its rise or even consider it a threat. The clear challenge, then, for those of us who want to see the future of leisure we dreamt off is how do we challenge workism now and plot the path to that better future?

One way I would suggest is through the basic income, which appears to be coming back into prominence as an idea and is a simple idea to explain: everyone, regardless of circumstance receives a basic income that helps them meet their needs. This means people are free to work as they choose, rather than as they are compelled to. It changes the nature of the argument away from the idea that we should find fulfilment through our work, regardless of what it is, but that we can find our own way of fulfilment doing the work we choose. It also accepts that there are many valid ways to live that we do not currently classify as work.

I think there’s a lot more to be talked, thought and written about on workism before I come to any definite conclusions, but I think it’s something we need to acknowledge. Things have changed in my lifetime, and I want to know if we’re stuck on this course that will end with us all pledging to work as hard as we can, or if there’s another way we can go.

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Nick Robinson of the BBC demonstrates the self-awareness that he’s famous for:


Yes, Westminster’s style of politics is entirely the fault of MPs. Absolutely none of the problems with the politics in our country come from the media’s insistence on treating it all as a game or a Punch and Judy show of mutual loathing and shouting. That political journalism frequently eliminates any nuance in order to drive forward the narrative it has determined the story must be about has no bearing on the way people regard politics. There is absolutely no symbiotic relationship between a media desperate to fill air time cheaply and a political class who are desperate to appear on air as much as possible.

I’m glad Nick Robinson has made that clear.

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Via Jonathan Calder, the words of a Telegraph ‘political commentator’:

For very good reasons, Britain’s political parties do not campaign on election day.

This will likely confuse all of you reading this who are involved in politics, though I’m sure we’ll all be glad to know that we get polling day off after those long campaigns. All that getting up at 5am to deliver the first leaflet of the day, followed by hours of knocking on doors and more delivery must just have been a recurring bad dream I had every May.

Or it may just be that we don’t understand what campaigning is. Iain Martin, the journalist who wrote those words, got into a conversation with Lib Dem activist Chris Lovell last night, appears to think campaigning consists of just rallies and speeches and anything else is just “people with clipboards driving voters to polling stations”.

But then, is that all most journalists see of political campaigns? Most journalists writing about politics have never had any direct experience of it or involvement with it, and their job consists of going where the parties tell them to go to and working out which spin doctor’s stories they’re going to pay the most attention to when they write their stories. For them, political campaigns are a mix of media stunts, rallies and Important Speeches by Important People where the only role of party members and activists is to make up a useful backdrop and make sure they hold the placards the right way up. As none of this happens on polling day and journalists don’t have any invites to anything until the counting starts, it’s easy to make the assumption that there’s no campaigning going on.

Whereas most activists will tell you that polling day is the most important and busiest of the campaigning. The reason everyone looks hollow-eyed at the count is because they’ve been up since the early hours of the morning (assuming they got any sleep at all) and subsisting on whatever food they can grab. The big campaign events may not be happening – because they won’t get any coverage in the media – but all the other parts of campaigning are going at full tilt.

For a journalist – and specifically one credited as a political commentator – to claim that there’s no campaigning on polling day reveals just how shallow most coverage of politics is. Campaigns are like icebergs – there’s a very visible part on the surface, but a whole lot more happening beneath that. Journalists used to know this, but now they’re so dazzled by the bit on the surface, they imagine there’s nothing going on underneath.

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(Liz Lynne was the second to respond to the questions I posed in my earlier Presidential post, and here are her answers in full after the cut. I’ve formatted them as she had them in the Word document she sent but not edited them in any way, but please tell me if anything looks wrong. You can, of course, ask any questions about her answers in the comments.)

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