When Labour lost its soul, and the next election – Simon Wren-Lewis on Labour’s mistakes in abstaining on the welfare reform bill.
I gave up Ayn Rand for Bernie Sanders – An interesting perspective from the US on how the concerns that drive some towards the libertarianism of the right can be redirected towards the left.
10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Gaslighting – “Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality. There’s a good chance that you now know more about gaslighting than most therapists.”
How Democracy Works – Andrew Rilstone examines how his conception of it diverges from Harriet Harman’s.
A Terrorism Case In Britain Ends In Acquittal, But No One Can Say Why – Lots of questions arising from this, including ‘really?’, ‘am I breaking the law by posting this link?’ and ‘is this linked to the secret courts legislation, or some other bit of state security restrictions?’
When Labour lost its soul, and the next election – Simon Wren-Lewis on Labour’s mistakes in abstaining on the welfare reform bill.
Today’s shock political news is that a member of a political party has said that party will vote against the Queen’s Speech of a party it generally disagrees with should it be in a position to do so. This should be something so routine it doesn’t even need to be mentioned, but apparently because the party talking about it is the SNP, this becomes a grand constitutional matter, not an issue of regular politics in the House of Commons.
Indeed, according to the Tories, this would be “trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people” which is a bit rich coming from a party that feels it has a divine right to unfettered rule of the country despite not having received even forty percent of the vote at a general election for over two decades. That the same British people would, in these circumstances, not have given any party a majority in the Commons while returning sufficient SNP MPs to give them this power, would be completely irrelevant. For the Tories, the democratic will is only relevant if it gives them power through the random workings of our broken electoral system, and is to be ignored at all other times. We should be prepared for lots of people telling us what the democratic will of the people is over the next few months, most of which will likely not fit with what the people actually said in the election.
Of course, this is only a story because the SNP are involved as it seems that them doing almost anything that any other political party would do – including getting elected – is somehow an affront to the established order. Part of this is due to the belief that the No vote in the referendum should have reset the system back to the old status quo, and so they’re not following the script and disappearing back into obscurity, and so the SNP are seen as somehow illegitimate representatives, their MPs different to the others. The message appears to be that the establishment is very glad that Scotland decided to stay as part of the UK, but that they’re not allowed to use that membership to elect a party that will explicitly push for their interests, no matter how good its proved to be at doing that.
In this context, it appears that the “democratic will of the British people” only includes those British people who don’t vote for the SNP. The people of Scotland have chosen to remain as part of Britain, and they have just as much right to have their say as everyone else in the UK. Everyone’s democratic will gets to be expressed in the election and the Commons afterwards, not just the people who’ve voted the right way.
What happens if you subtract politics from itself? That might sound like a particularly difficult question from a Taoist political theory exam, but it’s something James Palumbo would like us to discover from the inside. (Yes, that’s Baron Palumbo of Southwark, appointed such for his important contribution to contributions)
Drawing on his experience of starting a business from scratch with only a large family trust fund and eight years experience working in the City behind him, he’s decided that we don’t need to be ruled by politicians any more (people with unelected seats for life in Parliament excepted, obviously). Apparently, based on his personal experience, Government only operates at ’30 per cent efficiency’ because politicians don’t know what they’re doing, and ‘experts’ would run everything better.
(Before you ask, don’t be silly, he doesn’t provide any evidence or quantification for his ’30 per cent efficiency’ idea, or any experts to back this up. You might think that this weakens his argument, but I couldn’t possibly comment.)
Yes, we don’t need democracy any more, because Palumbo’s invented ‘Democracy 2.0’ which would apparently ‘share many of the guiding principles to which our society holds dear’, though I’m not quite sure what they are as principles like choice, voting and the ability to remove a government don’t appear to be in there. Instead, ‘experts’ would run the country, and all of them would supposedly have some sort of qualification that would be mandatory before entering government. (Using qualifications as a barrier to stop people participating in the political process is something that would never be abused, of course)
Once in place, these experts would all then decide what was best for the country and make sure the country got it good and hard without having to rely on such outdated Democracy 1.0 ideas like elections, parliaments or accountability. Being experts, they would all naturally agree on what the country needed – which would be entirely in agreement with what James Palumbo wants – and be able to deliver it. Presumably, they all would be able to raise Palumbo’s perceived 30% efficiency level too using their magical powers of expertness.
From this viewpoint, Democracy 2.0 appears to have a lot in common with Technocracy 1.0 (and bears lots in resemblance with other people’s ‘upgrades’ of democracy) and suffers all the flaws common to technocratic dreams. Ironically, the biggest flaw of most wannabe technocrats is one they accuse democrats of: believing that there is only one way of doing things. It seems that in all his years, Palumbo hasn’t noticed that experts often disagree and there are many different ways to reach your goal, even assuming we can all agree on what the end goal is. You’d think someone in business might have noticed that there are are many different ways of doing things, or perhaps Palumbo thinks all clubs and record labels are run exactly like the Ministry of Sound. After all, I’m sure business experts agree there’s only one way to run a business, don’t they?
I’ve discussed this before, but Palumbo isn’t alone in his believe that democracy could be ‘improved’ by somehow removing all the democratic aspects from it. (For more on this concept, read Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy) Indeed, I suspect that if we get an inconclusive election result in May, we’ll likely hear calls for it increasing in volume and frequency, and it’s already an undertone in some of the calls for a grand coalition.
I have a rule that whenever someone says ‘let’s take the politics out of this’, what they’re really saying is nothing more than ‘let’s all agree with me’. Proposing to take politics out of politics is nothing more than James Palumbo believing he’s right about everything, and any potential impediments to the people being exposed to the full benefits of his rightness must be swept away. It’s an incredibly illiberal and undemocratic position for a supposedly Liberal Democrat peer to take, but I’m sure anyone calling for the party to take action over it will find themselves denounced as being illiberal and undemocratic. Maybe we’ll need to call in an expert to decide it.
The Time Everyone “Corrected” the World’s Smartest Woman – Marilyn Vos Savant solved the Monty Hall Problem, even if a lot of people wanted to tell her that she hadn’t.
Is Work Good? – “the problem that comes with this one-eyed focus on paid work is that there is a grave danger it reinforces the value of paid work only at the cost of reducing the value of other human activities and social roles. Paid work is only one kind of work; and doing paid work is only one way of being human.”
Are You Man Enough for the Men’s Rights Movement? – GQ meets some of the MRAs, and it’s not an edifying spectacle. (Warning: article contains discussion of rape and abuse, as well as the usual MRA bullshit)
Why Natalie Bennett should shrug off this ‘humiliation’ – “Therefore, nobody in opposition – not Bennett, not Ed Miliband, not Nigel Farage – should ever get into a conversation about how they will fund something without first underlining that the way things exist at the moment is completely wrecked. The status quo is broken; it’s not even static, it’s constantly worsening.”
Democratising the Scottish NHS: A recent experiment in electing Health Board Directors did not prove successful – Relevant to my last post: just making a position elected doesn’t magically create more democracy.
One thing that surprised me when I first lived in the US, and continues to stand out as an oddity to me is the election of judges. It confuses John Oliver too, leading to this segment on Last Week Tonight:
For me, it’s a great example of an idea I’ve talked about often, that democracy is not just about having elections, and having more elections doesn’t automatically make things more democratic. Democracy is an ongoing process, not a single event, and that process needs lots of different parts to work together to ensure it succeeds.
Electing judges is a pretty extreme example (from the land of extreme examples) but it does get to the point that judges and politicians have different roles within the democratic process, and electing judges starts to confuse the roles. Roy Moore, the Alabama judge at the start of that LWT item, has run for several political roles while serving as a judge, and that sort of confusion between the judicial and the political is common in US politics.
The point is not to say that judges should be free from and challenge or oversight, but that within a democracy not every post needs to be appointed in the same way. Every post in a democracy is appointed in some way, the question is who does that appointment and how – elections are perhaps the most obvious way of doing it, but that doesn’t make them the best or most appropriate in all circumstances.
We’ve seen it in Britain with Police and Crime Commissioners who were brought in to supposedly make accountability of the police more democratic than the existing system of Police Authorities because direct election, rather than appointment through other elected bodies was seen as ‘more democratic’. What we’ve ended up with, however, isn’t any better scutiny or accountability of the police, but a network of what appear to be very well paid spokespeople for the police, who now get brought out instead of the chief constable when the media need someone for a comment.
Democracy is a complex process, and not one that’s easily solved by simply electing everyone and hoping for the best. Sadly, that’s the message we keep getting sold, where an elected mayor trumps a complete lack of democratic accountability. We’re not likely to be electing judges here, but we need to keep making the arguments for real democracy.
Anti-Business – Chris Dillow on why being ‘anti-business’ isn’t a bad thing, and the difference between business and markets.
Universal Basic Income as the Social Vaccine of the 21st Century – An interesting new way of thinking about the idea of basic income.
The narrow politics of slogans and symptoms – Alex Marsh follows on from one of my posts and looks at the lack of content behind the slogans.
The tyranny of the short-term: why democracy struggles with issues like climate change – Not sure how much of this I agree with, but an interesting look at some of the problems with our current mode of democracy.
The mystery of Mingering Mike: the soul legend who never existed – Fascinating tale of a made up musical career that’s now an art exhibition.
And as a visual bonus, take a look at this graphic of exploration in the Solar System.
It’s still only February, but we may have a winner in the Silliest Idea Proposed In A 2015 Political Column contest. Step forward Australian Herald-Sun columnist Tom Elliott with this:
There is a solution. Let’s agree on a set of truly important problems — mounting debt, population growth, lack of jobs, rising health care expenditure, inefficient welfare and an inadequate defence force — and appoint a committee of eminent and competent Australians to sort it out.
A benign dictatorship if you will.
This committee would consist of experts in their fields without political axes to grind. It’d need at least five years to complete its tasks during which time elected governments could administrate, but take no major decisions.
There is of course a giant paradox in the middle of this proposal in which he fails to actually consider by what sort of process people might come to agree what the ‘truly important problems’ are, or how they might go about appointing the ‘committee of eminent and competent Australians’ who’ll do something about these problems. One might suggest that this could be done by a process in which those who want the job of running the country set out their idea of what they think the problems are, how they’d solved them and then the public – perhaps through some kind of voting process – could choose between them.
(He also appears to believe that Britain suspended elections several years before WW2 began, but we’ll let that slide)
The thing of interest here isn’t that someone who imagines he wants a dictatorship can only express that in democratic forms, but rather the discontent with the notion of democracy itself. It’s the sort of thing that flares up occasionally, usually in late night talk and often couched in democratic terms like this. The thought is usually expressed not in needing a coup or anything as vulgar like that but as a desire for a strong leader who’ll cut through the crap and get things done (the same sort of arguments that are often used to advocate for elected Mayors in Britain). It’s the typical frustration at ‘the system’ that somehow blocks problems getting solved, coupled with a belief that all problems are easily solved by putting the right person in place to do it.
In short, and perhaps fitting more with the times, what’s proposed isn’t so much a coup as the installation of a new model of management. It’s perhaps a legacy of the cult of management that pervades so much of our modern experience, that the assumption isn’t regarded as completely laughable. We hear so much about how a change in management will supposedly rescue an organisation, that it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the same rules must surely apply to how the country is run – bring in some ‘experts’, and they’ll magically find the answers that no one else has been able to. (I think I’m obliged by blogging law to link to Chris Dillow at this point)
However, while this is a silly column, it doesn’t mean that it’s not revealing something interesting about the state of political discourse. It shows that we’ve reached a point in the cycle where it’s acceptable to muse on whether there may be more efficient ways to run things than democracy, which is something that often follows big economic crises (see the 1970s and 1930s for more). Just as we’ve seen European governments replaced by technocrats and overseen by troikas, the notion is that the forms of democracy can stay, but the actual distribution of power will be changed completely – or, in some views, the true distribution of power will be revealed as the deep state rises and exercises its power overtly. Just as Colin Crouch argues with his idea of ‘post-democracy’, we’re not likely to see any sudden, dramatic or violent end to democracy, more a gradual whittling away as the technocrats and the managerialists take more responsibilities away from the democrats for safe keeping. We’ll still get to vote for whoever gets to tell us the bad news, but the real decisions will be made far away from us.
Does it have to be like that? No, but I’m getting the feeling that we’re going to need to begin to properly fight that vision of the future if we’re going to prevent it coming about.