» democracy ¦ What You Can Get Away With

(not taken during today's vote)

(not taken during today’s vote)

As I said before, I couldn’t make it to Liberal Democrat Conference this year, but thanks to BBC Parliament I’ve been able to watch the debates so far, and thanks to Twitter I’ve been able to have some contribution into ongoing debates and discussions. I’m glad to see that Conference agreed the ‘one member, one vote’ proposal but with Mark Pack’s amendment that means some work has to be done before it’s introduced.

It was an interesting debate to watch, though the amount of straw man arguments and false dichotomies being put forward was somewhat dizzying to watch. As far as I can tell, there are very few people in the party who oppose widening democracy within it, but there’s a wide range of views on how to do it and so Conference made the right decision. We’ve agreed that we want the principle of one member, one vote, but now we have to agree on how to implement that before it comes into force.

The question I’ve been asking for a while – and no one supporting the proposals gave an answer to in the debate – was how are members who can’t be at Conference going to be represented under any new system? We’ve heard lots of tales of people who want to come to Conference but can’t be conference representatives under the current system, but nothing to suggest that the views of those who can’t make it to Conference because of time, money, other commitments or any other reason have any importance.

That got me thinking – why are we fixated on voting at Conference? Sure, Conference is a great event for party members to go to, and political party conferences have been around for a long time, but are they necessarily the best way of deciding a political party’s policies in 2014? If we were creating a political party from scratch, would we insist that the only way they can decide on that party’s policies is if they can get to a certain city on a certain set of dates, while paying quite heavily for the privilege of doing so? Shouldn’t we be looking at a system that suits the way people, technology and politics work now, rather than patching up a system based on the technologies and politics of decades ago?

That’s why one suggestion in the debate chimed with what I’ve been thinking over the last week or so – we need a full review and rewrite of the party’s constitution to review everything about the way the party works. The party constitution wasn’t set out in stone, and lots of things have changed in the twenty-five years since it was first written. There’s a lot that has changed since then – not least the party actually being in Government – and it makes sense to me for us to review everything about how we work in the light of all that experience. If we want a party that really empowers all its members, and gives them all an equal voice in running it, then we need to be prepared to make some real reforms to it, not just bodging together something to try and fix it up again and again.

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key_conference_votingI won’t be at Conference this year (in short: didn’t know if I’d have the time, then when it looked like I did have the time, costs had gone up so much I didn’t have the money) so my contribution will be the occasional blog post and the odd bit of long distance heckling via Twitter. Even if I can’t be there, I can still hope to influence those of you who are there.

It’s that issue of who gets to have a say that’s getting my attention first. On Saturday afternoon, Conference will be voting on an amendment that will radically alter the way the party works. It’s billed as ‘Expanding the democracy of our party with one member, one vote’ because, after all, what Lib Dem would want to say they’re against expanding democracy? Why, it’d be like declaring yourself to be against Shirley Williams!

The problem is that the principle behind the motion – giving all party members a say in policy and how the party’s run – is good and democratic, but the actual proposal doesn’t really deliver on that principle. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that democracy is just about voting for things, so therefore if more people have more chances to vote for more things, then everything must be more democratic. The assumption behind the OMOV proposals is that simply making it so that any member can vote at conference and any member can vote for party committees is intrinsically more democractic, regardless of how it’s implemented.

As Mark Pack and others have pointed out (disclaimer: I’ve seconded Mark’s amendment), the proposals that have been submitted to Conference are a mess in what they’re attempting to achieve, and don’t even address the wider issues of ensuring that the expanded electorate is an informed electorate. I don’t dispute the idea that giving more members a say in the process is a good one, or that there are some members effectively disenfranchised by the current system, but that doesn’t mean that any replacement system is necessarily better. Bringing in a dog’s breakfast of changes and crossing our fingers that there won’t be problems or that we’ll sort them out when they turn up is pretty much the same idea David Cameron has for dealing with constitutional reform.

The problem I see is that any real one-member-one-vote system isn’t actually compatible with the ‘Conference runs everything’ system we have at the moment. (For a simple example of this, imagine if every member wanted to attend Conference and use their vote if the new system comes in) At present most of those who can’t attend Conference – because they can’t afford it or because they don’t have the time – are represented there by representatives from their local party who they can influence. Change the system to the one being proposed, and how are those who can’t get to Conference going to be represented? They won’t be represented by anyone from their local party, and if they can’t get to Conference themselves, they’ve been completely disenfranchised.

The point is that just giving people the vote is only step one in the process, and no real plan is being put forward for step two and beyond. Passing the OMOV proposals in their current form doesn’t address the issue of making the party a genuine mass democracy, which would involve a lot more changes than most people want to consider.

If you’re genuinely interested in expanding the democracy of our party, then vote for Mark’s amendment or to refer back this motion so proposals that actually do that can be created. Democracy doesn’t just come about because we pass a motion and declare ourselves more democratic, and voting for this proposal as is would be to stumble forward into the dark in the hope we can make it happen.

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police_electionsWe often use the phrase ‘elective dictatorship‘ to describe the British system of government, reflecting that the nature of our system means that a Government with a majority in Parliament can do pretty much as it wants until the next election. Unlike most actual dictatorships, there are constraints to that power and a Prime Minister or Government can be removed from power if enough of their party decide they want to get rid of them.

Despite ‘elective dictatorship’ not normally being regarded as a positive description, recent years have seen it being rolled out across other forms of government. Believing that ‘strong leaders’ could wield miraculous powers, the Blair government brought in elected mayors for local authorities, concentrating most executive powers for an area in an individual, and even if a council didn’t want a mayor, most of them were forced to shift to the cabinet model – and later to the ‘strong leader’ model, where council leaders would be given effectively the same powers as a mayor, whether they wanted them or not.

This was presented as making local government more ‘democratic’ and ‘accountable’, because one of the persistent myths of British politics – and part of the ‘elective dictatorship’ – is that democracy and accountability are things that only need to happen at the ballot box every few years. Democracy is seen as an act rather than a process with accountability normally being framed as requirements to consult and consider rather than any real controls on the exercise of power. In most cases, any checks on executive power are to potentially block it after it’s announced rather than amend it beforehand.

Which brings us to Police and Crime Commissioners, another classic British case of someone coming up with a solution and then looking for – or creating – a problem that they can fix. In this case, it was the supposed non-accountability of Police Authorities, where accountability had been defined as ‘being known by the public’. Members of police authorities could be removed from their position if they weren’t doing it well, because many of them were appointed directly by councils within that police force’s area. By contrast, although PCCs were elected, no one was given the power to remove them from their office, short of them committing a crime. Police and Crime Panels are required to be consulted and can occasionally block an action by a PCC, but if the PCC’s incompetence isn’t criminal, they can do nothing to remove them from power. The person whose job is supposedly to make the police accountable is so unaccountable themselves, they can’t be removed from their office (unlike just about every other executive office in British politics). That’s why we’ve got the situation we currently have in South Yorkshire, where no one can remove Shaun Wright from office, despite even his own party thinking he should go.

(I know that’s just one part of a bigger issue, and what’s happened in Rotherham is bloody appalling but I really have very little to add to that discussion beyond ‘this is terrible’ as I don’t know how to improve child protection)

The police need to be more accountable to the public they serve (especially when senior police officers think they should be demanding fundamental changes in the law) but PCCs were an ill-thought out way to try and achieve that end. Proper democracy and accountability is an ongoing process of interacting institutions, not an occasional event that grants power to someone and the ability to use it without repercussions. If we want proper accountability it takes work to enable people to hold all power accountable, not and that’s something that can’t be delivered by a gimmick.

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The Explosive, Inside Story of How John Kerry Built an Israel-Palestine Peace Plan—and Watched It Crumble – A detailed account of how he came close to getting a deal, then watched it all fall apart. Rationalist theories of international relations hold that war occurs when the sides in a conflict have informational problems and commitment problems – this is a case study in both.
The tech utopia nobody wants: why the world nerds are creating will be awful – We’re in a world where someone is making, actively marketing and recommending for the poor a food substitute called Soylent. Science fiction hasn’t predicted jet packs for years, but it’s been entirely correct about the soulless grey corporate dystopia we’re stumbling into.
Time for 21st century democracy – How old assumptions about the way the British political system should work are making it less in tune with people’s expectations.
Guy Walks Into A Bar – A joke becomes an anti-joke, then a story.
Two Enemies – Alex Andreou on trying to understand the situation in Israel and Palestine.

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Let’s say you want to see the House of Lords replaced by an elected chamber. ‘Great!’ Someone tells you. ‘Then you’ll love my plan! I want the upper house to consist of three hundred senators, each one elected from a single constituency at each General Election with the same electoral system as MPs, will you support me?’ You say no, because that’s not the sort of upper house you want to see, but before you can talk about the flaws in that plan or explain a way to improve it, the proposer starts telling you that you’re clearly not interested in electing an upper house because if you were you’d support their idea whole-heartedly and then make any changes after it’s introduced.

It’s an odd example, but it’s how I feel after encountering the people who are proposing that the Liberal Democrats switch to ‘one member, one vote’ (no more local party representatives at party conference, and federal committees elected by all members not just conference reps). Various people – including me – who aren’t opposed to widening the electoral franchise or changing the way Conference works have pointed out that there are various flaws with the current proposals, and in return the response has come that we clearly don’t support the idea at all, and that if there are problems then we should support the proposal as it is and look to fix them afterwards.

The problem I have with the proposals is that they fall into a trap that’s common in British politics in assuming that democracy is about voting for things, so if we have more people able to vote for more things then we must be more democratic, right? This ignores the fact that democracy is a process, not an event, and to make something ‘more democratic’ is about more than just reforming voting procedures. Whoever the electorate is, they need to be engaged and informed about the process they’re part of, and there are no proposals to change that process.

At an electoral level, there’s no commitment to change or invest in the electoral process to ensure that members are actually able to make an informed choice about who they’re voting for. As it stands, we’re likely to get more manifestos that say effectively nothing and have to rely on individual members giving up a lot of their time to ensure there’s any scrutiny of people standing for election. If we want a more open and democratic process then effort has to be put into achieving it, not just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. (My proposal would be to publish manifestos and open campaigning three or four weeks before voting opens, giving proper time to campaign)

There are lots of other things that have been suggested (see the comments here for examples) but the point is that they should be introduced at the same time, not some add-ons to be potentially brought in at a later date. Over the years, I’ve seen too many packages of reforms in different fields that have introduced a first phase with a future second phase promised but never delivered (to go back to the beginning, look at House of Lords reforms) and I think just introducing ‘one member one vote’ without contemplating the wider implications of it is a mistake. I worry that people seem to think it’s a magic fix for everything they perceive as wrong with the party, and are assuming that ‘more democracy’ is automatically better without considering what ‘more democracy’ actually means.

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About Teather’s “explanation” of voting against equality – Lee Griffin points out the problems with Sarah Teather’s reasons for voting against the same-sex marriage bill.
The Other 11 Doctors – What if the Doctor had always been played by a woman?
Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church – Megan Phelps-Roper, one of the more prominent members of the Westboro Baptist Church (‘God Hates Fags’) has left it.
Open letter to Andrew Turner MP – “I will not vote for you, because you think I am worth less as a person than you. No-one who believes I am as entitled to civil rights as anyone else will vote for you. Yesterday was not an attack on religious freedom, but a doorway to it for so many people who’ve been denied a full spiritual and civil engagement in society. If your vote yesterday were a matter of conscience, I suggest you consider the lives you have wished on young LGBT people under your care, because they are so much better off today than when I was growing up and you’ve done everything in your power, which is the power entrusted to you by the people of the island, to oppose that.”
Political failure modes and the beige dictatorship – If you think I’m cynical about modern politics, read this post by Charles Stross.

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Jennie Rigg and James Graham have both written posts recently that have touched on issues that have been concerning me. To quote Jennie:

And because people are just generally pissed off with politicians, political media, and elections this feeds into the perception that there is a lack of meaningful choice – if all politicians are the same and they are all venal scumsucking money-grubbing bastards, why bother to try to choose between them? It won’t make any difference.

And James:

What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours

(Read the whole thing from both of them, of course)

We’re sleepwalking into a democratic crisis in this country. In fact, we may already be in the middle of the one. I know there’ll be lots of ‘whither democracy?’ articles floating around the ether after the PCC elections, but they were just a symptom of the ongoing issues that are affecting the country, not the cause of something in itself.

The problem is that in many people’s perceptions democracy has become conflated with ‘voting for things’. We forget that democracy is meant to be an ongoing process, not just something you turn up and do periodically and then forget about. To borrow from Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds:

The core of democracy, for its inventors, was participation. You not only voted, you served in office when called upon. Now, perhaps, a gentleman might think it poor form to discuss politics; his Athenian forebears would think it idiotic not to. Literally idiotic: those who ‘kept out of politics’ were risible, contemptible, ‘The Selfers’, idiôtes, foolishly self-absorbed and out of the swim.

Now, this could be a rant about people not getting involved and not voting. How dare they sit at home when we’ve given them things to vote for! Why would they not want to take the time to have their say about whether they want someone as their PCC who’ll cut crime or someone who’ll priorities crime cutting instead? But that’s definitely not the issue: the problem isn’t that voters are idiots (under any definition of the word) but that the system insists on treating them like they are. People discuss politics and political issues, they do it often and in great depth – they just don’t feel any connection to the political systems that are supposed to deal with these issues. To quote from Jennie again:

The causes of this are many and complex, but a large part of it is the electoral system which forces there two be two big broad church parties of disparate people BEFORE an election rather than coalitions forming after; a large part of it is the media who love to take politicians down and misrepresent them for sensationalist reasons; some of it is a lack of education on politics and its processes; and some of it is the dishonesty of politicians in not admitting that actually, there is very little difference between any of the main parties precisely due to the above effects.

And as James points out, ideology is being slowly removed from British politics in favour of a form of competitive managerialism, where people don’t compete on vision and ideology but on who can best hit a set of ill-defined targets.

And the reaction to this disengagement between the political system and the public is to promise more disengagement. PCCs, like elected Mayors before them, come from the rather Mussolini-esque belief that too much democracy – lots of people discussing different views and coming to a joint conclusion – is horribly inefficient (and nothing’s worse for a managerialist than perceived inefficiency within a system) and we’d be better served by a single leader making all the decisions because – for reasons no one can quite explain, but seem to revolve around the ability to vote them out in several years if they choose to stand for re-election – that one person will be ‘accountable’. Again, this is managerialism in action, where you set one person a group of targets to meet and assess them on whether they make them or not. The problem here is that I’ve never met a voter who makes their decision based on that sort of criteria.

This is why I’m concerned about a democratic crisis in this country, as voters become more and more disengaged from the system, and the system responds in ways that only deepen the divide and invite contempt. As well as government, though, there’s a crisis of trust in many institutions in the country: the police after Hillsborough and other events, the BBC after Savile, the press after phone hacking, and so on. Add to that all the problems of the economy and austerity and we’ve got all the precursors for a complete collapse of confidence in all institutions in place.

My fear is that we’re in a position similar to Italy’s in the early 90s, and all we’re lacking is a Berlusconi to come along and take advantage of the situation. The main political parties are all seeing their membership dwindle and their capacity to engage the public be correspondingly reduced, and there’s a huge vacuum waiting to be filled. People want to be engaged in politics and political discussions, but they’re not getting that from the system at the moment. As I wrote a few months ago, the parties have reduced politics to a big game, and people want more from it than that. Given the right message, the right funding and the right figurehead, a British version of Forza Italia could bulldoze the other parties out of the way – and thanks to our electoral system could be swept into a huge majority and near-absolute power. We might be lucky and get a movement led by someone who wants to be a benign dictator in the style of De Gaulle, or we might be unlucky and find ourselves like Italy after the early 90s, finding we’ve got rid of one damaged system to replace it with one that’s worse.

That’s where my fear comes from – that this perfect storm of crises might be used by certain forces to bounce us into a system of government that’s a long way from where we are today. Scotland might be lucky enough to get away from it if that were to happen, but what of the rest of us?

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