What You Can Get Away With » democracy

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.


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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As today’s the day when England and Wales go to the polls to elect police commissioners, I thought it was about time I set out my thoughts on them, if only so I don’t look too far behind the curve. I’m not going to give you any advice on how to vote, or whether to vote or how to actively not vote, as I feel those few people who do still read this blog are clued up enough to work that out for themselves.

Since the first modern police forces in this country were founded there have been debates about just how they should be run and controlled. Are they a local or a national responsibility? Should they be wholly autonomous and only answerable to the Crown, controlled by local politicians, some balance between those options or something entirely different?

One interesting thing about commissioners is that for all the talk of them being a radical change in the governance of the police, they don’t make much difference in the overall balance of power, with the police caught between local priorities and Home Office dictats. Commissioners aren’t about changing where the power is held, just who holds it in one place – and even then, the old Police Authority regenerates itself into a Police and Crime Panel which will still hold some powers.

For me, the introduction of police commissioners was the solution to a problem that very few people even thought existed. There probably is a need – especially in the light of recent revelations on a variety of issues from Hillsborough to Savile – for a large-scale debate on just what sort of police force we want and how it should be run. However, that debate needed to happen before someone came up with the answer ‘one run by locally elected commissioners’. Instead, we’re now being asked to have our say on police and crime priorities in our area (or whatever it is the posters say) but without actually being given the option to say ‘hold on, we don’t want to run it this way’.

I think this can be seen as one of the lengthening list of things the Liberal Democrats have got wrong in Parliament. If the Tories were determined to push on with this – and they did have it in their manifesto, so there was some vague mandate for it – we should have made them at the very least subject to the same restrictions as elected mayors. They should only be introduced in areas that actively wanted one and voted yes in a referendum for it. Indeed, like the city mayor referendums, those could have been held in May, and the areas that voted yes could then be holding their elections now. As it is, they were instead imposed on everyone (in England and Wales, at least) without ascertaining if there was any real desire or enthusiasm for them.

Like elected mayors, these elections were meant to encourage high-profile independents to stand, but that hasn’t really happened. Mayoral candidates at least had the option to become known in a distinct area, and it’s worth noting that the independents who did win mayoral elections were people who’d become well known in that area beforehand – Ken Livingstone, Ray Mallon, Frank Branston etc. However, the size of the constituency for police commissioner elections means that nowhere has a high-profile independent candidate known across the area. Indeed, there are very few high-profile party-political candidates running.

My prediction is that today will see a very low turnout, possibly around 20%. The problem is that not only is it an election that no one really wanted, there’s been very little campaigning for it, and there’ll be little in the way of polling day operations in many places. People won’t get the little nudges and reminders to vote the way they do in normal elections, and while they may fully well be intending to vote, a lot of them won’t realise until they pick up a newspaper or watch TV on Friday and realise they meant to vote the day before.

As an example, the only leaflet I’ve seen in this election is the official one that came a few weeks ago (surrounded by other junk mail that was delivered at the same time, so in many houses it would have gone straight in the bin). No one’s delivered anything near me, let alone attempted any canvassing and I haven’t seen a single poster on my travels about Colchester. (I was in York earlier this week and the situation was the same there too)

What we’re seeing is the result of the belief that democracy is merely about voting. That forgets that it should be a process in which you engage with the people and create an informed electorate. Instead, we’ve got an electorate that’s being asked to vote for a post they don’t understand the need for or the role of – and one they certainly haven’t asked for – after a campaign that’s told them little about what the different candidates will do if elected. The choice everywhere appears to be between candidates who’ll work to cut crime while listening to people or their rivals who’ll listen to people while working to cut crime (with the occasional pseudo-fascist candidate who’ll work to cut certain types of crime while only listening to certain types of people). Still, let’s just be glad they weren’t introduced twenty years ago with Jimmy Savile standing in West Yorkshire.

This is voting for the sake of voting, an election being held purely as a ritual to summon the great god of Accountability, without anyone ever bothering to think about just what being accountable really needs.

One prediction I will make: these will be the first and last set of police commissioner elections. Sometime before 2016, the positions will be quietly wound up into the Police and Crime Panels, which will start looking just like the old Police Authorities did. It’ll be a brave step backwards into the future of accountability, no doubt.

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It seems the internet wrote many good things while I was away on holiday:

Dudes, Relax: The Rise Of Women Does Not Mean the Fall of Men – Jezebel’s Lindy West dissects a piece of male whining.
How To Get Doping Out Of Sports – A very frank piece from Jonathan Vaughters, boss of the Garmin cycling team, on his own doping experience and what needs to be done to end it.
Democracy Creates Assholes – Another honest opinion from Jason O’Mahony.
Rape: Or why I am now a feminist – George Potter writes down a lot of the thoughts that were in my head for the last week or so but couldn’t get written down as I was away from a keyboard.
A piece of advice to my fellow men (warning – potentially triggering) – ‘The ONLY way you should ever end a sentence that starts “It’s not rape if…” is with “all parties involved consent.”’

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The instalment you’ve all been waiting for. Somewhere within these links lies the final secret of the Illuminati. Probably.

The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article – Jay Rosen notes a trend in the press
Conservative coffers boosted in “sale of opportunities” to kids of the super rich – Not really the image you want to present to the public, is it?
Egypt And (No) Democracy – Zelo Street on how various US right-wingers are pushing the whole ‘democracy should only be given to people who agree with us’ argument.
Britain gets comfy as Melanie Phillips explains ‘Biblical sexuality’ – The Daily Mash explains just how people consume the views of “the Daily Mail’s in-house Tasmanian Devil”.
Multiculturalism and the Monkeysphere – On Angry Mob, an interesting discussion about how our worldview is limited by the number of people we can properly know. (via)

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I was reading some of the comments on Conservative Home (it was quiet night) about Edward McMillan-Scott being expelled from the Conservative Party and noticed that many were demanding that he should resign as an MEP. The reasoning behind this is that he was elected as a Conservative MEP from the party list, and as he is no longer a member of the Conservative Party he doesn’t have the right to continue as an MEP.

Now, I’ll admit to the usual politician’s bias on this issue – if someone defects to my party, they’re doing it as a matter of principle and are committed to representing the people they represent, if they defect from it, they’re obviously shallow, venal, betraying the voters and should resign forthwith – but I’m not convinced that McMillan-Scott should resign in this case.

I’m going to try and stick to general principles here, rather than getting bogged down in the specifics of the case, but I would agree that when a person is elected on a party list, there’s a strong case that that person should be obliged to stand down should they choose to leave the party they were elected for. Perhaps not in all cases – if the party has genuinely changed from what it was when the election took place, or personal popularity had a strong effect on the vote, for instance – but in general, it would seem to me to be fair that if a person had been elected by the efforts of a party to be the representative of that party, they’re obliged to remain a member of that party if they want to keep their position.

However – and the important question in this case – is someone necessarily obliged to resign their position if their party has rejected them, rather than them rejecting their party, especially if their political position hasn’t changed, as I’m sure McMillan-Scott would argue his hasn’t? (This is assuming the old ‘I didn’t leave the party, the party left me’ to be true for once) Is it fair to allow for the dominance of the party over the individual to such an extent, even if the party list system does assume this to be case? (Is it just another argument against closed-list systems? Especially as McMillan-Scott doesn’t have the option to take this to the voters, should he so choose)

To me, the whole issue of whether defection or deselection should prompt resignation or re-election is a very large grey area regardless of the voting system – though perhaps not in STV – so I’ll throw this one open to any passing commenter for their thoughts, with apologies for any wooliness in mine as it is quite late as I’m finishing this off.

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I was reminded by this post from Chris and Glynis Abbott that like most other Councils, we have to make the decision soon as to what structure Colchester Borough Council should take in the future.

Of course, while we have a choice, to me it appears to be akin to being asked whether you want to be thrown out of a plane or a helicopter. Either option is basically surrendering all of the Council’s powers to a single, extremely-hard-to-remove, individual with the only choice being whether that person gets their powers from a parliamentary or a presidential system. That’s not to say the system we have right now is good, but at least there, any power is only granted for a year and it’s at least a little more diffused amongst the Cabinet than it would be amongst the new options.

Ideally, all Councils would be able to determine for themselves what the best way to operate is (though there’d obviously need to be some sort of loose framework or oversight to ensure democratic accountability) but while it would be nice to deal with abstracts and some Platonic ideal of a council – though perhaps not the structure envisaged in The Republic – those aren’t the options open to us. Instead, we have a model where one person gets to control almost all the Council functions for four years at a time, can appoint a cabinet to assist them from councillors and is either elected directly by the people and called a Mayor, or elected by the Council and called a Leader (also known as a Super-Leader, to distinguish them from current Council Leaders).

(Whatever happens, by the way, we in Colchester will almost certainly lose our current system of electing the Council by thirds every year and replace that with a system that sees all Councillors elected every four years, but that’s perhaps a subject for another post at another time.)

I should be clear that I’m not opposed to the idea of mayors per se – from what I’ve seen in other countries, having a directly-elected person in charge of a city or borough does give a face to local government and may increase public involvement and accountability. However, as with any democratic system there need to be checks and balances on the power of any individual, be it a Mayor, Leader, Governor, Prime Minister or President, and the current systems just don’t give that. For instance, to block various Mayoral proposals under the current systems, such as a budget, requires a two-thirds majority of the Councillors which doesn’t strike me as very democratic. There’s no incentive there to build a consensus, or obtain majority support when all you need is one-third of the Council – and if you can get elected as Mayor or Council Leader, you can likely get that many supporters elected too – to block any attempts to stop you.

But again, I’m dealing with abstracts that aren’t available options. Of the two that are available to us, I would tend to come down on the side of a super-leader as being the least worst option. I might support an elected mayoralty if the powers were reduced and there were greater balances, but with the current situation, I think it’s far too open to getting abused by demagogues. It forcibly creates a situation where the Mayor is above the Council, not part of it, and turns democracy into something that only happens once every four years, rather than an ongoing process. Electing a leader with those powers from the council itself is far from perfect, of course, but it at least ensures that whoever gets that power has widespread support, and will need to keep that support from within the group or groups that elected them to remain in position and capable of working.

But, lets throw it open – there’ll likely be a wider consultation on this in Colchester before it happens, but I’d like to know any other opinions, as I’m not hugely committed to either side of the argument so could well be persuaded if you’ve got a strong argument. What do you think?