This morning, I had a feeling that the Telegraph’s story about Tory preparations for a Boris Johnson coup was going to be the big story of the day, hence why I dashed off a quick post about it. In my defence, how was I supposed to know that the Prime Minister would manage to forget what football team he supposedly supports?

Yes, I know it’s trivial to care about what football team a politician supports, but I think it also shows just how manufactured Cameron’s public image is that he felt the need to invent one, instead of just honestly saying that he was never that much into club football but enjoyed watching England. But that would be an honest answer and thinking outside the box, which isn’t the sort of thinking you hire a PR man for.

Even that failed to distract from the main story of this election: everyone except Nicola Sturgeon going slightly batshit about the rise of the SNP. Today we had Nick Clegg making comments about how he wouldn’t go into any deal with the SNP, which of course had various members of the party up in arms and pointing out that it wasn’t his decision. Not that the media ever actually pay attention to the ways political parties work, of course. Clegg responded by sending out an email to members that walked back his comments somewhat.

However, what concerns me in all this is that general message going out here is that the SNP are to be excluded from power (and especially UK-wide government) at all costs. There’s a concept in political science (and part of my dissertation) called the ‘structure of competition for government’. This is related to the overall party structure in a polity, but relates how parties interact in government formation. For instance, until 2010 Britain had a closed structure of competition – only two parties got to be in Government, and they alternated with each other. Other countries (Sweden, for instance)have more open structures, but the parties tend to be structured in blocs (usually of left and right) and while there’s movement between parties, there’s normally alternation between the two blocks and no crossover between them. There are also very open systems like the Netherlands, where a variety of coalitions come together in government with no real fixed pattern.

The interesting thing about Britain is that the structure of competition has blown wide open since 2010, with the old two-party structure seemingly gone. We’re in a position where a new – and possibly much more open – structure is being formed, and this election will be crucial in that process. However, while we may get an open structure, it will also be a very skewed one if one party remains locked out of power because all the potential partners for them won’t come to any agreement with them. That doesn’t have much effect when it’s a small fringe party with a handful of seats but when it’s a party with a significant number of seats it has a major effect on government formation. You can ignore them all you want, but they can still vote in Parliament.

As examples, consider what’s happened in Sweden and Germany recently. Both have relatively large parties that are excluded from being part of government formations (the Sweden Democrats on the right in Sweden, and Die Linke on the left in Germany), but taking them out of the equation makes it very hard for traditional groupings of parties to form a majority. In Sweden, neither left nor right could get a majority, and Germany had to have a CDU-SPD grand coalition because nothing else would form a workable majority.

Beyond the whole issue of telling the people of Scotland that their votes don’t count if they cast them for an unapproved party, excluding the SNP from any say in power runs the risk of leaving no workable coalitions except for a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories. I still think it would take us two inconclusive elections to get the point where one could be formed, but we’re going to get to a point where that’s the only logical solution left on the table. Well, we could go for electoral reform and an entirely new system that reflected the people’s views much better than the current one, but that would be really crazy talk.

After that long rant, and because it’s getting late we’ll combine today’s obscure party and dip into Election Leaflets with the Pirate Party. They’re standing six candidates in the election on the typical Pirate programme of internet activism and digital rights, but what I think is interesting is the look of their literature which manages to break out from the usual bright primary colours and smiling photos of the candidate style of usual election leaflets. It’s something different, and they’re raising important issues (even if I’m far from being convinced about their stance on copyright) that others aren’t, so maybe something of them – either design or policy – might be picked up by other parties in the future.

Twelve days to go. Hopefully the press won’t have completely exploded in incandescent fury at the SNP and demanded the tanks be stationed at Berwick by then.

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Worth Reading 104: The guns of Victory

Jeremy Grantham, environmental philanthropist: ‘We’re trying to buy time for the world to wake up’ – Guardian profile of the billionaire investor and environmentalist, with some interesting things to say about the negative impact of ‘climate sceptics’ and how preventing climate change makes long-term business sense.
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed – How much of what we deem necessary is only because we’ve been told it is?
The Fascism of Knowing Stuff – “There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta.”
Pirates of the Parliament – How the very nature of the Pirate Party appears to be its fatal flaw preventing it growing after its initial spell in the limelight.
Where are all the right wing stand-ups? – Stewart Lee surveys the fields and explains why there aren’t many to be found.

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A couple of weeks ago, Spineless Liberal had a post about the LiquidFeedback system, asking whether it’s something the Liberal Democrats should be adopting for internal policy debates. (If you don’t know what LiquidFeedback is or are unsure about the concept of liquid democracy, take a look at the various links in that post)

My main question would be to ask why the party’s not doing something like this already. We like to make big noises about how we’re a party run by our members, how they determine everything and all that pabulum, but then make it quite hard for them to do much else other than deliver leaflets. And there are always more leaflets to be delivered.

Yes, compared to the other parties, we do have a relatively open policy process – the power to make policy is still in the hands of Conference (even if MPs seem to regard that as merely advisory) and there’s an elected Federal Policy Committee generating policy ideas between Conferences, but beyond getting into arguments in blog comment sections, how does the average party member have their say in policy discussions?

Couple of quick questions: how many members of the Federal Policy Committee can you name, and what subjects are they discussing at the moment?

Public faith in politicians and political parties is at a low right now, and that malaise is spread throughout a lot of the party membership. One of the key messages of the Liberal Democrats has always been that we’ve done things differently from the other parties, and this is an opportunity to show that difference clearly, by opening up the party to all members. Making party policy shouldn’t be limited to just those who can afford the money and time to be a member of FPC or go to Conference, not least because we shouldn’t be limiting the pool of experience we’re drawing from.

The point about liquid democracy is that it doesn’t require people to be all-purpose experts with an opinion on everything to take part in the process. (And how much better might our political system be if we recognised that there’s no such thing as an all-purpose expert?) People can contribute and vote on areas they feel comfortable in or knowledgeable about and can delegate their vote in other areas to people they trust. People can take as much or as little part in the system as they like, but still know that their voice is being heard within discussions and debates.

I’m not proposing that we immediately abolish conference, FPC and everything else and bring in LiquidFeedback straight away to replace them all. However, what’s to stop the party bringing it in as a parallel system to trial it and see if it works, and if it gets more people involved, generating more policy ideas? Yes, there’s work that needs to be done on the system to make it more user-friendly and understandable to people without long experience of using web forums and the like, but we’ve still got some very clever technical people in the party who can do that sort of thing. In fact, they’d likely come forward and volunteer to do it for free if the party gave trialling this system the go ahead.

One of the key values of the party is democracy and involvement. When the party’s structures were set up initially, they were the best they could be at the time for representing people’s views. Since then, technology has moved on dramatically, and we’ve got the opportunity to update the way we work as a party to reflect that. Labour and the Tories aren’t going to open up their processes to their members like this, so this is a way to remind ourselves that we’re about doing things differently. Why don’t we try it?


Worth Reading 56: Where did you go, Joe DiMaggio?

Or, how liquid democracy gets you the sack in the end.

How The German Pirate Party’s Liquid Democracy Works – Sounds like an interesting way for members of an organisation to discuss things. And no need to get pre-approved for discussions by the police.
SF, big ideas, ideology: What is to be done? – Charles Stross on whether SF is a genre of ‘big ideas’.
The Fandom Issue: Marvelous – “At what point is the triumph of comic-book culture sufficient?” Some interesting parallels between geek culture and the Tea Party.
How a stranger carrying a rucksack got within 10 feet of Nick Clegg – Why, it’s almost like security theatre isn’t necessary!
Sacking people is easy to do – Not that I recommend you should, but John Band points out that people complaining about red tape preventing them doing it don’t have much of a leg to stand on.

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Worth Reading 51: Outside the area

None of these links were placed here by small grey aliens from Zeta Reticuli. That must be true, the Men In Black told me so.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen – Flying Rodent imagines an Orwellian version of the Scottish Premier League.
Facebook Social Readers Are All Collapsing – Oh, please let them go away. Clicking on an interesting-looking link only to discover a screen demanding you sign up to share your reading habits before you’re allowed to read it is bloody annoying.
Walking is political – An extract from Will Self’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.
How Germany’s Pirate Party is hacking politics – Some silly errors in this (seemingly thinking the 15 seats won in Berlin were elected by FPTP, not list seats under AMS) but still interesting, and a good explanation of the Liquid Feedback system, which interests me (and I may blog about in more detail later).
Do normal people go into politics anymore? – Another interesting post from Jason O’Mahony on the difference between the political classes and the rest of the world.

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