¦ What You Can Get Away With

I’ve said before that the political system in this country is broken, and at the risk of sounding like a hipster of reform, it’s good to see that issues of how the British constitution works (or more accurately, doesn’t work) have gone mainstream after the Scottish referendum.

I’ve long thought that there are huge problems with the way this country is run, regardless of who’s actually in power. I was involved in Charter 88 over two decades ago, and while there have been some tentative steps towards reform since then, we’ve never had a truly fundamental examination of the way this country is run. Instead, we’ve had piecemeal reform on top of piecemeal reform, leading to the mess we’ve got now, and all constrained by the central problem of British politics: that power is held to emanate from the centre and is only reluctantly given away to others.

That’s the problem with the discussion on constitutional reform we’re having now: decisions are being made at the centre, ready to be imposed on the rest of us, and after years of inaction we’re being rushed towards half-baked solutions. Yet again, it’s a piecemeal solution to try and solve the problem in the short-term, with no consideration about long-term consequences. The last thing we need is yet another piecemeal solution. Yes, there are promises for further devolution to Scotland that have to be kept and made concrete quickly, but that doesn’t mean everything else has to be yoked to that same timetable.

What we’ve also seen happen when any reform comes up is that it becomes a party-political football, as we’re already seeing with the current debate. Various competing visions of reform get proposed, none can get enough support to get passed through Parliament, and the status quo prevails. Or, as we saw with the AV referendum, one weak proposal does get through, then gets shot down and it’s then proclaimed that no change is necessary.

Any process of constitutional change is inherently political, but that does not mean it has to be run through the current political system. The reason we’ve got to this position is because we’ve got a dysfunctional political system, and expecting that political system to come up with a rational and workable system that fixes itself is perhaps the definition of foolhardy optimism. People are running out of trust in the current system and aren’t expecting it to be able to come up with solutions. That existing bias is going to colour public perception against any new system, even if a miracle occurs and a good reforming idea comes out from the system for once.

That’s why I think we need a constitutional convention to do this process in an entirely different way. We’e had decade after decade of changes being handed down from the top, sure in the knowledge that Westminster can decree the solution to everyone’s problems, and instead we need to let the people solve their own problems this time. A convention – drawing in people from all over the country and all walks of life – gives the chance to do that process differently, and finally to break the tradition that it’s all right for Parliament to set its own (and everyone else’s) rules.

While I think it’s good that political leaders have been calling for a constitutional convention, the process can’t be run by or be part of the current political system. My fear would be that any convention that’s too closely run by the current system won’t be a genuine convention but not much more than a glorified consultation exercise, its entire remit set down by Parliament, and it wouldn’t be free to break out of it. What we need isn’t just tweaking the existing system, but starting anew to build a system from below that keeps power closer to the people, not just deciding that Westminster knows best for everyone. What we especially need is for any new system to have its own force behind it, in the same way as the Scottish Parliament rests on Scotland’s constitutional convention. Any Westminster-created system could face the same fate as other of the changes we’ve seen over the years – capable of being wiped out and rolled back by Parliament at a centralising whim.

The other important lesson of the Scottish Constitutional Convention is that it was created outside of the system, not by it. It wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Government, but drew in support from across society in Scotland. That’s the model we should be adopting for a UK-wide constitutional convention, and instead of waiting for Parliament to give us one, we ned to be getting out there and making one happen.

The question, then, is how do we do that? Do a few of us just get a room, a website, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and whatever else and commence arguing, hoping others will join in and make the whole thing snowball? Or do we need to build widespread support first, then kick it all off with a storm of involvement and publicity? I don’t know, and I’m not a mood for laying down how everyone else should do something, so what are your thoughts? Which way round does it need to be done, or should we just sit back and trust in Westminster and the system to get it right this time?


It’s party conference season, and one of the common stories of that period always used to be of the party leadership (and it didn’t matter which party) facing down the activists in their party. The ‘activists’, we would be informed, would want a policy way out of the mainstream while the leadership was being sensible and moderate. The reason I don’t specify a party there is because it’s a common story based on a common assumption: that the activists within a party are much more radical than the party leadership, and if the party wants to be successful (and appeal to the electorate, which is assumed to be moderate) the activists have to be faced down and/or defeated.

Now, there are two parts to that assumption. First, the difference between party leaderships and activists/members and second, the idea that a party being more moderate will get it more votes. This post is going to look at the just the first one and assume the second as given, but we’ll look at in more depth in a post another time (look out for me talking about spatial models and Downsian theories).

Curvilinear_DisparityThe issue we are talking about is known as curvilinear disparity, or to give it its full name, May’s Special Law Of Curvilinear Disparity. The diagram to the left gives a pictorial representation of it – leaderships and supporters are more moderate, and activists more radical, thus further from the centre. Why is this thought to be the case?

The main explanation is that party leaderships and activists are thought to have different goals and reasons for being involved in politics. The primary goal of leaderships is thought to be office-seeking while activists are said to be policy-seeking. That is, leaderships are more concerned with getting into power (and thus moving towards the centre to get them the votes to do that) while activists are concerned with issues of policy, and more concerned with ideological purity than moving to the centre. Meanwhile, ‘below’ this fight, the less active members and supporters are held to be in roughly the same position as the leadership. So, you can draw a curve from the leaders down to the members that swings out from the centre to represent the position – hence, curvilinear disparity.

So, political science, political journalism and party leaderships all agree on something, which means you won’t be surprised to find out that when researchers have actually looked in detail at party members and leaders and whether their attitudes differ they’ve found little or no evidence to support curvilinear disparity. Indeed in some cases, they’ve found that party leaderships and elites have had more radical ideas than members, who’ve tended to be more centrist.

So why does the idea persist? I’d give two reasons: first, it’s useful for party leadership to be able to send out signals that they’re standing up to the activists to be sensible and moderate. Whether they are or not, they want to send that signal out to the electorate as a whole to show that they’re positioned near the centre, and picking on the activists is a good way to do that.

Second, my personal theory is that there’s a perceptual bias at work. All political parties contain a range of opinions and it’s a rare party that can find a leadership that reflects all strands of opinion within a party. However, I would hold that a party leadership would be more likely to reflect the ‘moderate’ strand of opinion within the party because the ‘moderates’ are more likely to include a majority of the party membership. The ‘radicals’ are thus the members of the party least likely to be represented by the leadership and so are the most likely to complain and be visibly in opposition. However, they are not a majority of the membership, and neither is their position the average of the entire membership, rather it is the average of the non-represented membership – which almost by definition is unlikely to be a majority, as if it were, it could replace the leadership – but it is more visible, and this gives the impression of a ‘leadership vs activists’ battle.

I still need to work out that explanation a bit more, but it feels like a workable explanation for me, but the main point to take is that while many do believe that curvilinear disparity is real, the evidence collected thus far doesn’t support the case for it (for instance, see Pippa Norris in the first issue of Party Politics, if you have access to academic journals – sadly, most of the arguments and evidence about this is in journals). The battle of leaderships and activists is not a fundamentally existing part of party politics, no matter how much people tell you it is.

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Labour annual conference 2014During his speech yesterday, Ed Miliband made lots of references to problems with our political system.

she thinks politics is rubbish. And let’s not pretend we don’t hear that a lot on the doorstep…
Our politics doesn’t listen…
And to cap it all, in our politics, it’s a few who have the access while everyone else is locked out…
People think politics is more and more a game and that all we’re in it for is ourselves…
You know people think Westminster politics is out of touch, irrelevant and often disconnected from their lives…
We don’t just need to restore people’s faith in the future with this economic and social plan we need to change the way politics works in this country.
In this day and age, when people are so cynical about politics.

So, Ed thinks there are problems with our politics, that people are cynical about it and it’s all a game. So how did he choose to start his speech?

Friends, it is great to be with you in Manchester. A fantastic city. A city with a great Labour council leading the way. And a city that after this year’s local elections, is not just a Tory-free zone but a Liberal Democrat free zone as well.

He could have used that to praise some of the achievements of Manchester council, to tell us what its done for its residents. In a speech that was going to talk about reform, he could have used it as an example of what councils could achieve now, even when they’re hamstrung by the current system, and imagine what they might do if they were set free. It could have been a great way to illustrate the potential power of devolution and regionalism.

Instead, he chose to appeal to Labour tribalism and make a virtue out of the fact that Manchester is now effectively a one-party state. There are 96 members of Manchester City Council, of which 95 are Labour councillors and the other one is an ex-Labour councillor who now sits as an independent. This is all, of course, thanks to the wonders of our electoral system which means Manchester isn’t a fluke, but a regular occurence. There are councils all over England and Wales where one party has an absurd level of dominance and huge swathes of voters aren’t represented.

Is he against politics as a game, or is he fine with that game as long as Labour are winning? Is he happy for whole swathes of people to be locked out of power and not listened to? Are the Labour Party in this for proper change, or just in it for themselves? In short, does Ed Miliband really want a different kind of politics, or just a slightly tweaked version of our current kind?

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Following on from my post about the SNP’s surge in membership, I thought it might be interesting to introduce some of the academic work on party membership. It’s an area that’s had some attention from academics, though hasn’t been studied to the same depth as other aspects of political behaviour. There are studies of what party members think, how much they do etc, but not much in the way of why people join political parties, or in terms of different models of party membership. There’s clearly different senses of what it means to be a member of a party across different countries, but also different expectations of what it might to be a party member even within the different parties of the UK. (One interesting effect of that SNP surge may be to see what happens if the expectations of new and existing members as to their roles clash)

People’s incentives for joining (as opposed to merely supporting) a political party are generally reckoned be for one of three reasons:

  • Purposive: Because they support the party’s aims and goals, and want to help them come about.
  • Social: Gaining friendships, other social opportunities and personal status from being a member of the party.
  • Material: Personal benefits that can come from being a member of the party, such as being a candidate/being elected. This can also involve opportunities for personal gain, business contacts and contracts etc.
  • This can help to explain why party membership has dropped so dramatically since it hit its modern peak in the 1950s. What we tend to forget is how much political party membership in that time was primarily driven by social considerations. If, for instance, one wanted to go and drink at the local Conservative, Liberal or Labour club, you had to be a member of the party. People would turn out to watch political speeches because there weren’t as many other options for entertainment of an evening. The members didn’t necessarily have any purposive reasons for being in the party – and they would likely not have been activists in our current understanding of party members – but they performed an important function in linking the party to wider society. This was the period of the politics of the mass party.

    The problem for modern parties, though, is that however much they try, those days aren’t coming back and in Katz and Mair’s term, the mass party has been replaced by the cartel party. This can be seen as a reaction to the end of the mass party era, or as a further cause of it with parties no longer seeing the need for a mass membership as they find other ways to connect with the electorate and wider society.

    The key question, though, is why anyone would join a political party in the modern age? The social benefits are not what they were, and unless someone wants to be an active member, most of the other benefits suffer from a free-rider problem – an individual membership will usually have very little effect on whether a party will achieve its goals, so why not do something else with your time and let others get on with achieving those goals?

    As we’ve seen, there have been some times when the downward trend in party membership has been reversed – and there is a general growth amongst some smaller parties – but those have ended with a reversion to the norm as new members drift away. The SNP’s membership surge might buck this trend, or the new members may find themselves with better things to do with their time when it comes to renew their membership, as has happened with other surges. Can a purely purposive appeal recreate something akin to a mass party, or does the social element of it need to be recreated to make it last?

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    Screen-Shot-2013-09-18-at-12.16.19As if as a rejoinder to my post yesterday about the declining importance of political parties, there’s been a surge in membership for the pro-independence parties in Scotland since the referendum. The SNP are on course to become the third largest party in the UK in terms of members and according to one comment I saw the Scottish Greens have doubled their membership since Thursday.

    As I said, the general trend in membership in UK parties is downward, and previous large surges (Labour when Blair became leader, the Tories when Cameron became leader) have been minor upward bubbles that disappeared soon after, leaving the trend as it was before. It’s way too early to say if this is the case with the current Scottish surge, but what’s most fascinating is the scale of it.

    The SNP’s membership before this surge was around 25,000 which is approximately 0.5% of the population of Scotland. The interesting thing is that this was anomalous in the UK as a whole, where the largest membership was 0.3% for the Labour Party. Now, the SNP is on course to have 1% or more of the population of Scotland as members. As comparison, the last time a UK-wide party had a membership on this level was the Tories in the late 80s (Labour haven’t reached that level since the late 70s). It’s a return to an era of mass party membership, which could herald an interesting time in Scottish politics.

    Of course, the question is whether this sudden surge in party membership will last. It’s obviously been driven by the after-effects of the referendum, but will this remain as a salient and motivating factor next year? The presence of the Westminster election next year and the Holyrood election the year in 2016 may help in cementing the loyalty of the new members by giving them something to focus on.

    What’s also interesting to wonder is what effect this will have on the Scottish political system and the SNP itself. Can they use these motivated new members to win seats in 2015, and how will people who’ve cut their activist teeth in a referendum campaign deal with an electoral one? Also (and as has been pointed out, it’s a good problem to have), how will the party’s structures cope with the new membership? It’s not intentional entryism, but having a large number of people who’ve joined for one reason is surely going to lead to some interesting issues. The SNP is already relatively large by the current standards of UK political parties, and making it bigger makes things very interesting.

    There aren’t any conclusions to this at the moment, as we’re right in the middle of the event, but it’s definitely something of interest and worthy of note. Growth on this scale, in this short a time, is possibly unique in UK politics (previous surges didn’t have the internet – particularly social media – to facilitate them as much) and the long-term effects of it are going to be worth keeping a close eye on, as though we weren’t all paying attention to Scottish politics anyway.

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