Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Multi-Party Systems: anarchy, shmanarchy!!

Following on from Philippa’s mathsy bit on the UT2, here’s a wordy bit that briefly looks at multi-party systems, hopefully in a way that avoids the ‘it’ll be bloody anarchy, I tells ya’ rhetoric. It was mostly hastily cut and pasted from an essay, so it might have a few errors arising from that, and be a bit boring, but hopefully it’s still fairly readable.......

In the Liberal Democratic tradition, parties, and levels of competition between them, are considered essential because they ‘process and structure the options to be made available to the electorate, thereby converting millions of votes into a collective decision about who will govern’.[1]

Given the implications for democracy attached to this interpretation, criticism of multi-party systems has been extensive, and charges include, but are not limited to; the fact that there are too many parties; they are not well-rooted in society; and, perhaps as a result of these factors, tend to contribute to political stability and policy outputs in uncertain ways.[2]

I will firstly take the charges of the great number of parties and the extent to which they are rooted in society, and examine them together.

I will do so in the context that political parties, wherever located, have a dual purpose; that of aggregating interests, preferences or opinions, but also of then translating them into government policy.[3]

Of the first point, it seems almost counter-intuitive to argue that a greater number of parties is less beneficial than fewer in aggregating opinion, or ensuring that particular interests are adequately represented in government and policy-making decisions. Indeed, the presence of differentiated political parties almost certainly affects positively the capacity of the subordinated classes in particular, to pursue their interests or concerns, when perhaps a two or three party system does not.

Although it could, and has been argued, that high levels of representation could threaten stability, particularly where the masses pursue a radical or redistributive agenda which may threaten elites or the privileged classes, I would argue that if significant portions of the public are left unrepresented, they may well withdraw support from the regime, and thus create serious ‘legitimacy/mandate’ issues (of the kind we’re seeing recently) and, essentially undemocratic forms of government.[4]

With regards to the charge that parties are not well-rooted in society, in an M-PS, the number of parties must surely also go some way to counteracting this claim.

With so many alternatives from which to choose, parties must reach some level of acceptable accountability or face the risk of losing support. Politicians or parties who refuse to be responsive to their constituents needs, demands or preferences, or who fail to perform effectively, will be held accountable by them, and may no longer receive material contributions, support or votes.[5] Essentially, if you remove the ‘wasted vote’ thing, and you also eliminate ‘tactical voting’, each party must compete for their votes on merit.

However, as I mentioned, the aggregation and articulation of preferences is but one role of political parties, and for all the arguments in favour of diverse representation, one must consider the part it plays in policy performance and generation.

Here one might reasonably suspect that a large number of parties, particularly when they may be diverse and distant in terms of ideology or programme, can not bode well for an effective and efficient legislation process. Once again, an investigation of this reveals interesting, and perhaps surprising results.

In an article about the effect of multi-partyism and party discipline on legislation, Josep M Colomer found that multi-partyism can in fact be a beneficial feature in the legislative process where it reflects appropriately the pluralism of citizen preferences and concerns.

Although a large number of parties has been hypothetically associated to a lack of democratic and policy success, empirical tests have not borne out this theory.[6] In contrast, in legislatives with a small number of parties, and with strong party discipline, there is more tendency for bi-partisan confrontation and more instances of gridlock.

Where there is a greater number of parties, or high levels of party indiscipline, this tendency is reduced, and has proved much more favorable for a smoother decision-making process.[7]

Similarly, if the number of parties present in the legislative arena is high, and accurately reflects the diverse interests of the society it is supposed to represent, it is more likely that policy output is more acceptable to the greater number of people.

The degree to which compromise and concessions must be sought will necessarily entail that the resulting legislation is acceptable to more than just one party, and therefore more than just one section of society.

This can be illustrated further by reversing the argument. A small number of disciplined parties, with a clear position on a given issue, are likely to come into conflict with each other – either meaning that the legislation is gridlocked, or, if passed by a small margin, is unacceptable to nearly half of the peoples’ representatives in congress.

However, the presence of a larger number of parties, with either an undisciplined or disciplined nature, ensures that significant compromise must be achieved, from a diverse section of representatives, and this is reflected in the resulting legislation, which will more likely have been at least in part acceptable to more than one group or party.

Therefore, not only does the number of parties in an M-PS necessarily reflect the number of interests amongst the citizenry in a given country, but it can mean, and frequently has done, that the policy output from any given legislative assembly comprised of this diverse group, often reflects this delicate balance of interests and preferences in society at large.

Finally, interestingly, with regards to the number of parties, and their effect on the quality and durability of a regime, it is perhaps illustrative to draw parallels with those liberal democracies in the West, against which an M-PS is so often judged unfavourably.

Low, and falling, turnout in these so-called ‘established democracies’ has increasingly been attributed to a general feeling that ‘all parties are as bad as each other, and pretty much the same’, offering no real alternative to the voter.

In this respect, PR and a truly Multi-Party System seems to, at least in part, create solutions to the problems of legitimacy that so often coincide with the lack of adequate representation and the poor electoral turnout that results.

For this reason alone, I would argue that it’s most certainly worth a pop!!

[1] John Peeler, Building Democracy in Latin America, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2004), Page 102.

[2]J Foweraker et al, Governing Latin America, (Cambridge: Polity Press 2003), Page 95 -110.

[3] J Foweraker et al, Governing Latin America, (Cambridge: Polity Press 2003), Page 97.

[4] Juan P. Luna and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, ‘Political Representation in Latin America: A Study of Elite-Mass Congruence in Nine Countries’, Comparative Political Studies; 38; 388 (2005)

[5] Herbert Kitschelt, ‘Linkages between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities’, Comparative Political Studies; 33; 845 (2000)

[6] Josep M Colomer, ‘Policy making in divided government: A pivotal actors model with party discipline’, Public Choice 125: 247–269 (2005)

[7]Josep M Colomer, ‘Policy making in divided government: A pivotal actors model with party discipline’, Public Choice 125: 247–269 (2005)

Monday, 19 April 2010

Locke, Rousseau and the Democratic Deficit.

In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke suggests that:

‘Whensoever [the legislative transgresses fundamental rules of society] and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to assume their original liberty, and by the establishment of the new legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own security….’

Whether the current ‘legislative’ has transgressed fundamental rules of society, is, perhaps, open to debate (although the expenses scandal provides quite a damning case), but I think it’s fair to say that there is a growing number of people who feel that it, at the very least, has usurped many of the fundamental principles of our ‘democracy’, and that accordingly, conditions are right for a more accountable governmental system.

The thing is though, I don’t see it happening.

Sure, it’s election season, and we’ve been thrown our ‘you decide’ bone, but, realistically, what can we hope to decide in our current, ‘system’?

A system where ‘infrequent elections in conjunction with a competitive party system puts a positive premium on deceiving and manipulating the public, by altering policy in the run up to an election…..then imposing unpopular measures immediately afterward when elections are far away’!?

The answer, I’m afraid, is probably not much.

In our present FPTP system, with it’s safe seats, parachuted candidates, and underlying party system with whips, corporate backing and media cohorts, we’re all pretty much banging our heads against a brick wall anyway.

This election will, I suspect (and I’m willing to take bets with anyone on this) involve the usual amount of vague national issues, dog-whistle politics, and, particularly in ‘marginal seats’, some candidate throwing out a few local issues that their researches were kind enough to look up for them.

This is, of course, a tactic endorsed and heavily tested back at party HQ, where it was mostly funded by some corporation or other (and possibly, with all three parties having been funded by the same corporation), ensuring that said ‘local issue’ is presented in manner x, y, or z, which ultimately benefits this corporation in some way or another.

Jean Jacques Rousseau warned, in his ‘Social Contract’, that ‘Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests’ and stated that this would inevitably result in the corruption of the legislator.

So erm, another tick there then, I reckon.
Because, when we look at it, when we really ask who benefits from the current system, it certainly doesn’t seem to be anybody other than them, right!?

Finally, Rousseau, in a similar vein, wrote that ‘the peoples deputies are not, and could not be, its representatives; they are merely its agents...... ‘the moment a people adopts representatives it is no longer free; it no longer exists’ .

Well, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I certainly think that once we have ‘adopted’ our representatives, we cease to exist on any practical level.

Indeed, once our MP’s have touched base on the campaign trail, they’re off for another five years, backing the aforementioned corporate interests, because, you know, they’re all so close, and therefore harder to forget than ‘them funny little constituency people that talk all funny and that’!

Because, even if we were lucky enough to vote in a marginal constituency, and even if that MP makes a promise to do something about that issue, and even if they do get elected, the chances of that issue making it past the realities of corporate influence/party discipline are so small as to be laughable.

So what am I saying, what am I calling for?
To be honest, I’m not sure.

I think though, that when a political campaign openly uses ‘vote x, but get y’ as a legitimate strategy, we’re some way beyond f@cked. And, perhaps, merely acknowledging that is a start, and getting angry about it a further step in the right direction.

I also suspect that voter apathy is a severe obstacle to reform, but one that is probably caused by the above, and, whether by design or luck, this has created a catch-22, a self-reinforcing democratic deficit that we have becoming increasingly powerless to overcome.
(I also suspect that, should I urge people to look into what Rousseau and Locke had to say on this subject, most people would immediately think I was talking about the characters on the telly from ‘Lost’!).

I guess, what I really want are some ideas, and any would be gratefully received, because, as Rousseau also noted:

‘ Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium’ – Better freedom with danger than peace with slavery’

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The end of an affair!?

I grew up in a North of England decimated by years of Tory policy, where the hatred of the Conservatives was so intense and consistent, and where, accordingly, the very idea of a Labour government had become an almost mythical, utopian one, destined to bring back the light of dignity and justice to those who had barely survived the long and brutal siege of the conservative lords to the South.

Indeed, when Tony Blair posed with Noel Gallagher, it meant more to some than just ‘Cool Britannia’, it was a symbolic and meaningful gesture. For years, the conventional wisdom had held that, in order to escape the poverty, to break the cycle, we had two choices: Music or Sport. Noel, whether you liked him or not, was coming back for those he had left behind, and Tony Blair was leading the mission.

After thirteen years of utopia however, we aint so fucking convinced.

Many thousands of words have been written on the subject of ‘so-called’ Labour’s abandonment of their core constituency, and I don’t wish to repeat them all here, but, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems fair to say that, at the very least, the more optimistic of us were certainly misguided.

For the reasons outlined above, the ‘working-class’ vote was relatively assured for Labour in ‘97, and the major coup of Tony Blair, and, perhaps his enduring legacy, will be the extent to which he made his ‘New’ Labour project palatable to those who would perhaps, historically have feared the firebrand politics of a powerful Labour government.

Under his guidance, the acceptable, white collar face of a new kind of labour replaced the grey, dour face of the past. Vague notions of a ‘Third Way’ replaced concrete promises of policy, except of course, some shit about fox-hunting, and substance was ultimately replaced with style.

And while the ordinary folk were dazzled and distracted by all the fun of the fair, and the snake-oil salesmen promising eternal ‘social justice for all’, New Labour sounded the dog-whistles to those higher up, those who, unlike many of us, perhaps had something to lose.

The message though was clear. We’re New Labour. We’re acceptable. We’re more of the fucking same. There’s no firebranding – just branding.

And, after those first few years, things seemed to be going well. The working classes played the faithful domestic partner at home, gratefully accepting the scraps thrown to us by our masters, and lapping up the attention given us after so many years of neglect, while New Labour, in reality, continued to court the middle-classes, wining and dining those who had really got them elected, focusing their time and energy on this newer, more exciting relationship.

And eventually our scraps became less frequent, and with more ‘conditions’ attached. We’d lost our right to representation by virtue of being complete fucking morons, and watched helplessly as we became controlled instead.

The dignity of self-determination became the safety of proscription.

And, finally, one day, the ‘attention’ became authority, and the gentle caress was replaced by a warning slap, delivered with just enough force to keep us in place, but enough ambiguity to keep us questioning our own culpability.

Again, the real effort, the gentle, charismatic approach was reserved for the more appealing, more rewarding, sexier, liaison.

By this point, most of us knew this of course, but we pretended we didn't.

We ignored the ‘working late at the office’, and the business trips out of town, and we even looked the other way when we found the receipts in the pockets of the trousers we still faithfully washed and ironed in our ‘new utopia’. Hell, we had our brand new call centre jobs that had made us so much better people, and we really couldn’t rock the boat because of a little infidelity, could we!?

Some even sought to re-ignite the relationship. Seeing the newer, more refined tastes of their beloved, they tried to make themselves more attractive in a similar mould. Using easily obtainable credit some made more of an effort, re-inventing themselves in the image of these newer objects of affection, pushing themselves to the limit, climbing an ever steepening stairway, and refusing to look down, lest the illusion be shattered.

Ironically though, they needn’t have bothered, because now, thirteen years later, it is the (lower to middle) middle-classes who have become the gimps, albeit slightly classier and more eloquent ones.

Where once they provided the opportunity for something new and exciting, a fresh upwardly mobile partnership, they’ve now too become an albatross in much the same way that the lower classes did all those years ago. And consequently, they too have been abandoned in favour of better, more powerful bed-mates.

But, whereas a few extra cans of spam have nearly always been enough to keep the working classes quiet, the middle classes require something a bit more substantial to keep the betrayal unrecognised, and ultimately unpunished.

While they suffer from crashing house prices, the rising cost of credit, failing schools, and shrinking pensions, Labour send out the big guns of identity politics to keep them distracted and placated:

Yeah, you’re struggling a bit now, sorry about that, but them lot, they’re fucking racists/homophobes/misogynists, innit!?

OK, so your pension’s disappeared as a result of the ‘only game in town’, which, by the way, we made a hell of a lot easier to play, and sure, now you’re going to have to work an extra five years while the cock-knocker who fucked it up for you is living it up with his multi-million pound bonus, but remember, you’re black/gay/a woman, and, well, that lot, they don’t like any of the above, do they!!??

And it’s a clever strategy, to be fair. Because after thirteen years of Labour Government, after poverty and hardship have increased throughout the bottom and the middle sections of society, and after the most prolonged and grievous erosion of civil rights and liberties in living memory, we’re all going to vote for Labour anyway, because they’re still better than the other lot.

Because, sure, Labour have beaten the shit out of us, most of us, but they’ve promised they’ll change, and that they won’t do it again. We tell ourselves that they love us, deep down, and that it’ll all be different this time. And besides, we ask, ‘where else are we going to go?’, ‘what other option do we have’?

Well I, for one, am not buying it.
I refuse to vote for Labour because they’re not the Tories, and, likewise, I’m not voting for the Tories because they’re not Labour.

In the UK, we do have another, relatively viable option, and, if now isn’t the time to use it, then when the hell is?