Sunday 8 March 2009

What the anti-party party can teach us about politics

I don't think we will be seeing the biopic 'Mr Judge comes to Westminster' any time soon. Still, on balance, I want to issue a warm welcome to the Jury Team - the political party for taking the parties out of politics, launched in the Sunday Times today - even though (indeed, because) it is very likely to fail.

After all, the greatest thing about democracy is this. It is not just that everybody gets to have their say on everything. Surely the really interesting bit is that, if you can get enough people to agree with you, why, hell, you can run the country too. Indeed, the early Fabians worked with the trade unions and others to create an agenda and movement to create the first major British party to come from outside Westminster, rather than being formed within it, and which changed the personnel and agenda of British politics and government. And that must apply to the Jury Team too, even if they would (by definition) not know what they would do if they ever got there.

The launch in the Sunday Times and the team's own website makes this look like as credible, well organised, reasonably funded and high profile effort as we are likely to see to test this very popular proposition: that voters of goodwill would just like to have candidates of goodwill - freed from the tyranny of the whips, the constraints of party, any collective body of beliefs or commitments to their voters - so that they can arrive unhindered in Parliament to govern sensibly in the common interests of "the people".

Given that the Jury Team's challenge is based so much on the assumptions of the "anti-politics" zeitgeist, the great benefit it promises is an educative case study in what politics is, what it isn't, and why the X Factor model can't replace politics. At least for GCSE and A-level students of politics, and for others who haven't got round to reading Bernard Crick. Perhaps even for the participants themselves.

My colleague Tim Horton, in the Fabian pamphlet 'Facing Out' set out the main claims of this common anti-politics argument, also offered in the Power Inquiry's Power to the People report, challenging this as being built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of politics.

A fashionable story dominates much public discussion of the problem with politics today. The electorate has become cynical and disaffected with formal politics because increasing educational attainment has allowed them to recognise how out-of-touch and bankrupt politicians and parties are. Though apparently champing at the bit to get more involved, these 'new citizens' are withdrawing from participation in formal politics and instead immerseing themselves in community activism and campaigning groups. Yet the old parties and politicians - relics of a bygone age of class politics - maintain their selfish stranglehold on the system, preventing a new era of democracy from being born.

.. If this is the problem, the solution is obvious: change the institutions, change the parties, get the politicians in their place and put 'the people' in charge without having to work through the formal political structures ... et voila! We will all come rushing back to engage in a new golden age of citizen democracy. If only it were that simple.

There are three problems with this.

1. Overstating people's willingness to engage, and mythologising why they do not.

A rather more accurate study of political disengagement is offered by the Hansard Society's Audit of Political Engagement. In the 2007 study, asked what factors prevent them becoming more involved, 32% say a lack of time or other priorities; 22% say they are not interested and lack the inclination; 6% cite disillusion with politics and politicians; 6% say it wouldn't achieve anything and be a waste of time; 2% say they wouldn't be listened to; 2% say they are unhappy with a party or the electoral system; 1% say the parties are all the same and don't represent their views; and 17% are unable to give any reasons as to why they are not more engaged.

2. Failing to understand politics is how we make collective decisions because people disagree. The populist account is simply to demand that the politicians do what 'the people' want, without recognising deep conflicts of values, opinions and interests which need to be negotiated and resolved. So politics is about aggregating preferences (where my views count but where other people's views count equally too) and negotiating disagreements, and deciding between alternatives. This is complex and boring. It involves conflict but compromises and trade-offs too. So most people are happy to leave politics to the experts, until there is something that bothers us. But, then, the test of whether politics works is the consumerist one: did I get what I wanted once I bothered to turn up? If not, "the system" has failed. "Politics is broken".

3. The failure to understand how different issues might be related. The Jury Party advocates a referendum wherever 5% of the population ask for one. This is the Ross Perot fantasy of push-button democracy though, with the threshold set so high, a reasonable case can be made for this. But it isn't possible to write a budget or govern by referendum. If you are elected to Save Kidderminster Hospital, you have to take a view on fox-hunting, war and peace, taxation and everything else.

There is no shortage of political parties, and indeed groups within them too: between Labour (New, Old, and a bit of both), the Conservatives (Thatcherite, Mod, Prog, etc) the LibDems (Orange Book, libertarian, social liberal), the Greens, UKIP, the BNP, Respect, the SWP and endless splinter groups; Scottish, Welsh and Cornish Nationalists, the original Liberals, Libertarians, Libertas, and many more I can't remember. Most of us can find people of broadly similar views to us somewhere on the political spectrum. People then say 'but none of them represent my precise platform' and want the 'Me Party'. We can all do that by creating our own blogs - but that isn't the same as politics. Indeed, it can be the opposite, if it encourages a sense of individualistic anti-political self-righteousness: 'Why are they all so stupid or corrupt, not to see that I am obviously right', mostly spending our time with people who think like us (whether fellow lefties, Eurosceptics, racists or whatever), with the self-reinforcement making it even more baffling why 'they' are ignoring what 'we' all think.

Still, the creation of an open primary in each constituency to select one independent candidate is perhaps a useful innovation. As the Jury Team say they will only prevent 'extremists' running, I wonder whether existing small parties, such as libertarian parties (why not even the Greens) could not enter the primaries to seek to advocate their arguments and build wider support.

The Jury Party do have 12 rather micro-proposals, mostly for pretty minor changes, many already in play (independent statistics; funding caps; term limits) while noting that not all of their candidates will support these. These sound a little bit like The Daily Telegraph letters page, but the team can take no position on the important, contentful issues about British democracy. They have no view on electoral reform though this would be needed to give independents or smaller parties a better chance; (but then they would need to negotiate what their policy was, etc); or a written constitution; or myriad civil liberties issues. They have no view on Britain's membership of the European Union, but appeal for both Europhile and Eurosceptic support to propose a referendum which might settle the issue for good. (Except we already did that, so they must mean until the next referendum on the subject).

Mr Judge probably won't be coming to Westminster with a large contingent of independent MPs. Perhaps that's a shame, as that's where the real politics would begin. Should the group be try to work together more closely to have more impact, or operate as independents? What would they do first: hold a seminar on quantitative easing and Keynesian counter-cyclical strategies for their policy-less MPs perhaps? Get the Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute of Directors over to discuss their contrasting views about what to do about tax and benefits in a recession?

Trying to change politics from outside of parties is fine and perfectly legitimate. But please don't try to suggest there is some innate moral superiority in it. Whatever vehicle you choose, delivering change requires both commitment and compromise too, to work with other people. Significant changes to our political system will require a contentful campaign for political reform - with electoral reform and a written constitution being the foundation for most informed reformers.

My modest proposal would be that any commentators who voice support for the Jury Team's criticism of the political party system and think the time for a revolution has come, would you please go the extra mile and put themselves up for election under its colours so that we can all settle this question at last.

1 comment:

Claire Khaw said...

Thank you for commenting on the Jury Team MEP campaign.

Perhaps you will consider voting for me when you see my profile at

While I am sure that your Fabian sensibilities will be appalled at my Libertarian sense, it is possible that you are a democrat and may support Direct Democracy, which is about agreeing about the rules of political engagement, rather than insisting on a particular outcome.

I am happy to explain further if required.