Monday 22 June 2009

Political values and constitutional reform

The Next Left has recently seen some spirited and informed discussion about the potential and dangers of open primaries. Since greater use of primaries was one suggestion that Will Straw and I made at the end of our recent co-edited Fabian book The Change We Need, it seemed worth revisiting this discussion, especially since the recent expenses scandal has put all manner of constitutional and participatory questions up for debate, probably to an extent unseen since 1997.

The main focus of The Change We Need was on parties, and building political organisations capable of meeting the expectations of twenty-first century citizens. The problem we diagnosed was that British parties, in contrast to their American counterparts, were in terminal decline as participatory organisations and looking increasingly out of step with other forms of social organisation and interaction now common in the digital era. Although not an answer in isolation, these solutions can perhaps also play a role in addressing the broader crisis in democratic legitimacy currently engulfing our body politic.

However, debate in recent weeks has highlighted a major problem with the discussion of constitutional reform. While politicians have a habit of talking in terms of the institutions they would like to see created, there is not enough attention paid to the goals they hope to achieve. As Aristotle noted, the real value of a constitution is not the rules it lays out, but the values it was designed to realise. The precise rules employed are simply mechanisms to achieve these ends.

Given where we now are in the UK, the historical origins of primaries are interesting. The idea was first advocated (along with the recall election and early campaign finance law) by American progressives at the beginning of the twentieth century. These ideas were the product of a distinct world view which coupled together two ideas.

  • A belief that political power was ultimately corrupting because it allowed for the centralisation of power and resources. As a result, politicians were inherently untrustworthy.
  • An optimistic view that political activism was a force for good and was the path through which the good society could be created [1].

Now, these two ideas seem strangely divergent to us. The first one is recognisable enough. However, today in the UK, it is more frequently coupled with the rhetoric of anti-politics, cynicism and extremism. The great intellectual achievement of progressivism in the US was to create a form of politics that harnessed public cynicism as a way of recreating the political system periodically from the bottom up.

How we actually go about institutionalising such values is a slightly different question. The distinction between open and closed primaries was debated on the Next Left previously, but since that division is really a facet of US law, it is hard to replicate, short of a complete institutional overhaul and the introduction of partisan voter registration. The key point is that the selection process must embrace and engage a far broader section of the community, and not be a closed shop, either in the sense of being controlled by a central party machine in London or by a small group of party members in a constituency. Popular participation of this kind allows for the selection of candidates best suited to representing a particular locality, and forces potential-runners to start campaigning to a larger proportion of the electorate. Most important, it makes parties that are more responsive to public feeling and allows for re-invention at moment of crisis such as this.

[1] I cannot claim this reading of the Progressive movement as my own, as it is largely informed by Milkis and Mileur (1999). Hofstadter (1955) also offers an important account of the period.  

1 comment:

Stuart White said...

Nick: I'm not wholly unsympathetic, not least because I would like to see new social movements interacting with political parties to a greater extent. What you propose could conceivably be a way of help this along.

However, how do you address the point that unless there is some formal party registration process, you leave the selection of party candidates open to people who may not share a given party's values? There's an important issue of freedom of association here that you are still not really addressing.

Second, and related to the above point, what about the danger of centrist drift? The problem with contemporary politics is that there is a lack of meaningful electoral choice (see, for example, Colin Hay's superb book, WHY WE HATE POLITICS). Isn't there a danger that this proposal will reinforce this problem? Of course, as I began by saying, I'd like to see the measure having a radicalizing effect by opening up parties on the left to putside social movement (the Obama case?) But if the process really does draw in lots of voters, it is more likely in general to pull parties to the centre and further diminish electoral choice.

Let's not forget that Prohibition was another idea the Progressives had (a low blow, I apologise...)