Tag Archives: Democracy

It’s the Stupidity, Stupid!

Last September I wrote about the recent General Election and the unlikely elevation of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party; the lack of a post since then has been, I now realise, the result of deep-seated dismay.  In Britain, the first half of 2015 was dominated domestically by the backwash of the Scottish Independence referendum; internationally, by the circus of the Greek debt crisis, where Tsipras would agree one thing in Brussels and then go home and disown what he had agreed on TV, as if nobody outside Athens watched Greek TV.

Scottish independence vanished from the public agenda of the SNP just over a year after the referendum, with the collapse of the oil price.  Scotland’s prosperity now clearly lies with the current terms of the Union.  Although it should be noted that when in 2013 it looked as though the Grangemouth refinery was to be closed, the real problem was that this one closure would take 10% of the Scottish manufacturing base with it.  In January 2016 Scotland’s non-oil and gas exports to the rest of the United Kingdom were four times that to the rest of the EU and increasing – exports to the rest of the EU had fallen 8% in one year.  So the idea that the path to prosperity lay through an independent Scotland was always a rather flaky idea.  Besides which, actually establishing an independent Scotland could well turn out as costly as the Darien project.

Much the same is true of the idea that Britain could prosper through leaving the EU.  As Philip Stephens has pointed out in the FT recently, the idea that Britain could “reclaim sovereignty” by leaving the EU is self-refuting: the possibility of leaving is itself confirmation of sovereignty.  Quite apart from the very rudimentary idea of “sovereignty” that those who make such arguments display, detached from any serious consideration of the relationships now existing between European states, or any comprehension of the government of modern polities.  Best estimates of the economic gains from membership of the EU run at about 10%: that Britain is now 10% better off than it would have been had it never been a member of the EU.  Detaching Britain from the EU, and reorganising our political, economic and social relationships with the world’s third-most important political bloc, could well chew through that in short order.  What the dawning new era would be like is anyone’s guess, but there is no particular reason to suppose that it would be any improvement on the present.

Scottish independence could well follow on from Brexit.  The turbulence of Spanish politics could well lead into Catalan independence given the reduced legitimacy of established parties.  In France there is a related lack of support for the mainstream parties of right and left, which only together seem capable of stemming the electoral advance of the Front National.  Similar stories of disaffected voters placing their faith in the politics of anti-politics can be told about Italy, Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, Denmark.  And on the other side of the Atlantic those with any commitment to serious politics look on aghast as a huckster channelling the ghost of Huey Long steadily treads his path to nomination as the Republican Party presidential nominee.

As Max Weber noted, modern politics requires the firm, slow boring of hard boards, united with passion and a sense of proportion.  Today many seem to think that passion is enough.  “People” are said to be disaffected from politics and political leadership; a new antipolitics is said to be abroad.  True enough, today some of the leading British parliamentary figures plumb new depths of shallowness.  David Cameron presents himself as an honest broker, but he seeks to save us from a mess he created in the first place by his casual approach to party politics. George Osborne, set on spending ever less to “restore our finances”, seems baffled by the way that the less “he spends”, the poorer the nation becomes.  Tariq Ali tells us in the last London Review of Books that Jeremy Corbyn articulates a national mood – clearly he does not get out much, nor has he noticed that it is Corbyn’s advisers who seem to do all the articulating, the Labour Party leader being mostly mute.

The practice of politics in a representative democracy is an unedifying sight.  Representative democracy is however what we have, and the alternatives – plebiscitary democracy, authoritarian democracy, monarchy, dictatorship, oligarchic rule, theocracy – are all much worse.  We should be grateful for what we have, not be surprised by how imperfect it is.  Our efforts should be directed to improving ourselves and those around us, not blaming remote others for not giving us what we want.  All of the countries and regions mentioned above belong to the wealthiest part of the modern world.  Even being poor in a wealthy country is very rarely much like being even reasonably well-off in a poor country, a point that Adam Smith made long ago.  Articulating this principle in discussion of Europe’s immigration crisis would be helpful.  Simply being alive is a privilege; being alive in a wealthy country confers enormous benefits on those who live there, benefits to which they themselves have directly contributed little.

There is no economic case for Brexit, but that is more or less beside the point.  Extending the line of argument above, being a citizen of an EU member state brings with it social and cultural advantages that, being taken for granted, are usually ignored.  Britain is now more like eg. Holland than it is like any other non-EU country in the world – not the same, but in many significant ways similar.  Only for tourists and a wealthy elite does the USA look anything like Britain.  The truth of this is confirmed by the progress of Donald Trump through the Republican primaries.  But even here we can find confirmation of Adam Smith’s analysis of commercial society: that its motor is emulation and vanity; translated into the political process, those who already have much of what they need respond to politicians who promise them more of what they already have, which they no longer even notice they have.

Democracy in Action?

In recent days much has been written and said about the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour MP with no known experience of running anything at all beyond his own life, as leader of Britain’s Labour Party. He was elected through a process that was intended to be “more democratic” than the last democratic election process, but which seems to have produced a result at odds with the wishes of most active members of the Labour Party and almost all its MPs.  The new process permitted all kinds of people who had not even voted Labour in the recent general election to “have their say”.  Matters were not helped by the fact that Corbyn had so little support among Labour MPs that he only gained sufficient nominations to put himself forward as a candidate through nominations from MPs who wished the field to be “representative”.  This alone shows the poverty of imagination of those rightly dubbed “morons”, since the point of having a threshold is to exclude candidates who lack broad support.

It is not yet clear how things will turn out.  The only certain thing is that current punditry is well off the mark: the Labour Party of today is the same Labour Party of last week, except that it has a new leader.  Quite what this new leader will, or can, do with his unexpected elevation is unclear.  Anthony King, in Who Governs Britain?, has plausibly argued that the British Prime Minister has very limited power, and much the same is true of the Leader of the Opposition.  Quite what counts as “strong” or “weak” leadership should always be treated with scepticism.  Media preoccupation with “strong” leadership in politics, business and academia is generally linked to poor understanding of what leadership involves, and a focus on “words” over “actions”.  Max Weber wrote the book on all this during 1918-1919, and what he wrote then still stands as the most insightful assessment of politics in a modern parliamentary democracy.

So this post is not about the end of the Labour Party as we know it, nor about the triumph of the popular will, nor about the rhetoric about the “hard left”, “centre” and “the right”.  I want to focus attention on the sheer poverty in public discussion of “democracy” and “leadership”.  For Corbyn’s election is not an isolated event in this context; this year we have seen the confrontation of EU officials and member states with Greece, a Scottish referendum, a Greek referendum, and the election of a new British Government.  Discussion of all of these has involved much muddled-thinking about “democracy” – principally, the illusion that there is such a simple and self-evident thing as “Democracy” that produces “popular results”.

“Democracy” is rule by the people; but who are “the people”?  For the Greeks who invented the idea, during a period around 400 BC political and judicial decisions were made by a collection of adult males who happened to attend on one day.  All debate and votes took place on the same day; women were excluded; slaves were excluded; all aliens were excluded; all children and young adults were excluded; all those free adult males who did not attend were excluded.  How those present made up their minds to vote this way or that was not really a matter of rational debate; this was always subject to the fluency of orators and their scriptwriters.  But it worked for a while; and some kind of “democratic process” has always worked better than the alternatives, because it creates a basic legitimacy and, very importantly, creates a system for changing the people who make the rules and make the decisions without resort to murder and civil war.  The importance of all this was presented in extenso four hundred years ago in Shakespeare’s History plays.  It remains an issue in the world today.  The downside is always that the process of democracy is messy, argumentative and a massive waste of everyone’s time; but those who deplore the windbaggery of the European Parliament and yearn for “strong leadership” should be careful what they wish for.

Democracy is not so much about “the popular will” (since the Greeks already demonstrated how indistinct that was) as about institutions and process.  As a student I was taught by Jean Blondel, whose Voters, Parties and Leaders (1963) had drawn attention to the way that democratic decision-making was generally dominated by a minority; that what looked like a “majority vote” was usually the outcome of a shift, for whatever reason, in the opinions of a very small number of people.  This gave birth to the idea of the “swing voter”, again, another poorly understood phenomenon since here statistical probability and random phenomena intersect.  When the opinion polls judged the Scottish Referendum “too close to call”, commentators forgot that this only ever means a range, and that 45/55 as it did turn out was in the circumstances predictable, especially since Glasgow and Dundee, in the only pro-independence results, had the lowest turnouts.  As with the Greeks above: if you do not turn up, you have no vote.

Another example is that of the current British government, which commands a majority of seats in parliament having won 36.9% of the votes actually cast, “trouncing” a Labour Party which won 30.4%.  Since one-third of those registered to vote did not do so, this would give the present Government the express support of about a quarter of all qualified voters.  In part this is the product of the electoral system, but there is no prospect of change to this since any reform would have to be implemented by a government whose majority was owed to the mechanics of the first-past-the-post system.  And there are many variants of proportional representation, and no perfect statistical system for matching voters to constituencies and parties, as US Congressional elections demonstrate.

Another aspect of the first-past-the-post system is the way that it randomly punishes and rewards small parties.  In the current UK Parliament, the SNP won 4.7% of the vote, and has 56 seats; the Liberal Democrats gained 7.9% of the vote, and have 8 seats.  UKIP, whose core vote seems always until recently to have been around 15% of the electorate, has yet to secure one seat through its own efforts (their one MP defected with his constituency from the Tory party).  it is arguable that thresholds for small parties, as with the German 5% of the total vote, are “more democratic”; but the basic arithmetic generated by the British electoral system is unlikely to change.

Which brings me back to a point no-one seems to have noticed about the Corbyn election.  If he does prove unsuitable as a leader, in whatever way, how could he be replaced by someone more centrist, given that he is the (unanticipated) product of the new rules?  He is a product of the rules, not of the Party.  Arguably, the Labour Party should elect its leaders in a process that involves the Party as a whole ranking candidates in an election, from which the Parliamentary Party then chooses the leader most likely to lead the Party with competence from among, say, the top five.  They will have a better idea of who would make a good leader than the electorate at large; but this thought is probably “undemocratic”.  What might this mean?