Wednesday, 27 December 2006

FIXED OR FLEXIBLE?

Jose asks [over on Yellow Duck’s Pond] when Britain will enjoy the “reality” of new elections? My guess is not before 2009 at the earliest. The maximum length of parliaments is fixed by the 1911 Parliament Act as five years. This Government was elected in May 2005, so in theory could carry on until the Spring of 2010.

In practice – save in the highly unusual and unlikely event of a government defeat on a Commons vote – the choice of a date rests with the prime minister. He will obviously select a time when the governing party is most likely to reap an advantage by going to the polls. If Tony Blair retires, as he has promised, by May 2007 – and as we know only too well, Mr Blair’s promises are an uncertain quantity – his successor will have a maximum of two years to ‘play himself in’ and to prepare the ground for another victory. He will most likely aim for a date in the autumn of 2009, unless ‘prudence’ dictates a snap election when he takes over.

This flexibility of election dates, within a five-year span, raises the question of whether we – the electorate – would benefit if the choice was taken out of the hands of the ruling party, and placed on a fixed term basis. While there is something to be said for the latter option, the example of the USA is not encouraging. What occurs there is that the minute a presidential or mid-term election is over, the parties barricade themselves in their bunkers and start firing ranging shots for the next election in two years’ time. The republic is never free of a perpetual electioneering atmosphere.

What would be far preferable would be a state of affairs which restores greater control over the political process both to members of parliament and to the electorate. Decision-making needs to be wrested away from the sofa at no. 10, and from backroom deals in and out of cabinet, and brought back into the House of Commons. One way for this to happen would be the introduction of a genuine system of proportional representation which gives real choice to the voters, and not merely to the party machines through a ‘list’ system.

This outcome is of course what makes PR anathema to party hacks, however much they may flirt with the idea of watered-down PR when it suits them. Until there is genuine PR, the voters’ hands will always be tied behind their backs. They will remain unable to express realistic preferences for the candidates they prefer, because of the necessity to cast negative votes in order to keep out the candidates they like the least.

This is what passes for ‘democracy’. Not for much longer, let us hope.

36 comments:

Szwagier said...

I used to be a PR supporter. Then I came to live in a PR run country.

It sucks. Deals behind closed doors. The doors only open to allow bribery and corruption in. The more-or-less-sensible majority frequently have a gun put to their heads by the extreme minority who have been accepted into the government by a big party that's not quite big enough to rule on its own...

It's loathsome.

At least with first past the post, you know who the enemy is.

anticant said...

Your comment raises the issue of how to curb the power of small tails to wag big dogs. It will never be eliminated completely, because it's endemic in the whole system of government. But it can and should be made more transparent and accountable.

zola said...

I have always thought that the slogan Take Back The Steets was OK.
But I am a social anarcist and must be forgiven for that I guess.
However ole AntiC likes his anarchy too methinks.

Szwagier said...

Small tails wagging big dogs is one part of the problem, agreed. But unless one party is big enough to rule on its own, there are others.

Broad election manifestoes, assuming for a moment that they're worth the paper they're printed on in any system, are utterly worthless in coalition government because it's simply not possible to make good on your promises - because if you try, your coalition partner walks and you still don't get it done.

So transparency and accountability are very difficult to realise, in the sense of make real, because the PR system itself tends to lead towards opacity and unaccountability.

FPP gives transparency - how much political debate in the UK is centred round the theme of "you said you'd do this and you've done that"? Calling politicians on their promises is only possible in a system where they have a realistic chance of putting those promises into practice. FPP gives them that chance.

It is obviously flawed, as is any system of government designed and run by humans, but the decision-making trail is a lot clearer, I believe, than it is under PR.

I grew up in the 70s, and flirted with anarchist ideas for about 5 minutes - just long enough to get an MI5 file, presumably - until I realised that, at that time, Beirut was the perfect example of anarchy in action. My interest in anarchy as a system stopped there and then.

anticant said...

Zola, I am an 'Anarchist But', as all good libertarians should be. The 'But' is because I don't believe everyone could be relied upon to drive on the correct side [whichever that is] of the road without minimal traffic regulation. But the less the better.

A wise friend of mine - a Gestaltist - says that the true meaning of 'anarchy' is NOT asassinating Empresses - poor Elisabeth - and throwing bombs, but the highest degree of SELF control, through self-awareness, that can be achieved. So it's back to this business of preventing toxic tails [and Texans] wagging big benign dogs. A New Year blog in the making?

anticant said...

szwagier, big parties with bloated majorities elected under FPTP are also coalitions, negotiating compromises behind closed doors. The gross distortion of the popular vote, and the patronage system, give the party whips, and therefore the prime minister, far too much power over MPs, half of whom are on the government payroll and the other half are largely passive lobby fodder. ["The finest brute votes in Europe", Disraeli called them.]

In my younger days there were always a handful of independently-minded MPs in each parliament, whether party members or elected as Independents for University seats and so forth, who made a significant difference to social legislation, such as A.P. Herbert's divorce reforms or Leo Abse in the 1960s. Where are they now?

As a voter, I feel disfranchised by FPTP.

Szwagier said...

Yes, you're right, of course, that the big parties are coalitions, but come election time they're coalitions fighting under one banner rather than several conflicting ones. At least in theory.

I suppose what it all boils down to is what you think a government is for. If you think it's for running the country, then you should choose a form of election which allows the 'winner' the chance to do that.

If, on the other hand, you think the government should actually represent the society it springs from, with all the contradictions, stupidities and inertia that entails, then PR is the thing.

I understand, and also 'suffer' from, the feeling of disenfranchisement - I just don't think, having seen it in action, that PR is a solution.

Regarding the definition of anarchy, your friend is, of course, free to define anarchy however he wishes (the Humpty Dumpty argument), but a back-of the-envelope search of online dictionaries will reveal that my interpretation is closer to that of the general English-speaker. In a PR system, I'd win hands down :o)

anticant said...

Some forms of PR are fairer and more transparent than others. I don't know which system operates where you are. I think this is one of those topics where we must agree to differ - we are neither of us going to convert the other!

What most concerns me is the "democratic deficit" - how power is actually distributed, whatever the formalities of the voting etc. systems. At present, thanks to the dangerous pliability of our unwritten constitution, far too much power resides on the sofa at No 10, and no prime minister will willingly part with it. What Lord Hailsham called an elective dictatorship.

zola said...

Zola prefers an "Elective Affinity" and sorry for bringing in Max Weber which i did not - not exactly.

BTW : I used SOCIAL Anarchy.

butwhatif said...

'Elective affinity': it's a phrase for the mealy-mouthed, Zola; and that ain't exactly you; for those without the balls to declare that 'A caused B'.

zola said...

But what if : Selective Affinity?

butwhatif said...

Never understood all those difficult German thinkers meself, Zola. A whole lotta 'eclectic assininity' to me.

zola said...

Most of them were rather sick anyway so I doubt you missed too much.
But that ole Anticant favourite Goethe does deserve more although I leave those deep issues to the Judge imself.

zola said...

Butwhatif : Did you also imply that A for Anticanter caused B for poor ole ben ?

anticant said...

Not Gertie, Zola - Nietzsche! Ol' Fred saw further than most, peering out through that huge moustache, and consequently has been completely misunderstood by loads of people since, including his own Hitler-worshipping sister.

Cause? A and B? A butterfly flaps its wing in the White House Rose Garden, and a bomb goes off in Baghdad?

Beadle Percy Flarge is gratified to note that the tone of discourse in the burrow has markedly improved since his appointment. He will be applying for a New Year rise. [But he won't get it. Maybe a performance-related bonus later in the spring.]

Anonymous said...

Flargey is fucked

Percy Flarge said...

Graffiti posters will be boycotted.

By Order

P. Flarge.
Beadle.

butwhatif said...

Dubya: "Are you proud of me, Pappa? I've stopped doing all that shit. See the way I govern Texas, Pappa?"

A butterfly flaps its wing in the White House Rose Garden, causing pollen to waft into the Oval Office, making George Herbert Bush sneeze, having to leave the room. Dubya takes it personally; is despondent; it seems he can never truly make his daddy happy and proud.

10 years later: A bomb goes off in Baghdad.

Dubya: "I did it just for you, Pappa!"

ben trovato said...

Dick Cheney walks into the Oval Office and sees the President whooping and hollering.

"What's wrong, Mr. President?" the Vice President inquires.

"Nothing at all, I just completed a jigsaw puzzle in record time!" beams the President.

"How long did it take you?"

"Well, the box said '3 to 5 Years' but I did it in a month!"

Jose said...

Thank you,Anticant, for answering my question in Yellowduck. I haven't yet visited there and of course am not aware if there is an answer there, too.

In my opinion the whole system is tainted. It is tainted because there is a veiled fraud to democracy in that really persons have no importance by themselves but by the importance the parties and their propaganda apparatus wish to give them. In all cases the candidates to represent people, are perfectly unknown to their would-be electors, they are even unknown to the members of the very party who elect them as candidates. A small clique knows them, which starts a process for which the word democracy is not valid.

I can be countered that it is possible that any one among the x million inhabitants a country has may present themselves as candidates, but again there is no equality in the process for obvious reasons, among them the control of the media and money.

On the other hand that a Prime Minister be the only person, in normal circumstances, entitled to call elections for the date it suits him/her more, is another fraud to democracy, because he/she chooses the date in accordance with what the soundings of public opinion counsel him/her.

A thorough overhaul of electoral laws, not only in Britain but everywhere, is imperative if we want that democracy be re-established in its pure state. I perfectly know that that will be an arrangement for a few years, the power of money being so strong that it would be able to taint democracy again.

Something that at this stage seems utopian, indeed.

Life is fight.

zola said...

Play on Jose

anticant said...

Thank you for that, Jose. One of the biggest problems for the Western champions of "freedom and democracy" is the democratic deficit in their own countries. It is a very big topic, and cannot be tackled all in one piece or one blog!

As I have said over on Tyger's site ["Tygerland"], and as you have just confirmed, the whole apparatus and relevance of political parties needs to be scrutinised and reformed. The most extreme corruption of 'party' was by the fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain, and some South American countries. Communist Russia and China too, of course.

The crucial factor is indeed money and who it buys. In the USA plutocracy rules and always has done for the past century and more.
You have to be astronomically rich to stand for President.

Our first prime minister, Walpole, said in the 18th century "All those men have their price". He was right.

Jose said...

Zola, I will while I can.

Thank you, Anticant, for being positive. Being democratic, despite what the media, those ebullient politicians of our time and others have done for us to be convinced it exists, has proved to be a hard asset to keep.

In effect, the concept of democracy has been rigged, has been manipulated along the years so that we believe in a democracy that is not such.

I feel happy reading your thread, please keep at it

zola said...

Indeed Jose : I recall that the Norwegian professor Arne Naess made a study of Democracy in Europe. This some years back about the 1980 time if i remember well enough.
Naess found there was no such thing as democracy meaning that no common ground was identifiable for definition or practice. Differences were the main point.
Shame that the EU failed to keep publishing that book of research especially as they had paid for it.
I guess Naess wrote what was not wanted.

butwhatif said...

That holds, apparently, with other ideologies and political concepts too, Zola, not just with 'democracy'. Where often, there is no immutable, central core; at least according to Michael Freeden (who has carved himself out a Wittgensteinian approach on on all this).

So democracy may not have any core qualifiers, but it still can be the case that we are able to recognise how the Democratic People Republic of Korea has 'Milkman's Child' written all over its face.

(From elective affinities to family resemblances in just one thread, over Christmas too ... blimey.)

anticant said...

Are there any copies of Naess's book lurking around somewhere? It would make interesting reading.

Jose, the essence of democracy is effective choice. All useful discussions of it need to focus on how we widen the choices available to every citizen, as long as these are not anti-social.

As Tom Paine said in 'The Rights of Man', "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good."

zola said...

Yes Butwhatif : I agree. Here is one small sign of the postmodern appreciation. Such does not, as you say, mean that we must ignore certain identifiable issues withing - even if no one core exists. But yes i agree with you.
Perhaps i would say that i think "democracy" is an ideal well worth acting for and with. It is alive so long as folk are alive with it.

Also I agree that for an Xmas blog we have been doing rather well.

Anticant - about that book - not sure. My copy was stolen although the University of Oslo will have copies. I cannot even remember the exact title but I might be able to trace it from my dusty shelves that begin to make me sneeze.

anticant said...

I recently read a very interesting book by an American academic - yes, a few of them actually do still write coherent prose: "The Future of Freedom, Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad" by Fareed Zakaria. His discussion of the tensions between liberty, populism, and pressure-group politics is very relevant to this thread.

dubiousaboutdubya said...

"My country is the world, and my religion is to do good."

H'm. That's how the Toxic Texan thinks too.

Jose said...

A couple of posts here deal with the coalitions among parties. Although we might well say that coalitions are like a reduced assembly of a considerably larger population voting for those who form it, in actual fact its importance is dwindled by the high percentage of abstentions of people who have felt themselves deceived by what they thought it was democracy.

The funny side of it is that they renounce their right to participate in the elections, thus giving way to dangerous thoughts of totalitarianism, and as we have been able to see everywhere, the abstention propitiates an attitude of higher authority in the leaders.

Consequently if we want to do something in democracy we must by all means think that the only weapon we can use at the present moment and cirumstances is the right to vote, which we must consider a compulsory obligation as citizens. If we do not use that right we are giving those with personal ambitions the motivation to be discriminate without any respect for the citizenry.

And, Zola, I think the US does not consider, or does not accept, any alterations of the system, for the mere fact that it is a country where the democratic system they use suits the aspirations of the Great Capital.

I remember Anticant saying somewhere else that the American population was used to blindly following their leaders, their Commander-in-Chief. Is this a consequence of their history or is it a sequel of Capitalism or is it both?

I have an opinion about this but I would like somebody to clarify this question for me.

zola said...

Jose : Good to see "democracy" linked firmly with both religion and the faith of capitalism. Problem always comes, at least for me, to think and talk in such a wide domain. Easier all too often to box up a few "key notes" and then move with them false images.

I think Butwhatif hit the nail on the head. "Democracy" does not exist as a one solid core entity. Therefore we need, I think, to use concepts that help us make sense of the everyday realities. These concepts must, I would CLAIM, be multi-disciplinary and human.

Sorry to be so damned academic but ole Beadle of the Parish is after my butt.

anticant said...

Well, Jose, it would take a year's university course to clarify one's perceptions of "America". It's such a vast country. At Cambridge just after WW2 I was fortunate to be lectured on American history by Denis Brogan, an expert on the histories of both USA and France, who was most entertaining because he was an omniverous reader and retailed almost every American political joke worth remembering.

As long ago as 1948, Geoffrey Gorer, who was a British anthropologist and a student of Margaret Mead, wrote a book called "The Americans" which caused great offence in USA [where almost anything analytically critical of them does!]. It was a slightly tongue-in-cheek dissection of American society and values which hit a great many uncomfortable nails on the head. I've just been re-reading it over Christmas with great enjoyment. Even 60 years on, it's a good starting point for boning up on God's Own Country.

anticant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Burrow Beadle said...

No need to worry, Mr Zola Sir, so long as you watch your language. My remit is to patrol the burrow boundaries and throw out rowdies - not to intrude upon hifalutin' academic discussions that are far above my wig. Anyway, I shall be taking leave over the New Year to assist my former boss, Mr Bumble, keep order in the Work House and ensure that the rascally Oliver Twist doesn't get Any More.

Jose said...

You're really pragmatic, Zola, and I praise you for it. Between your position and Anticant's I find there's a large chasm. I am a little bit more as the latter, although I cannot compare to his wiser perception of matters.

We can dream, can't we?

Americans, those who are called by themselves Americans although the original name was applied to Columbus's first discovered land which he found by sheer fluke, are a gigantic melange of cultures in the national sense of the word, and I agree with you that anthropologically speaking it might take a life-long research if we want to reach a sane conclusion of how Americans are.

But enigmatic as they may appear, they are human beings as we are, and their way of thinking can be found more easily from their behaviour in general, as we can more or less guess with ourselves.

Their origins which might also be related to their DNA's, may also have something to do with how they act today.

But we are talking about politics here mainly about democracy and democracy was not discovered by Americans. We must go back very far in time to find its origins, and if my memory does not fail me it was also a failure those times.

I wonder who got that word out of the box where it was so safely guarded to apply it to modern times.

Does History also repeat itself in this aspect of our civilisation?

anticant said...

Oh Jose, you sail in deep waters! I can see that at some stage I am going to have to attempt a blog setting out my thoughts about Americans. When I do, all hell will break loose if any Americans read it! And I am NOT anti-American.

You are right about judging people from what they do, not what they say. In a nutshell, Americans' self-perceptions and their actions are worlds apart at this moment in time. What they cling to as the American Dream is being experienced by many others - including old allies - as a hideous nightmare.