Monday, 25 February 2013

The Party System

I've just been re-reading "The Party System" by Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton. It's an interesting book to read. They make the point that the ideal democracy, which is difficult, would be along the lines of Athenian democracy. Representative democracy is a fudge, a way of trying to match together an ideal about the popular will, and the fact that Mr Jones, MP, may represent thousands of constituents. The votes, elections, assemblies, are mechanisms to try and carry that out, but they are not perfect by any means:

It may, however, be worth while to define exactly what democracy is. Votes and elections and representative assemblies are not democracy ; they are at best machinery for carrying out democracy. (1)

What happens with political parties is that each party sets out its own agenda, and there is commonly, in the UK, as in Belloc's time, pretty much a choice between two or possibly three parties. The voter is presented with a "set menu" of choices, but they are not necessarily the matters he or she would choose. And this leads to all kinds of anomalies. In "The Party System", they discuss the different reasons why people vote for a party, and one is the "enthusiast" who chooses a party because it is strongly in favour of one enthusiasm they have:
There is another kind of enthusiast who helps to keep the Party System going. This is the man who earnestly desires some particular measure which one of the two parties has espoused, or (what comes to much the same thing) has an intense repugnance to some measure which the other party has espoused. (1)

The agenda for the party, the manifesto, does not come from popular will; it is set by the Party machinery, by the people who control the Party, and while they have to offer something for the voter to choose them, all they have to do is to offer enough to have an edge. But people support a Party, and vote for a Party regardless of whether that Party really has their best interests at hand. This was common enough in the UK in Belloc's time; some people think it is as true today in the UK.

Finally, there is the mass of ordinary voters, largely indifferent to political problems, yet at times keenly interested in politics. How shall we define their state of mind ?  Perhaps the best parallel to the attitude of the general public towards politics is to be found in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Of the crowds that line the towing path every year from Putney to Mortlake there are few that have ever been to either University, have ever known anyone who has been to either, have even the remotest or most shadowy connection with either. Yet they take sides enthusiastically, and would almost be prepared to shed blood for their " fancy." Note that this is not a mere question of backing your judgment on the merits of the two crews. Not one man in ten knows anything about that, and many are proud of always sticking to the same side year after year, of being always " Oxford " or " Cambridge," whether their favourite colour wins or loses. And just as they vehemently take sides with a University to which they have never been, so they take sides as vehemently with a party which they do not control and from which they can never hope for the smallest benefit. (1)

I've spoken to people who come from England, and of course many of them want a Party System in Jersey, but that is not because it is necessarily good; it is simply because it is something they understand, like the Boat Race. There's a failure to engage with a different culture at work, and often a kind of cultural imperialism that wants the UK model because of familiarity, and an intellectual laziness that doesn't want to look at the Jersey system. The same people commonly tell me that if Jersey was in the UK, it would have one MP, and - this is in all seriousness - could be run by 10 States members. What they haven't understood is the cube rule which generally applies to how representation works with population figures, so instead they try and fit a square peg into a round hole, and hope that bashing it with a mallet will work.

The Party System, as Belloc saw, was not something that universal franchise can overcome, and he notes the widening of the franchise to more people:

Step by step since 1832, more and more citizens have been admitted to vote for members of Parliament. First the clerk or shopkeeper, then the urban workman, and finally the agricultural labourer became an elector. This process should clearly have meant an increase in the power of democracy, and it has been practically universally assumed that it did mean this. But in fact it is extremely dubious whether the mass of the people have as much political power to-day as they had before the process began. Had the enfranchisement of  the people come suddenly there is little doubt that something like real democracy would have been achieved. But it came by slow degrees, and there was time for another process to go on side by side with the widening of the franchise.

That process was the transfer of effective power from the House of Commons to the Ministry, or, to speak more accurately, to the two Front Benches, Government and " Opposition." There was no definite moment at which you could say that this was done, but it has been done very thoroughly by now. Anyone who doubts this will find it easy to convince himself of it by glancing at the relations of the House and the Executive at the beginning of the process and at the end. At the beginning the Government was dependent on the House ; now the House is in a state of abject dependence on the Ministers and ex-Ministers, who arrange between them details of all policies. (1)

This then is the "Party System", which Belloc observed when he was an MP, and found just how impotent a private member could be. It is, after all, the leaders of the Parties who decide on patronage, on who shall rise, and who shall fall.

Belloc was elected to Parliament by South Salford in 1906 as a Liberal. In Parliament he proposed a measure for the publication of the names of subscribers to the Party funds. The proposal got nowhere, and as might be expected, the Party funds were not available to support him at the next election, in 1910, which he won as an Independent.

G.K. Chesterton himself weighed in with the following letter to "The Nation" in 1911, making the following points:

1. I say a democracy means a State where the citizens first desire something and then get it. That is surely simple.
2. I say that where this is deflected by the disadvantage of representation, it means that the citizens desire a thing and tell the representatives to get it. I trust I make myself clear.
3. The representatives, in order to get it at all, must have some control over detail; but the design must come from popular desire. Have we got that down?
4. You, I understand, hold that English M.P.s today do thus obey the public in design, varying only in detail. That is a quite clear contention.
5. I say they don't. Tell me if I am getting too abstruse.
6. I say our representatives accept designs and desires almost entirely from the Cabinet class above them; and practically not at all from the constituents below them. I say the people does not wield a Parliament which wields a Cabinet. I say the Cabinet bullies a timid Parliament which bullies a bewildered people. Is that plain?
7. If you ask why the people endure and play this game, I say they play it as they would play the official games of any despotism or aristocracy. The average Englishman puts his cross on a ballot paper as he takes off. his hat to the King--and would take it off if here were no ballot-papers. There is no democracy in the business. Is that definite?
8. If you ask why we have thus lost democracy, I say from two causes; (a) The omnipotence of an unelected body, the Cabinet; (b) the Party system, which turns all politics into a game like the Boat Race. Is that all right?

This is not unlike the criticism given by Tony Benn, the well known former Labour MP:

Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum. (2)

The power of patronage comes with pay differentials, as well, for office holders, and means that far from a people electing a party, the power and patronage comes from the leader of that party:

The power of patronage assists the PM in the dominance of the Executive as appointing ministers allows the PM the opportunity to reward loyal supporters and to punish critics in their party. It is the PM who decides the members of the Cabinet, therefore the PM will appoint a cabinet of people who can be relied upon to endorse their policy proposals and preferences.  (3)

It's worth remembering that there are extensive costs involved. Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton (The Party System, 1911) estimated it would cost one million pounds to launch a political party back then; it pushes out the independent player.

There is a good deal of criticism from some quarters that Jersey does not have a party system, but is dominated by certain vested interests. That may be the case, but in seeing how "The Party System" has worked in the UK, it seems most unlikely that it could in any way provide a panacea for that kind of problem. Sometimes, as in the post-War, Attlee Government, or the Thatcher regime, there is significant change, but for the most part, it hardly matters who is in charge, and as Belloc observed then, "no social lines of cleavage distinguished one party from another."  Wilson and Heath, Major and Blair were virtually indistinguishable in how they ran the country.

And yet it is constantly held up as the model way to go in Jersey by some, as if it was the only option available; there seems a dearth of imagination, and an inability to see that a small jurisdiction could enjoy better representation without a Party.

In fact, Jersey, because of the small size of the States, no post-war Party system along the same lines as the UK has managed to be successful, but there have been successful independent members who have brought significant change to the Island. They are the kind of people whom a Party system would squeeze out, because that demands an ideological commitment rather than independent thinking. It is a delusion to think otherwise. As Belloc notes, "the price which has to be paid for admission is, of course, a complete surrender of independence, and absolute submission to the will of the body as a whole."

In fact, the one recent Jersey Party, the JDA, cracked open precisely because members in the States would not submit to one particular policy, and hence it soon became a single person party; it shows just how submission to ideology fits badly with independence, even on the political left.

We may not have a perfect system over here, and I'd be the first to criticise some aspects of the first two Chief Ministers, and indeed have done so. But at least we have something which has the opportunity to be, as Jules Lemaitre wrote in 1899, to have "a republic that belongs to everybody and is no longer the plaything of a party".

(1) The Party System, 1911, Hilaire Belloc, Cecil Chesterton

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