Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Passive aggressive nerdwar continued

I've just seen Mr D-squared's rather long reply to my charge of negativism on his own site.
Update: You can't see the comments on D-squared's post on the individual link for some reason - only visible from the main page - or by clicking here:
It is so rare for a negativist to actually come out and explain themselves, that I think he deserves the courtesy of a point-by-point reply. And I'm a bit flat out at the moment, so I'll do it in a series of posts starting soon. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you have your own observations, please make them. There's nothing there that is very hard to refute, and remember, if you keep saying 'post-hoc rationalisation' to almost every point, readers will begin to understand where he is coming from.
I’ll just cover his introduction for now. His first point is that I protest too much and that I appear to be a hippy after all. From his comments on Chickyog:

"At the end of the day, as far as I can see, Paulie’s point of view is that all this arguing about specific politicians and laws is not the real point and that what we really need to do is change people’s consciousness so that we can all work together in a respectful way to make the world a better place. I’m sorry, who exactly is the hippy here? maaaan?"

What dear, me dear? Hippy dear? No dear! How VERY dare he? etc.

It is, of course, a cheap snipe, and one that serves to recast my views in an insulting light (which I don't mind) while avoiding addressing them (which I do). For the record, I don't have much interest in changing people's consciousness in the way I suspect Mr Dsq suggests here.

I am interested in changing their understanding of how power is held and exercised. This is, I would have thought, a legitimate aim, and the basic starting point for any commentator? My suggestion is that, when we discuss society's ills, politicians are not the disease. They are simply one of the many symptoms.

And, for the hard of thinking, if you still believe that politicians have anything by the way of untrammelled power or that screaming at them achieves anything other than providing some sort of personal catharsis, I would respectfully suggest that you read almost any book on the subject of 'where power resides'. Try one that falls outside of the 'popular simplification' genre.

So maybe it's worth avoiding the 3 for 2 table in Waterstones.

If anyone can point me to a well-argued and referenced text that makes the case that politics - as it is popularly discussed - is genuinely relevant to the way power is actually exercised, I'd love to read it. It'd make life easier, and much more fun. There are so many exciting circle-jerks that I'd be able to take part in.

Mr Dsquared seems to have quietly conceded this one anyway. In his lengthy post, there is no further attempt to defend his previously stated view that...


"...my way of “making our political culture better” would be to harass and bully the likes of Campbell, Clarke and Prescott out of it..."

Messrs C, C & P have had to go into a protection programme following this statement, so it's probably a good job that it hasn't been repeated. But you'd think that such a central plank to his argument - the opening statement - would have been defended? And, despite Mr D-Squared's little sneer at it, I doubt if anyone has contributed to this argument much as much wit or insight as Pootergeek did at the expense of Devil's Kitchen - here.

Finally, from the introduction, I'm accused of 'communitarianism' - a label so transient, imprecise and simplified that it is impossible to respond to one way or the other. I'm guessing that I'm guilty of the bad bits of communitarianism? Just to be clear.

Anyway, I'll back to address the substantial points soon-ish.

16 comments:

Daniel said...

I didn't think that this would need to be defended, but it is quite simple.

Campbell was a liar and a bully and was responsible for creating false propaganda during a time of war. This is clearly dangerous and cannot be allowed, and therefore had to be removed from public life.

Prescott had visibly proved himself incompetent in a succession of jobs and was also a bully. He was being kept in charge of an important part of the state for party political reasons, which is also clearly unacceptable.

Clarke was a more marginal decision, but he had made a string of hasty and poor decisions, was alarmingly authoritarian and had allowed his department to fall into administrative meltdown. He was also a bully, and establishing the general principle that authoritarian bullies do not prosper in politics will be a good thing when it is finally driven home.

If the No10 press office, ODPM or Home Office had been running companies, the shareholders would certainly have been going to the senior non-exec to demand that the top management was changed (and they would not have done this by submitting a motion at the AGM either). Since there are no shareholders and no non-execs, the nearest equivalent is the media, of which we bloggers are a teeny tiny part, and we did our bit.

There is a legitimate public interest in the competent management of important parts of the state, and this is best served by constant vigilance and serious consequences for underperformance. The shareholders of BP don't all get together to help drill little holes, either.

Ivan said...

You big fat hippy you.

Paulie said...

OK. Responding to your comment on Campbell will not break any new ground. I could reply, but it'd be a long one. Either way, I stick to my original contention that Campbell has an interesting perspective on how the quality of public debate impacts on public policy and that simply telling him to fuck off because he 'killed 655,000 people' is a bit pusilanimous.

Clarke illustrates my point quite well though. Take a politician with a reputation for moderation (Clarke or Straw, for example), give them the job of Home Secretary for about a week, and they rapidly transform (in the eyes of social liberals) into something akin to a concentration camp guard. Is this because they secretly harbour authoritarian urges, or because the demands that are placed upon them and the department that they have to work for make it impossible for them to behave in the way that they have done in every other job that they've done?

I share your annoyance with Prescott as well, though it doesn't bother me half as much as it seems to bother you. Prescott's ODPM was a disgrace - most of the staff there didn't know what the department was for, and the vast majority (80% from memory) thought that the management board was incompetent. Prescott - like George Brown before him - was a consequence of a highly centralised political party that could be led by someone who only has to make a small number of symbolic concessions. Prescott could, essentially deliver the Labour Party because he didn't stand for anything that they really object to. A classic case of how negativism rewards incompetents.

If you think that you've hounded him out of office (and, beleive me, the shrill nature of most political blogs means that they can be safely ignored on things like this) then brace yourself for John Cruddas - Prescott #2. And if - in your wildest dreams, you 'bully' HIM out of office, then there are plenty more where he came from.

Prescott (along with his useless departmental heads) could have been drummed out of their job many years ago if either the press or - latterly - the blogosphere had even a fraction of the interest in administrative incompetence that they have in political fantasies.

By obsessing about politicians, you underpin administrative incompetence.

Daniel said...

Either way, I stick to my original contention that Campbell has an interesting perspective on how the quality of public debate impacts on public policy and that simply telling him to fuck off because he 'killed 655,000 people' is a bit pusilanimous.

The same perspective can be gained from people who aren't proven liars, to put it frankly. We are not reduced to listening to people like Alastair Campbell. Politics can't be a zero-consequences game.

Is this because they secretly harbour authoritarian urges, or because the demands that are placed upon them and the department that they have to work for make it impossible for them to behave in the way that they have done in every other job that they've done?

No. We have had liberal Home Secretaries in the past, although not in the recent past (conversely, we've only recently begun to have liberal Northern Ireland secretaries). The reason is that since 1979, we have been successively ruled by two authoritarian parties. The only way that one is ever going to overturn this authoritarian consensus is to make sure that there are personal political consequences for being an authoritarian.

A classic case of how negativism rewards incompetents.

Cobblers. Your argument for this is a complete non sequitur, unless you think that the entire party structure of the Labour Party is a result of "negativism". Prescott's role in the Labour party was to support a soft-left/right coalition. He was able to "deliver" the party because he was seen as an old-fashioned socialist who would deliver on a particular policy agenda.

Prescott (along with his useless departmental heads) could have been drummed out of their job many years ago if either the press or - latterly - the blogosphere had even a fraction of the interest in administrative incompetence that they have in political fantasies.

A recurring theme here is this argument by assertion. It is simply not the case that newspapers or blogs have ignored administrative incompetence, either in general or in the case of Prescott.

Furthermore, the ODPM were and are the same people and organisations as the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport. They became much, much worse because they were swamped in a wave of new managerialist policies and initiatives, which was a direct ideological result of the politicians who were elected. The Labour Party (in its current incarnation) *is the problem* here. It is not the case that a load of laudable goals were thwarted by lousy civil servants. The plan itself was wrong.

Paulie said...

Daniel,

"The only way that one is ever going to overturn this authoritarian consensus is to make sure that there are personal political consequences for being an authoritarian."

This is your core argument, isn't it? "The *only* way..." you can solve the problem of increased authoritarianism is by shouting at the politicians that are it's public face? Everything else - the 'liberal minimalism', the 'progressive' strawman, and so on, are just misdirection, aren't they?

There is a interesting essay to be written about why it was possible to have a liberal home secretary in the 1960s and why it doesn't appear to be possible now, but I just don't buy your argument that it is purely down to both parties being stuffed with authoritarians. That said, I'm not going to just keep making this argument from every possible angle.

On Prescott, on what grounds can you argue that allegations of his personal shortcomings or corruption have dwarfed the reporting of the uselessness of his department?

Get a ruler. Measure the number of column inches and the prominence of stories dedicated to the ins and outs of court politics and compare it to the largely hidden column inches dedicated to the kinds of issues that a handful of bloggers DO cover very well. Compare the way that Slugger O'Toole covers public policy in Northern Ireland with the way all newspapers, and a sizeable proportion of bloggers cover British politics.

I don't know if you've noticed this,but newspapers used to have lots of reporters, and they have a lot fewer of them now. On the other hand, they have many many more columnists. Week in, week out, these generalists project themselves as experts in yet another new field. The structure of the mass-media has changed for the worse over the last thirty years for reasons that are well-documented. One of new Labour's biggest mistakes - I'd argue - is the way that it hasn't been prepared to disengage from the perceived need to respond to rolling news. In the mid-1990s, the need to adapt to this was THE core article of faith in Millbank. I've spoken to Labour press people and asked why they didn't challenge this, and they replied to me that "if we had done, it would have beaten us hands down."

Cian said...

Paulie,
"The *only* way..." you can solve the problem of increased authoritarianism is by shouting at the politicians that are it's public face?

I'm at a loss as to how you read what dsquared said, and came to this conclusion. The only explaination is that you believe that criticism and shouting are synominous, which would be a little sad if true.

"I just don't buy your argument that it is purely down to both parties being stuffed with authoritarians."

Actually the argument is that both parties have been run by authoritarians, which is rather different. To pick an analogy: the government is fairly right wing economically, but the same is not true of the party.

"On Prescott, on what grounds can you argue that allegations of his personal shortcomings or corruption have dwarfed the reporting of the uselessness of his department?"

What is the point of arguing with people, if you're not going to actually read/respond to what they say. How can anyone read "it is simply not the case that newspapers or blogs have ignored administrative incompetence, either in general or in the case of Prescott." as "allegations of his personal shortcomings or corruption have dwarfed the reporting of the uselessness of his department?"

This is a very dishonest way to engage in debate.

Paulie said...

Cian,

I've just seen this comment, and your comment on the next post on this blog.

I'm very grateful for your lecture on honesty in debate. Let me offer you some advice in return? Read before commenting. On both of these posts, you've thoroughly misunderstood the argument that I've been making - you've either ignored whole sections of it, or misread them.

Your first para here is a case in point.

Here's how I came to that conclusion about what D-Squared wrote. Did you see his post about how he thought it was a good thing to "bully" people out of public life? Call me a pedant, but I think that "bully" suggests something closer to shouting than 'criticism', wouldn't you say?

On your second point "both parties have been run by authoritarians", I suppose I'm going to have to dust off the old "it doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in" argument, aren't I?

It's a statement that I doubt would find many dissenters outside the small noisy clique of obsessives that hang on to every cut and thrust of court politics. The ones that call the Labour Party 'NuLab' as if it's some kind of distilled argument in itself (what the fuck does it mean, btw?).

1. If you 'bully' an authoritarian Home Secretary out of office, a new one will be along in a minute

2. If the new one has a reputation for liberalism, that reputation will be lost within approximately five minutes

3. If the party in government loses the next election, it will be replaced by another one that appoints authoritiarian Home Secretaries.

4. Go back to point one (above) and repeat until you realise that you've been wasting yours - and everyone elses - time

Now, I know the Labour Party reasonably well. I've been in it, man and boy, for nearly a quarter of a century. I know people who have gone from reasonably lowly positions within the party (and when I knew them they were NOT authoritarians, by any stretch of the imagination) to very senior positions. And I know that the party's authoritiarianism is nearly always purely a function of populism (I say 'nearly' because every now and then, it chimes with the robust secularism of *some* members of the government).

So, if you want a less populist government (and you are going to be stuck with one for the forseeable) then argue for the removal of the causes of populism.

And, just to save me another lengthy response, the cause of populism is NOT just 'populists.'

Cian said...

More guilty of assuming other people shared my prejudices...

What he actually said was that it was a good thing to bully Prescott, Campbell and Clarke out of office. Given that he was fairly specific, all three are notable for being liars and bullies who abused their office (and also, all three known for shouting at underlings) and who ignored all criticism... I tend to think that you should treat people no worse than they themselves behave. That gives one a lot of leeway in this particular case. Dsquared was pretty specific about who was talking about, and I see no reason to believe that he thinks one should bully all public officials out of office.

The ones that call the Labour Party 'NuLab' as if it's some kind of distilled argument in itself (what the fuck does it mean, btw?).

It means that I get bored of writing New Labour, so I shorten it. Nu for New (two letters, rather than three - common shortening much loved by young folks with their rave and hooded tops). Lab is a shorten version of Labour - you used to see it on Labour party promotional material. Hence NuLab (the capital letter in the middle emphasises that this shortening combines two seperate words). Does this answer your question to your satisfaction?

1. If you 'bully' an authoritarian Home Secretary out of office, a new one will be along in a minute

Well if home secretaries keep being bullied out of office, you think eventually somebody might get the message and try something different? Admittedly I'm assuming here that both the PM, and every home secretary, would realise that the solution to constantly hitting the same brick wall is to stop running.

2. If the new one has a reputation for liberalism, that reputation will be lost within approximately five minutes

Unsupported assertion (weakened by the fact that none of Labour's home secretaries previously had a reputation for social liberalism). Just because everybody knows something, doesn't mean its true.
It would help if a home secretary would just tell the fucking truth when something goes wrong, rather than pretending its
a) not their fault
b) didn't actually happen
c) flair around like a headless chicken with the first policy that comes into their head.

So, if you want a less populist government (and you are going to be stuck with one for the forseeable) then argue for the removal of the causes of populism.

There is nothing populist about this government. Populist is responding to what people actually care about, and crafting policies with them accordingly (it involves lots of consultation, talking to people and sometimes arguing with them). Bernie Sanders from Vermont is a populist. What you're talking about is something closer to fascism - where you manipulate the fears/concerns of a population as a way of distracting from other policies that people don't want. The fact that this government has relied so heavily on the black arts of PR and advertising (anti-democratic) demonstrates how far from populism they actually are. If you're working on behalf of the people you don't need to manipulate them. There's also an element of fear and dislocation in authoritarianism I think - note how successive home secretaries have tried to emphasises (normally to farcical effect) how much they understand the common man. They protest too much I think.

The other thing about authoritarianism is that it is incredibly easy. If you're ambitious and lack (or are willing to sacrafice) fixed points of principal (or at least principals that relate to your post), then to actually push new policies is incredibly dangerous. Of course if you actually went into politics to improve/change things, this is a risk that you're willing to take (otherwise what's the point of having power). There are other factors of course - authoritarianism is a technique used by short term thinkers, whereas those with long term agendas (such as reducing crime over five/ten years) are more likely to try other things (as a hard look shows that it doesn't work. Labour's policies on crime on most measures have been a failure). Our home secretaries have been more concerned with tommorows headlines, than the results in ten years (and given that we have one of the most stable political systems, with a five yearly cycle, this has nothing to do with our political infrastucture, and everything to do with NuLab's failings). The perfect policy for a party who think that you can govern using PR and advertising.

However I think there's more to it. NuLab are committed to neoliberalism, which is an incredibly unpopular political program, particularly with Labour's supposed base. Consequently if you're going to ignore their concerns on economics, social infrastucture and so forth, then you have to give them something. You have to pretend. Consequently lots of flashy (if irrelivant) noise about responding to crime, terrorism and god knows what distracts from the fact that you couldn't give a fuck about what they think. Left unchecked this leads to fascism, though we're a long way from that (obviously).

Authoritarianism is a tool of weak governments. This can be personal weakness, political weakness, or due to their policies having little democratic support. Either way, there is nothing inevitable about it.

Paulie said...

Cian,

Thanks for that.

I'd accept that there is probably a better term than 'populist', though I think you are still seeing politics / public policy as something that happens in a vacuum. You say that government shouldn't use various dark arts to promote its positions or defend its reputation, but every rival that elected governments have (pressure groups, the media, political opponents) do exactly the same.

Should winning an election force you to fight with one hand tied behind your back? The media print their fibs on page one in 36-point and any retractions that can be wrung out of them go at the bottom of page 96 (a left hand page) in 8-point.

It's a common theme from commentators on new Labour: They are obsessed with keeping pace with a 24 hour news media. They are quite convinced that it has the power to destroy them - and I'd stand by the 'minefield' explanation that I've given in the other "Windy Manifesto" thread you've been commenting on as an explanation for most of new Labour's ideology.

You say that Labour ministers are too responsive to tomorrow's headlines. But if you were in their position, and you knew that large parts of the programme that you'd like to follow are being circumscribed by the fact that newspapers will simply lie about it in the most outrageous way if your toe goes over a certain line, then what would YOU do? Because - and if I haven't made this point before in this thread (as I have in almost every other thread on this site),let me do so now: Newspapers are written and edited by a bunch of lazy lying shitheads.

Or, perhaps a more balanced way of saying this is that the changing media business envioronment has resulted in less factual accuracy, more unscrupulous manipulation of news by pressure groups, more comment and less fact in print.

I also think you've sidestepped the question of what our bullying / lying / authoritiarian political elite will be replaced with. Be honest, you must admit that - if you re-read your point one (above) it comes off very weakly?

You say that Labour Home Secretaries didn't have a reputation for liberalism. Well to my certain knowledge, Charles Clarke and Jack Straw didn't have a reputation for authoritarianism either, before they picked up their home affairs briefs. I'm not suggesting that they were Wildean libertines, but neither were they authoritiarians.

Despite all of this, I actually think we fundamentally agree on the key point. You say that authoritarianism is a tool of weak governments. I agree. I think that politicians are far too weak. I think that they have become weaker as our political settlement has become more centralised and I think that this is not a coincidence. Unlike you, I think that centralisation has causes - and if those causes are removed, then the momentum towards more centralisation could be slowed or even reversed. Any other position strikes me as an advanced form of despair.

I think that pressure groups - particularly those that have a toehold on the media's agenda are also too powerful, and this weakens the abilities of elected politicians.

I don't beleive that - if the cabinet table was surrounded by strong regional powerbrokers instead of the PM's appointees - a Labour government would not be as prone to crude authoritarianism or unquestioning neo-liberalism in the way that it is.

And, coming back to the original point behind this whole thread, I don't think that any critic that doesn't address the reasons that things happen deserves to be taken seriously.

Cian said...

I'd accept that there is probably a better term than 'populist', though I think you are still seeing politics / public policy as something that happens in a vacuum. You say that government shouldn't use various dark arts to promote its positions or defend its reputation, but every rival that elected governments have (pressure groups, the media, political opponents) do exactly the same.

This is such an overgeneralisation its very hard to respond to. Quick answer, no they don't. I think its fairly meaningless for example to argue that the media use the same "black arts" as the government. I'm not even sure what that can mean. And to call the media a rival is ridiculous. Rival for what? Politics may not occur in a vacuum, but not does it consist of a zero sum game by identical actors for identical prizes. Some organisations use spin for the simple reason they are trying to persuade the public of things against their best interests (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). They have nothing to gain from telling the truth, and a lot to lose. The fact that the government often resorts to similar tactics suggest that either they too either do not have the public's best intersts at heart, think the public are stupid, or are using the wrong tactics. Treat the public cynically and don't be surprised when they don't trust you.

And even scientists minimise counter arguments, suppress inconvenient facts, when they can get away with it. Its called human nature - deny it at your peril.

"Should winning an election force you to fight with one hand tied behind your back? The media print their fibs on page one in 36-point and any retractions that can be wrung out of them go at the bottom of page 96 (a left hand page) in 8-point."

Again, this is a ridiculous overgeneralisation. Which media? The BBC/ITN? I'd say both are far more trustworthy than the government. The Sun? Well sure, but then readers of the Sun tend only to believe it when the Sun supports their own prejudices. That gives it a certain power, but rather less than you assume. And there's a reason why they read the Sun, rather than the Mirror (which is better), or the Express (which is an organ of government propoganda for the most part). The relationship is two way between journalists (who to a certain degree have to give their readers what they want) is not purely one way. And for the most part readers don't trust the media, and have very little respect for journalists. The relationship between the media and their readers is far more complex than most media commentators seem to realise. Readers have agency.

To give an obvious recent example. Most newspapers supported the war in Iraq until relatively recently. Most of their readers didn't, and that didn't change despite the relentless propoganda from newspapers. There are plenty of others that sociologists can point to (attitudes to the NHS and taxation, for example).

And to put it another way. People largely vote for the way that things affect them. If their schools have noticably improved, their health care exprience has been good (or that of their friends/family), they have money in their pocket - then they'll see the incumbents as largely a good thing; no matter what the media say. If the media message becomes to dischordant to their own experiences, they'll eventually distrust the media. And the same thing will happen with the government. If the government spend all their time telling people that things have improved, when their own experience is that they haven't, all the government is doing is increasing distrust in them. People believe their own direct senses over all other forms of information I'm afraid.

The media for the past few years have been claiming that Brown has been a bad chancellor, that doom is around the corner, that we are facing far higher taxes - yet people on the whole don't believe it because they feel better off.

"You say that Labour ministers are too responsive to tomorrow's headlines. But if you were in their position, and you knew that large parts of the programme that you'd like to follow are being circumscribed by the fact that newspapers will simply lie about it in the most outrageous way if your toe goes over a certain line, then what would YOU do?"

Well they will, but if you have faith in your measures and that they will lead to an improvement in the medium term, so what? You have five years in office, and people will notice significant improvements/changes, whereas today's lies are tommorow's fish and chip paper. The problem with NuLab, is that they don't tend to have faith in their measures, or that measures are band aids, or are trying to fix superficial details identified by the media (who will simply move onto something else).

"Because - and if I haven't made this point before in this thread (as I have in almost every other thread on this site),let me do so now: Newspapers are written and edited by a bunch of lazy lying shitheads."

Sigh. This is a lazy overgeneralisation, and I suspect you know this. Lazy is both ridiculous and its use here is, ahem, lazy. Do they lie? Sometimes, but is it more than all the other people who have an agenda (be it their own, their bosses, or what they see as their reader's agenda). Note, I'm not saying that newspapers are wonderful (they really aren't), or particularly representative of their reader's views (debatable); merely that this is a silly charge.

"Or, perhaps a more balanced way of saying this is that the changing media business envioronment has resulted in less factual accuracy, more unscrupulous manipulation of news by pressure groups, more comment and less fact in print."

Than the 1930s? The scandal sheets of the eighteenth century? When was this golden age? If one of the aspects of the changing environment is that less people read newspapers, does this matter? And so on.
And by the way, everyone tries to manipulate the news to fit their agenda, and they always have done. Unless a pressure group knows that its agenda is spurious (and most consider their agenda to be a noble one, which is why they're engaged with it), they will see "unscrupulous manipulation" of the news as simply framing their argument. Its called politics, and there's nothing particularly new about any of it. I'm not convinced that a situation where there is one dominant voice is any more healthy, than many divergent voices. Nor do I trust the voice of the disinterested technocrat.

"I also think you've sidestepped the question of what our bullying / lying / authoritiarian political elite will be replaced with. Be honest, you must admit that - if you re-read your point one (above) it comes off very weakly?"

Not all politicians are bullying, or as authoritarian, as recent home secretaries. They were selected precisely because of this qualities (described as "toughness", but we've all decoded the new labour code).

"You say that Labour Home Secretaries didn't have a reputation for liberalism. Well to my certain knowledge, Charles Clarke and Jack Straw didn't have a reputation for authoritarianism either, before they picked up their home affairs briefs."

So I just dreamed Charles Clarke stint as Education secretary then. Jack Straw was responsible for pushing Michael Howard rightwards as shadow home secretary; a very deliberate and cynical strategy.

"I think that politicians are far too weak."

Well politicians are, but our governments are extremely powerful. Far too powerful. The instrument is powerful enough, its the men wielding it that are weak. Just as the previous government was defined by a weak, vain, grudgeful and stupid man desperately trying to hang onto power (John Major). However, Thatcher's government was far too strong. To pick an example - replace the general in an army, and the entire organisation can change significantly, without any insitutional variation. We may be affected by the organisations in which we're embedded, but we're not prisoners of those organisations. Individual agency is important.

On the other hand, looking at the US I'm not convinced that localisation is necessarily the way to go.

"Unlike you, I think that centralisation has causes"

Huh? I think it has causes, just different causes to yours.

"I think that pressure groups - particularly those that have a toehold on the media's agenda are also too powerful, and this weakens the abilities of elected politicians."

Really, even if some of those pressure groups represent more accurately the views of the public? Perhaps the problem is that the government is not particularly accountable (as ours isn't). Maybe reforming the electoral process might improve things. Maybe pressure groups and the news media are the symptoms, rather than the problem? Maybe we need more ways in which the public can engage directly in politics (and I don't mean Tony's "consultation exercises"). Are pressure groups necessarily any worse than representational democracy via a first past the post system?

"I don't beleive that - if the cabinet table was surrounded by strong regional powerbrokers instead of the PM's appointees - a Labour government would not be as prone to crude authoritarianism or unquestioning neo-liberalism in the way that it is."

Well the US keeps coming to mind as a counter example (with France and Italy as two other examples). I actually agree with you about decentralisation, I simply lack your faith that its the whole answer. It could quite easily bring a different set of problems, no better or worse than those we have now.

"And, coming back to the original point behind this whole thread, I don't think that any critic that doesn't address the reasons that things happen deserves to be taken seriously."

Things do happen. The question is do you need to respond to each and every one of them. I know the anglo-saxon model is extreme short termism - but if this government was a company it would have a daily reporting schedule, rather than a quarterly one.

Paulie said...

Cian,

I don't think that I suggested that the media compete for any 'identical prize' did I? Agenda-setting is, however, an important way of influencing policy outcomes - and the media competitively seeks to set the agenda. I hope you're not going to suggest that the media simply tries to indentify the public interest and to promote it? And I also hope that you're not going to suggest that the BBC or ITV don't have organisational biases? I spent a number of years working - almost exclusively - on a project that promoted Public Service Broadcasting as one of the better models for promoting the public interest, but even the BEEB's most vociferous supporters would struggle make the case that they reflect public concerns particularly closely.

I'd not deny that readers have agency. I've argued elsewhere that the media don't influence people on policy as much as most commentators think. I also think people are more agnostic on most policy questions than most commentators give them credit for.

I don't think that public opposition to the war in Iraq was as cut-and-dried as you suggest. And I don't think the way that the media reported it was the only influence here either. Whatever you think about the history of it, I think that the government thought that it was something that they could achieve successfully and be judged upon (the position that you seem to be advancing as am ideal default one for politicians?)

I DO think that the media can make personal attacks stick though. And I think we agree that politicians SHOULD have some agency? So putting those two together, politicians are acting rationally when they refuse to sustain short-term damage, preferring long-term glory.

It will be interesting to see if Brown - despite his apparent economic competence - will come off second best to the newspapers when / if he takes the step up. One of the reasons for hyperactive government is their fear of a vacuum. Brown can be expected to kick off with a flurry of announcements - get people talking about stuff rather than about his personal mannerisms. He shouldn't do, of course. But, on the other hand, he should, if you see what I mean?

I would suggest that your underlying assumptions are fantastically idealistic. If all issues had few complexities, if all issues could be argued in front of an audience with no prejudices, if the public had the patience to listen to complex arguments, if the public voted mainly on policy, if huge personal damage wasn't sustained by politicians who aren't being SEEN to respond to the agendas of pressure groups or journalists... and so on. If you think it can be done more effectively, and that it's very straightforward, then I'd urge to to stand for public office. Clarity and resolve make for good classical representatives. Do we reward clarity and resolve? I think not.

I also don't think I claimed that there was a golden age of journalism either. But I do think that there have been times when the relationship between hacks and politicians was a bit more constructive. When newspapers had more reporters. When they had fewer commentators. When the demands of rolling news were less demanding. Ask Harold Evans if you don't beleive me.

You say....

"Well politicians are, but our governments are extremely powerful. Far too powerful. The instrument is powerful enough, its the men wielding it that are weak. Just as the previous government was defined by a weak, vain, grudgeful and stupid man desperately trying to hang onto power (John Major). However, Thatcher's government was far too strong. To pick an example - replace the general in an army, and the entire organisation can change significantly, without any insitutional variation. We may be affected by the organisations in which we're embedded, but we're not prisoners of those organisations. Individual agency is important."

Well, bang goes your licence to criticise anyone else for vast unsupported generalisations. There's so much to go at in that paragraph that I'd forget halfway through doing so that this whole discussion is about the usefulness or otherwise of negativism. I suspect that we are even fundamentally agreeing on most of the elements of THAT discussion. Where we differ is that you seem to think that, while regrettable, that the public's negativism is understandable, where I think that - when you're in a sulk, you need to get over yourself.

And rounding up the response your comments, no. Pressure groups are very significantly less legitimate as spokespeople for the public interest than elected representatives - even in a FPTP system.

Cian said...

Okay, you want suggestions, I'll give you suggestions.

"Pressure groups are very significantly less legitimate as spokespeople for the public interest than elected representatives - even in a FPTP system."

Really? All of them? Even if a pressure group represents public opinion more accurately than the elected representatives?

1) We live in a FPTP system, where the majority of people's votes don't matter (and this government has fairly explicitly stated that it targets the voters who do count). When I lived in Hackney, voting was pointless, why bother. Whereas now I live in a seat with a 200 strong majority between the two parties of power. That makes my vote hugely important to both parties. Hardly one voice, one vote.

2) We have a choice between two parties that might govern. Because there are only two parties, who tend to meet somewhere in the middle, there is only a real choice if your opinion is somewhere in that middle. Or if you think one of the parties is credible (which people obviously didn't in the last election).

3) We have an election every five years. They present a manifesto as is. If you like certain bits, but not others, tough. They will treat your vote as a mandate for the lot - not that there's any guarantee that the stuff you like will make it to policy, or that they won't introduce new ideas that they forget to tell anyone about. Its just advertising, except when the idea is unpopular and they have to pretend that there's some kind of democratic legitimacy for it.

So that's the amount of direct control that most of us have - very little. There are exceptions. Chairmen of large companies, the wealthy, those who go to the right parties, financiers. No matter what the government is, they will always have a voice (and this largely seems to be unquestioned). In addition, powerful institutions will also have a voice (so nobody questions it when the police, security services, or army express a political opinion about their institution; nor seemingly when they pump out ludicrous propoganda/lies). They all worry me far more than the media.

Then you have the organisations outside this with some voice. Trade Unions, which vary, but to a reasonable extent represent the views of their members (generally those who least represent that view, are also those who are seen as the most reasonable, which says something about attitudes to power in this country). Professional bodies (doctors, solicitors and so forth), who while not representing a democratic mandate, do to some degree represent the concerns of their members. Certainly a voice which deserves to be heard. You also have other institutions: universities (by which I mean chancellors, rather than the professoriat), social workers, prisons, etc - most of which tend to have little influence in practice as they don't know how to get it/don't have time.

Then you have the undemocratic pressure groups, representing the issues of business. Lobbying for drugs firms, pro-global warming and god knows what else (I'd also put groups like the CBI in there). ALthough they have no democratic mandate whatsoever, they have money and power, and that buys influence. They will always be there, and generally all one can do is both make their influence explicit (so it can at least by observed) and controlled. Neither of these are currently happening.

Then you have the pressure groups which have either significant public members, or in one way or another significant public support. These vary from the political groups (Oxfam, Amnesty), single issue groups (road groups, anti PFI groups, abortion) and spontaneous (May day protests, anti-roads, anti-globo). For the majority of the population if there's an issue they care about, that's really the only way they can express their opinion constructively. By giving money, by getting involved, or starting their own organisation. Voting (as I've argued above) is mostly irrelivant, and at best gives very little influence being little more than a simple yes/no to predefined policies. However these are quite difficult things to do, and so most people will instead complain. The less influence they have, the more that complaint will be negative and unconstructive (and also divorced from reality). However that's not their fault, its the lack of democracy that makes it so. You want people to engage constructively, get them involved. I've seen it happen with the most unpromising of material. You want them to bitch over stuff in the newspaper and snipe at the government - keep them at arms length. The more direct involvement people have, the less they'll believe stuff they read in the newspapers anyway. Its a symptom of a deeper problem, not as some people seem to think, the problem.

So what we need is more democracy. As little representational democracy as we can get away with (it keeps people at arms length, which breeds cynicism), and as much direct as we can. You make everything open and transparent. You have more localisation, but real localisation with real local participatory democracy. Obviously we can't expect this from Blair:

Thatcher (ironically) actually improved local democracy in certain ways. One of these was when she made it a statutory obligation for local authorities to publish agendas three days in advance. A simple, unproblematic, improvement you would think. It made it possible for local activists and journalists to find out what was being planned, and if necessary organise, lobby, or publish about it. Obviously councillors could be opposed to it, but they're our servants, right?
Well Blair not only abolished this requirement, but created a cabinet system for local government, where a minority of councillors make the decisions behind closed doors. Council policy is no longer announced in advance, decisions are made in private. Not only does this minimise local participation, but it has massively increased the opportunities for corruption.


I think most of your points really come down to how unpopular this government has become (quite reasonably - its achievements are pretty slight, given all that its promised; while it has gone against public opinion repeatedly), and the lack of opportunites for people to express that. You are also forgetting that the media was fairly supportive of Blair in the early days, and how popular Blair genuinely was. Much of that popularity and trust he squandered either on unpopular projects, or through supporting genuinely loathed politicians (support of Mandelson being particularly stupid). The other thing is that this government has made big promises that it has conspicuously failed to deliver on. That engenders contempt, which I think is quite reasonable (after all, are we wrong to hold the train companies in contempt?). Its all very well to complain about negativity, but what other options are you offering? The only other option that I see is compliance.

Your criticism of the media is somewhat contradictory. First of all, lets eliminate all the straw men. My only point about the BBC is that are far more trustworthy (i.e. less likely to lie) than the government. The rest of your argument about the BBC was in response to your own strawman. Personally I find the BBC pro-establishment (in the larger sense), which I think is unhealthy, but healthier than the alternatives. When the BBC gets involved in squabbles, they're largely establishment squabbles.

However, you are accusing the media of two things. On the one hand of being too negative, on the other of being a rival to the government. However the constructive thing (if you really do see a problem) to do would be to offer policy suggestions, which would of course immediately set them up as a rival (the "prize" presumably being the levers of power). By being simply critical, they are not rivals - merely embittered consumers like the rest of us. Maybe you think they should resport on the positive things - but they have done. Maybe not as much as you'd like, and maybe not as much as the government deserves (I'm keeping this point deliberately open), but they have. Currently there's not much positive to say about the government. Many of the improvements in the NHS are collapsing due to budget cuts, and the insanely inflexible system that the government imposed on hospital trusts (and much of the money has disappeared into ever bigger NHS bureacracy, not to mention the IT catastrophe).

Do you really think that the media sets the agenda? I can see an argument for them shaping it, but setting? On certain social issues they seem to be responsive to the easy hot button issues of their readers, on others their owners (though this in practice seems quite rare. Israel and the EU are the only two that spring to mind - and its not like they're operating in a vacuum on either), and on other issues they're responding to the agenda set by pressure groups and the government/establishment/industry/finance. While actually working out their influence is quite hard. People tend to gravitate towards the paper that best represents their own interests/biases. Now certain interests aren't that well represented (though those of a soft left-liberal persuasion have the Guardian, which is probably the best of the newspapers, though the Mirror doesn't really cut it on the tabloid side), but then more people get their news from the television, or radio, media which is very tightly regulated (with comment not allowed). Newspaper campaigns are very often pushing at open doors (definitely the case on Europe, for example).

I don't think that public opposition to the war in Iraq was as cut-and-dried as you suggest.

Really? I mostly encountered very strong opposition (sometimes surprisingly passionate, given the sources), from a wide range of the socio-economic spectrum, from all over the country. The opposition mostly stayed constant throughout. Oddly the weakest opposition I encoutered seemed to being among the so called chattering classes. Over a million people marched against it. That's unprecedented (and if you're going to suggest that it was orchestrated by groups like the SWP - don't. It happened despite them). The disjoint between what the media was saying, and what people were actually saying, was extraordinary.

And I don't think the way that the media reported it was the only influence here either.

Well no, the media were mostly pro-war. Their readers mostly weren't. Clearly then the media weren't very influential. But you were the one who was arguing that the media had some kind of overwhelming influence over public opinion. In the case of the war against Iraq this clearly wasn't true. I suspect this is not an isolated case. There have been others. Prior to the last election there was a lot of doom mongering from newspapers about how the middle classes were poorer under labour, yet according to the polls people mostly believed the opposite.

Whatever you think about the history of it, I think that the government thought that it was something that they could achieve successfully and be judged upon (the position that you seem to be advancing as am ideal default one for politicians?)

Hardly. At the very least the motivation for the policy should be aligned to something the country wants. Iraq seemed to motivated by promises made by Blair to Bush, and secondly (very much carrying the rear) Blair's belief in some form of Wilsonian foreign policy. Neither of which cases was presented to the population.
However I also don't think that policies should be sold on a lie (it was not about protecting the country from Saddam, or terrorism) and I think some reasonably rigorous analysis should be carried out before any policy to see if it might work, there might some problems, what might be the best tactics. We expect these things for any act of public planning, so why not for a war?
And finally, if you can't persuade the country of something, then you shouldn't do it. Either find a new case, or give up.

I find it hard to see what else what one can do but criticise Iraq. There wasn't a problem (perceived, or actual) to be solved, yet they did it anyway. I mean jesus, if you can't criticise that, then you're basically saying all government policy is beyond criticism.

I DO think that the media can make personal attacks stick though. And I think we agree that politicians SHOULD have some agency? So putting those two together, politicians are acting rationally when they refuse to sustain short-term damage, preferring long-term glory.

Sorry, but I can't follow your point here.
For the first part, I'm not sure how you can be so convinced that the media can achieve this. First of all what is your criteria for attacks sticking? How do we know what people think of politicians, other than what the media tell us (which is kind of circular). In everyday life I'm always surprised by how the media representation of politicians can be so at variance with what people actually think of politicians. Much as it pains me, John Prescott was popular with a lot of people I knew for a considerable period of time (I think the affair unstuck him, mind), despite being loathed by the media.

On the other hand, plenty of media attacks which have stuck were also deserved, and other politicians mostly seem to have shrugged off attacks. While I've yet to hear an attack on Blair by the media that's as bad as the stuff you'll hear down the pub. Now if this was the US, you might have a point - the media there selectively reports certain things in order to shape public perception of public officials. But that doesn't seem to happen here.



I would suggest that your underlying assumptions are fantastically idealistic. If all issues had few complexities, if all issues could be argued in front of an audience with no prejudices, if the public had the patience to listen to complex arguments, if the public voted mainly on policy, if huge personal damage wasn't sustained by politicians who aren't being SEEN to respond to the agendas of pressure groups or journalists... and so on.

Hmm. In the US there's a thing called the radical right. Its values, aims, etc are radically different from that of the general population, and yet they've managed to make a large part of their agenda mainstream. The arguments use their (politically loaded) terms, the debates are framed by their (politically loaded) worldviews, the issues are the issues that they care about. Now the details of their policies and agendas are pretty complex and loaded with detail, yet they've been successful at something far harder than the apparent problem faced by NuLab (who had an electorate who broadly supported all the things that they said they were going to do). This suggests that your pessimism (hey, if the charge fits) is unwarranted. In the UK we had Thatcher, who managed something similar (no she didn't get everything, but frankly its amazing how much she did shift public opinion). Clearly it is possible to do far more difficult things than anything attempt by Labour, who after all had massive support for far more radical policies than anything they suggested.

THere are plenty of engineering and design problems (not to mention legal and business problems) which are complex, require sophisticated knowledge to fully understand and where the designers/engineers (or whoever) have to present their case in front of an audience with prejudices and preconceptions, but little of the specialist knowledge. There's nothing new about this, and quite frankly the problems faced by any government are faced by plenty of professionals every day.

There's an art to selling a complex idea:
a) focus on the core values that the various interest groups you need to persaude care about (which may not be the same as those they profess. That should be design/engineering 101, though its typically first job 101), and show how your solution addresses these (if it really can't be made to do this, then you need a new solution - or zero accountability). In the case of Labour, they've identified values which are both nebulous (choice), and which people don't really care that much about. The values should be concrete, reasonably measurable/identifable. So in the case of schools you might identify class sizes, classrooms that don't leak (yeah, that matters to people) - while also identifying what people really mean when they talk about literacy and so forth (ie. - not what they say, but what are they going to judge you by). You might in this process see how you could also move the agenda on to things that they're not considering now, but might care about further down the line (ie. - if the system is broken, then you might want to look beyond just fixing it). Note, you also need to address the concerns of people who will implement it, as their perception will both shape your legacy (as well as how well its implemented). Bullying them will not work (and I mean you mr Clarke).
b) Create a story/framework within which your policy fits, making sure of course that its a story/framework that people will buy (otherwise return to Go, do not collect 200pounds). Thatcher was pretty good at this (and again, her ideas were hard to sell, and they were radical ideas). Doesn't need to be particularly complex, unless its a hard sell. Complex is probably the sign of bad policy idea. Labour is bad at this, as they tend to choose waffly stories that don't make much sense, or don't address the things people actually care about. I think its fairly obvious to most people that improving hospitals/education is secondary to NuLabs desire to bring pseudo-competition into the NHS/education. THat's not a very compelling story for most people.
c) by this stage you have set the framework/battleground in which this issue will be debated. You can still lose of course, but its your battle to lose. The media will be using your ideas, frameworks and ideas - even if they're arguing against it.
d) If in two years the media can attack your achievements and make people buy that attack, then your achievements probably didn't amount to much (this is certainly true of Labour's in the NHS and education). Tough, ultimately you'll be judged by your achievements. If your complaint is that you have achieved things, but people aren't giving you credit - well then you probably achieved things people didn't care about, and again tough.

Not that, given our electoral system, the government has to persuade the majority of us anyway. Its only that small minority in the swing seats that matter electorally (and Labour's strategists have never made a secret of this).


In short. The government are very bad at identifying problems, tending to focus on superficial details, or symptoms. The other thing is that they lack the confidence to keep with most of their solutions (other than market based ones, which says something about their true ideology), probably because they didn't have much confidence in them in the first place. So they swing from idea to idea, which address silly superficial problems. Oddly enough, this doesn't lead to any improvement. Combine this with micromanagement, target setting using quantitive measurement (with no allowance for local ecologies) and some of the worst of management ideas - well, perhaps people are right when they claim that the labour party has been taken over by an elite cadre of management consultant entryists.

Where we differ is that you seem to think that, while regrettable, that the public's negativism is understandable, where I think that - when you're in a sulk, you need to get over yourself.

Any suggestions? Any at all. Concrete suggestions, with suggested actions?

Paulie said...

Cian,

Yes. Here are my concrete suggestions.

http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2006/09/advice-for-next-pm.html

And there are plenty more where that came from. This whole blog is full of concrete suggestions for how representative democracy should be improved. Too many for some people's taste.

As for the rest of this, any time writing yet another defence of representative democracy or outlining why Direct Democracy is worse, in some ways, than Fascism (at least with the Nazis, you knew who was in charge) is just time I'm not ever going to get back.

This is a disagreement about the basics of democratic theory, and I'm not going to rerun a classical debate here. There are at least 50 posts on this blog where I do so, and outline how I think it can be improved. It seems to me that almost all of your objections could be met by voting reform - a replacement for FPTP - anyway. And I agree.

So go and campaign for electoral reform. I do.

And Unions? Don't make me laugh. Find me one that has engaged in anything other than a token exercise in finding out what their members think about anything. The rest of your examples seem to be given on the understanding that I'm opposed to the existence of a civil society that acts in partnership to elected representatives. Sorry to bust your bubble there, but I'm not.

My core point - let's remind ourselves again - is that the negative tone of public debate is counterproductive.

I've looked through this whole thread (and the other one) and it strikes me that you are mixing up your own leftish liberal position with the broad swathe of public opinion. A kind of 'availability bias'. In your account of how policies should / could be discussed and implemented, I can't see anything that you have said here that, I think, would persuade anyone who is a professional political communicator for any of the political parties - or any of the major pressure groups / Trade Unions / professional bodies - to change the way that they operate now.

So here is what I'm going to do. Rather than engage in a sort of argumentative ping-pong in which we give longer replies to each other forever, I'm going to make you an offer.

This blog has, on average, between 50 and 100 visitors most days (and a few more on good days). Some of those visitors to my certain knowledge are professionals in political communications.

I'd be happy to publish a guest post by your good self. Say, 800 words? In it, you can say how political communications is done badly by politicians, political parties and pressure groups - and how it should be done well. I will publish it largely without comment. All I will say is this:

"I'm publishing a guest post from Cian here. Cian and I have disagreed in the comments on this blog about how public policy should be discussed and implemented. I've invited him to say how he thinks this could be improved for the better. Any readers who wish to comment, please do so. Please note, this post does NOT necessarily reflect the view of the management."

Are you game? If so, e-mail me with your post.

Cian said...

Am I game? No, christ I'd have to like do reasearch and stuff in a library. Who has time for that - its bad enough with the stuff I'm actually paid to do and am interested in. There might be footnotes involved, and weighing of evidence. Boring*.

Slightly longer version, which is still pretty subpar.

Communication. Its done well by some pressure groups, and not others. Parts of Thatcher's government were quite good at it, large swathes of the political right in the US is very good at it (shame about the policies). Look at the campaigns attacking global warming, which succeeded despite things like evidence. That's the devious way.

In this country some (not all) anti-globo groups have actually done a pretty good job of explaining complex economic theories/effects in ways that ordinary people can understand. the New Economics Foundation are apparently quite good at doing this. I know personally of at least two groups (one at Sheffield Uni funded by the government, the other run by a woman who thinks its important than ordinary people understand technology sufficiently well so that they discuss/argue and come up with their own opinions about it) who have been working with techno-illiterates to get them to discuss very complex issues surrounding privacy, ID cards, RFID tags, hospital data protection. Its not particularly easy, but if there's a political will to do it, then its possible. And trust me, these are complex issues. There are techniques, and it can be fun too.

Other countries like Switzerland manage to have referrendums on complex topics very successfully, and I'm told that Scandinavian countries can have very sophisticated national and local debates on quite complex and contentious issues. Given that other people do it better, I don't see the argument that political communication is very hard is a particularly good argument. Clearly there is scope for improvement, before being quite so negative, pessimistic, etc.

Its not easy to explain complex issues to laymen so that they can make decisions, but professionals do it every day. Some well, some badly. Often they do it badly because they fear losing their status if mere mortals can understand what they do. Possibly politicians occasionally feel the same way, possibly not. Its a good way of testing ideas for coherence I find. Many of NuLabs policies have not been terribly coherent, and so might have been improved if they'd had to explain them properly (I'm just a dreamer...).

And anyway, what's so hard about explaining NuLab policy? Save for the bits which are ideological (markets/competition/choice improve things - which you either believe, or you don't. No way to make a strong case for it), its mostly been fairly straightforward.

The rest of my argument was persuasion/propoganda/advertising 101. Hardly original (and poorly presented by me, mainly because this stuff is so vanilla), used by people all over the world and yet apparently more sophisticated than the techniques used by New Labour. George Lakoff is a good place to start (or Gramsci).

As for the rest:
No I don't expect you to agree with me, why would you? Not only are our political apriori assumptions different, but I rather suspect our intellectual foundations are radically different as well. C'est la vie. I am interested in what you have to say, which I can't really say for most of the Euston crowd. The following is not meant to persuade you, or as a way of having the same word. Just a way of clarifying where I'm coming from.

a) I think that unconstructive criticism from the public at large has more to do with having no more constructive outlets for their disquiet. Its a symptom of minimal democratic representation in this country. They moaned a lot in the Soviet Union as well - maybe they should have been a bit more constructive and got with the party program? Or maybe the problem lay elsewhere (and yes, voting reform would be a start). You say that the negative tone of public debate is counterproductive, but what would change if the man in the street was less negative? Other than phony NuLab consultation exercises of course.

b) I agree that there is too much comment in newspapers, I just don't think it matters that much politically (journalistically is a different matter, as money and emphasis has been diverted). From the research I've seen, casual interaction in daily life and observing the way that bloggers (or commenters on the Guardian site, say) respond - I would say that people mostly agree with the commenters they broadly agree with, and disagree with those they don't. They either read somebody because they agree with them, or they read them because they don't (we're British, we like to argue). Its largely theatre; for the sake of an argument. I really don't think many people's minds are changed, though their arguments/opinions may be strengthened. I wonder if your party was in opposition, whether you would place the same emphasis on the commentariat? Maybe you would.

c) Criticism. Yeah mindless criticism, or carping, is pretty irrtating, whether its about music or politics (as is the inverse). Yes negativity towards all politicians is not particularly healthy. But not all criticism is Guido Fawkes, or some NME hack. And I don't think the response that: If you think its so bad, why don't you stand for parliament/start a band is anymore valid today than it was in Samuel Johnson's time. The guy who did the new flooring in my house did a pretty bad job. I'm sure I couldn't do better, but then that's not what I do for a living. I can't see why politicians are any different, frankly. Similarly you seem to be making a case for generally defending politicians from negative criticism, which I don't really think stands up. Pick your least favourite government (I'll pick Major's government, as its fairly uncontroversial) - would you really put the same energies into defending them from the negativity? Maybe you would.

d) I think you underestimate the degree to which criticism, negativity and vicious satire is part of the British culture. It ebbs and it flows, but its always been there: high culture and low. If your politics requires that to change, well good luck with that. The West Wing is a product of American society (god help them), and Spitting Image/"the thick of it" ours.

any time writing yet another defence of representative democracy or outlining why Direct Democracy is worse, in some ways, than Fascism (at least with the Nazis, you knew who was in charge) is just time I'm not ever going to get back.

Well if you've written the posts, I'd be interested in reading them... If you have an argument attack direct democracy that doesn't use the strawman version, it would be interesting to see.

And Unions? Don't make me laugh. Find me one that has engaged in anything other than a token exercise in finding out what their members think about anything.

Which doesn't necessarily matter if they're simply representing worker interests in quite narrow areas. Given the structure/compositon, even the worst management captured union will have a better understanding of their worker's views than the management of the same company, and for that matter the government. They may not represent them accurately (though in general, the least representative unions tend to be acquiescent to management, rather than anything else. Power corrupts maybe), though the better ones seem to. Who else is representing workers interests? It may not be perfect, could be massively improved, but its all there is.

And I realise you're not against civil society. I was simply pointing out that newspapers are a far smaller, far less powerful part of civil society, while arguably being more representative of general opinion than more powerful parts (I mean should the city and the CBI really have all that influence? At least we can read the arguments of newspapers, its visible at least).

Well that really needs to be my last post, as I don't have any free time left. Ho hum.

Cian said...

"I've looked through this whole thread (and the other one) and it strikes me that you are mixing up your own leftish liberal position with the broad swathe of public opinion."

I'm fairly sure I haven't, nor would I describe myself as leftish liberal. I'm mostly relying on surveys of public opinion - on economic issues most people are fairly left wing (more so than this government anyway), on other issues its more complex.

Paulie said...

Cian,

I think we've got sidetracked into a broader question of 'who is to blame for the negativism of our political culture' - an interesting one on it's own, but not one that we're any closer to concluding.

I doubt anyone could reasonably reach the conclusion that the quality of public debate is not a factor there. I'm just pissed off than no-one is intersted in addresssing that factor, and that's what I'm trying to do here.

I'd rather live in Scandianvia (representative democracy with a lively political culture that the politicians can tune into to reach their decisions) than Switzerland.

And, while I disagree with you that I ... "underestimate the degree to which criticism, negativity and vicious satire is part of the British culture", I think that it's an interesting point. How much is our received wisdom about satire and 'speaking truth unto power' an expression of other unchallenged types of power.

This is something I want to return here over the next few months.

As for the defence of representative democracy, I wrote a lot about this offline many years ago and this blog has loads of posts on it. When I get round to indexing it, I'll see if I've left any gaps.