Thursday, August 30, 2007

Political parties – good or bad?

…. or why mavericks – even odious ones – make good MPs and bad mayors.

If one thing illustrates the potential benefits as well as the hazards of having strong political parties, it’s this whole Ken v Boris thing. It certainly illustrates the wrong-headedness of the concept of strong political mayors.

I’ve said before that I find Ken too problematic to vote for these days. If you’re interested, I’ve explained why here. And I’m really highly unlikely to vote for Boris either. I don’t need to elaborate on this any further do I?

So, does this make me one of those pathetic negativist dweebs who are always whinging about being ‘disenfranchised’? No. I’ve decided to clear myself of that particular charge. Here’s how.

Firstly, we all have a moral duty to ignore referendums, and throw eggs at anyone who goes into a polling booth to vote in one. With me so far?

Well, Mayoral elections are the same. The idea that one vote endorses one individual’s approach to almost everything in a particular sphere is little better than a plebiscite on a policy issue that most people don’t understand.

For this reason, I will probably not vote in the London mayoral election at all. And this doesn’t make me a whinging negativist dweeb. Result!

You see, even though I regard Ken as a the UK’s most obvious symptom of an illness that has afflicted the left since the heady days of Woodstock and Grosvenor Square, I think that he’s an adornment to the Labour Party and he was a net contributor to the quality of parliamentary life when he was there. I’d say the same for Boris in the context of his own party.

I’d go even further than that. Though they were /are all largely odious, George Galloway, Ian Paisley, or even Enoch Powell – in the context of 600+ other MPs – improve(d) the quality of the House of Commons. Variety is not only the spice of life, it’s also one of the magic ingredients of parliamentary democracy. And I’d be prepared to extend this argument almost to the shores (but not beyond) of fascism.

My argument is that this kind of distributed wisdom is the least unlikely way of getting humane and half-decent policymaking.

But distributed wisdom – whether it’s the type that was promoted by advocates of some versions of public choice theory, by Hayek, or the more swishy up-to-date ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ - only works if groupthink isn’t in evidence. And party groupthink is one thing you can’t – by definition - accuse these mavericks of.

So, could I vote for a Labour Party with Livingstone or Galloway in it? Absolutely. I’d probably want Galloway expelled, but it wouldn’t even have been a deal-breaker if he’d stayed. In fact, the presence of most mavericks – whether it’s the type that I often agree with (Denis MacShane, Steve Pound) or the ones I don’t (Tony Benn, Livingstone, Frank Field, Tony Blair) makes the Labour Party more attractive to me than if it were stuffed with Paulie-clones.

Now, I may struggle to vote for the worst of the mavericks if they were my local Labour Party candidate in an election. But I know for certain that I couldn’t vote for one of them in a contest that would hand them fairly untrammelled power as an individual. And the one thing that nearly drove me away from the Labour Party in the 1990s were the number of vile Blairite clones of the Margaret Hodge variety.

But if Labour started doing what Cameron did in Ealing Southall, and start describing themselves as Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, I’d even struggle to vote for the party I’ve been a member of for a quarter of a century. This is not, by the way, a particular whinge about Gordon Brown specifically. If the ballot paper said Shuggy’s Labour Party, Tom’s Labour Party or even Chris’ Labour Party, I’d even struggle then. It’s the paradox of political parties. On the one hand, if they are highly centralised, they are a damaging competitor to any decent model of democracy.

But if they aren’t, they could make the whole shooting match work the way that it should.


Will said...

"If one thing illustrates the potential benefits as well as the hazards of having strong political parties, it’s this whole Ken v Boris thing."

Look at it this way -- In Yankland they have the exact opposite to here -- that is...weak political parties. There is no, if any, party discipline. Consequently, what the voters actually want is hardly ever put into practice (eg a comprehensive healthcare system). Mavericks are everywhere (indeed, candidates for office are defined by their 'independence' and 'individualism') in the Yank system but policy doesn't reflect the desires of the electorate. What you end up with is 'pork barrel politics'.

Thus when you say: "Variety is not only the spice of life, it’s also one of the magic ingredients of parliamentary democracy."...

Well yes, but...

*Only* within a context that encourages party discipline *and* where groupthink *is also* in evidence does this hold true.

Shorter version: 'mavericks' only 'contribute' positively within a system of 'strong party' institutional systems.

Bob Piper said...

Whinging negativist dweeb or revolutionary abstentionist... who cares? If I have to listen to one more nerd on the doorstep with a thousand original reasons why they won't vote I'll vomit into their shoes. And now they're doing it on blogs!!!

Don't vote if you don't want to... just please don't try to articulate why you won't do it. If you think there is no difference between Johnson and Livingstone you have completely lost the plot Paulie. So, you don't vote and someone gets this untrammeled power anyway, what are you going to do, go down the pub and say, not my fault mate, I didn't vote!

pregethwr said...

Bah, get over it. Vote for Ken.