Sunday, January 10, 2010

DUP, SF and Labour: Three observations

I don't have time to flesh this out into anything that makes the arguments properly, but I suspect that these three observations could make early-draft notes for a useful posting:

Firstly, the peace process in Northern Ireland shouldn't be taken lightly. It's ongoing success is undoubtedly a good thing - anything that abates a low-level sectarian civil war and the social havoc that this causes can only be a good thing. So should the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland expect a bit of journalistic soft-peddling? Would journalists be ignoring their greater duty to the sustainability of democracy by destroying the political careers of Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams? (Both, as far as I can see, would not survive in most developed democracies, though they'd probably actually improve their standing in Italy at the moment). Or is there a stronger argument that the institutions will only become sustainable when they have adapted to storms like this one and that this 'creative destruction' will make everyone stronger?

Secondly, neither of the two dominant political parties in Northern Ireland would be able to survive as leading forces in a normal polity. The DUP is a faith-based political party. It's evangelical protestant roots mean that it values subjective truth (though they believe in a supernaturally-guided subjectivity) more highly than rationalist policies and strategies that would be adopted by most successful mainstream parties in Western Europe. Their attitudes on climate change, intelligent design and sexuality illustrate their relationship with those awful political elites that prefer evidence and good practice. The DUP owes its dominance to a highly tribal society and the fact that it's main rival - the UUP - in a fit of self-destructive stupidity - allowed itself to be governed by mandates and direct recall by party members. As such, they would not really survive in a mature democracy any more than UKIP - another primarily 'subjective' party (a commitment to leaving Europe, government by referendums and heavy controls on immigration).

Similarly, Sinn Féin would not survive as a political party in a normal democratic polity. Its performance in the Irish Republic is testimony to that. Because it is constitutionally antagonistic to the very statelet in which may soon become the largest political party, it doesn't feel any obligation to be seen to act in the wider national interest.

Thirdly, there is a lesson for Labour in all of this. There is a section of the party (OK, I don't know anyone who believes this point as strongly as I do, though Mark Fisher MP with his 2003 'Parliament First' document - co-signed I understand by 20 MPs - and an ex-MP Tony McWalter have come close) that New Labour's shortcomings are not those diagnosed by most of the left (appeasement of monopoly capitalism / American NeoCons) but their failure to understand and respect the ecology of representative democracy:
  • Elected representatives should enjoy a reasonably high degree of independence and not be mandated
  • Political parties should be reasonably diverse (circumscribed by an adherence to a common set of values)
  • Leaders should be challenge-able
  • Manifestos should be a short-ish statement of values rather than a long detailed list of pledges
  • Electoral systems that involve party lists should never ever be promoted under any circumstances
  • Single-issue pressure groups should be ignored rather than cultivated
Labour junked most of these values because they didn't have the common sense to respond properly to the first one in that list above. By promoting 'mandated' MPs, Labour opened itself to it's rivals. In the same way that direct recall of MPs and MLAs allowed the DUP to wreck the UUP, Militant was able to seriously damage Labour in the early 1980s.

Instead of grasping and asserting the primacy of elected representatives, Labour closed down avenues that challengers could use and combated red-scares in a hostile press by imposing mandates upon itself. Those f*cking pledge cards.

At the time, as a short-termist strategy, it worked. But I think that it is doing the party serious damage now. Whatever you think to Gordon Brown, Labour are going to be vulnerable on the leadership question during the next election because it has transparently not been resolved.

Similarly, as I argued some time ago (and it appears to be the central point of The Thick of It satire) I don't think that New Labour's loudest apologists would argue that it has been a particularly good government. We're not great at getting things done. We've been given the run-around by civil servants and management consultants. A more diverse, unchallengeable party would have. Our greatest virtue really is that we've kept a measurably worse option - the Tories - out.

So, my conclusion (and I'm sure this could have been reached more quickly), is this:

Monkeying around with the values of representative government may prove a valuable short-term fix, but in the medium term, it leads to bad government and damages your political party in the process. Don't do it.


Merseymike said...

Don't agree about single issue pressure groups as that would rule out the social movements who had to organise in that way because the parties didn't want to know

I also wonder, given SF's changing status, whether there is potential there to become a broadly social democratic nationalist party?

Paulie said... potential there to become a broadly social democratic nationalist party?

Not sure I get your point Mike. There's one there already isn't there - uncannily named the Social Democratic and Labour Party?