When the Party’s Over

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


 

The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form. (Peter Mair, Ruling the Void)

In the UK, party politics has always been refracted through the first-past-the-post electoral system that demanded that both Labour Party and Conservative Party adopt ‘broad church’ approaches, representing and conciliating diverse sectors of society. Yet the cultural and social shifts that emerged in the 1960s and came to fruition in the 1980s as the twin phenomena of individualization and globalization have been enabling conditions for trends of declining party membership, declining voter turnout across elections, and declining partisan allegiance. It is an important consequence of these phenomena, however, that political parties can no longer play the role of mediating between society and state that emerged with, and sustained, mass party democracy.

With Labour and Conservative vote share declining from 97% in 1951 to 67% in 2015, electoral logic has driven both parties to a focus on key swing voters and a relative neglect of those who, in Peter Mandelson’s brutal phrase, ‘have nowhere else to go’. While with membership declining from 1950s highs of 1,100,000 and 2,800,000 respectively to figures under 200,000 for the Tories and under 400,000 for Labour (helped upwards by a rise under Corbyn), the local infrastructures of both parties have weakened at the same time that professionalization of politics under the discipline of a 24 hour new cycle drove centralization of party control and the disconnection of ‘the Westminster bubble’ from regional and local roots. The changing conditions of these political parties, no longer meaningfully ‘mass organizations’, was further impacted by the post-devolution boost to the SNP and Plaid Cymru as their ability to portray themselves as ‘national’ parties for the whole of the UK (excepting the special case of Northern Ireand) has become increasingly tenuous, with the Greens and UKIP adding to the electoral complexity.

It is commonplace to recognize that David Cameron’s reckless political gamble with Britain’s membership in the EU was driven by a failure of authority within a fragmented Conservative Party that was exacerbated by the rise of UKIP. But this is reflective of a wider phenomenon. As Will Jennings and Martin Lodge argue:

More generally, then, the increased use of referenda and other methods of direct democracy in British politics should not necessarily be seen as advances of participation. Rather, they should be seen as attempts by party leaderships to overcome their own internal party conflicts. In the case of Labour, direct elections of the leader offered the dual promise of reduced trade union influence and symbolic gesturing that office-seeking was somewhat checked by the party. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives, it was an attempt to maintain illusions of ‘governing’ (i.e. ‘control’) by offering voters a choice while the real world has turned ever more into one that demands compromise, bargaining and dealing in trade-offs.

The current internal debacle of the Labour Party presents itself as driven by the traditional competing logics of the Party as a vehicle for gaining power and as the medium of a social movement. But lacking the bulwark of mass membership, it is more accurately depicted as a competition for control between an organised sect and a professional elite.

The Brexit Referendum and the responses of the two parties to the outcome of this referendum demonstrate nothing more truly than Mair’s argument that mass party politics, and party democracy, is dead and we do not yet know how, or with what, to replace it.

In this context, what steps may help? Perhaps the first is to recognize the reality of this situation and that the social and political conditions under which our electoral system could be justified no longer apply. A shift to some forms of proportional representation is both democratically necessary as well as providing a mechanism for encouraging greater party responsiveness to people across the UK. A second possible move is for regional devolution in England (modelled on the Welsh Assembly) combined with a shift in the structure of Labour and Conservative parties to a more federal form and, quite possibly, the rise of regional political parties (such as Yorkshire First). In both cases, national government becomes more complex but the role of parties in mediating between society and state is given new, if different, life.

Waking up to Brexit, Democracy and Experts

By Matthew Ryan, Politics & International Relations

Friday morning’s announcement of a win for the leave vote in the European Union referendum provided a wake-up call for complacent ‘experts’ like myself.

I voted to remain. From a personal point of view, it was pretty clear that leaving would have uncertain ramifications for funding for research and free movement of students and scholars from the EU to the UK. Moreover, I grew up in a Europhile country before migrating to the UK. In university I studied the European Union in great detail. I learned about how the EU had improved and ensured equal treatment for women and workers in countries emerging from tyranny to join the union. I learned how the Commission and the European Court of Justice had ingeniously protected European consumers by taking on the controlling market tactics of the likes of United Brands and Michelin. Growing up in the Southwest of Ireland during the tiger years I saw many buildings built under large signage celebrating funding from the European Union. Just last week many of us enjoyed for the first time reasonable roaming tariffs as we roamed France in search of footballing glory. I knew what good the European Union was capable of. It may not have been uniquely capable of these feats but at least it had a track record I was aware of.

At some point pretty early on Friday morning the prospects for remaining became bleak. At first I was disappointed and felt a little guilty. I didn’t get around to campaigning much and I felt I might have done more to relay my experiences and knowledge to others. But at least I had participated in a democratic plebiscite and many many others had too. Watching the news unfold I became increasingly angered (frankly) by the number of talking heads, and acquaintances on social media (most are graduates) that began to bemoan the holding of a referendum on the grounds that the citizens that voted to leave were simply not competent enough to make the appropriate decision. The anger and disappointment of those who identify with, and have much invested in membership of the EU is understandable. But for many so-called experts I think the penny still has not dropped.

Debates about democracy and competence are as old as the study of politics itself. The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and later Thomas Jefferson, lamented pure forms of democracy as the worst form of mob rule.[1] Certainly we saw some of the worst elements of populism in the campaign. Many of us witnessed incitement to hatred. It is still hard to know what to say about the tragic murder of Jo Cox. Her family and friends have said it all.

There are though, I think three important points to be made about the state of democracy in the UK in reflection on the referendum campaigns and analysis of the result. First, this was not a mob vote. Opinion research will shed more light in the coming days and weeks, but it is clear that the leave vote was spread across many different constituencies of interest with different takes on immigration, trade and national identity. Despite a focus on working-class votes in the immediate analysis, leave voters were in the majority in rural middle-England, the (post-)industrial north, many parts of the Celtic fringe excluding Scotland, and large urban provincial towns in the South and East. Leave voters are the experts in what is best for them. They reasonably disagreed after a long campaign with remain voters. They were upwards of 17 million in number. Some TV vox pops will no doubt highlight individuals with spurious and racist justifications for their votes, but many reasonable people listened to arguments and agonised in good faith over how to vote until the very last minute.

The geographic concentration of remain votes was stark; much more-so than leave. Again, some have been quick to argue that reliance on a small majority for such a momentous and complex decision results in a ‘tyranny of the majority’. They argue that the referendum should have required a supermajority of 60% or more. This is a perversion of the tyranny argument. Tyranny over minorities occurs when the same groups of people are losing out almost all the time. A democracy is a form of rule where everyone has to lose out some of the time. Perversely, many of those crying tyranny are coming from groups that can be seen to have won out in almost every policy decision affecting life chances in the last 40 years. The key challenge for political leaders and the media now is to facilitate deliberation across these divides. That starts with allowing people to voice their concerns, engaging arguments on their merits and not demonising different worldviews. There is a vast body of academic research on how best to integrate citizen’s innate expertise with technical expertise but some people dismiss it and most have never heard of it – a point I return to below.

If the first reaction responds to arguments about voter competence the second responds to arguments that this was a protest vote that rejected the wrong government. So the argument went among some of the commentariat on Friday, that the EU was the fall guy for all the failures of national governments over the past 20 or more years – governments who have left vast swathes of the population behind. As above there is likely some truth in the protest vote theory. However, I have little enough sympathy for the EU here. The EU has been complacent in the face of repeated warnings that it is out of touch with the public it is supposed to represent. This is not the first referendum defeat of its kind and the EU did almost nothing to try and justify its response to the Greek crisis in democratic terms. Its efforts as a whole to respond to the democratic deficit, time and again have been either overly ambitious (an EU constitution) or tokenistic (running a few consultations with the usual suspects). One thing we did learn in the last few weeks is that despite the ‘us and them’ rhetoric of the extremist populists, there clearly is an appetite among publics to know about, celebrate and praise the best of politicians and politics. For those of us who remain in, the European leadership needs to reach out to its denizens in a more than tokenistic fashion. The EU and its supporters need to learn how to market and communicate its successes and reasonably justify its work to its denizens on a regular basis. And this needs to happen fast.

The final point responds to arguments triggered by Michael Gove’s comment that people in this country have had enough of experts. I agree with many who have pointed out that the exact people they want to hear from in a scenario of uncertainty and complexity are experts. Expertise has a major role to play in advanced specialised societies. But I also find myself having much sympathy with Mr. Gove’s sentiments. Again the post-result response, in particular on the remain side, seemed to focus blame for their own failures on the insults, personality clashes and misinformation from many quarters that came to dominate the campaigns. Misinformation thrives not because people prefer blissful ignorance but because people prefer some form of explanation that they can understand. The experts didn’t provide real explanations, only superficial threats, because they assumed people would not understand the long-winded, abstract, caveat-laden language they deal in. They are right about the latter but the reality is that they could not help people understand. Experts refused, or did not have the skills to engage seriously in the most basic intellectual endeavour – explanation.

Despite recent efforts to combat the trend, the academic study of the social world seems increasingly on a one-way journey to withdraw to the relative comfort of the arcane. Academics are incentivised to write esoterically in journals which are not only unintelligible to most of the society they study, but also to many of their oh-so-clever friends. Ironically, journals dedicated to the study of politics; my chosen discipline and that which the ancients and many famous scientists throughout history have held in the highest regard; have some of the lowest impact factors (a measure of influence) among all disciplines. What is really striking though is that many academics in the social sciences only interact with people from outside their social circles as their subjects (with notable exceptions). We study people but we rarely take the opportunity to explain anything to them.

What we need now is an intellectual populism. We need to remember that the academic endeavour is after all merely the attempt to discover common sense; or at least to discover sense and then make it common. We aim to make the complex simple, without losing rigour. This is a challenge but one we are not stepping up to adequately (and I speak for myself if not my colleagues). Academic rigour requires critical distance and independent scientific analysis. But it also requires communication. Moreover, those of us who have had the privilege of making discoveries about our social world have the duty to help others make those discoveries too – and that goes beyond the small constituency who can afford to spend three or more years of their lives with us. All academics, researchers and graduates need to practice populism. The impetus needs to come from us not elsewhere. The public understanding of science and expertise is crucial for the reinvigoration of democracy.

[1] Aristotle was keener than Plato on rule by the many and the favoured form of rule he termed ‘Polity’ resembling more the constitutional democracy we know today, which is also much influenced by Jefferson’s thinking.