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.

What is the right to asylum?: Debating the EU’s response to the refugee crisis

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


Listen to PAIR’s Professor David Owen debating with David Goodhart (director of the Integration Hub and former director of Demos) on the right to asylum and Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.

Whereas David Owen puts forward the view that the entire world order of states suffers a legitimacy problem when refugees go unprotected, David Goodhart argues that it is a fantasy to talk about people having human rights when their own states are not protecting them.

You can listen to the discussion in full below:

This debate was recorded for Talking Migration, a podcast produced by Dr Clara Sandelind at the University of Huddersfield and supported by the Centre for Research in the Social Sciences and the Division of Journalism and Media.

England’s Great Illusion (about the EU)

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


On Monday, 20 October, the outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso responded to English nationalists in a speech delivered at the Chatham House think tank in London. Here is the part of this speech directly countering some Europhobe arguments.

That is why I do not underestimate the very real concerns UK citizens are expressing about Europe. These merit a substantive response.

You don’t like the idea of a huge EU budget. I get that. By the way, it’s not – and with just 1% of Europe’s GDP we will need to fully use the agreed flexibility if we are pay our bills to those we are committed to invest in. Like Cambridge University for example, which consistently tops the tables for winning EU research funding.

But it’s a shame that the political debate here focuses only on absolute figures, when quality of spending is so much more important. This Commission has reformed the budget to focus on providing funding in countries and regions for the things that really matter – investment in research, in young people, in a more connected Europe.

You don’t want to be paying for armies of Eurocrats. I get that. We are cutting one in twenty staff across all EU institutions and agencies. The reforms we have introduced will save €2.7 billion by 2020 and €1.5 billion per year in the long run.

Personally I support the government’s aim to get more of Britain’s best and brightest to work in our institutions. The number of British officials is less than half of what it should be and falling quickly. Constant criticism and a pending existentialist debate do not make us the most attractive employer for young British graduates.

You don’t want Europe to meddle where it should not. I get that. Since 2004, the Commission has cut red tape worth €41 billion to European business. We have not interfered with the height of hairdressers’ heels, or the ergonomic design of office chairs.

We have scrapped legislation on bendy cucumbers – although the supermarkets were the first to complain. We have introduced evidence-based policy-making, consultation and impact assessment as the norm.

There are wide-spread concerns in the UK and elsewhere about abuse of free movement rights. I get that. Already in 2011, after constructive dialogue with the British Government, the Commission took forward changes to the way income support is dealt with under European social security rules. This benefit is now only due to those who have already worked and paid into the UK system. Since then we have undertaken concrete actions to support Member States as they apply the anti-abuse rules, for example on sham marriages.

I believe that any further changes to address some of the concerns raised should not put into question this basic right, which cannot be decoupled from other single market freedoms.

The Commission has always been ready to engage constructively in this discussion. But changes to these rules need all countries to agree.

And it is an illusion to believe that space for dialogue can be created if the tone and substance of the arguments you put forward question the very principle at stake and offend fellow Member States. It would be an historic mistake if on these issues Britain were to continue to alienate its natural allies in Central and Eastern Europe, when you were one of the strongest advocates for their accession.

[Emphases added]. Full speech available here.

As a New Sanctions Package Hits Russia, Europe Slips Back into Old-Style Geopolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


As a fragile ceasefire just about holds in Ukraine, with shelling reported in the pivotal port city of Mariupol, the EU has announced a new round of sanctions against Russia. Targeted at state-owned firms and Russian officials, the package prompted a predictably spiky Russian rejoinder, with Dmitry Medvedev promising an “asymmetric” response – possibly even extending to the closure of airspace.

Custom Union, Ukraine, EU summit in MinskBut whatever the actual impact of the sanctions, and whatever the fate of the ceasefire, one thing is for certain: thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the landscape of conflict in Europe has been transformed for good.

The story of Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union is always told the same way: after the West triumphed over the East at the end of the Cold War, conventional great-power politics on the continent came to a permanent close. And while conflict has hardly disappeared from Europe, the skirmishes that have popped up since 1990 are no longer major inter-state rivalries.

Instead, the story goes, they result from state collapse, bad governance, transnational crime, or tensions around issues like immigration. We are now more likely to discuss European politics in terms of institutions, integration, transnational actors, norms and values than in terms of the clash of big countries.

In a few short months, Ukraine has changed all that. The debates now raging around Europe’s new geopolitical situation are radically different from the conversation of just a year or so ago.

The West’s fault?

The argument is now not about whether state-versus-state wars will return to Europe, but whether they left in the first place. Some analysts have responded to the Ukrainian fracas by proclaiming that Europe has never really moved on from the drama of the great international face-off.

They point out that, in fact, American and European elites have consistently rolled the EU and NATO eastward towards the Russian border – a process which was always going to lead to a clash of interests.

From this point of view, the West is to blame for the current crisis. The only way out, as some foreign policy “realists” would have it, is to turn Ukraine into a sort of neutral buffer state between NATO and Russia, abandoning all efforts to spread “Western values” and promote democracy in Ukraine.

But over the course of an increasingly fraught summer, this perspective has run up against the mounting evidence of Russia’s very active military engagement in Ukraine, pursued despite protests of innocence.

By the end of August, for instance, evidence had emerged showing that Russian soldiers and various intelligence services have been directly involved in destabilising various parts of Ukraine beyond even the flashpoints in the east.

In fact, recent evidence shows that on August 28, Russian forces invaded and captured the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk. Ukrainian forces were forced to withdraw, along with Ukrainian border servicemen, who lack any heavy military equipment.

Those developments ended any real debate over whether Russia has been an actor in the war, though the extent and intimacy of its involvement remained subject to heated debate by the time a ceasefire was signed on September 5.

Don’t overestimate the West

But despite all the evidence of Russian involvement, some commentators still hold that all this instability and violence is the fruit of Western policy – what they frame as attempts to “socially engineer” the domestic situation in Ukraine in the years leading up to Euromaidan.

But the fact is that in those years, the West was anything but agreed on Ukraine’s prospects for membership of either NATO or the EU. For example, while Poland had long been strongly advocating EU membership for Ukraine to flatter its own geopolitical ends, the EU as a whole preferred to confine Ukraine to various “cooperation frameworks” rather than hold open, formal membership negotiations.

Meanwhile, the question of the Eurasian Customs Union is still deeply unresolved. Angela Merkel recently stressed that Ukraine is free to join the Union, which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. In her words, “the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision.”

A Ukrainian decision to join the Customs Union would, in fact, be favoured in many European political circles, if only for the stability it might conceivably bring. Still, the Customs Union Summit, which took place in Minsk on August 26, was a key display of how farcically messy European geopolitics have become.

That meeting was formally convened to discuss economic cooperation, but the main hope was that the Russian and Ukrainian presidents would make some kind of effort to resolve the conflict, or at least make some diplomatic progress.

But after a two-hour conversation between the presidents, there was no indication that they had reached any sort of agreement. The participation of a high-level EU delegation, including Catherine Ashton herself, apparently didn’t help either.

It was in further talks in Minsk ten days later that a ceasefire deal was finally agreed – while the EU’s foreign ministers and leaders were occupied at the NATO summit in Wales.

Get it together

Europe is now facing in its deepest geopolitical crisis since 1990, and has a fiendish dilemma on its hands: whether to tighten up security cooperation and risk further isolating Russia (following NATO’s decision to reinforce its eastern flank), or to pragmatically acknowledge that Russia has its own strategic interests – hoping that they remain confined to eastern Ukraine.

Both these approaches are wrong. On the one hand, Russia must be shown in no uncertain terms that what it’s been doing in Ukraine is illegal, ceasefire or no ceasefire, and that it will pay for it in the end. Central and eastern European countries need to be reassured that their larger neighbours actually care about their safety, and can do something real to help shore it up.

But at the same time, political and diplomatic efforts outside of sanctions must be accelerated, not sidelined by military posturing and the wrangling over sanctions. Otherwise the EU will only find itself further sidelined in future negotiations over Ukraine, just as it was in Minsk

In short, the EU urgently needs to get its act together. If it doesn’t, it will have to finally stop pretending it has any sort of common foreign policy, and accept the consequences as they come.

[This article is cross-posted at The Conversation. – Ed.]

Demos Problems and the European Union: An Exercise In Contextual Democratic Theory

by David Owen, Anali Hrvatskog Politološkog Društva (English), vol. 10, No. 1 (2013), pp 7-23.

Debates concerning the ‘democratic deficit’ have been a prevalent feature of the normative literature on the European Union, but rather less attention has been paid to ‘demos problems’ constructed by the normative ordering of the EU and what such problems reveal about the nature of democratic citizenship in the EU, the character of the EU as a normative order and the institutional character of the relationship between the constitution of the EU as a normative order and as a structure of political incentives. This article addresses this topic by focusing on one such ‘demos problem’.

Read this article now at Citizenship Observatory.