Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

My questions to and answers from Vernon Bogdanor on Primaries:

About a week ago, I participated in a “question and answer” submission set up by “Open Up”, to professor Vernon Bogdanor (professor of government at Oxford University, and one-time Tutor to David Cameron). Having been impressed by Bogdanor’s argument before, I was intrigued to see him as a strong supporter of Open Primaries, particularly given his support for introducing Single Transferable Vote, and believe that Primaries would be a step in this direction (rather than away, which is my view, as I have blogged about on here before).

I put three questions to him, and wasn’t disappointed to see that he only answered two (after all, there were quite a few contributions, and I was, thinking over it, quite lucky to get more than one answered). Here are the questions, with his answers:

Question: Won’t open primaries vastly lengthen and increase the expense of the electoral process, and make life more difficult for minority parties, independents and candidates from disadvantaged circumstances? Won’t they increase the problems surrounding campaign funding, many of which are evident from the US system?

Professor Bogdanor: To avoid this outcome, I think there should be a spending cap administered by the Electoral Commission.

Question: Could open primaries lead to a further entrenched two-party system, where the largest parties become the easiest option for those seeking to enter politics, to the detriment of pluralism and diversity; and the smaller parties find it impossible to compete, having insufficient candidates to make primaries feasible?

Professor Bogdanor: The truth is that nobody knows. The most likely outcome is that it will increase enthusiasm for democracy and so help all parties.

To be fair, I believe his response to the first question is quite reasonable. Though, as I blogged on The Daily Soapbox, a spending cap could well be utterly insufficient in terms of helping disadvantaged candidates and preventing primaries from shifting the burden further against them; it has to be recognised that this is to a large degree speculation (particularly as I am not aware of many comparisons other than the United States, which has lax campaign funding laws). A spending cap could certainly help avoid some of the more serious problems of campaign funding in Primaries, although in my personal opinion it would not go nearly further enough, and does not address the problem that those already at a disadvantage in the electoral system will be disproportionately effected by the simple cost of running a primary campaign, cap or no cap.

I regard the second answer as a dodge, unfortunately — it is possible that I worded the question badly (I am notoriously bad at concise summations, which explains the general length of my articles on here, facebook and The Daily Soapbox). Of course, the fact that no-one knows is an obvious truth (one could call it a ‘truism’), but the fact is that an increase in enthusiasm for parties obviously does not equate to something which “helps all parties” — indeed, a look at the US shows that in many ways, they are more interested in participation and democracy than we are, but despite this have a far more entrenched two-party system. Parties are things which arise out of democracy, but are entirely pragmatic arrangements, and beyond the existence of an opposition, bear little relation to the level of democracy.

The simple fact is that it is obvious that small parties would struggle to compete, because they face a choice of either holding primaries — and thus playing a larger role in the local democratic process — or fielding as many candidates as possible on the national level. This would effectively put them between a rock and a hard place, particularly if they were in the position of emerging between minority status, and mainstream status. It is easy to see how primaries could entrench the two-party system, therefore — at least under a single-member system.

The other point about Primaries making the two main parties the easiest route into politics is also unchallenged by Professor Bogdanor’s reply, and would go some way to explaining why in the US, despite the greater prevalence of democracy (which may or may not be a good thing), the two party system is more entrenched. When discussing third parties in American politics with my excellent A level teacher, one of his points concerning their lack of success was “what’s the point, when the two parties are broadchurch, and can just as easily accommodate people’s views?” Ultimately, it is this which exposes the false equation the Professor makes between pluralism and democracy; democracy is ultimately about participation, and if it is easier to participate in mainstream parties then the mainstream parties will disproportionally benefit.

So overall, fair first question response (though for obvious reasons, I disagree that it would be sufficient), slightly disappointed by the second response, which I feel would probably be ripped apart in a Oxford politics class, given that we were trained to deconstruct that in A level politics. But fair play to the Professor for taking the time to engage in the first place; he must have had a lot of questions to respond to!

EDIT: I have just noticed this question, later down on the page:

Question: What about smaller parties? Should they have open primaries too? Won’t their comparative lack of funding put them at a disadvantage?

Professor Bogdanor: Yes, smaller parties should have open primaries too. The question of whether they will be at a disadvantage raises the whole issue of whether there should be state funding of political parties, on which views legitimately differ.

(Not asked by myself)

I don’t wish to tackle his views on state funding of political parties here (or what I assume to be his views, because as he indicates, it would be the most obvious way of correcting this problem), merely the assumption that this is the only disadvantage to smaller parties. It patently is not — funding is certainly one problem, but simply numbers is another — a small party, however well funded, is still small, it still has to face a shortage of candidates, and putting itself at a disadvantage if it is to grant electors a choice of more than one candidate in a primary.

I’m also going to be slightly pedantic, and also address the final question and answer:

Question: Is there any evidence that open primaries will lead to better government?

Professor Bogdanor: “Better government” is in part a subjective matter. Open primaries will lead to more participation and therefore better democracy.

…pedantic, because I wish to question the equation of greater participation and better democracy, and undermine a previous argument I made slightly. Though democracy, as I said earlier, is ultimately about participation, it is also very much affected by the level of pluralism, and it does not follow that increased participation will necessarily strengthen democracy. I would like to reference the State of California (and the state of California) as an example here, where referendums and initiatives are relatively easy, and there have been widespread accusations of interest groups sabotaging the democratic wishes of communities at large. Also, unhelpful laws have been introduced which hinder representative democracy, namely a requirement for a 2/3 supermajority in order to ratify the State budget, which recently nearly made California the first State in US history to go bankrupt.

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House of Lords Reform ~~ An Update

In reading about the House of Lords in a 1990s book “Does Parliament Work?” — in an effort to improve my knowledge about the Lords and Parliament in general — and reading with interest the part about the house’s greater informality than the House of Commons, a thought struck me.

One of the things most agreed by consensus in favour of the House of Lords is its ability to include expertise and specialism when debating legislation. I have often argued in the past for the crossbenchers, among whom are experts appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, to stay holding the balance of power within the House of Lords, whatever other reforms are made to its composition, to secure as best possible the retention of this expertise, complementary to the other purposes reforms may serve. But it struck me that there exists an even better way of ensuring the expertise, as well as the continued informality of process. And, as my friend Ewan Short would like, a check upon the potential for democratically elected peers to get ideas above their station in the event of democratic reform.

I think that the House committees should have the ability to, if sufficiently inspired, offer temporary rights to people outside the House of Lords to take part in debates and have limited voting rights. This would open up the House to popular participation in a more informal, caucus-style way than pure democracy would, which would reward popular participation and, more importantly, dedication in areas of public interest.

It would also prove a check against democratically elected peers getting the idea that they were the most “important” part of the house in a part-democratic House of Lords. It would (if used properly) strengthen the houses’ claim to diversity, speciality and expertise, and make it a better understood and respected national institution. It would also promote it as an alternative means of representation to the House of Commons.

It strikes me that if we go down this route, it will also take fire out of the hands of “all-or-nothing” democracy campaigners for the House of Lords, which would be No Bad Thing. All in all, I think this could be not only quite a nice idea for the future of the House of Lords, but potentially quite an important one as well.

As usual, please notify me if I have completely missed obvious or important things by adding your comments underneath.

Dave

A manifesto for European Democracy

[Imported from Facebook; a collaborative project]

We hear an awful lot day in day out about these “unelected bureaucrats” making our laws, costing us far more than we get back, not listening to us and denying us a say when we say the ‘wrong thing’, etc., etc.. What I want to see from people now, regardless of party affiliation, regardless whether they like the EU or not, is practical suggestions to increase democracy in the EU and to turn some of these ‘expensive unelected elitist’ people into accountable, elected down-to-earth ones.

I want this topic to be purely focused on democracy – not whether or not we should be in the EU, not whether we should pay as much into it, but simply what practical ways there are for us to make it more democratic. I want the ideas wherever possible to be ones which our national government can implement, but I want to hear all EU-wide suggestions for reform as well. Just bear in mind that the most achievable ideas for the time being are ones that can be achieved on a national basis.

(Inspired by the wonderful people of Question Time, 28th May 2009)

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The Manifesto for European Democracy

[Tagline: Turning a culture of British moaning into a manifesto for British action!]

So far we have:

Proposition 1) That the post of European Commissioner nominated by this country be subject to democratic election.

Proposition 2) That the Regions currently used to elect EU legislators by means of closed-list PR be split up into districts responsible to each individual MEP elected by the region, districts being allocated to MEPs by the boundary commission. For example, districts in the West Midlands could be Herefordshire, Woucestershire, etc..

Proposition 3) That MEPs be given district offices, which they are required to pay for with their constituency allowance, which the government offers a return on for a minimum amount of time spent in the district office liaising with constituents. Such a return would have to be great enough to create an incentive not to stay in Brussells and claim the attendance allowance for this time instead.

Proposition 4) That MEPs should be required to account for how they spend the allowances granted to them by the European Parliament, particularly that granted to them for constituency work, online, to create an incentive for prudent spending of public money. This will enable their constituents to hold them to account democratically for their use of public money, not just for their voting record, with each election.

Proposition 5) That we should introduce an Annual or Bi-annual event wherein all United Kingdom MEPs are scrutinised by a cross-representative panel that includes politicians, representatives from different sectors of the economy, and Union representatives. Such an event would be televised live, and be an important time at which we would engage with our representatives. Possibly entitled “EU Liason Committee” or “MEP Liason Committee”.

Proposition 6) That the European Parliament should be given the power of legislative initiative, bringing it in line with other lower chambers of legislatures around the world. MEPs would have the power to draft legislation, with the most widely supported bills heading the legislative agenda.

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Lastly, if you wish your proposal(s) to be credited to you, then please make that clear. In the absense of confirmation of this, anonymity is assumed.