Last week I wrote a piece called ‘The case against FPTP’ which was a deliberately misleading title, because many people would have, wrongly, assumed, that I was making the case for proportional representation (PR), which I wasn’t. I expected people to be critical of me for not jumping on the PR bandwagon which has been steadily building up a head of steam in left circles.
Most critical responses to the piece were variations of the FPTP vs PR theme. Essentially, advocates of PR assumed that if I didn’t support PR I was clearly advocating for FPTP. A point I tried to address last week when I said that the case for PR could pretty much be reduced to “FPTP – bad, therefore PR – good”. But, as I also pointed out FPTP and PR are from the same family – representative democracy. A debate about the relative merits of each misses the point. If we narrow the debate to how best to select ‘our’ reps, we still end up with the same, or very much the same, reps. The fact is, and this becomes clearer by the day, it is the entire political class that is letting us down and given the high levels of dissatisfaction across the political system, it is clear that this phenomena is pan-National and regardless of which system to choose them is used. In short, the majority of people, the majority of the time feel disenfranchised by the political systems they live under.
Shifting the democratic paradigm
As socialists, I’m happy to be read by liberals, or even Tories, but I am clear I am writing for those who self-identify as socialists first and foremost. But, as socialists we need to stop being so timid in our views. More importantly, with “democracy” absorbing so much of our energy, we need to promote a paradigm shift in democratic theory. That means understanding that the poor quality of political representation we endure is not a moral failure of our reps – though to be fair, it’s often that as well – but is a side effect of the system itself. People enter public office very often with good intentions but the systems they are working within are designed to thwart those intentions. Of course, in theory, we could elect 650 socialists to Westminster and, in theory (putting aside the House of Lords for a moment) those socialists could abolish the House of Commons and replace it with workers councils or some other form of decision-making forum. My point though is that the tendency is for parliament to change those who enter it, more than they change parliament. Though to be fair, the Labour women who entered in 1997 did manage to get rid of the House of Commons barber and replace him with a hairdresser instead. Or to be precise, they changed a male hairdressers into a unisex one.
Nicholas Dickinson, an academic, makes the following observation in a paper aimed at reforming, not abolishing, the British Parliament: “experienced from the point of view of a new member, entering a new institution presents the problem of adapting to a predetermined role while retaining a sense of the purpose for which one joined. Parliaments face these problems in a particularly acute form, with new members entering in large groups at a time of maximum institutional disruption around elections. Most of these new members have little or no previous experience as legislators at a national level, but frequently do possess a strong sense of mission and a desire to make change.” His conclusion that new MPs are socialised by their party in order to “change behaviour in ways relevant to party loyalty,” is interesting for it is strongly suggestive that even an independent minded MP is likely to succumb to pressure from the whips to conform.
As Tom O’Grady has put it in relation to the Labour Party’s growing army of ‘careerist’ MPs: “They are more willing to take policy positions for strategic political reasons (such as gaining the favour of certain sections of the electorate) or to help advance their political career, and they are more instinctively loyal to the party leadership. Hence careerists have lower relative ideological support for left-wing policies, and their ideologies are less important in determining their stances in the first place.”
The point being that as politics has shifted from being a vocation motivated by public service to a career option for a particular cohort of middle class individuals so the opportunities to promote left-wing causes through parliament has diminished. In short, changing the method by which those careerists are chosen will do nothing to change the fact that most of them care less about particular policies than the satisfaction of their own career goals.
They may well have “a desire to make change” but when confronted with the reality that adopting radical positions is not a good career choice will do what people in all bureaucracies do – conform to the rules in order to secure their own personal well-being even if that means abandoning the people who put them there in the first place.
How representative are our representatives
It is not just that our so-called ‘representative’ democracy marginalises all but a tiny elite, but that the elite, no matter how chosen, is not particularly representative of the people it supposedly serves. In December 2019, shortly after the U.K. General Election the Sutton Trust noted: “while there have been big political changes in the House of Commons, the educational background of the country’s MPs has stayed remarkably consistent. Before the election, 29% of MPs attended private school – four times higher than the rate in the general population. And after the election that figure hasn’t budged, still standing at 29%.”
Much was made in the media of the growing number of MPs who had attended comprehensive schools the Sutton Trust note that: “this isn’t because of fewer MPs going to private schools, but rather due to a drop in those having attended grammars.” It is not just that a disproportionate number are privately educated that matters but at a time when, roughly, 40% of the population had a university education 80% of MPs were university educated. This shows that the role of politician has undergone a process of professionalisation. This can be seen in the educational backgrounds of MPs. The last available data is from 2015 when precisely 3% of MPs were from working class backgrounds. The majority (31%) were from professions (disproportionately barristers and solicitors) followed closely by business (30%). For comparison purposes according to the 2011 Census approximately 47% of the population are working class.
Perhaps this class bias could be changed by moving from FPTP to PR, but evidence from Wales is not encouraging. Of the 60 members of the Welsh Senedd some 75% in a recent analysis were degree educated. Though, interestingly, in a survey of the general population carried out at the same time only 10% of women and slightly less of men thought their educational level would be a barrier to them standing. Whilst 60% of women and 50% of men thought their inability to speak Welsh would be.
In this respect, I suppose we should remind ourselves that to be an elected representative requires no formal qualifications other than being a registered voter. I will stick my neck out here and say that most people from working class backgrounds are taught to defer to authority from an early age and encouraged to see themselves as playing only a supporting role on the political stage. Some of us never quite learn those lessons, but I am under no illusion that it is educated, middle class people who have filled roles that were there a strict sense of proportionality would be filled by people from estates whose only recourse is to direct action when all else seems to fail.
If we had a properly functioning democracy decisions about flammable cladding would have been taken by the residents of Grenfell not a council committee which ignored the complaints of residents and made a bad decision based on financial considerations.
The fact is we have reduced ‘democracy’ to its lowest common denominator. And, whilst I accept that arguing for a complete change of system might seem wildly utopian, hence the sarcasm tinged “good luck with your direct democracy” from one Twitter user who in a fit of pique that I wanted more evidence that PR would fundamentally change anything immediately restricted my access to the debate, this is another example of settling for minor reforms of the system or advocating revolutionary change.
If we are to embrace a campaign for electoral reform wouldn’t it be beneficial to at least, begin the process of arguing for a socialist democracy? To do that means stepping back from the tendency to embrace what appear to be populist notions and to ask questions which begin the far more useful process of changing the paradigm. In short, we need to question not just the mechanisms of parliamentary democracy but the very basis of its claim to be democratic.
If it is the case that ‘democracy’ is simply about electing representatives drawn from a very narrow strata of society, then why bother with it at all. Perhaps the 30% or so who don’t vote are actually the wise ones. Because, let’s be honest once you have put your cross next to what is a narrow range of individuals what further input do you get to the system. MPs always claim to be acting on behalf of “their constituents” but in what way do they attempt to do so? The only time most MPs take your views into account is when they support what they intended to do anyway. If we are interested in electoral reform rather than starting with a critique of first past the post, we might be well advised to start with democracy itself.
Last week I made it clear that I was rejecting the fairness claims of both FPTP and PR. For people who had embraced PR as a left-wing cause this was quite disconcerting. It is though not unreasonable for people to ask me what I propose instead.
I often say it is easier to know what we oppose than what we propose. If we go back to the book I mentioned last week – Robert A Dahl, Democracy (1998) – in his review of democracy he, like most democratic theorists, traces its origin to Greece and the city state of Athens. This is his brief summary of their system: “At it’s heart and centre was an assembly in which all citizens were entitled to participate…the main method for selecting citizens for the other public duties was by a lottery in which eligible citizens stood an equal chance of being selected.”
Critics will point out that to be a citizen you had to be male and most citizens were also slave owners. These are good points but neither invalidate the claim that the type of democracy they practiced was more effective at allowing citizens a direct say in decision-making than either FPTP or PR. Representative democracy has its origins in a movement which claimed at the same time to be for ‘freedom’ but was terrified of being plundered by the mass of the poor.
Freedom to vote for the many had to be tempered by a system that continued to protect the wealth of the few. This demand for the vote began in France during what we now call ‘the Enlightenment’ and had its most vocal expression in the fledgling democracy of the United States of America. It was precisely to prevent a ‘tyranny of the majority’ that the American constitution was designed to prevent the poor from taking the possessions of the rich, possessions we should note that included human slaves.
Fear of the mob
Alexander Hamilton, one of the drafters of the constitution, was most concerned to protect the few from the many. As Anthony Arblaster notes: “There was a need to give the ‘rich and well born’ a ‘distinct, permanent share in the government’ through which they could ‘check the imprudence of democracy’. …. It was the view of Hamilton that a representative democracy avoided the dangers clearly inherent in ‘simple democracy’” The point here is not to give a history lesson but to note that even at its inception representative democracy had as an express aim to preserve the wealth of the few. In case you think anything was different in England, James Mill writing in the 1840’s tried to allay bourgeois fears of ‘the mob’ by pointing out that the middle class “‘the class which is universally described as both the most wise and the most virtuous part of the community’, would still dominate in a democracy because: ‘Of the people beneath them, a vast majority would be sure to be guided by their advice and example’.”
From the nineteenth century onward what we now call ‘the establishment’ has been fearful of extending decision-making to the masses based on a fear that those masses might want to take some of their wealth to alleviate their own suffering. The barrier between real power (as exercised by the rich elite) and potential power (as held by the working class) has always been a middle class that neither challenges the hegemony of the upper class, nor allows their own position to be challenged by the working class. Fear of the mob still exists but has been transferred down from the aristocratic elite to the technocrats and bureaucrats who make up the middle class.
Access to those with power and an extension of civil society creating opportunities to perpetuate their own class position has included dominating the political process through the professionalisation of representation supported by a dominance of the mass media, judiciary and education systems. Proportional representation, if I am right in my analysis, is a distraction much like equal opportunities which whilst allowing some so-called minorities to enter the middle class did so by ensuring that the vast majority were still staring at a glass ceiling.
I don’t like generalisations or stereotypes, so let me clarify that when I talk of classes they are not meant to be anything but heuristic devices, by which I understand devices which throw light upon a topic but which are not empirical representations. Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that not all middle-class people are agents of the rich elite, neither are all of them inherently hostile to working class power. Indeed, for the working class to ever remove the ruling class it will require an alliance of the working and middle classes. My emphasis on the working class is structural not emotional. In that sense, it is Marxist in origin and a shorthand for some incredibly complex relationships which a blog post does not allow an analysis.
From a socialist perspective there is nothing to choose between FPTP or PR whilst they remain methods of preventing the majority of people any meaningful say over their own lives. Whether one method of choosing representatives is fairer than another method matters little to the 47% or so of people who not only do not get to be MPs or Councillors but fully understand that the disasters visited upon them by a system that regards their lives as inherently expendable is not going to be challenged by electoral chambers that are designed to protect the rich from being plundered by the mob they still regard that 47% as representing. We now possess the possibility of genuine democracy based not on choosing middle class representatives but on allowing all citizens a say in the decisions that affect them. That we are not even discussing citizens juries as a model of deliberation shows the lack of initiative which we often fall victim to. The best we hope for is ensuring that parties, almost totally dominated by the middle class, will be more “fairly” represented as they go about their business of maintaining a status quo they do quite nicely out of thank you very much.