Ideasanddemocracy - RSA

Good ideas need a healthy, competitive democracy

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  • Devolution
  • Institutional reform
  • Prisons

In politics, it is usual to be a Paine or a Burke. At least, that is the case in modern majoritarian politics of the type to be found in the Anglo-Saxon world. These dispositions are not ideologies; they are broad philosophical instincts. Nor are they mutually exclusive - one can deploy each instinct in different settings and remain completely intellectually coherent. Ultimately, these two default settings have governed politics through seismic historical change throughout the whole of the RSA's history. And so it remains.

Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke were both phenomenal rhetoricians, writers and social commentators. A Burkean position emphasises tradition, evolution, incrementalism and the virtue of the extant. Paine was more impatient. Tradition was a drag rather than a virtue. Power was distributed unequally; the people were not free. Therefore, rapid and bold institutional change was necessary. This meant he took more risks in his advocacy. He famously misjudged the French Revolution but institutional evolution at the pace of Burke's preference would have lagged the rapid social changes that we have experienced- with potentially alarming consequences.

This 'great debate' as outlined by Yuval Levin continues today. Ideologies have come and gone; so have political parties and a range of other social institutions. Yet these dispositions remain. In general, there is a Burkean party of the right and a Paineite party of the left. 

Sometimes things flip. Over time social democratic parties have become increasingly Burkean as institutions such as employment rights, collective healthcare and social security took hold. Parties of the right have felt the need for Paine-esque radicalism as a restorationist project (a paradox of Thatcherism). So none of this is neat but the basic institutional instincts remain even if they have become distorted and stretched.

It is in this context that the decline of the modern Labour Party sits. The RSA is, of course, an independent charity. It does not take a view on which political persuasion should gain power - nor should it. Fellows represent a wide range of political standpoints and this is one of the enduring strengths of the RSA. There are strong arguments of left, right and centre for devolution of power, a Basic Income, an educational curriculum that fosters creativity as well as knowledge acquisition, and the desirability of spreading wealth and ownership so all may share in society's wealth as well as contributing to it. 

The RSA both seeks and has been extremely successful in fostering alliances across the political spectrum for its advocacy of an open society, a sustainable economy and relentless social and political renewal. Any such society should feel confident in expressing what constitutes a healthy politics as a whole. What type of politics creates an environment in which significant and persuasive new ideas can gain traction? The answer is not the politics we currently have.

A majoritarian political system that tends towards duopoly (though this varies in each of the UK nations and principalities) risks locking the new ideas we need out of the political process. When duopolies become monopolies, as the current political system risks, then any organisation that exists to support social change is likely to feel a sense of deep concern. 

The decline of Labour is part of this out-of-kilter politics. It is a simple truism that a political party in which its elected representatives take a fundamentally different view to its members and active supporters is doomed. It appears that this is where Labour currently sits. Labour has tended over the course of its history to favour political Paineism and organisational Burkeism. With the exception of the 1997-2001 Government, Labour has largely rejected constitutional change – or at least approached it half-heartedly (one of the reasons behind its collapse in Scotland). This instinctive institutional conservatism is likely to manifest itself internally should the current leader win the current leadership election. Many if not most of those who have challenged him will resume in internal dissent without ever walking away. In practice, this means the emergence of a monopoly on national power for the Conservatives.

No believer in the free flow of ideas into an open arena of politics can think this desirable - whatever their political leanings. In fact, both the previous and the current Prime Minister themselves have bemoaned the lack of a decent opposition. It should not go unnoticed that many of the ideas in the last Labour manifesto are now being revisited by the Conservatives, for example, worker representation on Boards and the living wage.

The early hints from the new Prime Minister are that she has some genuinely reformist instincts. But this is no substitute for facing high quality opposition - one that is on the intellectual charge as well as holding the Government to account. We are nowhere near that. In fact, there is an early question mark over whether Brexit and a change of governmental focus will slow the reformism in areas as critical as prisons and continued devolution. A strong reformist opposition could push where Government takes its foot of the pedal.

In a more diverse political system, new voices and sources of energy find an easier way into the national debate than in the current system. The current situation marks a diminished pluralism when precisely the opposite is required. A more open political system (including a proportional electoral system) is the first priority. Failing this, a competitive system with major parties that are pluralistic, civically embedded, and open to the flow of new (good) ideas is the next best thing. We have neither. 

The worst possible outcome is prolonged institutional cognitive dissonance within the official Opposition between parliamentary party and the party membership. Whatever the outcome of Labour's leadership this dissonance should be resolved - with leadership and willingness to take risks. That may mean that Labour has to divide in Parliament and more broadly perhaps also. That seems severe- but make no mistake, this is an institutional crisis that has become a democratic crisis. The issue is not primarily Labour at all; it is about our ability as a society to find the right path forward adapting democracy to widespread societal needs.

At the very least, politics needs a Paineite alternative. Progressives seek a reformist spirit in a variety of places, but in a duopolistic system a possible alternative is always needed as a check and balance. For reasons of history that is currently Labour. Unless it can emerge from its crisis and at pace that could well cease to be the case. The future is Burke's alone on the current trajectory. Ideas need a more effervescent interplay of Burke and Paine – within and between political parties. Labour’s decline makes this less likely.

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  • Interesting and welcome discussion. Particularly, when the Conservatives for the first time do not have a majority in the House of Lords. Hence the effective opposition in the Commons manifests itself in the House of Lords. The government has suffered some notable defeats that are difficult to reverse with such a small and potentially fractured majority.

    Many politicians, are a product of a production line - university, special adviser or an international postiing. Hence so removed from working people as to be irrelavent. Whereas, members (most of them) of the House of Lords have had proper jobs and existed outside the political glass house. 

    It is a small majority not an effective opposition that gives good government. And the safety net of a second Chamber where the members are not in a daily popularity contest for re-election. So we have the unrepresentative representing the people, whereas the representatives of the people represent their parties unless they rebel.

    Its abolutly fabulous.. no it's serious. 

  • Two quite thoughtful pieces... within the constraints you limit youselves to.  I think that you both may be surprised by the courage that the Labour leadership is in fact showing by listening to the current demands of its members and not to its previously selected representative delegates, who were employed to be elected under a different leadership and philosophical regime.  Their employment contract does not give them the right to go against the wishes and directives of the membership that they represent.  It would behove politicians of other ilkes to also watch and learn what is the difference between the concept of 'democracy' in which the people retain their power and 'representative democracy' in which it is serially abdicated to others to do with as they in their 'collegiate caucus' wish and to visit the consequences upon those who selected them with impunity.

    This is an example of institutional change of the breadth and depth which is consistent with what some of your words would at least suggest that you believe our country, and perhaps the world, is in need of.  Although I doubt from what else you say that you would welcome such a small change in how our political system is viewed... if it were to become entrenched institutionally within our common psyche. 

    It is however only one very minor facet, by comparison, with the institutional changes that the Labour membership would actually appear to be calling for.  What is clear is that those changes, so urgently needed, would appear to be crystallising into a clear message which will be eminently capable of presentation in a visionary and compelling policy programme.  If not by the next general election then certainly the next.  This perhaps is the Painesian impatience calling the bluff of Burkian inertia while taking the time to make haste slowly.  Perhaps it will be seen to have been all the better to re-invent the clear choices which our current party political system demands, and which you appear to call for.

    The economic heterodox are today's largely unwitting guardians of what is now being identified as a rational and realistic philosophy of political economy.  It is not easily seen in today's confused global landscape in which a mainstream failed political economy stands totally disrespected by the general populace while the evolution from it remains hidden by the artificial imposed divisions and diversions that have historically been institutionally visited upon the work of those dissenting thinkers and technicians of the alternative body of knowledge which is able to replace it.   It would seem, to me at least, that Corbyn is playing the 'long game', the game of principle and integrity,  turning his back upon the traditional pragmatism and short-term accommodations to powerful sources of party funding party and the pandering to media-led opinion making amongst a quiescent and hope-less majority that has led to New Labour and Friendly Toryism to be both sitting in the centre-ground of ineffectiveness that is the preferred location for corporate funders of both, and includes the private media corporations. 

    I have listened to the talk and read the articles of PLP luminaries, Fabian thinkers and Labour councillors, MP's and MEPs.  It hard to determine, from the words and terms which they use when talking of their membership and the electorate in general, what their political persuasion is.  Or even if they have one that is any more profound than that which will keep them in a paying job after the next election.  Perhaps also bringing in enough new faces, with the same short-term objectives, so that they might also get to wield some real power for themselves. This focus on their status as 'professional politicians' is supported by their continual reference to their electorate and members as objects of persuasion and manipulation, the 'them' and 'they' of every proposed policy choice to be made by the 'we' of the parliamentary caucus.... in 'their' best interests.   In my innocence I had thought that overt and crass elitism expressed so openly, and perhaps unconsciously so ingrained as it would appear to be, was purely a characteristic of politicians and their supporters of another ilke entirely.  It would seem so out of place to then hear in such narratives the word 'Comrade'.  And indeed I was spared that incongruity at least for they appear to never use the word.
    But I did, as a consequence, come to understand with great conviction in the truth of the view I now have of the depth of the institutional changes, behavioural and organisational, which I think we might expect to see appearing as the substance of a real and visionary alternative political and social future for the UK electorate to consider and to be enthralled by.    Corbyn may not have the leadership charisma needed by today's political election managers to ensure their own success, but marketable superficialities is not what is required at this juncture in anybody who is likely to have the capabilities of leading the transformation of our political debate into one of real long-term relevance to average citizens and re-establishing widespread public confidence and hope through a transformed landscape of our parliamentary institutions.  Perhaps a principled thinker and technician, rather than a photogenic actor bestowed with gravitas... and inertia, will turn out to be the 'man of the hour' which our system needs at this juncture.  For many, it is quite clear, he could be seen as being a frustrating and enduring figure, showing the characteristics of both Paine and Burke.   How well he does will perhaps be best measured by the degree to which he causes the main opposing party, and its fellow travellers amongst the PLP, to overcome their characteristic attachment to the unsubstantiated belief that economic growth is a valid measure of equitable and enduring increases in the well-being of a state's entire population and therefore of its economic success.  That is the institutional marker by which any real change in our political 'system' will be identified.

  • From all of the post-Brexit commentary and analysis I have read (as one of the RSA's few New Zealand fellows) the central question appears to be how to restore voice to the large numbers of people who have been voiceless for too long. But voice for what? Surely it's voice about what happens in 'my place'? How can I influence choices that affect my employment opportunities, my housing, my access to health and social care, the opportunities my children have, the way the local environment impacts on my health, my access to opportunities...? Changing Parliamentary democracy and the functioning of the major parties has merit in its own right but hardly goes to the question of how to restore this voice.

    There is another and potentially fruitful line of enquiry; the further development of 'strategic commissioning' as the approach councils apply to  determining what services should be provided by whom and how. The basic premise appears to be councils should commission services to meet the needs of the communities for whom they are intended which means getting to understand those needs. Currently it looks as though this is largely through conventional forms of consultation but it leads logically to dialogue which amongst other things is a way of sharing knowledge on both sides - communities learning some of the complexities of the economic and social challenges public bodies deal with, councils learning more about the skills and resources and potential commitment available within their communities. Doing this also highlights the reality dialogue needs to be not just between councils  and individuals within their communities, but within communities sharing understandings and developing  a sense of priorities.

    Take this just a step further and it's not too difficult to see the core role of future councils lying not in their ability to design and deliver services, but in their ability to support a process of giving voice to their communities about what their needs and preferences are, and how those are best met, regardless whether the responsibility lies with local government, central government or the private sector. Doing so requires a focus on capacity and capability building and an acceptance not just that communities have as much of a right as public bodies to share in decision-making regarding their futures, but that doing so is probably the best insurance against the risks from continuing exclusion.

  • I doubt very much whether the politics of Thomas Paine (or, indeed, Edmund Burke) can be understood in a meaningful way in the context of 20th or 21st century mass political parties. The significance of both reside in the conditions of their own times.

    Paine was not a 'party politician' in any sense. His democratic activism was citizen based. It was seeded and thrived in the unique conditions prevailing in the east coast American colonies during the last quarter of the 18th century. Paine imbued his democratic activism with an especial impact by bonding it with an imperative for liberty and independence against unpopular colonial rule.

    The American society with which Paine's democracy engaged was a fabric of small states hosting relatively small populations, fluid in make up and not rigidly stratified (notwithstanding slavery). The drafting of their constitutions and modus operandi of their elected assemblies manifested a high degree of intimacy and accountability between citizens and representatives (delegates).

    Paine's career as a deputy in the French Assembly was motivated by the desire to implant in France the best practices of American democracy. Paine did not 'famously misjudge the French revolution'. His two volume 'Rights of Man' remain one of the best accounts of the early stages of the French revolution ever written. It was a rationalist faith in democracy as the best form of government for the public good that perhaps caused him to underestimate the success with which the Jacobins could seize power to install a one party state by terror. Paine made a very important observation, the truth of which has held to the present day; namely, that those brutalized, starved and excluded by a regime will always exact a brutal and unforgiving politics of revenge. Paine was commenting on the sans culotte support base of the Jacobin tyranny.

    The Jacobin coup aborted a decentralized democratic constitution worked upon by Condorcet and Paine which was due to be put to the French Assembly for a vote. This would have brought about a very different course of French history from the Revolution.

    In England, sales of the Rights of Man convinced Paine that the United Kingdom may be a fertile ground for a radical citizen's democratic movement but he was forced to leave the country to avoid trial and execution. Paine's friends and followers initiated one of the very few revolutionary challenges to the British state by advocating the formation of a French style National Convention made up of delegates elected and instructed by the citizen body empowering themselves through male (universal) suffrage, This Convention, investing itself with the authority of popular sovereignty, would set itself up as a rival to the Westminster Parliament and initiate a raft of radical constitutional changes.

    The British state responded with repressive measures, seizing those believed to be the order to place them on trial for treason. The year was 1794. Sir Thomas Erskine was legal adviser to the government. He advised that treason charges could only succeed if the leaders of this movement were proved to be regicides and there was no evidence to show this. He also advised that executing the suspects would almost result in the popular revolution the government sought to avoid. The treason charges were dropped but a raft of sedition and anti-combination laws introduced.

    My point in recounting this history is that I doubt that Painite democracy would have much truck with the internal scleroticism or shennanigans of the 21st century Westminster political party duopoly.

    It may be, of course, that when you say 'politics needs a Painite alternative' you mean something equivalent to the movement to set up a rival National Convdention to Parliament which resulted in the 1794 Treason Trial?

    Edmund Burke may have been many things but was not a democrat. He stood in the 1774 Bristol election as the pocket borough candidate of Lord Rockingham, hardly condescended to join the hustings to meet his electorate at all, came third in the vote and infuriated his merchant constituency by advancing the Irish mercantile cause over that of Bristol.

    Burke's famous 1774 Bristol electoral address- about representative as 'independent'- probably lies at the root of current discontent over the divorce from the real world and lack of accountability of MPs.

    One key improvement that can be made now by taking up an 18th century idea would be to put into practice Dr Richard Price's proposal for the electorate to sack a government at a time of its chosing if the said government was engaging in a ruinous policy. I am sure that cyber crowd petitioning technology can be adopted to realize this and the benefits could be that policies like the 1990 poll tax and 2003 invasion of Iraq can be stopped in their tracks by such a power.

  • Good piece. Parliament needs an effective opposition to function well, particularly at a time when governments of both colours seem to appoint a third of their MPs to some sort of government office, with another third of their MPs aspiring to be apointed. Real scrutiny of government by Parliament is critically important, not only on the floor of the House but more particularly in committee work that allows figures such as the BBC Chairman, Sir Philip Green or the Cabinet Secretary to be required to give evidence. And a healthy Parliament is one in which the government can be defeated. 

    Until recently, our 2.1/2 party system has worked quite well. But as you describe, no longer. And a government of whatever hue without an effective opposition in Parliament must be of concern to all democrats.

    Bridging Labour's deep schism, and keeping the two halves of the Conservative party glued together, are not sustainable solutions. As one who likes to drink at both Paine and Burke's Pierian Spring, I also like to imbibe de Tocqueville. And it's the latter that asks how we best function altruistically whilst retaining personal freedom, to create an active political society and a vibrant civil society. And who warns against the dangers of an overweening but well-meaning central State, of a despotic democratic government like an overprotective parent, with care preserving its people in perpetual childhood, shielded from the hazards of responsibility.

    The political spectrum is not just a left-right choice on the x-axis, but a position on a y-axis that runs from authoritarian to liberal, or centralist to localist, or regressive to progressive, or some similar descriptors, and it is, I think, the y-axis that now defines ideological loyalties better than a x-axis that has seen both parties fighting for the same neutral centre, over which there is genuinely less difference in the national opinion than at any time I can recall.

    How we reconcile such latent changes with the immediate and imperative national need for an effective opposition in Parliament I really don't know. But it's a good beginning if we admit that Party interests (of whatever hue) and national interests are not synonymous.

    • Hi Michael,

      Couldn't agree more - especially re Tocqueville! Assuming that the electoral system is not reformed, then we need many points of access and parties that see it as there duty to engage civil society. Instead, we have parties that generalise about 'the people' without really making any effort to engage them other than through the technology of elections. This in itself sustains the populist-Establishment dynamic that is becoming so prevalent. Labour's version of 'the people' is currently about a quarter of the voting public!


      • Is it just because they're on TV these days or do the select committees work well/ better than before? They seem like a good example of cross-party politics in action - providing scrutiny and working towards agreed outcomes.

        I know the chamber is based mainly on propose-oppose and party loyalties, but I think the impact of 'labour meltdown' and other such party-related things are less apparent in the committees.