Friday, May 23, 2008

Why do We Have Political Parties?

365-006I have a question.

Why do we have political parties?

It's something that struck me about the mayoral elections here in London, especially. The coverage wasn't Tory vs. Labour, but Boris vs. Ken and this got me wondering if people were voting for individuals of for the parties they represent. Then, if people are voting for individuals, then what is the point in having political parties at all?

It seems like over the last decade, the political parties have shifted positions an awful lot, dodging each other as they all slalom left and right to the point where you can't recognise left and right in any meaningful way when the Labour party has proved to be terrifyingly authoritarian in reality, despite initial promises of liberalisation.

Now, I know they're all vying to keep their jobs as a part of the generally sleek and efficient system of government that we have in the country - an elected oligarchy operating under a system of constitutional monarchy without a constitution, with accountability to a European Union of nations and responsibility among a Commonwealth of former colonies over whom our current rule is generally purely religious, although the gays look set to ruin that as the politics of the church migrate - but what I'm not certain about is why, in an era where communication is a "publish post" away from reaching millions (not from this blog, sadly), why we're still seeing a herd mentality in politics. Isn't it just a bit weird and cultish?

Now, I can understand if one of the reasons for having a political party was to help finance people who couldn't otherwise rise in politics to achieve positions of authority, but doesn't that mean that politicians are bound to be influenced by the people who've paid for their ascension. It's one of the things that worries me about the ongoing Barack vs. Hillary thing is the amount of money being flung behind both of them in order to finance their struggle for power. Surely those sponsors will expect some kind of payback in the future?

I'm sure there's a really good reason for it, but I'm not sure I can see it. Sure, it streamlines democracy if you control people in power by forcing them into at least nominal alliances, but that also allows you to bulldoze through stupid laws that the next voting bloc will undo.

Can someone have a go at explaining to me what the benefits of the system are? We don't have proportional representation and we don't really have a system that gives independent candidates a fighting chance, which just seems quite undemocratic. Not that we ever have had a democracy in this country, for all our bluster.

Actually. What I'd like to see in order to make this country wonderful:

1: Abolition of political parties as being essentially undemocratic constructs.
2: Enforce mandatory voting, so that no-one can claim a mandate on a 30% turnout.
3: Allow a "none of the above" option for protest voters to make their voices clearly heard.

Of course, the challenge would then be what to do if "none of the above" won the vote, but in a system where you had to vote and you had to know who you were voting for and what they believed in and one where it's not a wasted vote to vote for less mainstream politicians, you'd hope that we'd see fewer people either apathetic about politics or unable to identify with any of the candidates.

What do you think?


Chris said...

The Party System is there to keep the Spin Doctors in work. I can't see any other possible reason these days - the Whips can't keep their back-benchers in line, people move from one Party to the other because they hate the Party's moral vacuum...

Howard for President?

Wayne Smith said...

Although we all love to hate political parties, a glance around the world will reveal that places that don't have a vital political party system also don't have anything that resembles democracy.

This is highly suggestive that a deeper analysis is required.

Pay special attention to the role that the voting system plays in allowing voters to hold politicians and political parties accountable. What would constitute a fair voting system?

The Pirate King said...

That's it - I'm just not sure. Certainly, proportional representation would have been a move towards giving marginal opinions a voice in parliament, but countries with PR seem to miss out on the way we can communicate directly with a local MP who is, to some degree, answerable to their electorate.

I'm sure that it's one of those questions that will end up with us realising that it's the tidiest and most efficient system, despite its flaws. Least bad option, maybe?

Andrew Brown said...

I'm not an expert on PR systems, but I think you can have (largly) constituency based system which is more proportional. In essense that's what we have with the London Assembly, which has been quite efficient at giving marginal political voices representation. Although that's through the top list, of course.

I think that Wayne's hit the nail on the head as to why we need political parties. The problem, I'd suggest - and I would wouldn't I as a member of one - is that there are too few people involved in them as members.

I found out recently that the mainstream political parties in this country have been loosing a member on average every 12 minutes since 1980 (something that's mirrored across Western Europe). That leaves hollowed out political parties that find it difficult to be representative of the communities they seek to serve and makes them even more in thrall to the money men.

The fault for this lies seems to be systemic - otherwise there wouldn't be the same trend across Europe - and the results don't seem particularly attractive.

Svenyboy said...

The dire need for an overhaul notwithstanding, I the question conflates two issues: the rationale behind the party system, and the natures of our political parties today.

My understanding of the party system is that they should act like 'ideas unions', where you join the one that most closely resembles your values and then fight to shape the country according to those principles. A kind of 'united individualism' results where you vote together for your main goals and vote apart on the more detailed areas.
Political parties today are a reflection of their membership. If 70% of us don't know won't stand up and be counted, why should expect our government to know what to stand for? They're only people after all. We shouldn't expect parties to tell us what to think: we should be informing our parties through engagement.

People don't vote for individuals: they just don't vote. If we get the leaders we deserve and the majority of the country can't even be bothered to choose them, can we really blame political parties?

fudgefactorfive said...

If compulsory voting was introduced, I'd quite happily go to prison.

Sir Wobin said...

There's a tension in democracy between accurately representing a diverse society and the practicality of making a working government that can respond effectively to the country's needs. Several democracy's have been undone and their countries come to a degrading standstill because the voting system is too fair (France before 1969 comes to mind).

You can see this still today in Belgian, Dutch and Italian politics. Political sentiment is so diverse that one gets weak and shifting coalitions where small minority parties (sometimes holding only 5 seats) can hold the entire country to ransom over their pet hate. France pre-1969 became an ungovernable mess that couldn't deal effectively with the crisis that was WWII or the crisis in Algeria in the late 1960s.

Many have said that De Gaul fixed French democracy by chucking out proportional representation and setting up very different systems like winner takes all rules in local elections. The very strong role of an executive president also moderates some of the instabilities of party politics.

Smaller political causes do get a voice in protest marches and media coverage of rallies. On a completely practical level, I think that this is just fine since some canny politician in a larger party may well pander to these smaller causes when they perceive that it will augment their majority.

Parties also do a significant amount of bullshit filtering. You have to convince your local party that you're not a complete nutter before you get the party's nomination. That means many people have taken the time to get to know you well enough and trust that you'll stay within the parameters of acceptable behaviour. Independents don't go through those sort of trials.

Bottom line is that you can't please all the people all the time. Pick your poison. I think that the UK's first past the post system that promotes 2 strong political parties is good enough and practical.

Qenny said...

I'd also throw in some questions on the ballot paper about the candidates and what they stood for. If you get the questions wrong, your vote doesn't count. That way, we might end up with votes only coming from people who actually think, rather than just doing what Rupert Murdoch tells them to.