Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A thought on representative democracy

I am leading a session on representation with my students on Friday and thought I would offer some thoughts, not on the content but on the general concept of representation within a democracy. Of course, we know how representative democracy works. Every five years or so (normally) we elect individuals to represent the geographic area in which we live and they disappear off to parliament to work on our behalf. Implicit in the UK system is that this is a very broad interpretation of working on our behalf, and often it is the good of the country that is the key driver for decision making, though party whips tend to control voting. There is very little sense of delegative democracy happening, where MPs will vote in the way a majority of their constituents direct, and no mechanism for actually gauging public opinion by constituency anyway. So there is a question regarding how representative democracy is at the very simple level. Who do MPs work for is a big question, they rely on the party for their position as MP, they can be deselected, and on their party leader for a career beyond the backbenches, but technically the voter is the employer as many state on their profiles on Facebook.

Perhaps in light of the expenses crisis the assumption is that most MPs actually work for themselves anyway; this would be unfair as many do a good job as servants of the constituency. They promote a range of local causes as well as defending individual and group rights and taking cases to councils and beyond. They also act as advisers and give weight to campaigns. It is said there are divergent levels of service, with those MPs who enjoy safe seats being more relaxed about their presence locally and those in marginal seats being very keen to be seen as the defender of all things local. But the key thing here is being seen. Many MPs in safe seats so the same job as those in marginals, they just don't need to shout as loudly about their work.

Often representativeness of parliament is linked to the age, gender and ethnicity balances, while some predicted parliament would be younger, more feminine and more representative. This was not the case, with only a 2% increase in female MPs. But does that matter? While there perhaps should be a 50/50 split, with the geographic link it would still mean one-sided representation at the constituency level. The big question is about feeling represented. There are a range of value-laden 'should' demands of MPs in terms of how they should act as representatives (beyond expenses and all that relates to that type of behaviour), but many of these are quite unrealistic for any individual MP representing up to 100,000 people while also having a full time job in parliament. This puts the onus on the represented to go out of their way to be 'represented' and so show they have power; but in turn that is impossible if everyone actually did simultaneously demand the time of the their MP. MPs are not the only route to representation, but the fact that they are the formal democratic link places a burden upon them.

So students (or anybody) both for discussion here and in class, how can representative democracy work more effectively? What mechanisms can strengthen the links and ties between MP and those they represent? What realistic models are there for representation? And, a really big question, does the day to day campaigning nature of politics get in the way?

Friday, October 08, 2010

One negative perspective of political campaigning

While walking down the street in Edinburgh one day a Member of the Scottish Parliament is tragically hit by a bus and dies.
His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance. "Welcome to heaven," says St. Peter. "Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around here, you see, so we're not sure what to do with you.
"No problem, just let me in," says the MSP.
"Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity."
"Really, I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven," says the MSP.
"I'm sorry, but we have our rules."
And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the lift and he goes down, down, down to hell. The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.
Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and blether about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the Scottish people.
They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne. Also present is the devil, who really is very friendly who has a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good time that before he realizes it, it is time to go.
Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the lift rises. The lift goes up, up, up and the door reopens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him.
"Now it's time to visit heaven."
So, 24 hours pass with the MSP joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.
"Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity." The MSP reflects for a minute, then he answers: "Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell."So St. Peter escorts him to the lift and he goes down, down, down to hell. Now the doors of the lift open and he's in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and rubbish.
He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the rubbish and putting it in black bags as more rubbish falls from above.
The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder "I don't understand," stammers the MSP. "Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland full of rubbish and my friends look miserable. What happened?The devil looks at him, smiles and says, "Yesterday we were campaigning. ....Today you voted."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Conference season is over: but who cares about Conferences?

I have been advertising my blog to my new students as a 'learning resource', yet nothing has appeared here for a while. Ooops, books, journal articles and life got in the way, so has Twitter! Too easy to share a link. However, given that we now start a new period of politics in the UK, parliament reconvenes, a spending review is imminent, and a coalition government now has to show substance as well as unity, I thought I would add a few thoughts on what to expect based on the events of the conferences.
Party Conferences are strange events. They were once spaces for deliberation. Where the party met and set a direction. Well sort of anyway. Perhaps that is more the ideal than the reality, but the often bitter arguments that took place in history show them to be more about the party meeting than presenting itself to the nation. As James Stanyer records in his book covering the evolution of conferences, they are now far more a media event than a place for policy making. And the media play a key role in translating events to the wider public, but they also need to make a story about each conference.
The Liberal Democrats perhaps had the toughest job. Conference is supposed to be a place for policy debate, easy when you are the third party but not so when you are junior partners in a coalition; and they are junior albeit punching above their weight. Leader Nick Clegg had to sell the coalition, the tough decisions, and also position these within Liberal Democratic values. Tough tasks which in the end the media suggested he did well but the talk of splits was constant and all those questions about whether Vince Cable was on message or really a socialist did not help the cause. Their problem was the multiple audiences, not only the party but the media, their Conservative partners and the voters they hope will stay loyal and those they need to persuade to support them in the future. Tougher given that most of these audiences will be served more by the media than by live coverage of events.
Labour in a way stole the show. The dramatic finish to the leadership contest saw brother beat brother and the media handed a fantastic soap opera story line. The Milibands became a modern day Cain and Abel, a real life Grant and Phil Mitchell. Ed, the victor, became 'Red Ed', and Neil Kinnock got 'his' party back. For an opposition party the first conference after an election is less important. It is more about rallying the troops and showing an element of acceptance, humility and setting out a course for reform. But the story was one of factionalism and David Miliband's exit was interpreted a number of ways: petulance, disappointment, disillusion, rejection of the result. Ed Miliband has a long journey but perhaps as a new leader his start was unhelpful and could be compared to the treatment of William Hague as incoming Conservative leader in 1997. Rejection of the party by the voters allows for negative coverage, criticisms of the choice of leader override positives, their history is more important than their future. The continuing story will be whether Ed buries Blairism (whatever that was) and New Labour, and how he can unite the party as a positive opposition monitoring government.
The Conservatives was, in contrast, the damp squib that never really lit up coverage. When the big story is that Conservatives are split over reforms to a universal benefit you know that there is little to say. Cameron's performance equally was seen as solid but unexciting. Abandoning his script-free style, this was a careful speech that seemed to spend equal time attacking his predecessors and thanking his supporters: not much policy really just a little more flesh on the 'we are in it together', 'Britain needs you', Big Society narrative of society he has been developing. The interesting aspect was his expressed commitment to the coalition and partnership with Clegg.
So they return to parliament, for Labour it is rebuilding a brand around Ed Miliband to engage those who are dissatisfied with the coalition. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats need to retain their own identities and present an unified image as a coalition, simultaneously. The media will be looking for disunity in the coalition and the partner parties, as well as signs of socialism from Red Ed. Should be an interesting time to study political communication!