party games

Posted: 19 May 2015 in politics

There’s an inbuilt problem with democracy; sometimes, the people you don’t want to win an election… win. And while I side with the comment most often attributed to Churchill that: 

“Democracy is the worst system of choosing a government… apart from all the other than have been tried.”

I’ve also some sympathy with the Sage of Baltimore, H L Mencken, when he said: 

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what’s good for them and deserve to get it… good and hard.”

Almost two weeks since the general election, something’s struck me. With the notable exception of two constituencies*, no-one’s alleged unfairness in how the election was run, nor that any reputable party engaged in thuggery, violence or intimidation.

“Well, of course not!” I hear you say. To which I’d reply that it’s a measure of our society that we count on that to be the case, don’t we? Looking around the world though, there are so many elections where that’s not the case, where intimidation and coercion are so common, it’s expected. That’s not to say that there are more dodgy elections that non-dodgy, but I think it’s something about which we should feel proud. Alistair Cooke often told the story about how the golfer Bobby Jones once informed an umpire that he’d done something requiring a two stroke penalty, something that no-one else witnessed; thereafter when he lost the championship by one stroke, people praised his honesty and his sportsmanship. A disdainful Jones is reputed to have replied that one might as well have praised him for not robbing a bank.

Well, indeed. One might as well praise the British for not robbing a bank. But you know what? In a world where it’s not bank funds but elections that are stolen, allow me to feel at least a little satisfaction that our elections were free and fair.

(*Those two I mentioned earlier? Well, George Galloway is alleging misconduct by the [successful] Labour candidate. I’m sure it’s got nothing at all to do with the returning officer reporting him to the police for breaching election rules. Nothing at all. Oh, and UKIP supporters are still giving Al Murray grief about his campaign, straining reason, common sense and credulity in maintaining that Al’s campaign was ‘financed by the BBC’. I’d say I was astonished, but when you consider the average UKIP supporter (and most of them are very average) reason, common sense and credibility are not foremost among their attributes.)

But the necessity for free and fair elections isn’t of course limited to 650 individual contests to elect our members of parliament. They range from trades union elections, to political party elections, the leadership of both of which can fairly claim to have a greater mandate than most politicians, whether they’re councillors or members of parliament if only due to their electorate often being many times that of a constituency.

It ill behoves those elected on a small turnout, though, to criticise those elected on a greater turnout, not without very good other reasons to do so. The current head of the Unite union may have gotten 85% of the votes cast, a thumping win under any circumstances, but he was elected on a turnout of a shade over 15%. Not exactly a huge mandate, one might argue. “But the others are obviously quite happy to let other people decide,” comes the counter argument. True, as far as it goes, but then you don’t get to use the “xxx only had a low turnout so no real legitimacy/mandate” as I’ve seen union supporting folks use as a justification for attacking the police and crime commissioners, some of whom were elected on turnouts barely in double digits.

An inescapable paradox of a transparently open election process – and I’m thinking mainly of political party leadership contests here – is that the more transparency you get regarding the politics and personal beliefs of the candidates, the more bitter will be the fight to become leader, and the harder it will be to unify the party afterwards. For what should be obvious reasons by now, I’m most concerned about the forthcoming Labour Party leadership election. If the past few days are any indication of the next three and a half months, and there’s no certainty that they will, we’re in for a very nasty contest, something that makes the nastier elements of the general election weve just been through look like a polite tea party.

I wince when I think of what the right wing press will try in order to discredit worthy candidates, and I similarly do so for what some ‘supporters’ of the various candidates will do to try to ensure their bod wins.

I haven’t made my mind up who I’ll vote for yet; how could I? I haven’t seen enough of their pitches. Which is why I’m more than a tad worried about what’s already being said by some, that only this candidate or that candidate can make the party electable in 2020. Let’s see what they have to offer; let’s see what they have to say. Let’s see what they think about the last five years, and the thirteen before that. And most importantly, let’s see what they think about the next five, and the five after that.

And only when I’m sure will I make up my mind. Surely, that’s the democratic way?

  1. Enlightbystand says:

    On the challenge point, don’t count it out yet – the deadline for an election petition is 21 days after the election, and I’m aware of at least one former MP considering putting one in. I doubt in the end he will, and I’m almost certain he won’t win, but still…

  2. Unfortunately you are confused. You are confusing democracy with elections. Perhaps more precisely the quantitative with the qualitative.

    Elections measure the choice (some) electors make at a point in time to elect representative that best conveys their view at that time. Or is the least worst of all choices.

    Democracy is the process by which the will of the people is expressed.

    The two are not the same. Disputing an election maybe worse for democracy. A recent example is the Al Gore/George Bush ‘hanging chads’ election. Gore stopped the army of Democrat lawyers appealing because democracy was under threat. Even if he won the argument that the Florida electoral college was fiddled by the Republicans then he might find himself an illegitimate President or the state may have had to re-run the election leaving the US politically weakened. So he decided that democracy itself was served by stopping a legal challenge.

    I would argue that the Poll Tax of 1990, whether deliberate or not, was an attack on democracy. It reduced the number of poorer people on the register. Individual registration has also reduced numbers.

    However lets delve further into the world of elections and democracy.

    The Police and Crime Commissioner elections had turnouts of as little as 10% in some places.

    European MEPs are elected on turnouts on less than 30%. In general the turnout has fallen since the elections has gone PR with party list systems over FPTP whereas PR advocates claim more people vote if they think there vote is wasted.

    Trade Union ‘barons’ are elected whereas real barons in the House of Lords are appointed. Lord Alan Sugar, who became ‘Labour’ and was given a lordship now isn’t. How do we get rid of him from being in Parliament?

    Custom and practice seems to suggest if you have 50%+1 of people who vote you are legitimately elected. Putting a bigger test on someone else’s process than you accept for yourself is hypocrisy and may also endanger the system itself.

    My own view is that Tony Benn’s five questions for those in power still stand the test of time;

    “What power have you got?”

    “Where did you get it from?”

    “In whose interests do you use it?”

    “To whom are you accountable?”

    “How do we get rid of you?”

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