Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Do we need political parties?

Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling asks Do we need parties? and gives a list of reasons why parties damage politics. Given that I'm something of a fan of representative democracy, and believe that some sort of party system is a useful tool within a functioning parliamentary system, I thought I'd do a brief analysis.
parties do real damage:
1. They stifle debate. Not just explicitly, via three-line whips and the threat of deselection, but implicitly, as MPs believe toeing the line is the road to career advancement.
Absolutely, under the current electoral and whipping system. However, one of the advantages of STV as a system is to encourage debates within parties, indeed the Power Commission recommends a significant weakening of the whipping system; I believe that this combined with STV can significantly strengthen debate.
2. They’re hierarchic. This encourages us to look to leaders to help us, rather than solve problems ourselves.
They can do, and can be. However, looking to other party systems, is the US party system really heirarchic? Grassroots activism seems to be a key feature of US politics, and in the Green and Liberal Democrat parties within the UK, membership involvement in the policy process is strong, one of the features of the LibDem leadership contest I liked was the emphasis on policy and on how the leader should promote that policy.
3. Both main parties – perhaps because of their outmoded hierarchical nature – share a similar managerialist ideology. For me, though, the most important political question is: can political and economic institutions be re-organized on non-managerialist lines? Party politics forces this issue off the agenda.
Again, the "two main parties". The electoral system constrains them and encourages this managerial style.

The pursuit of the "median voter" that our system encourages, the need to capture the "centre ground" encourages managerialism over policy; "who will govern best" instead of "who has the best ideas". A more responsive electoral system would create a more diverse spread of ideas, both within the existing parties and from new ones now in with a chance of representation.

So, if we have a more responsive system, managerialism should (note, not would) reduce in favour of healthy debate. Because MPs would be more reliant upon a local support base and need extra support to keep being elected (safe seats do not exist in STV) they would be encouraged to make themselves distinctive and known, at least within their constituencies.
4. Important issues often cut across party lines. The divisions over Iraq or civil liberties, for example, don’t map neatly into party lines.
True. Europe, Iraq, etc, all issues that the big two are rather divided over. Of course, the LibDems are prety consistent on these issues, however as covered above, STV allows you to choose from candidates within the same party; a pro-war Labour MP could be voted out in favour of an anti-war MP, for example.
5. The Labour-Tory divide made sense when class alignment dominated politics – when unions vs management was a big issue, and when people felt instinctive class loyalties. Now we are (sadly?) no longer in this world, what do parties stand for?
Class loyalties and the two-way divide are gone. To me, this is a good thing for democracy, it encourages a more healthy debate. Now, of course, there's a realignment going on.

Chris ends with a suggestion that Direct Democracy could be a replacement for the party system. No thanks, direct democracy is dangerous:
Representative democracy is an essential tool for a tolerant society, direct democracy leads to great thinkers drinking hemlock at the whim of the populace.
Parties are a useful tool for grouping and predicting a candidate along broad lines. Two-party politics is deeply flawed, the old left / right class alignment is dying, we need an electoral system that allows for better choice and distinction.

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