A BETTER PARLIAMENT – A BETTER SYSTEM

Last week the Chancellor of the Exchequer published a budget in which a poor population was told it would have to pay more taxes for less public services. The adjustment was inevitable. A previous short-lived government had tried a different policy, on the make-believe that there was prosperity to build on in the economy, and crashed. The opposition could offer no alternative.

The Chancellor blamed outside factors: Covid, the war in Ukraine. But Britain’s decline is prior. The turning point was Brexit. A population turned its back on collaboration and embraced conflict. Economic barriers were erected to the country’s most important trade and labour markets. Since then, Britain has been in social and economic decline, sapped of energy and productivity, now coming to terms with a falling standard of living.

The decline is systemic. Making good decisions and workable policies is difficult. The British system is so arranged that too many mistakes slip through. The government has it too easy and gets away with inadequate planning. Policies in the making do not get adequate scrutiny. The country does not get the governance it needs.

The rot sits in Parliament, and in Parliament in the House of Commons. A government with a majority can do as it wants.  

The Brexit referendum decision was made with no other role for Parliament than to say “amen.” In the most consequential policy decision for the country in decades, the House of Commons did no work – nil – to inform itself on possible consequences and led the population in a leap in the dark. I suppose a people may be entitled to shoot itself in the foot, but hardly without ascertaining if blood will flow. The aftermath has been bad news all around: economy, border control, immigration, health care, social care, poverty. There are more food banks than McDonald’s outlets across the country, and that was even before the inflation crisis.

Earlier this year, in another example, the government introduced a policy of removing asylum seekers from the country and outsourcing them to Rwanda for processing. A totally new policy was introduced with zero participation by Parliament. As it happens, a very bad policy: expensive, unworkable and unethical. The system is without mechanisms to protect against mistakes.

As luck will have it, there is a simple solution: give the House of Commons a proper role in pre-decision scrutiny of policy. As the system now works, our elected representatives are passive servants of the government. Let instead government and legislature be partners. Let government policy in serious matters be tested by proper parliamentary scrutiny before being unleashed on the population. No government could then come to Parliament with poorly planned policies – the Rwanda example. No policy could pass through Parliament without careful analysis of workability and consequence – the Brexit example.

The technical way to do this is to give the House of Commons control of its own agenda. Let parliamentary business be managed by a Committee of Speakers. Abolish the post of Leader of the House (the government’s commissar in the legislature). Impose formalised routines of pre-decision scrutiny with most of the work done in Select Committees. It’s not revolutionary, just a matter of making Britain’s archaic Parliament a modern legislature.

For moee detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

ROBUST ELECTIONS – SHODDY NOMINATIONS

In the American mid-terms, candidates who “should” have been rejected were elected and others who “should” have been elected were rejected. Incumbents cannot take voters for granted. That’s democracy: do the people’s work or get thrown out. In Brazil, Bolsonaro was thrown out.

Striking in the mid-terms was that extremist candidates were rejected. The voters corrected mistakes that had been made in the previous nominations. That makes sense. Voters turn out in large numbers to make up a broad cross-section of the population. Common sense prevails.

Not so in nominations. America relies mainly on primaries. Turn-out is typically low, whereby the decision is in the hands of relatively small numbers of self-selected voters. In such circumstances, fanatics are more likely than others to participate and hold the swing vote. That gives extremist candidates an advantage, and also forces other candidates to take extremist positions in order to secure nomination. A main reason, for example, that the National Rifle Association has disproportionate influence in American politics is that it can mobilize its militants to participate in primaries in sufficient numbers to get candidates to commit to pro-gun policies. That’s how it comes about that gun regulations are in demand in the population but do not get implemented in law. It is also in this way the Donald Trump has been able to exercise his malign influence in the Republican Party, a spell that broke in the these elections.

Also remarkable in the mid-terms was that the elections were carried out correctly and peacefully, and that outcomes have been respected. Elections have enormous authority because they are grounded in a rock-solid theory. We know what “free and fair” elections are and how they are conducted. It is therefore not possible in an established democracy to disrespect the outcome of correct elections. Donald Trump tried but failed. It was the robustness of the election system that saved America from his attempted coup d’état. Bolsonaro flirted with non-acceptance of an election loss but was unable to carry through.

We have no similar theory for nominations, no recipe for “free and fair nominations.” As a result, nomination processes are all over the place. It is for want of solid theory that we can make ourselves believe that nominations by primary elections, with their inevitable bias, are a “democratic” way of doing it. We are in need of guidance for how to do it better. The absence of such guidance from a theory of nominations is a big shortcoming in the political science of democracy.

Candidates who stand for election are tested. We have seen that on dramatic display in America. Candidates who seek nomination are not similarly tested. That also we have seen on dramatic display in America, where in many places it gave candidates an advantage at the stage of nomination to be truth deniers and conspiracy peddlers. 

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live

VOTING MATTERS!

American elections. High drama. After Tuesday, America will move in one or other direction. Americans increasingly see themselves as belonging to tribes which are each others’ enemies. If that is their world, they better use their vote. The outcome will be decided by who does not vote.

Look elsewhere to see the importance of the mundane business of voting. Last week in Brazil, the sitting president was ousted by a vote of 50.9% for his opponent. It is not a cliché to say of that election that every vote counted. In Britain in 2016, by 52% of the vote in a referendum, it was decided to leave the European Union. Older voters voted to leave, younger ones to stay. But the young did not turn out in sufficient numbers to save the day. Had as many of the young as the old voted, Brexit would not have happened and young Britons would have held on to their future in an open Europe.

Voting is not in high regard. Many do not bother to participate. Young people in particular tell each other that it does not matter, it’s all the same. Political scientists recommend models of democracy in which voting is secondary, such as “participatory democracy” or “deliberative democracy.” Theorists of “rationality” rubbish the vote because it does not bring the voter any “utility.”

But voting is THE core instrument of democracy. It gives citizens not only voice but also power. It is by the vote that citizens can threaten their representatives to deselect them (as just happened in Brazil) and thereby hold their use of power under control.

In How Democracies Live, I issue a warning against the reinvention-of-democracy literature. “Since democracy as we know it has run into trouble, let’s just consign it to the scrap heap of history and start all over with something new and better.” That is to underestimate what we have achieved, such as in the forceful instrument of the vote, and also to “give succor to the autocrats in Beijing and Moscow who boast superiority for autocracy precisely because they are able to claim that western democracy has proved impotent.” My recommendation is that we resolve to salvage democracy, not to reinvent it.

FIT AND PROPER LEADERS

Brazil may now be heading for a more or less orderly transition of power in Brasilia, but hardly a peaceful transition in the country. The defeated candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, has indicated collaboration in the handover but not acknowledged that he lost the vote. Having long undermined confidence in the election system, and with violent protests unfolding in parts of the country, he in his first post-election statement spoke of “injustice in the electoral process.”

Democracy rests on basic norms being adhered to, certainly by leaders. One such norm is “election results are respected.” After an election, leaders are expected to explicitly accept the outcome. Such rituals are part of the fortification of democracy itself. It they are ignored, it is shocking and destructive. Norms cannot be imposed, they are adhered to by convention. That is why it is so utterly disruptive if they are thrashed. We cannot legislate for the acceptance of norms. Democracy needs leaders who are attuned to upholding basic norms. Citizens, too, of course, but where leaders lead citizens follow.

Leaders who are ready to impose damage on democracy itself are not fit to hold high office. Bolsonaro has shown himself unfit. Another obvious case is Donal Trump, whose refusal to accept the election loss is tearing apart the fabric of American democracy. In Britain, Boris Johnson, a serial norm-breaker, proved himself so unfit for office that his own Members of Parliament finally forced him to resign.

Candidates for high office are tested in competitive elections. But that is not enough. Too often, unfit candidates are able to stand and it is then difficult for voters to spot who they are. My conclusion is that candidates should be more carefully tested earlier in the process, at the point of being nominated or of presenting themselves as candidates.

One way in which that could be done is by a simple fit-and-proper-person test. Such tests are commonly used in business and organisational life. Central banks vet candidates for directorships in financial services for fitness and propriety. No one can serve as a juror who is deemed unfit for jury service. Candidates for political office should be tested no less carefully. To ask of candidates that they have a minimal suitability to act as their fellows’ representatives is not to negate the principle of universal eligibility.

My recommendation is that candidates for local and national elected office should be obliged to file with the relevant electoral authority a self-declaration that he or she (1) does not have a history of (serious) criminal convictions, (2) does not have a history of (serious) insolvency or bankruptcy, (3) does not have a history of having withheld (serious) income or property from taxation, and (4) authorises the electoral authority to check the veracity of the self-declaration and commits to providing the authority with relevant documentation. If unwilling to file, they would be disqualified from standing. If it later emerges that they had filed falsely, they should be dismissed from office.

There would be multiple benefits:

  • Dodgy candidates would be discouraged from standing.
  • Unfit candidates would be identified early and prevented from standing.
  • Unfit candidates who make it through to office could be dismissed.
  • Citizens would be able to better trust their political leaders.

Under such a regime it is, for example, unlikely that Donald Trump could have become a presidential candidate and impossible for him to have refused insight into his tax records. America would have been saved much distress.

For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.

SHOULD PARTY MEMBERS ELECT PARTY LEADERS?

The democratic answer is NO.

British politics have taken us through a natural experiment. A Prime Minster (Boris Johnson) was forced out by his Parliamentary group because of political mismanagement. In a situation of extreme stress, politically and economically, the final decision on his replacement was put to a vote of party members. The members elected a political fantasist (Liz Truss) whose brief government plunged the country yet further into economic, political and moral crisis. She and party members had been warned that the policies she promised would have the consequences that followed, but the members nevertheless voted her into office. She had, however, not persuaded a majority the party’s MPs. Had the decision been left to them, the political fantasist would not have been chosen.

This all is in confirmation of basic principles of representative democracy. Citizens (or party members) elect representatives to be in charge of governing and decision-making. We “ordinary people” know, or should know, that we are ourselves not competent for complex decision-making. We therefore elect those among us who are competent to act as our representatives. That is done in competitive nominations and elections whereby (usually) those most persuasive prevail and (usually) cranks fall by the wayside. Those who succeed form assemblies of collective decision-making in which they must defend their positions in open debate and face having them challenged. We citizens (or party members) not only have no tested competence, we also do not have the benefit of the support system of assembly decision-making. It is in our interest that we leave difficult decisions to our representatives (as long as they are democratically elected representatives).

If this sounds idealistic, bear in mind that it is exactly as things have recently unfolded. Party members allowed themselves to be duped by a candidate who promised what they wanted to hear, such as tax cuts, however impossible. Party MPs, collectively, recognised “fairy-tale economics” and would have prevented the calamity that was unleashed.

The experiment then continued to further confirm the logic of representative democracy. Once it was clear that Truss’s policies were destructive, her Parliamentary group forced her out, as they had forced out her predecessor, in both cases rightly so. The possibility then arose for the disgraced Mr. Johnson to make a comeback, which he tried. Survey evidence suggest that had the replacement decision again gone to a vote of party members, it is likely that he would have been re-elected. That was prevented by the party MPs, who denied him the support he would have needed for political leadership. Representatives protected members from the misfortune they would have brought on themselves – and their country.

A note of caution: Competitive nominations and election do not ensure that we always get wise leaders, far from it as we know. Assembly decision-making does not always look pretty and does not necessarily produce sound decisions, again far from it. But the recent British stress test nevertheless shows that representative democracy is more than abstract theory, it actually works in real-life practical politics.

On the “unexpected smartness of representative democracy,” see How Democracies Live.