The importance of properly targeted and citizen-focused reform

Posted by David Farrell (May 3, 2011)

The on-going British referendum debate on whether to change their electoral system from ‘first past the post’ to the alternative vote (the system we use to elect our President) should provide some salutary lessons. Almost regardless of the outcome – which most now expect to be a safe majority against reform – the tone of the debate reveals a lot about the dangers of leaping into a reform agenda that has not been properly thought through, and also one that had little if any popular buy-in from citizens at large. The reason for the British referendum was nothing more than a sop by the Conservatives to tie the Liberal Democrats into coalition. There was no consultation with the wider public in advance: the proposal was foisted on the electorate without as much as a by your leave – the ultimate in top-down decision-making.

Two lessons that I draw from this are the following.

First, reform if it is to be introduced must be meaningful; it must actually be worth our while bothering to try and make it. The proposal in Britain to change one non-proportional electoral system (first past the post) with another (alternative vote) was never going to raise much passion. After all what’s the point of replacing one electoral system which is known to be unfair in its treatment of smaller parties with another known to be just as unfair to them?

Second, reform if it is going to succeed must have popular support. Ideally the public should be consulted in advance of the proposal, not least so that politicians can determine that making the effort, and spending the large amounts of time and money promoting it, will be worthwhile.

14 thoughts on “The importance of properly targeted and citizen-focused reform

  1. I can see the temptation to interpret what is happening in the UK at the moment in a way that might provide support for this ‘wethecitizens’ initiative – with its ultimate objective of a CA – but it runs the risk of underplaying or misjudging the ‘what, how and why’ of this effort at voting system change in the UK.

    Voters elect MPs to represent their interests, to legislate and to elect a government. In general it seems that a majority of UK voters quite like the ‘smack of firm government’ and that this is uppermost in their minds when casting their ballots. They do not, in general, seem to worry much about excessive executive dominance and the abuses it may allow. If they are unhappy with the governance being provided by one faction many are happy to switch allegiance to secure governance by another faction at the next time of asking. And it appears they would rather express their displeasure with a government directly via the ballot box, rather than construct parliamentary checks and balances or separate the executive and legislature to hold government in check. And, rightly or wrongly, many believe that FPTP allows them to do this.

    It also seems that many are prepared to accept a limited period of bad governance – or governance of which they do not approve – once they have the assurance that, should they become sufficiently disgruntled, they will be able to ‘kick the b****rs out’.

    Despite all the politcial posturing and the pursuit of naked political self-interest by various factions and sub-factions, the debate, insofar as it has ignited, revolves around a very English sense of fairness conflicting with a desire for stable and effective governance.

    And it has to be recognised that, perhaps, a majority of UK voters have no great interest in the question being put, because they accept that the governments they get under FPTP reflect the popular will at the time. Politicians frequently focus on the current dispostion of voter support for different factions and do their calculations on that basis. Voters have the freedom to turn these calculations on their heads – and frequently do.

    I’m not sure how relevant this is to a dysfunctional polity that has yet to present right, centre and left factions defined by differing views on where the boundaries of the state should be drawn. And I’m not too sure about the value of new constitutional or institutional wineskins (whether facilitated by a CA or not) when we still have the same old vinegar.

  2. > “There was no consultation with the wider republic”

    This was either a typo, or a brilliant pun.

    Paul’s analysis of the UK’s [c]onstitution highlights its attractions – that voters, not judges, decide whether a government has “gone too far”. Combining his answer with David’s point offers an answer for why AV is not a minor or pointless reform. If your criteria really is kicking out MPs and Governments, AV is better than FPTP (or other single-member systems such as Condorcet or Approval) since it guarantees that if, eg, 57% of the voters prefer Martin Bell to Neil Hamilton, Hamilton will not be elected, even if Labour and LibDem candidates don’t obligingly stand aside to ensure a straight fight rather than risk Hamilton being re-elected with a 43% plurality. AV ensures that an unpopular PM like Margaret Thatcher won’t win three successive elections just because the only alternative is to hand untrammelled power to Michael Foot instead.

    Proportionality is, to my mind, an improvement but if one’s tastes run instead to a winner-take-all electoral system it seems better to ensure the winner has the support of 49-50% of voters rather than 42-43% of them.

    David’s point about the referendum process makes sense. I would add that Clegg having the words “miserable little compromise” repeatedly thrown back in his face should be a lesson for any supporter of STV to rank electoral systems in order of preference, rather than (to paraphrase Enid Lakeman) pretending one is perfect and all others are rotten.

  3. @Paul @Tom

    Thanks for the comments, and Tom particularly for spotting the typo (now corrected).

    The problem with AV is that, as history shows in Australia, it is just as disproportional as FPTP. Replacing one non-proportional system with another doesn’t really change much at all, apart from the point that you make, Tom, that at least most (though not all) MPs could claim to have more than 50% support in their constituencies. That’s really about all that can be said in its favour.

    Actually I think this example provides just the right sort of reason why we should push for a bottom-up approach to reform. Research shows that, when asked about electoral reform, survey respondents are not in a position to make a considered view, because they literally don’t understand the issues. But when you engage in approaches (such as the focus group work Michael Gallagher and I did on groups of British voters in the 1990s) that allow groups of respondents an opportunity to learn more before coming to a decision, then you see some real mood for change — and in Britain too.

    Research also shows that, over time, the trends in electoral system design is towards proportional electoral systems. The UK is increasingly looking out of sync in holding steadfast to its non-proportional system.

    Finally, our experience of the three CAs that were held on electoral reform shows, again, a preference for proportional systems: in British Columbia the CA proposed a change from FPTP to STV; in Ontario the CA proposed a change from FPTP to the German mixed-member PR system; in the Netherlands the CA proposed no change (apart from a minor tweak) to the existing PR system.

    In short, when given an opportunity to become more knowledgeable about the specifics of the issue at hand citizens are fully capable of making informed decisions. And there is plenty of international academic research to back this up.

  4. @David,

    Many thanks for taking the time to respond. I’m not disputing your assertion that citizens, given the opportunity to acquire knowledge, can make informed decisions. (Indeed, I know and believe this instinctively; the international academic research simply provides reassurance.)

    The challenge then is defining the issue (or issues) at hand. As I see it, this ‘wethecitizens’ initiative is mixing up ‘who, how many and how should the people elect those to whom they delegate their utlimate authority?’, ‘what should those elected do with this delegated authority?’, and ‘how should they exercise this delegated authority?’. I’m assuming issues will be identified, defined and refined during this 8 location roadshow leading up to the CA. But I can’t see any evidence of a process that will disentangle these three very different sets of questions to generate well-defined and relevant issues that will be presented to the privileged ‘150’ and allow them to come to meaningful conclusions over a weekend.

    But, even more importantly, I don’t see any evidence of a process that will allow this exercise to engage effectively with the established political process. As I understand it, the CAs you mention were established because a majority of the politicians in the relevant jurisdictions had the humility to concede implicitly that they didn’t have the calibre, disinterestedness or far-sightedness of the US’s Founding Fathers and that a group of suitably informed citizens would make a better decision on the issue under consideration.

    What is being proposed under the ‘wethecitizens’ banner is so far removed from this that it is almost surreal. Is there some belief that, by sheer force of moral authority, this CA will be able to bend the political class to its will?

    Ireland has suffered enough from a sustained suspension of disbelief on matters economic, fiscal and financial. It really shouldn’t have to put up with more of the same on this front.

  5. @Paul

    Actually that’s more than a mere ‘assertion’. It’s been shown conclusively in international research that bottom-up processes such as citizens’ assemblies, deliberative polls, citizen juries, etc have scientifically verifiable effects on the attitudes, knowledge and perspective of the participants — and principally that a random selection of citizens can make informed decisions.

    It’s important to recognize that the We the Citizens initiative is more about the PROCESS of reform than about its specific content. With the time and resources that we have to hand we could not hope to make serious inroads into the latter. Our role, as we see it, is principally to provide conclusive — unimpeachable — evidence that a bottom-up process such as a citizens’ assembly can work in driving a true reform agenda.

    The party leaders between them set out a pretty impressive reform stall in the last election and a large portion of this has ended up in the programme for government. Clearly there are gaps (something we pointed out in the reform scorecard process for instance); clearly true reform requires a lot more than some tinkering at the edges. The programme for government suggests that the government parties recognise this.

    The government say that they’re committed to radical reform: let’s hope so. But in the meantime, the role of our initiative, like that of many others, is to keep the reform issue on the boil — to ensure that the politicians do more than merely talk the talk.

    And, if reform proposals are to emerge, then we would argue that they’d have better chance of success if mediated by/routed via deliberative processes. We aim to demonstrate this point by the end of the summer — in good time for the TRUE reform agenda (that we all wish for) to start.

  6. @David,

    Once again, many thanks. I have no desire to be seen to malign or impugn the motives or intentions of those organising, participating in, advising or financing this exercise. But I think you see the disjunction (which Matthew Wall has highlighted in a new post) between the honeyed words on political reform that filled up so much of the parties’ manifestos (and found their way into the Programme of Government) and the political reality. Maybe this exercise will help to close the gap, but I’m afraid I have my doubts.

    I also think you see that the organisations and people involved will be viewed by many as a self-selected elite seeking to impose their views on the process of democratic governance. And the fact that some activities previously financed by Atlantic Philanthropies attracted some public controversy probably isn’t much help. All a bit unhelpful, but, perhaps, inevitable and it tends to re-double my scepticism. But my scepticism is increased by another more troubling aspect.

    I’ve previously highlighted the survey by the Medical Council:

    Click to access MC-Trust-Survey.pdf

    which shows that only 12% of those surveyed would generally trust TDs to tell the truth. That for me raises some fundamental questions that need to be tackled before any constitutional, institutional and procedural reforms may be considered. For example, ‘why do you elect public representatives that most of you do not believe will tell the truth?’. Or’ what would you have them do – or be made to do – that would increase your trust in them?’

    This, in my view, might be a more fruitful starting-point. We cannot expect ordinary citizens, already over-burdened by their daily responsibilities to police intently those whom they elect. That’s why they delegate their ultimate authority to these representatives in the hope and expectation that they’ll get on with the job. That’s why the focus should be on getting them to do what they’re legally and contractually obliged – and well-paid – to do.

  7. Hi all, very interesting conversation here.

    On Paul and David’s discussion on the merits of We the Citizens, I think that any citizen-based campaign will stand or fall on the participation of citizens. A big advantage of we the citizens is that is has the time and resources to set up and publicise a hub of such activitiy.

    A big problem I’ve found is combining civic engagement with the demands of a full-time job, I know many other like-minded people share that feeling.

    Organisationally, it’s good to have some funds and full time people on this. As a political scientist, I am confident in the depth of expertise in the academic leadership of the group, with an advisory board including world famous political scholars.

    Of course, without formal power, which is currently completely monopolised by the party group or combination that commands majority Oireachtas support, we the citizens cannot actually implement its proposed reforms. But it hopefully can show that this sort of process can lead to sensible reform proposals.

    The bigger picture of the scope and powers of a Citizen Assembly in Ireland remains unclear. One thing is certain, such a body will need considerable resuorces if it has a wide scope (e.g., producing an entire new constitution for public consideration). As Donal O’B pointed out on another thread – the previous best examples of CAs looked only at electoral systems.

    I hope and beleive that we can take it to the next level in Ireland – because i believe in my colleagues and in the capacities of my fellow citizens. But to get it right will take careful planning and lots of money!

    Before any of that though, there has to be public support and awareness. that’s why i liked the Green’s idea of pre-ceding the CA with a referendum to establish it and delimit its powers.

  8. @Matthew,

    I wish the exercise well, but it all seems a bit naive and ‘best-of-all-possible-worldsy’. It won’t do any harm and might even have a positive impact; though I think the money could be better spent.

    In any event, you’ll know fairly quickly if you’re making an impact. The politicians will either try to clamber on board or to cut-across and pre-empt what you’re doing – or a bit of both. There’s no way anything of this nature with a citizen-empowering potential will be allowed to drive the agenda if it is securing any bit of traction amomg the public.

    • @Paul, I think you’re probably right in many ways. Certainly, Irish political elites are rarely happy to see their power challenged. Just look at the way that local government has been systematically emasculated by successive Irish administrations. I imagine that elements in the Irish political establishment may feel threatened by these types of projects and groups.

      Nonetheless, I’m glad people are a least trying to do something practical and engaging for a wider section of the population than we’ve seen thus far. If nobody from civil society takes leadership, then reform will wither on the vine I fear.

      • @Matthew,

        Nothing of any lasting value is achieved in the arena of democratic governance without struggle and collective adversarial action. Since the end of WWII the vast majority of people in the developed economies have been lulled into a contented captivity. Fascism was defeated and communism subsequently imploded. But the struggle for liberty and the advance of the interests of citizens continues, as those who enjoy power, privilege and influence will always seek to constrain liberty and to advance their own interests at the expense of those of the majority of citizens.

        All this stuff about citizen engagement and political reform may generate a warm and fuzzy feeling, but one thing you can be sure of is that those who benefit from the current political arrangements will fight tooth and nail (while bleating loudly about thier commitment to democracy and the rule of law) to protect their power and privilege if they perceive these are being threatened.

        If this initiative proves capable of securing traction with the public it will be battered and undermined in all sorts of ways, but you’ll be aware of the steel in the velvet glove. You’ll know you’ll have failed if no reaction is provoked. I just sense that those involved are too high-minded, polite, gentle and consensus-seeking to land a blow on the forces of reaction, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

  9. Being polite, gentle and consensus-seeking myself, I hope that you are proved wrong 🙂 That said, i think that these groups have a strong moral case – which should be able to withstand a lot of criticism, if they can stay on message.

    There’s a big difference between helping fellow citizens to become more politically involved, and seeking to run peronally for political office. I think that these groups need to hammer that home again and again.

    • @Matthew,

      I’m not sure if others have, but I’ve found the enegagement and discussion and this and the succeeding thread very useful. My inital reaction to this ‘wethecitizens’ initiative was that (a) it would be either ignored or pillaged and neutered by government or (b) that it would raise and dash hopes and that only adversarial collective action would shift the forces of inertia and reaction.

      A third option has emerged via the exchanges – the potential for some effective engagement with a group of TD/Senators. I doubt there will be much interest among those guiding this initiative – it deviates significantly from the pre-set remit. But, at least, it’s been tossed into the pot for consideration.

      • @Paul
        “the potential for some effective engagement with a group of TD/Senators.”

        The only TDs/Senators who have time and interest to engage are those in opposition or on government back-benches.

        It has to be done – as part of a long march through the dysfunctional institutions of this Republic.

  10. @Donal,

    Thank you. This, indeed, is where the key focus of engagement should be. Via the engagement here and some reflection I feel I’m getting closer to identifying the source of my unease and pessimism about this ‘wethecitizens’ initiative. The first, obviously, is the ‘hope’ that government will be persuaded to adopt the tools being demonstrated, but, on reflection, I see a deeper problem.

    The ‘wethecitizens’ initiative has been advanced as being non-partisan, non-factional, non-power-seeking, with the focus on being deliberative, facilitating, demonstrational, on encouraging citizen engagement and on accessing the best international thoery and practice. That all sounds wonderful and who could possibly argue against it?

    But from the perspective of those in the locus of power (and that includes not only the government, but the senior civil service, ministers’ special advisers, the top layers of the quangocracy and the leaders of the special interest groups that have ministers’ ears) this initiative, if what will be generated by it were to be acted upon, could seriously curtail the exercise of the power, privilege and patronage they currently enjoy.

    Furthermore, it will be seen as working to undermine the democratic legitimacy of their exercise of power. And despite the peaceable, all-embracing, deliberative, non-confrontional clothing in which this initiative is dressed (and I believe geuinely reflecting the intent of tose involved), it will be seen by those in the locus of power as being explicitly confrontational and threatening. The response, of course, will never be expressed in those terms, but any hint of activity outside the formal politicaal process that might lead to steps to curtail the power being exercised will simply steel the resolve and strengthen the forces of reaction.

    The underlying rationale of those in the locus of power is actually solid and valid. On Feb 25 the people delegated their ultimate authority to 166 TDs, and this authority has been delegated until the next time of asking. Governments – and the entire machinery of government around them – have proved more than adept at sustaining the fiction that TDs are sufficiently empowered and resourced to hold government to account. They know and we all know that this is nonsense, but we all seem capable of coping with an indefinite suspension of disbelief in this country.

    In so far as any reforms of existing processes of governance are required, they will be advanced by government for enactment by the Oireachtas. There is therefore no requirement for any process, independent of government and the Oireachtas and outside of the legitimate democratic processes sanctioned by the people, to design and demonstrate alternative processes. If the government needs assistance it will seek it out itself and, in any event, it will consult widely if or when any reforms of this nature are being contemplated.

    So the options for the ‘wethecitizens’ initiative are (1) to reconcile itself to be just another lobby or interest group to be consulted if or when the government stirs itself to consider political refrom or (2) to be honest, recognise the fundamental divide between what it is proposing to do and the objectives of those in the locus of power and to engage with all backbench TDs and Senators to give susbtance to effective engagement of the people in the political process.

    However charmingly, innocuously or wispily this initiative is dressed up it is posing a challenge to those in the locus of power. Those involved may not see themselves as being confrontational – indeed I am sure they would deny they have a confrontational bone in thier bodies, but I can assure them that they are seen and will be seen as posing a challenge to those in the locus of power.

    The choice is between recognising this reality, reaching out to those whose enforced subservience renders them inert and making the case for substantive change and sparkling in the sky like a firework before fizzling out.

    It is a simple choice, but the first requires sustained effort and struggle; the second is harmless, but if should be great fun while the money flows.

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