We must move from regarding State as enemy and oppressor

Last week The Irish Times
published the late Peter Mair’s excellent speech at MacGill this year (about 30 minutes in).

Mair argued that the problem in Ireland is that we don’t respect our State. We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging for our State. If anything we have viewed the State as the enemy, as an oppressor, as something not to be trusted but to be taken advantage of.
“That’s the culture of the cute hoors, the strokes, you get away with it and getting away with it against the State is getting away with something which is not us and doesn’t belong to us but belongs somewhere out there and it is not ours”
Interestingly, Mair had a number of solutions. Perhaps controversially in his sights was the electoral system or what he called amoral localism – which is that you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else
The result he says is that we have been so busy as citizens in ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest, ….. We exert great control over our TDs [but] have never sought to exert any control over our governments. This is not a new argument for readers of this blog but his solutions are worth considering.
1.Reform the electoral system
2. Change the Dáil. End the quiescence
3. Give real power to local government.

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23 thoughts on “We must move from regarding State as enemy and oppressor

  1. Local Government in Ireland is an Environmental problem bigger than Central Government. As long as the State does not comply with is environmental obligations it is my Enemy.

  2. I didnt vote the last election and I will certainly not in the presidential election. Violence is abhorrent to me. The state steals €10k from me annually and threatens me with jail if I dont pay up or follow its laws. How is that not oppressive?

  3. Sounds very like some of the late John Healy’s comments on the political chicanery of his day. I believe the target of our mistrust was, and still is, our elected politicians – and with very good reason. Our civil service and banks were trusted and respected. That’s gone now. Not because the public changed their attitude and behaviour, but as a consequence of the actual behaviour of these two entities. They failed in their mission.

    Mair may have been precise in his targeting, but his missiles were clustered on the periphery of the target.

    Optical reforms will occur, but radical constitutional and legislative restructuring is probably a pipe-dream.

    Brian

  4. re. Some initial “quick and dirty reactions” – without my usual raft of links to arguments supporting these comments.

    My reaction to the late Peter Mair’s MacGill contribution (on one viewing of the web-cast) was “Here we go again – pointing to the weaknesses of the people”, although I did note some other angles in his presentation that leads me to look at the webcast again!

    I suggest that the Irish political science community (ie those working in academia here and abroad) turn the question around.

    Do the State’s governing elites respect us, citizens in a Republic?

    Have the governing elites moved from regarding the citizens of this republic as potential enemies to administered in ways that are not so different from the colonial power from which we have taken much of our political and administrative cultures?

    If so, why did one part of that elite ie. the senior civil service, go to some trouble to restrict the Freedom of Information Act, as I pointed out here
    https://politicalreform.ie/2010/06/21/freedom-of-information-and-corruption/

    I suggest that the three items suggested above will do little to promote the design, consideration and implementation of a series of mutually-reinforcing set of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they public or private, elected or appointed.

    1). Electoral System.
    Frankly I see no need to change this at all – as I see it as one of the checks and balances that I think necessary in this Republic. Note that for 32 years (from 1969-2002), we the electorate did not return an outgoing government in any general election.

    The message got through. Some significant reforms were made eg independent constituency review commissions, limits on spending during elections,

    David Farrell did point out in a comment at MacGill that other countries are moving towards using electoral systems that have the strenghts of PR-STV.

    There has been some discussion on this topic on this forum.

    Do all political scientists start to discuss political and institutional reform by focusing on the electoral system?
    Or is this just an Irish phenomenon?

    Trouble is that many commentators never get beyond discussing electoral reform – as the silver bullet that solves everything.

    People advocating electoral reform should consider why PR-STV is deemed suitable for Northern Ireland elections – both the European Parliament (uniquely in the UK Euro elections) and the Assembly.

    I suggest that PR-STV is an excellent way of enabling minorities to be represented in local, national and European assemblies. Yes, I am aware that this depends on independent commissions drawing up constituency boundaries (something that is quite rare in the US) and having constituencies with larger numbers of elected representatives.

    2. The Dail
    Can the Dail be changed in any way that is significant without completely separating the Executive from the Dail?
    If so, please spell it out.
    Do TDs actually want to be more than an electoral college for the Taoiseach and/or lobbyists for their constituencies?

    In the same MacGill session as that in which Peter Mair spoke, Michael Martin said some things that are new and different – coming from a former Minister. Has he got the message about the need for serious changes in the Dáil?

    3. Local Government.
    Let local government have the real power it had up the abollition of rates on domestic residences and agricultural land.

    A good start would be for all those state bodies that owe rates to existing local authorities to pay them.

    In addition, start by reversing the special treatment given to many public and private bodies.

  5. I meant earlier to also link to Stephen Coilins piece last week where he said that it is widely acknowledged one of the underlying causes of the crisis that brought the country to the brink of ruin was a dysfunctional political system that lost touch with economic reality. He too believes that genuine reform in shaping policy is as far away as ever. But perhaps thsi generation of TDs will be the ones prepared to end the quiescence?

    • In addition to referring to one journalist’s opinion in one newspaper, the site editors would also serve the cause of political and institutional reform better by posting Dr. Edward Walshe’s Beal na mBlath speech on Sunday last 21 August 2011.

      I cannot find the text, but have found a podcast of his interview on Newstalk’s lunchtime programme on Monday last 22 August last see here http://media.newstalk.ie/podcast/25796/popup

      • In fairness, Peter Mair was a very distinguished political scientist, rather than a mere journalist!
        I did have a look at Ed Walshe’s address (http://www.edwalsh.ie/beal-na-mblath-address/), but beyond his oft repeated calls for further cuts in welfare payments and civil servant wages, I didn’t find anything that addressed reform of politics in Ireland.
        Am I missing something?
        PS Desmond Fitzgerald’s comment on the above link is excellent in my view.

  6. I confess a little frustration with some of this debate.
    Politicians are elected by the people (at least in democratic societies). To quote Mair “The simple answer is it’s our fault. We the citizens did this and this is the legacy which we have”.
    Since the world collapsed around our ears, I’ve heard various allocations of blame to politicians, civil servants, ‘the system’ etc. But it is the Irish electorate which put those politicians in positions of power, and I’ve yet to hear anyone admit it.
    I’ve canvassed in a number of elections (not the last one, maybe it was different) but I can practically count on one hand the number of times voters raised issues of national policy on the doorstep. I’ve asked canvassing newbies to join the effort, and when they protested they didn’t have a detailed knowledge of policies of the party in question, was always able to confidently assure them that they shouldn’t worry, no one would ask. On the rare occasions that a voter did engage in national issues, my experience is that any party is happy to participate in that debate. Anything to get away from bus stop positions, potholes, whether their son was getting a council house … the instances of petty amoral localism go on and on.
    At what point does the Irish electorate start to accept its share of the blame for this mess, and start engaging in the mind set change that Mair wrote about?
    My favourite vox pop from the last election was a man saying “yeah, I hope things will change … but not too much”. Summed up the mood of a nation if you ask me.
    We’ve only ourselves to blame …

  7. We have the calibre of politicans we elected in the first place and they are a perfect reflection of the majjority of Irish people. That’s the sad truth of it.

    Irish people have always been divided between those who are cute hoor/me feiners or those who are not who have always been a minority. Time and time again all through our histroy the evidence of admiration for the cute hoor is overwhelming.

    If the majority of Irish people were shocked and appalled at Fianna Fáil, then a majority wouldn’t have voted for them at every election since 1932 up to 2011 and even then, it was only when Fianna Fáil messed up so badly that it affected most people personally that they got angry – they were never too bothered before when it didn’t seem to affect them as much as others they knew.

    Also, I don’t believe this chip on our shoulder has anything to do with ‘800 years of oppression’ because the Ireland that existed before the English was even worse. There was no golden age of Gaelic Ireland. Ever.

    If people who are alcoholics never stop being one but learn how to control the urge, is it possible that Irish people will ever learn to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions?

    Or are we doomed to always be fighting our natural inclination to be corrupt?

    Perhaps now the myth of the church, politics, business and the professions has been blown to pieces, it might be possible we can rise about our instincts but to date there has been pretty much zero reform.

    No reform of expenses, political funding, FOI etc, all the easy changes that can be done at the stroke of pen. If Kenny and Gilmore can’t even do the little simple things with such a stomping majority what hope is there for the big issues?

    You can walk in off the street into the House of Commons in London yet in Ireland, to go and sit in the Dáil gallery you have to get permission from a TD first – permission to attend your own parliament – can you imagine! Why can’t you just walk in in Dublin – it’s because the TD wants you to feel obliged to them because they ‘did you a favour’ to let you sit on a dirty uncomfortable wooden bench in your own parliament. Bonkers!!

    How can men (it’s mostly men) whose political mentality was formed in the dark ages of the 70s and 80s (can you just imagine what went on in councils and with funding at that time) and for whom the vast majority of their careers have been as failures in opposition, possibly have any interest in reform or even knowledge of how to reform, when they have gained so much from the system as it is.

    Isn’t it interesting that the only two ministers who’ve made any effort at all to reform their departments have been the younger ones Varadkar and Coveney who took a stand over bonuses paid within their department – of course they didn’t go the full way but at least they made an effort. More than Howlin, who I see in the IT is still following the line where it’s all kept inhouse so he couldn’t conceive of why he would name the department that is refusing to do its job and come up with an explanation of its spendings and where there is waste. So instead od naming and shaming and changing public sector attitudes to accountability he reverts to type and keeps the detail secret. Why is it we are still getitng drip fed news about all manner of weird and astounding perks rights across the public sector – is it possible that six months in office and still no one has ever sat down to write down and every single perk and privilege in the entire public service from top to bottom and drawn a red line through 99% of them?

    Obviously it is. But we are to believe Mr Howlin is going to lead a reform agenda which is going to be signed off by two men in their 60s from Mayo who have both refused point blank to provide audited accounts for their own parties and how they fund their own elections or to provide receipts when they claim expenses and publish them.

    The new government can be judged by the little things and it’s been a massive disappointment so far. What’s really grim is that as much as this government is disappointing, it’s still far and away better than any alternative.

  8. This generation of TD’s most certainly will not be the ones to end the corruption in this state. In fact, they have come to power promising, promising. A few wet days into the dail Enda Kenny told us that he could do nothing about the nepotism whereby jobs were handed out without being advertised to family friends etc.

    Journalists, political commentators and political scientists rarely want to admit how bad things are in this little isle of green. Dr. Edward Walsh’s speech at Beal na Blath was a timely reminder of where we are. Bankrupt, leaderless and ruderless. Since 2000, the cost of the public service doubled and 100,000 extra public servants were added without achieving any efficiencies whatsoever. According to Walsh salaries and pension entitlements need to be slashed by half, and no this government will not be doing that unless there is a gun put to their head by the Troika. Just look at the latest scandal of exchequer robbery by TD’s and ex ministers. They are a bunch of can kickers who will sell what is left of this country out if they think it will protect their own skins and there is a few bob in it for themselves.

    Ireland is not just in a great “recession” Ireland has had three decades of “betrayal” in fact, it was the Jack Lynch buy the public at any price election, of 1977 that laid the foundations of the rot in earnest. Ireland will not purge itself from within, it will have to be purged from outside by diktat or alternatively it will purge itself from within after an economic collapse. The late and thoughtful Peter Mair was the quintessential political gentleman, scientist. However lets admit it that nobody would be invited within an asses roar of the McGill Summer School unless their views were totally acceptable to the establishment, it is an annual cuddle in.

  9. On first reading Peter Mairs piece I got the feeling that he was saying exactly what I have been thinking for years. It is true, that local politicians can only think of the next election and not of what they could do to make this a better country. One that we would all be proud to live in. Not divided by greed but united by desire – to see better.

    The mere fact that we recently had seen new groups set up such as We the People and We the Citizens, or whatever they were called. Indicates that there are many people in Ireland who think like Mair (May his God be good to him), and who wanted, and desired, a new politics with new people in charge.

    What we have seen so far is much has been the same, money is being paid out as dissapointment relief to those who failed to get elected and to some who did. Corruption is still rife and will not disapear overnight.

    I really believe we need a new party, packed with people who want to see genuine change. Canada recently lost its hope, in the death of a humane politician by the name of Jack Layton. Look him up on Google. Here is the type we need.

    • Wasn’t that why the Progressive Democrats were formed and look what happened to them? I have to agree with those who say it is ‘we the people’ that are responsible. But not in the sense of the collective ‘we’ that gets blamed for everything. However if one votes for people that are tax cheats and fraudsters then one needs to take responsibility for that. I don’t agree that local government is the panacea either. Local councillors are not necessarily less likely to be concerned about their re-election prospects. Funding to local government or the lack of it has been the main issue for me on this front. Restoring the Freedom of Information to it’s former status would be a start for this new government. To some extent it does depend on the vision of the politicians we elect and this can happen by chance. I would cite the election of Mary Robinson as one of those chances. I don’t think she won the presidency but rather that Brian Lenihan lost it. However I think her vision for the presidency and country led to a more progressive politics for a time. Demanding greater accountability would be a start.

  10. Knowing nothing about Irish politics, just off the boat in 79. I joined the PD’s in 86 because they weren’t Haughey. Though I liked Garrett I could not vote for him because of the others in FG at that time who were too wishy washy for me. I didn’t stay long in the PD’s before I saw they were much the same. Don’t know much more today, but, I am convinced that we now need a credible new left wing party. Labour have signed their death warrant by again coalescing with FG, leading people up the garden path yet again.

    What is now needed is a political party with integrity, that will take charge in an absolute reformation of civil society, and have the strength to deal a new set of cards for managing the civil service!

    • Left wing parties don’t have any monopoly on integrity – there are just as many crony ‘left’ wing parties as there are ‘right’ wing ones.

      What we need are politicians who are not afraid to say, be held to account and explain their choices – they shouldn’t be afraid to fail but fail through honest mistakes – it would be galling but how much better off would we be if the mess we are in now wasn’t caused deliberately – the fact it was done deliberately through greed, cronyism, denial and sheer stupidity angers people more than if it an honest policy based decision choice had been made, which would be backed up with the evidence available at the time and it just turned out to be the wrong decision.

      But we can’t even say that as no one can explain why NAMA was set up, what’s it meant to be, how it ends or why it isn’t completely transparent, nor can anyone explain why no one stopped stop when asked to rubber stamp the most important financial decision made by any Irish government since the decisions made setting up the State.

      Does the new government have the integrity we need? It’s too early to say but I wouldn’t put any of them in the same league as Ahern and Cowen for lack of integrity – but time will tell.

      The omens are real reform so far are not good – the revelations that Howlin has done absolutely nothing to bring public servants to boot almost beggars belief, the fact that Noonan still, after 6 months, done absolutely nothing to stop the political class and senior public ‘servants’ creaming off expenses, allowances and pensions almost beggars belief, the speed at which Bruton moved to cut the take home pay of those at the bottom of the ple, while doing nothing to coordinate it with any cuts in those people’s living costs such as utilities, while doing nothing to cut the costs of the professions at the other end of the scale almost beggars belief and the fact that FOI still doesn’t apply to every single dark and seedy corner of the public sector beggars belief.

      These are people who waited 15 years to get back into office and it seems they had no plan for what happened the day after the election. It beggars belief until you realise it’s Ireland and the chance is remote that old men (most of them are men) who’d spent all their lives losing elections and whose political attitudes were hardwired in the 70s and 80s are capable of delivering the scale of reform needed for Ireland in 2011 in light of all that has failed regarding governance.

      It’s interesting that it was Coveny and Varadker who were the only ministers to make any effort to put a stop to the gravy train in their departments – of course they didn’t go nearly far enough but at least they showed willing.

      But if by some miracle we found our version of the recently deceased Canadian opposition leader and someone offered the alternative we claim to want, be it from the left wing or right wing, are we as a people capable of supporting someone who will gut the crony system we all benefit from in one way or another at some point, are we really ready to be told to apply for our passport on time, get our own medical card or tought you should have thought of the consequences before having a child you are financially and emotionally incapable of being a proper parent to etc etc – we can all add in whatever ‘me feiner’ issue that bugs us.

      I suspect the answer is no that we are still too immature to cope with proper responsibility.

  11. Thanks Desmond, That is precisely why I recently left the Labour Party as well. Now have no home for my political leanings. I am afraid we are very far from finding a Jack Layton type here in Ireland as I depair for the lack of serious action from the current government on any of the issues you mention. Most especially Pat Rabbitte, who seems determined to continue to give away our natural resources. Of all the present ministers I expected him to stand up against his departments dubious involvement in the give away?

    • I assume Rabbitte simply hasn’t got the faintest idea where the department policy is right or wrong and I would imagine he lacks the intellectual ability to find out – I mean no offence to union people but how on earth is someone like him ever meant to understand whether the oil companies are pulling a fast one or whether the reality is no matter how much oil or gas there might be the fact is it can’t be accessed at the moment using current means and if someday they come up with a way then the deals can be looked at then.

      But the idea that any political decision making process in a country like Ireland would match the standards of Norway is crazy.

  12. @Pangur Ban
    Thank you for the link to Ed Walshe’s Beal na Blath speech.

    I had heard that he had something to say about public sector reform and found this.
    “For the most part individual public sector workers want to get on
    with their jobs and make a contribution to national recovery, but they are working within an antiquated and dysfunctional public sector. There has been no comprehensive reform of the
    public administration system since it was inherited from Britain. Its
    effectiveness has been eroded over the years by a succession of ministerial decisions that found conceding to unreasonable demands preferable to opposing them. The public sector is rife for the kind of radical reform introduced with such excellent results in New Zealand and Hong Kong.”

    Perhaps I am making more out of this than it warrants.

    But, my experience suggests that when you talk to politicians about political and institutional reform, they blame the civil servants and vice versa.

    Somehow we have to cut this Gordian Knot.

    I offered some views on this issue here
    https://politicalreform.ie/2011/05/20/garret-fitzgerald-%E2%80%93-friend-of-the-psai/comment-page-1/#comment-5086

  13. Well, Thornley may have been ahead of his time in some respects, but if he were alive today he certainly would not be saying: “it is not enough for leaders to know what to do and have the courage to do it” because they have no ideas about what to do and even if they did, they have absolutely no courage. For my argument, I point to the 200bn Euro debt accrued by gross incompetents. If that is not proof enough, does anyone believe that our ‘leaders’ actually knew what they were doing, when for instance, the late Brian Lenihan committed the citizens of this state to a blanket guarantee of 440bn Euros. A figure approximating to 14 times the total annual revenues of the state. Also, how well thought out was the NAMA special purpose vehicle, “only game in town” which was predicated on paid advice from Peter Bacon and Alan Ahern neither of whom are known outside a small coterie of close personal friends?

    The only reform that will happen in Ireland is reform forced on the system by too much debt, lack of access to bond markets, insolvency and outright default.

    Ironically, our best chance of serious structural change will come about as a result of an unstructured default precipitated by the collapse of the EZ or the splitting of the EZ. The dreaded ‘debt forgiveness’ was anathema until the beginning of a tidal wave forced it onto the agenda and now they cannot stop talking about it. Changes to bankruptcy laws are anathema until they too are forced upon government by the sheer numbers. The LRC will be ignored and in any event it does not go far enough fast enough. Likewise the Croke Park denial strategy will remain in place, until they are reminded that under MOU reform must happen, then it will be “buried”. There are hundreds of examples that can be given of changes that are obvious but will be postponed and postponed until they they are forced upon government.

    • @Robert Browne
      So to quote Harold MacMillan “Events, dear boy, Events” will force political and institutional reform here.

      Given that we have seen reforms being rolled back since the 1980s, what will make any reforms introduced now stick?

  14. I have long given up hope of Irish people committing themselves to reform as we are have an anti intellectual mindset. There are far too many people milking the system for all they can. We have Croker, then we have the trade union movement which is caught up in some ideological marxist time warp where they duff the cap to each other and call each other “comrade”. They are corrupt beyond belief, in hock lock stock and barrel to the state. Then we have hundreds of thousands on a myriad of state benefits, they are being reminded to keep their mouths shut or their benefits may have to be sliced to reflect our new economic realities. Then the ‘spoilt’ semi states like ESB, Board Gais and Coillte who have helped themselves to amazing amounts of state benefits. Imagine the lowest paid ESB worker earning over 75,000 with pension subsidy this is the same as 95,000, but he/she must also receiving subsidized electricity to protect them from rising prices. As luck would have it, by stealth, they have also managed to accrue 30% of the state utility company. That puts them in line for an amazing pay day, No matter what there are happy, happy days ahead for ESB workers and seeing that the country is effectively bankrupt, it is ripe to have its utilities flogged. They will be paid massive sums at our collective expense and they will “retire” with enormous golden handshakes and pensions. Then, the new employees will be treated like dirt while the public are forced to pay more and more for a crappier service. There will be little if any investment in infrastructure and the company will be sold on a couple of times, same as Eircom. That is the future of the ESB, Water, Coillte and Board Gais.
    I digress, coming back to “events” let’s hope the events are of the system shattering kind because I find the prospect of Jack O’Connor or David Begg spouting their marxist nonsense into loud speaker’s far too stomach churning.

  15. This was one of the more interesting talks up on the Magill website (PS my sympathies to anyone here who knew Peter Mair, never had the pleasure). Some interesting reflections on the cultural aspects of political reform, as well as problems with “the system”. I suppose we still are a relatively young state in the scheme of things and the historical legacy of colonialism/the famine etc. must have left its scars. But it’s not too far off a century since independence, and those kinds of excuses are starting to wear thin. In some respects our mentality more resembles “Southern Europe” in glorifying getting one over on the state. But I’m not sure either that a simple increased respect for our political institutions is the answer either. We’ve been a compliant bunch in their country, happily willing to doff the hat to the church and other authority figures. Revolution here seems to consist of not of riots or car-burning, but a hectic afternoon’s phone-in to the Joe Duffy show! 🙂

    On the three proposed solutions in the talk, there’d be little disagreement here I guess on “Change the Dáil. End the quiescence” (perhaps on the actual solutions though). The Dáil is a shadow of what it might be. There’s definitely a big problem with our legislature-executive relationship. That topic has been much discussed in these parts already.

    I wouldn’t be one of those entirely writing off changing the electoral system. A logical approach to tackling “amoral localism” would be, as advocated, a twin-pronged strategy of greatly strengthening local government (to do most of the parish-pump hearse-chasing activities) whilst at the same time altering the electoral system to make it somewhat less local in nature.

    I must admit to not greatly liking most of the usually advocated electoral alternatives: mixed member PR or list systems. They’d likely introduce as many problems as they solved (e.g. increasing party control). Drastically reducing the number of TDs could also reduce localism, but I’d suspect at heavy cost: the talent pool for ministers would be reduced even further. The UK can get away with this with their 650-seat parliament and a different electoral system. Unless there was some kind of greater separation between cabinet and Dáil (with perhaps a requirement that many of the ministers not be TDs) then whilst slashing the Dáil might lessen localism to a degree, the cost could be even more mediocre ministers.

    I still think there’s some potential in two ideas I have come across on this website. One is the idea of not organizing constituencies on a purely geographical basis https://politicalreform.ie/2010/09/06/do-we-need-geographical-constituencies/#more-952. And Daniel Sullivan had some related interesting ideas on giving electors multiple (perhaps in overlapping constituencies) votes (as well as on MMP and non-geographical constituencies) https://politicalreform.ie/2010/12/30/alternatives-to-lists-and-quotas-to-reduce-clientelism-and-offer-the-electorate-more-diverse-voting-options-2/
    . Perhaps these ideas are a bit too quirky for some people’s tastes, but we do already have non-geographical panel constituencies in the Seanad.

    IMO there’s some potential in the non-geographical constituency idea. Can lead to some interesting configurations. An example of a possible electoral setup (still keeping PR-STV) with constituencies not wholly along geographic lines could be as follows. We might as well increase constituency size to improve proportionality as we’re at it. So the example has 8-seat PR-STV constituencies everywhere. These are organized according to both geography and some other convenient non-geographical personal attribute (I” go with year of birth as this seems a particularly convenient and easy to administer one to me). Constituencies are first organized into four regions mirroring the ones in the European elections. Each region would have 5 eight-seat PR-STV constituencies. Voters in a particular region would then be assigned to one of these constituencies according to their year of birth, e.g. voters with their year of birth ending the digits 0 or 5 would be assigned to the first constituency, voters with a birth year ending with a 1 or 6 are placed in the second constituency etc.. That’s 4 regions, 5 constituencies (organized on a non-geographical basis) per region, and 8 seats per constituency -> 160 seats overall. It would be easy to administer this scheme. All one needs to know is the region one is living in and have some id showing one’s year of birth. Campaigning would be more expensive (now at Euro constituency level rather than at the scale of existing constituencies). But a politician’s electorate would now be thinly dispersed over a quarter of the country. Local-level pothole fixing becomes pointless. Of course there might be the development of “amoral regionalism” instead of “amoral localism”. Nonetheless IMO it’s a practical and implementable electoral system that both curbs localism and increases proportionality. All kinds of configurations are possible playing around with these ideas.

    If we were ever to bring in some kind of less local electoral system, then local government would need to be strengthened to compensate. I’d be nervous, though, of simply handing more power and responsibility to local government as it currently exists. Local government is really only a bit of an afterthought in our constitution; article 28a brought in 1999 merely requires that there be some kind of local government and there be elections every five years, little else. Unless we really know what we’re doing, problems at national might simply be reflected at local level. Separation of powers: a directly elected major/county/city manager versus elected local council/legislature seems to have worked well in many places and added some extra accountability. It would be completely unrealistic to expect us to suddenly jump overnight from the current woeful setup to a very well-developed long-established local government setup like exists in Switzerland (with its powerful Cantons and even more local communes). But a lot more thought should probably go into the constitutional relationship between national government and local government (as well as more practical topics like an increased ability to raise taxes), e.g. should local government entities have their own constitutions?

    In the above talk, Peter Mair does briefly mention the potential of deliberative political processes. Looking at a lot of Western democracies it does strike me that there is a lot of almost cartel-like behaviour amongst major political parties. In most countries one has what is almost a duopoly (because political systems do work against having a monopolistic single party). A small number of main parties are ostensibly competing against each other. And of course they do complete to a certain extent. But they all also are beneficiaries of the system, and have a cartel-like interest in ensuring a continuance of these benefits, e.g. it’s hard to expect beneficiaries of a system to radically shake up the system to their own detriment (even if that might be best for the national interest). As in markets, at least in theory, there’s nothing stopping a new player entering the market and shaking things up. But, of course, the dominant players will do everything they can to crush the new upstart. There’s huge inertia in representative democracy, not always to the benefit of voters. The main parties will probably tend to do the very least that is required to not upset the apple cart for themselves while still keeping the voters on board.

    That’s why in an ideal world I’d be very much an advocate of direct democracy mechanisms. There should be some means by ordinary people can bypass the usual political cartel if there’s sufficient desire. A lot of disenchantment and lack of respect for our system comes from this lack of real choice (we get to choose between dweedle-dum and dweedle-dee every five years). As Peter Mair pointed out in the talk, there was something of an electoral earthquake in a sense in the recent election, but what did we do? We merely opted in large numbers for other default political option! Part of the fault for all this is perhaps the political culture we allowed develop and a lack of engagement from the voters themselves. It’ll be amazing (if not entirely surprising) if no new political party arises in the next few years.

    I still think a Swiss-style citizens’ initiative mechanism (allowing voters to directly change the constitution or veto legislation) would be the best single way of engaging with voters. There’d be no longer any excuse to merely blame politicians. Unfortunately, it would take something of a political revolution to bring this about, most certainly a new political party (there’s no way any of the existing main parties will touch this with a barge pole).

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