Friday, 14 May 2010

Strong Democracy, not Strong Government

The traditional British disrespect for our politicians being what it is, most people probably start trying to imagine what 650 nooses look like, when they hear the term “hung parliament”. On the other hand, many politicians and political journalists see it as a different kind of nightmare. Partisans of an affiliation with a hope of power get very enthusiastic about “strong government”, as they would. The hung parliament, of course, does not deliver that. So, we have to read and hear all the cant about weak government and market uncertainty and The End Of Civilisation As We Know It and all the rest.

Anyway, my home is in semi-autonomous Jersey, and although the goings-on in Westminster still matter here, their effects are a little more indirect. We have our own little parliament to worry about, instead. For any outsiders who may have stumbled across this blog, Jersey has one small formal party and a mass of nominally independent politicians dividing into about two-thirds in an informal Tory grouping holding power and one third in a slightly more openly organised Liberal grouping in opposition. The complex electoral system discourages voting and frustrates change, so the unofficial Tories have been entrenched in government since time immemorial. Recent reforms have aggravated the problem by marginalising most politicians. There used to be a Committee based system that put almost every politician to work in government, irrespective of their leanings, but that has been replaced by a select group of ministers and an impotent squad of backbenchers. I don't think it works half as well, personally.

Jersey and mainland Britain do share widespread feelings that their respective parliaments do not represent, nor even listen to their publics. Moreover, the two party system, official there and unofficial here, corrupts the houses by inducing members to vote against measures that they would have supported on their own merits, or for ones they would have opposed, just to spite the other party and boost their own.

I would suggest that the optimum would, therefore, be a four party system. Four parties each gaining 20% to 30% of the votes in a left, centre-left, centre right, right spectrum would always have to cooperate to form viable coalitions, and would be discouraged from veering into extremism. Mainland Britain already potentially has the four in Labour, Liberal, Conservative and UKIP. These days, there is not much centre-right about the Conservatives, but having to compromise with the Liberal Democrats will force them to modify the policies they actually govern with, even if they dream of a harsher style in their hearts. Had there been a Labour-Liberal coalition instead, there would have been a different set of compromises, but once again they would have forced each other to keep to ideas likely to command wide support.

Jersey only has the centre-left JDA for now, however. Thus, Jersey voters, unless they are really sure they want to support the JDA, vote for independents, who mostly turn out to be conservatives in practice. Plenty of voters are disappointed in how their choices turn out, but without the clear indication of general direction provided by formal parties, those choices can only be more guesswork than anything. Clear party allegiances would make what policies they could vote for or against much clearer to voters, and especially the potential voters who are too overwhelmed by the difficulty of deciding, and make abstentions the poll-topper in most electoral districts,. In a multi-party democracy, where the expectation is for a coalition, and a government can fall by throwing away the support of its junior partner, each party would have to pitch for the backing of its rivals, as well as the voters, and so would have to refrain from plans that were not moderate and serious.

When Jersey had its committee system government, it effectively functioned as a coalition of everyone, and, although it occasionally vacillated irritatingly on difficult dilemmas, it generally had legendary stability. It is unlikely to return, however, so we must look forward to getting what we now have, instead, right. Drawing the Council of Ministers from a wider base may cramp individual styles a little, but it would probably result in a concern for leading the public where they actually wanted to go replacing the current arrogance and hubris; If so, this would be a huge improvement. The only way to drive the creation of a more diverse government, though, is parties and party coalitions.

So, let us have strong democracy instead of strong government, and create the parties by which we can be counted when we stand up for what we believe in.

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