Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Cargo Cult Politics

I don't know for sure whether this is truth or just a very plausible urban myth: In the early 1940's the USA were fighting a war against Japan across the Pacific Ocean, amongst other simultaneous and related conflicts. They posted American garrisons on numerous islands, and supplied them at least in part by parachute drops on the makeshift airstrips. The indigenous Polynesians, with a sharp eye for the detail of the process, but no clue about the wider picture, took to marking out their own imitation airstrips in the vain hope of tempting the sky-gods to drop them some free provisions, too. I have no idea whether any confused airman ever did accidentally encourage them in their error by mistaking the native sites for the US Army drop zones, but they allegedly persisted for some years with a “cargo cult”, believing, with more modest theology and vastly more evidence than the world's major religions, that, if they only marked out the ground exactly right, free food would come out of the sky for them.

I shall return to that subject to make a comparison, later, but next I must take a different approach towards my point.

Jersey politics has had a very weak party tradition in recent decades. There have been a handful of minor parties come and go over the years, but in my lifetime they have always been swamped by the independents, in a reversal of the usual order where the major parties compete against one another while the independents constitute the political jungle's undergrowth. Most informed observers agree that there has been a bloc of powerful politicians acting as a de facto party, but the informality of the arrangement saves them from the usual degree of accountability to their activists, let alone their voters.

Many politically interested people would prefer there to be normal party politics, as enjoyed by most of the free world, but it is a weary task to bring it about. I myself have been involved in two attempts to launch a party somewhere to the left of the ruling non-party, one of which soon disintegrated, and the other of which is approaching its fifth anniversary in rather poor shape.

The Jersey Democratic Alliance set out to be a proper, quasi-professional organised party, drawing heavily on founder Ted Vibert's years of experience in the Australian Labour Party, as well as Geoff Southern and Tony Keogh's backgrounds as UK Labour Party supporters in their youth. It has a carefully written formal constitution with fairly clear, but not impracticably restricted aims. It is structured like a real party, and takes pains to present itself like a real party. Jersey needs at least one and preferably three more parties to make party politics work here again, though. And, at present there are none. Should you google the Jersey Conservative Party, you will find an internet presence of sorts, but the party itself really could meet in a telephone box, were the second member a more delicately built man. And there is no longer anything else.

So, we do not have a functional party system, and any hope of developing one is still over the horizon. Worse though, is that, instead of providing a template for its future rivals, the JDA has itself lapsed into profound dysfunctionality.

In its early years, the hope of the JDA was to provide some alternative policies by which the island could be governed. Even if it did not command an actual majority, a bloc holding the balance of power would have had enough leverage to see through at least some of its manifesto. That, to me seemed the fundamental purpose of a political party. However, as the years dragged by with nothing of substance achieved, the attention of the party leadership has gradually shifted to the other things that parties do: Insult and bully their opposite numbers – check. Indulge in rabble-rousing publicity stunts – check. Put out glossy pamphlets of insubstantial spin – check. Get with the 21st Century by putting the pamphlet content and more on a slick professionally run website – check. But all those things are incidental activities, not the core purpose. The PR Quango Jersey Finance can boast of getting laws in double figures passed every year, whereas the JDA, a proper party, achieves little more than an occasional amendment. But legislation and administrative policy are its core purposes. If it is neither providing those, nor substantially influencing those who do for the better, then it is fundamentally failing.

The spin and insults and stunts are cargo-cult politics, the lights along the edge of the strip. If they are not laying them around the real drop zone then they are so much wasted effort. There is enough wisdom gathered in the JDA leadership to know better than what they are now doing, at heart. For party politics to prosper once more here, however, they need to return to a clear focus on alternative policies to the establishment non-party, that challenges the supporters of both the mainstream and other alternative policies to likewise organise and formalise the promotion of their own viewpoints.

Unless the mainland UK parties set up local branches, which is unlikely, given the different priorities and occasional conflicting interests of our island politics, there is not really the scale to operate as if our parties were Westminster or Washington operations. Jersey parties must by necessity be mainly amateur operations, perhaps hiring a freelance expert or contractor for some tasks, but all of them too small to carry any paid staff. Thus, they must take care to distinguish between the trappings of a national party and the core business of any party, and concentrate on the latter. The JDA are failing to do this at present, and so letting down all those voters they would or used to speak for. The General Election is now only a few months away. They need to be living down the futile and embarrassing stunts like putting a sitting member into a by-election or presenting a petition that shows that a minority of people would like to have the Treasury Minister sacked, and, instead, setting the agenda for the Election campaign by laying out clear and credible policy alternatives once again. Promoting a lecture on how the finance industry could survive a global clampdown on tax avoidance by Richard Murphy was a good start; now they need to go down that road in earnest.


Anonymous said...

I like your attempt to open up a discussion on party politics. I will come back and comment further but want to take up two misconceptions.

Party in politics is based around vested interest. In a capitalist society that is essentially the division between labour and the owner of capital. From that come a variety of parties seeking to hold onto power by the owners of property. Only in the 19th century with the growth of the workers movement, of socialism and later communist parties, was there a serious challenge to the rule of property. The outcome was social gains such as those of the Popular Front in France in 1936; in other place it was bloody counter-revolution, as in Germany and Spain, attempts to throw off the old order by the working classes, ended in failure.

I feel you fundamentally misunderstand what is required in Jersy. We live in a one party state. The island is run by and for the owners of property. There is no challenge to this. The façade of democracy is there but it does not function. Hence 80 abstention at elections.

Of the JDA. The JDA is not a Left organisation; it never was. It serves up centre right politics for the confused and has a certain appeal in the absence of anything better. Its leasership has been poor , hence the history of rise and fall, rise and even bigger fall. From five hundred member to half a dozen.

Their “futile and embarrassing stunts like putting a sitting member into a by-election “, was not an error or futile. It was an attempt to stamp the party identity and to kill the final remnants of populism in Jersey – the Cult of the Personality as personified by JJ Le Marquand , a right wing populist , or Stuart Syvret, a right wing populist.

You have little comprehension of politics if you do not understand the importance of the GST/Ozouf’s head Petition. Comments such as “presenting a petition that shows that a minority of people would like to have the Treasury Minister sacked,” indicates you are naive and have fallen into the reading of events organised by the government media, and in particular the JEP. Alas the Jersey people are rather slow and docile, not really understanding anything to complex and certainly unaware how easily they are manipulated. They are good folks, but essentially peasants without much political consciousness, except to defend petty property.
The guys in suits just laughed and set up their banks to pump money around everywhere except to the poor peasants.

More later if you want.

Ugh, It's Him! said...

Certainly I would like more later: I am always happy to publish intelligent and serious comments, whether they agree with me or not.

Your argument seems to have an underlying Marxist analysis. However, while it would be sheer ignorance not to acknowledge Marx as one of history's most important thinkers, I am unconvinced that he was quite right in his own time, and am convinced that he is obsolete in ours.

Neither labour nor capital are monolithic blocs in the 21st century West; Weber's slightly more recent theory of complex stratification seems much nearer the mark. While the elite will always have more capital than the rest of us - that is one of the things that makes them the elite - there are far more capital assets owned by employees and tradesmen now than in past centuries, placing many of them in the no-man's land between the Marxist poles.

I would suggest that it would be easier for people to find parties that represent their vested interests in a four party system; left, centre-left, centre-right and right. This offers a number of permutations for coalitions, which, by obliging parties to compromise, keep them from excessively antagonising groups beyond their own support. A quite separate matter is that once people have adequate food and shelter, those with integrity sometimes side with another party than their vested interest group as a matter of principle.

The rump of the JDA is an increasingly left organisation. When I joined at the inaugural rally, the phalanx of small businessmen on stage did hold out hope of a centre-right party, and once they had gone I was still comfortable with the mildly centre-left second incarnation, and in fact worked quite hard for it. But it has now sold itself to Unite and become the Jersey Labour Party in all but name, and "Old Labour" at that.

The election stunt failed to stamp the party identity, though. It was generally seen as as an attempt at personality cult politics by Geoff Southern, a left wing would-be populist, who did not turn out to be very popular.

My English may be rather dull, but I am quite good at simple Arithmetic. I don't need government media to work out that the "Sack Ozouf" petition gained the signatures of just under one-ninth of the population. Enough to be a powerful shot across Phil's bows, but a long, long way short of enough to pose a moral imperative. for him to jump or be pushed.

I don't dispute your final conclusion, though.

Anonymous said...

A different take was posted some time ago at a View from the West.
party politics

Anonymous said...

The party is the Modern Prince I know. However, there is another divide that makes that of Left and Right, less significant. It is the divide between authoritarian and libertarian. Jersey politics is firmly authoritarian across the board to a man, save one drummer boy. Therein lies the problem. I care not one jot for Jersey Labour Party, "Old Labour", mildly centre-left, centre right or right of centre or simply centre; they all use the whip and those that do not possess one dream of it.

The drummer boy will drum on and the fifer will play a song of Liberty.

Viva el POUM!