Saturday, 11 June 2011

Puppets or Leaders?

Puppet or leader? Generally, most politicians are one or the other, and it is very much a matter of taste which you prefer to have in office.

By puppet, I mean that many candidates are put up by their backers to be mouthpieces for their backers' views. In the Jersey context I mostly concern myself with, that usually means cronyism amongst lawyers, accountants and those businessmen who move in the same social circles. You may have a superficial democratic choice between, for instance, the Freemason, the yachtsman and the United Club regular, but they all sing off the same sheet when it comes down to it. Once in a while, they may give a personal hobby-horse a little push, but mostly they are there to make up the numbers to vote the way the real leaders order.

A different slant on puppet politicians is that of left-wing parties and factions. In the name of expressing the will of the people, or bottom-up democracy, their politicians are expected to push the policies and cast the votes that their backers have themselves voted to instruct them to.

You may have guessed, from my choice of the pejorative term “puppet”, that, despite being an avowed democrat, and a left-winger by Jersey's skewed standards, I am none too keen on this model of representation, myself. I see two big flaws: Firstly, a matter of principle. The real decisions this type of politician implements are made by others behind them, unchosen by the public vote. This seems profoundly undemocratic to me. Secondly, the practical consequence is that the parliamentary process is completely vitiated if any significant number of members are turning up under previous orders to vote a particular way. Ben Shenton has already claimed that the debates no longer matter, because everything has been sewn up behind closed doors. The more that members are mandated by their backers, the worse this problem becomes.

Reading and listening to the news and the odd opinion piece may give us all a few shallow ideas about what is going on and what should be done. The purpose of a professional political class, though, is to read the reports and listen to the debates on behalf of those of us who haven't the time, and make better informed judgements than we can for ourselves. Asking people to read, listen, think and decide for us is a far bigger task than just asking them to do what we tell them, so we must choose who carefully to make it work. There are Members of the States of Jersey who do work in this way of course, although, unfortunately, too many of them seem to end up as backbenchers rather than ministers.

The other kind of politician is the leader. Instead of being a front for others, they recruit supporters to give backing to their principles and judgement. This can easily end in tears, as history, and even current affairs, are full of examples of unsavoury dictators finding the wrong kind of supporters to impose the wrong kind of ideas on the rest of their nation. However, it is also the only way to have a properly valid public mandate in a functional democracy. If more people have said “I trust you best to make the calls.” than did so for anyone else, then you can get on with the job without serious challenge.

The really perplexing scenario would be for the candidates with the best manifestos to be pledged to dance to party tunes and those with minds of their own all to be hellbent on paddling us further up the creek. Then it would be really hard to choose. I think I would go for the best manifesto, but I would not really have a lot of confidence in their personal ability, if they needed others in the shadows to tell them what to do.

The big problem with pre-mandated politicians is that, instead of them making their decisions on the strength of the facts in the detailed reports, and the arguments made in public parliamentary debate, their decisions are made for them by amateurs who don't have have the time to study all the facts, on the strength of news reports, gossip, prejudice and caprice, without any effective scrutiny or input by the voting public at large. This may well be commonplace reality, but it is also a failure of democratic principle, not an expression of it.

To summarise; although other ways can and do exist, the optimum model for party politics is for the parties to get behind their leaders, not to put them up as front men. Party hacks are even less desirable than chaotic independents.


Tom Gruchy said...

Not quite sure what you are actually supporting here. Trying to please everybody I suspect.

The most important political group that is/are largely missing from Jersey politics is/are the Trades Unions. There are many TU members in Jersey and by their very nature - these groups should be half-way towards a political alignment. But they are generally not involved unless something very specific about wages or TU law comes up. TUs in Jersey tend not to be involved in housing or other social issues yet they could be very effective lobbying and educational forums for interested people of all backgrounds.

Other important groups such as doctors or nurses and teachers also tend not to get involved in discussions about even their own fields of expertise. Thus a great deal of specialist knowledge is kept out of the political arena. When did you last hear of Jersey doctors campaigning on medical matters in the Island?

(Para removed here to comply with word limit).

Anybody who has ever tried to set up a "reforming" group will know how difficult it is get those with specialist knowledge involved in Jersey.
But the fear that "puppets" will be the likely result of forming parties must surely be less likely once they become successful. Smaller groupings are inevitably susceptible to manipulation from within or without.
On the other hand, worked examples of "reformers" having achieved "ministerial" office in Jersey government are very few and hardly beacons of success.
Norman Le Brocq enjoyed a sort of "party" backing but in reality he did his own independent thing and sold out his "socialist" beliefs to chair the IDC and produce his own capitalist Island Plan. His "party" really had no role in his government career.

Jimmy Johns and Jerry Dorey similarly had only brief "ministerial" periods and were not restrained by any party disciplines.
Alan Breckon, like several others, has been a member of parties or groups and TUs but has not noticeably spoken for any on a consistent basis over the years. He really does his own thing too.
Judy Martin used to be a "party" member but not a visible supporter of a "party dogma" that I am aware of - either in the past or now that she has more or less been gobbled up as an assistant minister. RIP Judy et al.

Stuart Syvret claims to have been the wild-child of ministerial politics but his removal from office was not built upon any party or even organised ideology that I know of. That he was able to be appointed at all might seem remarkable in retrospect but in fact, the health service is not recognisably any different as a result of his years in office. Like Norman Le Brocq, he just carried on with business as normal until his particular ceiling collpased.

His "Green party" affiliations never had any significance from a mandate point of view simply because there never was a "Jersey Green Party". That is the eternal problem - how can a "party" become big and be influential unless it has elected members who are in the States to implement the party members wishes? Chickens and eggs...

This October we shall see the same several dozen "progessives" all failing to unite under a common banner before the bewildered and bemused electorate, "Vote for ME" will be the almost universal call rather than for an agreed and coordinated policy plan.

Stuart keeps reminding us that we get the government we deserve. Well, of course it as all the fault of all of us but for those who aspire to be progressive reformers, there really is a need for some more resolute cooperation.
By any other name, parties are needed and not evrybody will agree with all their policies all the time. A political system should be able to live with that.

Ugh, It's Him! said...

I feared I was more displeasing everybody, actually. I do want to see party politics successfully developed in Jersey, but I want "top-down" leadership in them. I see the "bottom-up" approach some of my leftier friends talk about as too vulnerable to capture by factions one step removed from the main democratic process. Consider Militant Tendency in 80's UK. Not what I am looking for here, thanks.