Monday, 27 April 2015

Elections are for aristocrats

Celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta are very much underway:
Futures Forum: The Magna Carta comes to Sidmouth >>>>> lecture at Kennaway House: Friday 24th April
BBC marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta with Taking Liberties season - Media centre

The BBC and Parliament have made much of our 'democratic institutions':
Democracy Day - UK Parliament

But not everyone agrees:

Why the UK has little to celebrate on Democracy Day
by Dr Matthew Wood, 20 January 2015, posted on The Conversation
The BBC is marking 750 years since the first elected parliament at Westminster with a dedicated “Democracy Day”. Though Westminster is recognised as the cradle of representative democracy, there are indications it is not valued as such by the parliament which currently sits there.
The BBC’s Democracy Day celebration is hard to swallow for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the first “elected parliament” was chosen by a handful of aristocrats with little or no interest in democracy or “the people”.

Comment: Why the UK has little to celebrate on Democracy Day - News releases - News - The University of Sheffield

It could be said that our system is in fact 'aristocratic' - in that 'aristocracy' simply means the 'rule by the best' - that is, selecting those best to rule.

To quote one of America's Founding Fathers:

We are now explicitly agreed, in one important point, vizt. That "there is a natural Aristocracy among men; the grounds of which are Virtue and Talents."
Equality: John Adams to Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson, Adams, and the Natural Aristocracy by Philip J. Costopoulos | Articles | First Things

A year after the current Prime Minister was elected as such, the Telegraph chose to highlight his background:
David Cameron's uncle says voters want to be led by an aristocrat - Telegraph
And of course, there is the Bullingdon Club:
Osborne baronets - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
George Osborne: Chancellor with his high society Bullingdon Club at Oxford, Year Two - when things were looking up... | Daily Mail Online

Nevertheless, with or without such a background, the current system functions pretty much along the lines of an aristocracy:

A modern democracy is conducted by a small body of elected officials who make the laws and control the state. 
This fact has been taken by some to mean that modern democracy is really a kind of elite rule. In its strong form, this claim implies that modern democratic governments pursue the interests of an elite or aristocracy; the weak form claims no more than the evident fact that government is run by a relatively narrow class of people and leaves open the question of whose interests may be served by this arrangement.
Electoral representation and the aristocratic thesis - University Publishing Online

And several commentators have noticed the prevalence of a new 'hereditary' set of MP hopefuls:
Emily Benn, daughter of Labour dynasty, to run for Parliament - Telegraph
Too many MPs from political families, says Tory minister | Politics | The Guardian

Commentator Peter Oborne has called the formation of this modern elite as 'power without responsibility':

The Triumph Of The Political Class
'The Media Class and the Political Class share identical assumptions about life and politics. They are affluent, progressive, middle- and upper-middle class. This triumphant metropolitan elite has completely lost its links with a wider civil society.' (page 259)
An aristocracy that simply bequeaths money and social position to its children will eventually fall. And aristocracy that bequeaths the actual skills required to earn more money than everyone else is self perpetuating.
And self-legitimating. The old aristocracy was, I think, at least dimly aware that it wasn't quite fair for them to have what they had by mere virtue of being born to the right parents. But in the new aristocracy, it is rarely enough to just get born to the right parents; you also have to work very hard. (Higher earning men are now more likely to work more than 50 hours a week than are men in lower earnings quintiles.) Whatever the systemic injustices, it's also quite clear to everyone . . . even parasitic leeches of investment bankers . . . that their salaries only come as the result of frantic effort.
The ability of one's parents to confer such enduring advantages is obviously unfair. And while I don't want to say that a society cannot last that way--obviously, many have, for hundreds of years--I don't think it's healthy for society. It is hard to get civic engagement, or respect for the law, when the bottom 40% or so feels that the game is rigged.
The new meritocracy doesn't seem to be much better, on any dimension, than the old aristocracy. It's just more persistent, in every sense of the word.
The Tyranny of Meritocracy - The Atlantic

The meritocracy myth – what ever happened to the old dream of a classless society?

The evidence is clear: more equal societites are happier than unequal ones. Other countries achieve it - Britain must do better.
Equality of opportunity, when combined with gross inequality of outcome, is the worst possible recipe for a harmonious society. It engenders in the successful a sense that they have earned what they get, which transposes into a desire to expand still further their share of the national cake. Meanwhile, the unsuccessful believe that it is their fault that they are poor (as opposed to being the fault of ill birth or bad luck) and so they feel the weight of moral as well as of material failure. Such a society will be prone to all the diseases of human discontent: crime, jealousy, fracture, civil discord and even civil strife. It is therefore surprising that equality of opportunity is today the central creed of both Britain’s main national political parties. Indeed, in the words of the social historian David Kynaston (Guardian of 6th December) : “social mobility has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie causes to which it is almost rude not to sign up.”
This faith in meritocracy is surprising for the Tory party. The Tory party used to be the party of the aristocracy and of tradition. It was long sceptical about opportunity and took a century or two to be reconciled to democracy.
Today the Tory party trumpets its belief in meritocracy. Boris Johnson describes it in a graphic phrase as” allowing the right cornflakes to get to the top of the packet”, though he is sharp-elbowing his way up the Kellogs box despite his Eton education. So too his fellow alumni David Cameron who said it was the job of the government to raise the aspirations of people from poor backgrounds to get top jobs in public life.
But faith in meritocracy is even more surprising for the Labour party. Labour was traditionally wary of both legs of the equal opportunities/unequal outcomes combination.
The meritocracy myth – what ever happened to the old dream of a classless society?

Meritocracy is the political philosophy in which political influence is assigned largely according to the intellectual talent and achievement of the individual. Michael Young coined the term, formed by combining the Latin root "mereĊ" and Ancient Greek suffix "cracy", in his essay to describe and ridicule such a society, the selective education system that was the Tripartite system, and the philosophy in general.
The word entered the English language with none of the negative connotations that Young intended it to have and was embraced by supporters of the philosophy. Young expressed his disappointment in the embrace of this word and philosophy by the British Labour Party under Tony Blair in the Guardian in a commentary in 2001. [1]

The Rise of the Meritocracy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Down with meritocracy
The man who coined the word four decades ago wishes Tony Blair would stop using it
Michael Young Friday 29 June 2001
I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.
The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.
Much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realising the dangers of what he is advocating.
Underpinning my argument was a non-controversial historical analysis of what had been happening to society for more than a century before 1958, and most emphatically since the 1870s, when schooling was made compulsory and competitive entry to the civil service became the rule.
Until that time status was generally ascribed by birth. But irrespective of people's birth, status has gradually become more achievable.
It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.
Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.
A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education's narrow band of values.
With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.
Comment: Down with meritocracy | Politics | The Guardian

There are alternatives.

> Direct democracy:
Campaign for direct democracy GB
UKIP backs direct democracy and use of referendums - BBC News
Farage urges ‘direct democracy’ in bid to check government power - FT.com
Switzerland's System of Direct Democracy
Swiss direct democracy results in widespread discrimination against immigrants - 01 - 2013 - News archive - News - LSE 

> Participatory decision-making:

Democratic Decision Making Downtown | MonkeyBiz
Participative decision-making - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Futures Forum: Participatory Budgeting in East Devon
Futures Forum: Asking the community how to spend their money

> Recalling of MPs:
Recall of MPs Bill - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Voters to have power to remove MPs for serious wrongdoing - Press releases - GOV.UK
Recall plan for MPs 'is a stitch-up' - BBC News
MP recall: Zac Goldsmith's amendment defeated - BBC News

> Delegates or representatives:

Sod the Public: We Need Representatives, Not Delegates
16 comments 6 November 2009 Alex Massie
I don’t mean to pick on David Kerr, the SNP’s candidate in the Glasgow North-East by-election, because, frankly, every single one of the candidates would say something like this:
"My commitment to the people of Glasgow North East is that I will always put them first. My priorities are their priorities."
Really? Personally, I’d prefer it if an MP (or even a prospective MP) put his or her judgement first. I want MPs who will "stand up" (and vote) for what they think right, not merely follow the party line or pander to the presumed self-interest of their constituents. I want parliamentarians prepared to tell their electorate to take a hike, not MPs that act as though they’re suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. So I want them, on occasion, to treat the Whips’ Office with just as much disdain as I hope they will treat their constituents’ prejudices and preferences. I’d rather have men and women of independent mind "elected" from Rotten Boroughs than have Parliament be entirely subject to the whims and biases of the electorate. In other words, I want representatives, not delegates.
Representation: Representatives and Delegates — The DaftBlogger eJournal

> Lottery election/Sortition:

A 'lottery' electoral system could break our malaise
By Tim Dunlop 1 Oct 2014
PHOTO: The sortition voting system we could implement is not dissimilar to the system we use to select juries.(ABC Local: Jim Trail)
Perhaps it's time to overhaul our voting system and instigate a form of "lottery" whereby our MPs are elected on the basis of random sampling. It may not be perfect, but neither is our current system, writes Tim Dunlop.
The basic logic of voting is that it is the method by which we determine the will of the people. Free elections are therefore understood to be the cornerstone - the defining characteristic - of democratic governance.
No vote, no democracy is just about a truism.
But what if that's wrong? What if voting actually hampers democratic governance and is leading to undemocratic outcomes?
What if all the stuff we complain about in regard to our politicians - that they are unrepresentative, that they are out of touch, that they are in the pocket of various vested interests, that all they are really interested in is getting re-elected - what if all those problems are actually a by-product of voting itself?
Wouldn't it then make sense to get rid of voting? To choose our politicians by another method?
David Van Reybrouck is a Belgian historian and founder of the G1000 Citizens' Summit, and although he doesn't want to get rid of voting altogether, he does want us to think about other ways of deciding who governs us.
Reybrouck wants to replace traditional democratic voting with a combination of voting and sortition. That is, the drawing of lots.
Let me say at this point that I am not completely convinced by his argument, but I am sufficiently incensed by our current parliamentary democracy and its many failures to at least consider what he suggests.
Essentially sortition is a lottery, where political power is given to candidates on the basis of random sampling. It is not dissimilar to the system we use to select juries, and it is often used in other informal and semi-formal situations.

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