Democracy needs political parties and they need activists: A response to Mark Thompson

The Liberal Democrat blogger Mark Thompson is a Liberal Democrat no more. He explains that this is not because he’s disenchanted with the Liberal Democrats per se but with political parties in general.

The impetus for me to leave is really because politics is broken. The Westminster Village is obsessed with who managed to shout the best for 5 minutes and get their friends to jeer and point at the other side just after midday on a Wednesday. They genuinely seem to think it matters. I very rarely even bother watching PMQs any more. They insist on speaking in sound bites and clichés and point-blank refuse to answer questions thinking that their “clever” evasions can’t be seen for precisely what they are. The tribal nature of much of what goes on drives me nuts. Labour have been the worst for this in recent years castigating the current government for doing things that they would almost certainly have done themselves and in a number of cases were actively planning to. But none of the main parties are free from this sort of thing. It reduces politics to a bunch of silly games where tiny nuances are picked up on and there are a million hidden rules that only highly experienced practitioners of the “art” of politics are aware of. That’s one of the reason so many of them are now former SpAds. It is only by immersing yourself in this culture for decades that you can learn these rules. People who may have spent most of their lives doing something else much more worthwhile aren’t aware of them and thus struggle to become part of the inner circles of real power being seen as ingénues who have little to offer. Sarah Woolaston, a woman who spent most of her life as a doctor is an excellent example of this.

None of this is specifically the fault of the Lib Dems. But they are complicit in it. They have 57 MPs. They are part of the government. They have tried to change some of this but on the constitutional and political reform front they have utterly failed. Again I am not blaming them particularly. The forces of conservatism in Labour and the Tories closed ranks to ensure AV (what would have been a very minor, positive change) was a failure and they killed Lords reform too. Those who sneer that the Lib Dems are to blame themselves for all of this fail to recognise just how far the status quo will go to preserve itself.

I joined the Lib Dems over 5 years ago in the hope that I could be part of something that would advance electoral reform, move the government’s drugs policy in a positive direction and improve civil liberties. On the first two we are further away than we were when I joined*. The third one has been a case of two steps forward in some areas (e.g. ID cards) but two steps back in others (e.g. secret courts).

I have become convinced that real change needs to come from outside of the three main parties now. I’m not calling for a Brand-esque revolution or telling people they shouldn’t vote. That was totally irresponsible. I will certainly be voting at the next election and I may well vote for the Lib Dems. I have been interested in some of what the Green Party has to say although some of their more statist policies turn me off. I am also interested in the nascent Pirate Party philosophy. But the truth is I have had enough of being a member of a party for now. I only joined at the age of 34 having spent the previous two decades as a highly politically engaged lone wolf. Perhaps that is my natural state.

I think that love them or loathe them groups like 38 Degrees and the TPA have shown how much outside groups can influence things. The power of political parties is waning. The financial crisis has shown the limits of business as usual and yet nothing his really changed yet. We have a political system that was designed hundreds of years ago and it is utterly unfit for the world we now live in. But I see and hear very few people agitating for the sort of fundamental change we need. And I include myself in that criticism. I have on occasion bemoaned one or other aspect of it but being a member of one of the main parties, attending the conferences, speaking on the media as a member, posting leaflets, canvassing for them and generally doing all that a good party member should has made it difficult for me to say what I really think and has ultimately become untenable for me.

There is little there that I disagree with. However, it misses the bigger picture. There may indeed be advantages to campaigning outside parties rather than within them. Though it should be said that pressure groups are hardly immune to closed mindedness or triviality – a point that Thompson’s example of the Tax Payers Alliance illustrates rather well.

The more important point though is that whatever its deficiencies we still need party politics. In fact, efforts to promote democracy in the developing world include promoting political parties. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy explains why:

Political parties are central to representative democracy and to the process ofvdemocratisation. They connect society and the state. They aggregate and represent interests. They recruit political leaders. They disseminate political information. They socialise citizens into democratic politics. They manage conflicts of interest and, very importantly in societies that have recently experienced violent conflict, they can offer a forum for social and political integration, a tool for nation-building. Democracy in the modern world is inconceivable without healthy parties and an effective party system. Such a system exists where the number of genuine parties is neither too small (a highly polarised system) nor too large (highly fragmented). It offers meaningful choices to the electorate. The relations among the parties display a responsible attitude towards the practice of political competition. And the parties connect with society.

The presence of an institutionalised party system means that society can hold elected politicians to account for their performance in office and their role as the people’s representatives. The public standing of the political parties – and of politicians themselves – benefits when the parties and the party system are in good health. Strategies to establish and consolidate democracy that ignore the central role of parties cannot hope to be successful, no matter how much attention they pay to other vital matters such as building civil society and the institutions of good governance.

So while I understand and respect Thompson’s reasons they seem misguided. If we need political parties, and they need activists and members if they are going to mean anything

Want to understand UKIP? Look at their bike policy

Not beloved of UKIP

Not beloved of UKIP

Conservative Week continues. Having looked at the philosopher who represents the best of conservatism, we look at the party that represents the worst of it: UKIP. I argue that their policy on cycling is microcosm of their ugly worldview

Ummm…wouldn’t their policy on Europe be the key one?

Not really. It’s not the most salient issue for UKIP supporters by any stretch.

Ok but bikes certainly aren’t either

No but it’s a microcosm for their wider attitudes.

So what do they say about bikes?

Their 2010 manifesto had the following to say:

10.2 We believe that there needs to be a better balance of rights and responsibilities for pedal cyclists, with too much aggressive abuse of red lights, pedestrian crossings and a lack of basic safety and road courtesy.

10.6 UKIP would consult on the desirability of minimum third party liability insurance cover for cyclists – a simple annual flat rate registration ‘Cycledisc’, stuck to the bicycle frame, to cover damage to cars and others, which are currently unprotected. The Cycledisc should also carry clear identification details, which will help counter bicycle theft, and deter dangerous cyclist behaviour. We support provision of cycle parking at
reasonable charges.

10.7 UKIP believes that basic cycle and safety training should be made mandatory, and be funded in schools or via local authorities. UKIP supports the campaign work of national cycling organisations.

10.9 Local authorities should be given additional powers to enforce a ‘cyclists dismount’ or ‘no cycling’ regulation where there are safety concerns – such as on busy roundabouts, junctions or bus lanes, or where the road would be too narrowed by cycle lanes and cause
unacceptable delays to traffic

So they don’t like bikes?

Apparently not.

Indeed one UKIP candidate accused cyclists of “thieving from paying road users” and of being “by far the most undisciplined road users” who were deserving of “more police attention.” By contrast “cars are not a danger to other road users.”

So what does this tell us about UKIP?

I’ve already argued on this blog that the Conservative party is essentially about defending the interests of “our people” and that UKIP is essentially the Tories on steroids.  And cyclists are not UKIP’s people.

UKIP’s support is concentrated amongst older voters. By contrast, cyclists tend to be young.


UKIP’s to be hostility to cycling is founded on misapprehensions.

They worry it’s dangerous but this looks at it the wrong way. The evidence is that far from being dangerous – the benefits of the extra exercise dwarf the risk of accidents.

Nor are cyclists a particular menace to others. Between 2001 and 2009, cyclists caused just 18 deaths, while drivers were responsible for 434 3,495.

And the ‘road tax’ that cyclists supposedly avoid was abolished in 1937. Now roads are funded out of general taxation that cyclists pay just like everybody else.

In short, UKIP’s attacks on cyclists – like those on immigrants – represent the irrational anger and resentment of “their people” against everyone else.

Saturday Suggestions: the global LGBT split, America’s mad censors and its radical youth, and Paul Krugman’s European errors

Our weekly series sharing some of the more interesting things I’ve read this week

The LGBT Global Values Gap by Christian Caryl (Foreign Policy)

There’s one aspect of the controversy [over the Sochi Olympics], though, that hasn’t come in for much discussion. There’s every indication that the fight over the Olympics merely dramatizes a much longer and deeper split between the nations of the West, where citizens are growing increasingly tolerant towards their LGBT compatriots, and a large bloc of other countries where anti-gay sentiments are, if anything, becoming even more entrenched.

Don’t get me wrong: This is not to discount the forces of intolerance that, goodness knows, remain strong in various parts of the United States and Europe. But the trends are fairly clear: young people in the West, many of whom increasingly have openly LGBT friends or acquaintances, steadily demonstrate less of an inclination to demonize their peers on the basis of their sexual orientations. A remarkable 2011 study of international attitudes by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles Law School tracks the evolution quite clearly: from 1991 to 2008, the number of Americans who described homosexuality as “always wrong” dropped from 67.4 percent to 53.6 percent. (Polls that have tracked American sentiments on the issue over the past five yearsshow even more dramatic movement toward tolerance.)

The shift is increasingly finding expression in laws excluding discrimination and allowing for equal civil rights, up to and including single-sex marriage. (Just this week, on Nov. 7, for example, the United States Senate passed a law dramatically upgrading workplace protections for gay and transgender Americans — another big step forward.)

Yet the situation is starkly different in other parts of the world. When, according to the Williams Institute study, pollsters asked Russians in 1991 if being gay was “always wrong,” 58.7 percent of them agreed with the sentiment; by 2008, that percentage had gone up to 64.2. It’s hard to see how this number is going to improve, given that the recently passed law will likely make it even harder for LGBT Russians to be open about their preferences, thus diminishing the already small number of Russians who have personal contact with (as Russian officials grimly refer to it) “people of non-traditional sexual orientations.” The increasingly prominent political role of the Russian Orthodox Church, which propagates unapologetically homophobic views, is also a factor. And I question whether younger Russians — who make up the bulk of the participants at the nationalist rallies like the one we saw in Moscow earlier this week — are necessarily more tolerant than their elders.

These Films Prove Why Movie Ratings Are Insane by Jordan Zakarin (Buzzfeed)

One movie that comes out next weekend features a sweet old Catholic lady who goes searching for her long-lost son. Another is about a war-torn dystopian hellscape that celebrates and makes sport of children murdering each other. Which one was originally rated PG-13, and which film had to put up a public campaign to get that rating?

There was never any question that you’d be able to get into The Hunger Games: Catching Fire without a problem. But, until Wednesday afternoon, if you were under 17, you were going to need a parent or guardian to accompany you to see Judi Dench in the new dramedy Philomena……the MPAA, which employs 10 anonymous ratings board members whose rulings dictate what most American theatergoers can and can’t see, initially decided that the film is ill-suited for the ears of anyone younger than 17…all because the word “fuck” is used twice throughout the film’s two hours. It is, technically, one utterance of “one of the harsher sexually derived words” too many.


Going by the MPAA’s guidelines, there are strict tripwires for language and sexual content that trigger the R ratings, while the interpretation of how much violence is too much violence is left to subjective deliberation. The official guideline for a PG-13 film is that the violence is “generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent.” But over the years, the limits for the kind of carnage permitted in PG-13 movies have been pushed further and further. There has been no similar slack when it comes to the restrictions on language and sexuality; only on appeal do these movies have a chance of becoming PG-13.

Why the discrepancy? It is no coincidence that the film industry has self-segregated over the last decade, with the six major studios largely relying on big, violent franchise movies, and independent production companies focusing more on dialogue-heavy films.

The Rise of the New New Left by Peter Beinart (Buzzfeed)

It is these two factors—their economic hardship in an age of limited government protection and their resistance to right-wing cultural populism—that best explain why on economic issues, Millennials lean so far left. In 2010, Pew found that two-thirds of Millennials favored a bigger government with more services over a cheaper one with fewer services, a margin 25 points above the rest of the population. While large majorities of older and middle-aged Americans favored repealing Obamacare in late 2012, Millennials favored expanding it, by 17 points. Millennials are substantially more pro–labor union than the population at large.

Most striking of all, Millennials are more willing than their elders to challenge cherished American myths about capitalism and class. According to a 2011 Pew study, Americans under 30 are the only segment of the population to describe themselves as “have nots” rather than “haves.” They are far more likely than older Americans to say that business enjoys more control over their lives than government.  And unlike older Americans, who favor capitalism over socialism by roughly 25 points, Millennials, narrowly, favor socialism.

Paul Krugman’s Blind Spot by Anders Aslund

Krugman’s most spectacular failure has been his prediction of the dissolution of the eurozone. As Niall Ferguson has noted, Krugman “wrote about the imminent break-up of the euro at least eleven times between April 2010 and July 2012.” Well, that didn’t happen. Not only did the eurozone remain intact but in 2009, Slovakia joined, as did Estonia in 2011; Latvia is set to join in January 2014.

While anyone can make a mistake, Krugman’s error was more profound, indicating a lack of understanding. He treated the eurozone as primarily a system of fixed exchange rates, ignoring that it is a currency union with centralized clearing of payments. As the euro crisis evolved, uncleared payment balances piled up. The best way of dissolving these imbalances was by restoring confidence in the euro system, which the European Central Bank (ECB) has done, sensibly, since July 2012. A breakup of the eurozone, on the other hand, would have resulted in large debts and claims of the various members, leading to major financial destabilization.

In the last century, three multi-nation currency unions in Europe have endured disorderly breakups — namely the Habsburg Empire, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. In each case, the outcome was multiple hyperinflations from which several countries have still not recovered two decades later. To my knowledge, Krugman has never mentioned this aspect in print. Nor was it self-evident that the EU and its single market would survive if the euro system broke up. This was truly unchartered territory. However, ECB President Mario Draghi did understand the dangers, and in July 2012 he declared that ECB would “do what it takes” to save the euro. And while Krugman advised against saving the euro, he had (rightly) praised the “do what it takes” philosophy.

When it comes to fiscal policy, Krugman is single-minded in his focus on aggregate demand rather than supply, seemingly unaware of how constrained supply has been in the EU, not least because of overregulated labor and service markets. He has persistently favored fiscal “stimulus,” larger budget deficits, and slower fiscal adjustment. Today, the record is clear. The countries that have followed his advice and increased their deficits (the South European crisis countries), have done far worse in terms of economic growth and employment than the North Europeans and particularly the Baltic countries that honored fiscal responsibility.