I can’t stand beige politics. Let me explain. Our electoral system is such that people cannot be themselves as politicians, they instead are the politicians that polling and focus groups tell them to be. In a word they are beige.
I have been saying this for a long time. Our politicians have become cerebral, thinking issues through, doing what focus groups think is right rather than what is actually right for the country.
It isn’t a secret that I like gut or visceral politicians, and the blood and guts that results from that.
Blogging is funny, when I start thinking about an issue or a idea often along comes a post somewhere else that helps to cement my thinking. This is the case with the issue of beige politics, and coincidentally it is also the term used. Charlie Stross explains.
Firstly the set up:
Here’s a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what’s happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There’s a hidden failure mode, we’ve landed in it, and we probably won’t be able to vote ourselves out of it.
Representative democratic government is theoretically supposed to deliver certain benefits:
- Firstly, it legitimizes principled, peaceful opposition within the constitutional framework; we have multiple parties, and the party in power doesn’t simply round up the opposition and have them thrown in a GULAG. They concede that the opposition may disagree with the party in power on precisely how the state must operate, but agree that it should operate: the difference is a civilized argument over details, not a knife-fight with totalitarian enemies.
- Secondly, it provides for an organized, peaceful succession mechanism. When a governing faction becomes unpopular, it can be voted out of office, and will go peacefully, knowing that eventually their successors will become unpopular in turn, and there’ll be another chance to take a bite of the apple. (Totalitarian governments tend to hang on until people start shooting at them, with a variety results we’ve recently had a refresher course in — Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran.)
What if the channels through which concerned people of goodwill who want to make things better enter the political process and run for election are fundamentally flawed?
I think representative democracy is flawed.
Our representative systems almost all run on a party system; even pure PR systems like that of Israel rely on a party list. (I could take out Israeli citizenship and run for the Knesset, but I’d be running as “the Charlie Stross Party”, not as myself: if I was a runaway success I’d need to find some extra representatives to tag along on my coat-tails.) Parties are bureaucratic institutions with the usual power dynamic of self-preservation, as per Michels’s iron law of oligarchy: the purpose of the organization is to (a) continue to exist, and (b) to gain and hold power. We can see this in Scotland with the SNP (Scottish National Party) — originally founded with the goal of obtaining independence for Scotland and then disbanding, the disbanding bit is now nowhere to be seen in their constitution.
We see this with political parties under MMP. We voted in MMP and threw out FPP, I didn’t but you know what I mean, precisely because people felt that they had lost control of the political process and it no longer represented them. What we got was just more of the same, but now it is even harder to get rid of dud politicians.The political parties have got more powerful not less. But not all of the political party…witness the troubles that Labour is now facing where the parliamentary wing are ignoring the wishes of the membership.
Per Michels, political parties have an unspoken survival drive. And they act as filters on the pool of available candidates. You can’t easily run for election — especially at national level — unless you get a party’s support, with the activists and election agents and assistance and funding that goes with it. (Or you can, but you then have to build your own machinery.) Existing incumbent representatives have an incentive to weed out potential candidates who are loose cannons and might jeopardize their ability to win re-election and maintain a career. Parties therefore tend to be self-stabilizing.
We are starting to see this develop. Mark my words, in coming years there will be increasing calls for state funding of political parties…that way the party hierarchy can maintain power over the system without having the annoyance of having to appeal to a mass membership.
The emergence of a class of political apparatchik in our democracies is almost inevitable. I was particularly struck by this at the CREATe conference, which was launched by a cookie-cutter junior minister from Westminster: aged 33, worked in politics since leaving university, married to another MP, clearly focused on a political career path. She was a liberal democrat, but from her demeanour, speech, and behaviour there was nothing to distinguish her from a conservative, labour, or other front-rank party MP. The senior minister from Holyrood was a little bit less plasticky, slightly more authentic — he had a Glaswegian accent! And was a member of the SNP! — but he was still one of a kind: a neatly-coiffured representative of the administrative senior management class, who could have passed for a CEO or senior bank manager.
Chris Hipkins, Grant Robertson, Darren Hughes, Jacinda Ardern…and that is just Labour.
Overall, the nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change. They have done so by converging on a common set of policies that do not serve the public interest, but minimize the risk of the parties losing the corporate funding they require in order to achieve re-election. And in so doing, they have broken the “peaceful succession when enough people get pissed off” mechanism that prevents revolutions.
National has this problem too…the hierarchy moves to constantly stamp out anyone who differs in opinion on issues like candidate selection and training. The Board of National is stuck in a morass of mediocrity and as a result are also stuck in patch protection. The time is fast approaching where there will be a sea change and unless parties embrace change then they will simply get rolled aside. Labour are feeling this now, National are about 5 years away from their sea change.
[T]he future isn’t a boot stamping on a human face, forever. It’s a person in a beige business outfit advocating beige policies that nobody wants (but nobody can quite articulate a coherent alternative to) with a false mandate obtained by performing rituals of representative democracy that offer as much actual choice as a Stalinist one-party state. And resistance is futile, because if you succeed in overthrowing the beige dictatorship, you will become that which you opposed.
It isn’t just national level politics, look at the morass of Auckland where a sallow, beige politician is currently running the city.