Vote early and vote often

The response to the election of Ed Miliband as new leader of the Labour Party was interesting not least because it was the occassion for various commentators to articulate their views on what counts as properly ‘democratic’. Julian Glover is The Guardian‘s resident apologist for the coalition, in the sense that he keeps writing these pieces which try to articulate the idea that the coalition reflects some sort of ‘intellectual powerhouse’ rather than, say, a political deal (what would be wrong with admitting this?). Today Glover came up with a very weak argument against equality, on the grounds that any argument which prioritises this value “overlooks the possibility that the actions needed to compel equality may be seen as unfair by those who do not benefit from them”. Er, yes, I suppose they might. This might be true of people earning lots of money who don’t want to pay higher, progressive taxes, just as it might be true of white South Africans benefitting from apartheid who might not have welcomed the onset of a new democratic dispensation. Glover goes on to claim that “An equally valid idea of a fair society may be one in which people are given the space and the right to strive for inequality: advantage achieved by their own efforts”, and then admits that this might all sound “horribly right wing“. It actually just sounds a bit dim (not much intellectual power-housing going on in this sort of argument), although it is certainly provocative to read Glover at the moment because he seems to be trying to articluate a kind of Nozickian-style hyper-individualistic take on coalition spending plans as not just unfortunate necessities but as positively welcome. Each to their own, I suppose, and Glover’s perspective does at least have the advantage of suggesting that ‘the Big Society’ idea at least has some intellectual substance to it compared to what passes as ‘orangist’ Liberal Democract thinking – it reminds one of how far the Big Society narrative departs from a fully-loaded ‘liberal’ individualism of the sort ascribed to ‘Thatcherism’, how far Cameron’s rhetoric for a long-time has been geared to transcending the burden of ‘there is no such thing as society’, and how far the Big Society is properly part of a ‘conservative’ tradition of thought with some intellectual weight.

Anyway, where was I? A few weeks ago, Glover described Ed Miliband’s victory as ‘peculiar and undemocratic’, without quite explaining why. It might have been peculiar, certainly, in so far as electoral college arrangements always generate some oddities; but the ‘undemocratic’ charge seems peculiar itself. Firstly, Ed Miliband won within the rules, of course, which no one contested. Secondly, though, the results indicate that Ed Miliband would actually have ‘won’ the election on just about any electoral system one can think of, if the ‘bias’  built into the unequal loading of the three-way division of the electoral college system between Labour MPs and MEPSs, party members, and members of affiliated organisations is lifted and one only looks at total number of individual votes casts for the Labour leader: he would have won under a first-past-the-post system counting first preferences (the system the Tory party uses); and he would have won under an alternative vote system which counted each indivual vote cast equally too (the system the Liberal Democrats use). It was only close because the votes of those individuals most likely to vote for Ed Miliband were systematically discounted in the electoral college system – quite legitimately, of course (the real issue in all this is whether one thinks trade union members should be enfranchised in this particular electoral system; and more broadly, this episode exposed the deeply undemocratic attitudes of many commentators to the position of trade unions in functioning liberal democracies).

Anyway, somehow Glover’s hyper-individualism seems connected for me with a certain sort of self-righteousness that is associated with current arguments about electoral reform, in which it is widely presumed that proportional representation is the preferred ideal against which any other alternative voting system is an unfortunate, temporary compromise. But what if PR harbours a horribly thin, de-racinated conception of political life, in which all that matters about politics is being counted as an individual bearer of opinions? There are other values worth considering, and across the spectrum from Tory (and not so Tory) worries about representing geographical communities to genuine concerns about accountability and efficiency, these seem worth acknowledging. I have always had a soft-spot for electoral geography, a much maligned field which actually has really interesting things to say about the politics of Politics, and one thing this field reminds us of is that ‘choosing an electoral system‘ is always a thoroughly interested, grubby, political act. We are about to experience, in the UK, at least 9 months of public debate about the fairness of different models of voting, and it will be interesting to see which democratic values are given most prominence as we publicy learn more about the pros and cons of different voting systems – the deafult assumption of ‘proportionality’ bundles up just some of the relevant values, certainly, but while it appears to be intuitively the most ‘fair’, it also tends to cover a series of mathematical problems which means that no purely proportional system is really possible, and might even mean that any imaginable democratic system must always contain an element of electoral dysfunction. The point of all this, I think, apart from any interest one might have in social choice theory or rationality, is that the mathematics of democracy reminds us that there is always a politcal, normative excess in any discussion of ‘fair’ procedures of the sort to which we are about to be subjected. Let’s see how much of this excess is allowed to be clearly articluated these next few months (this excess is precisely why elections are the place where the ‘the political’, in the sense this idea is conceptualised by post-structuralists like Mouffe or Ranciere, is routinely exposed and made public).

And, on a sort of related issue, there is a new podcast interview with Michael Dummett, on Frege, on philosophy bites. Dummett is one of the grand old men of English-language, Analytical philosophy, but kind of interesting despite that (!) – an anti-racist campaigner (who has reflected on the relevance or not of Frege’s anti-semitism for interpreting his philosophy), and author of an important theory of voting in precisely that same tradition mentioned above. A different model of engaged intellectual from the one we have inherited from the ‘Coninental’ tradition.

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