The End of Representative Politics?

Opinion

William Hogarth's engraving "Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington". Credit: Wikipedia

The following notes on the future of democratic representation were inspired by Simon Tormey’s The End of Representative Politics (2015), launched at a Gleebooks event organised by the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN), May 15th 2015.
 

Whatever is happening in the field of party politics within the old parliamentary democracies? Why is mass membership of political parties a thing of the past? How come politicians are so disrespected, turnout rates volatile and elections often treated as pay-back moments by angry citizens?

A handful of clues is provided by the 2015 UK General Election, whose dynamics and results have attracted great global attention and floods of commentary on such matters as the break-up of Britain, the possible exit of Britain from the European Union and the dismal failure of the Labour Party to win over those parts of the middle class convinced there’s no alternative to the mean clampdown politics of austerity. The 2015 election was undoubtedly a media event extraordinaire. For a few days, it even featured robust debate about the failings of a first-past-the-post electoral system that awarded only one seat each to UKIP, which won 3.8 million votes, and to the Greens, who won 1.1 million votes.

By contrast, media assessments of the ocean of public disaffection on which the ship of Westminster and its parliamentary elections are now floating have been rare. During the days following the election, for instance, I rummaged in vain to find within the British press commentaries on the steady decline of voter turnout since 1950 (the United Kingdom now ranks 76th in world turnout rankings). I also couldn’t find any analysis of the number of citizens who actually voted for the return of a Tory government now blessed (thanks to the electoral system) with a thumping absolute majority in the House of Commons. I was forced to do my own calculations, to discover (on an overall turnout of 66.1%) that a mere 24.4% of adult citizens actually cast their vote for the new Conservative government.

Journalists and public commentators wilfully or blindly ignored such figures and long-term trends. Some did lament the way television broadcasters successfully managed to push ‘horse-race’ coverage, for instance by emphasising just how close the contest was between the Conservatives and Labour, why a Labour/SNP coalition government was a real possibility, and whether or not such a government could handle the fragile economy. Other commentators chose instead to bang on about the surprise result, and why it happened. Or they noted the end of Duverger’s Law, which states that first-past-the-post systems typically produce two-party systems.

Missing in these reports was any sense of the several ways, slowly but surely, parliamentary democracy in Britain is drifting backwards, heading towards a 21st-century version of late 18th-century politics. By this provocative analogy I mean to highlight the way present-day parliamentary politics is coming to be dominated by such 18th-century facts as the capture of government by the rich, the weakening of independent parliamentary powers and the near-collapse of mass political party organisations. The regressive trend includes as well cuts to welfare support for permanently poor people (1 in 5 of the UK population, 13 million people, now live below the official poverty line). Elections that bear more than a passing resemblance to pork-barrel plebiscites, widespread public mockery and disaffection with politics on high and tough law-and-order measures designed to spy on and control ‘harmful activities’ are also part of the same backsliding.

Rough Music Politics

These are mere tendencies, yes. But they’re to be found within many other parliamentary democracies, and that is why, to extend the 18th-century simile, ‘rough music’ politics is everywhere returning to their streets, parks and fields. In practically every existing parliamentary democracy, the disaffected and excluded are expressing their annoyance in unconventional ways. Once upon a time, as Edward Thompson famously pointed out, the 18th-century poor and powerless and pissed off expressed their indignation through ritual, revelry and riot. Raucous ear-shattering noise, unpitying laughter and the mimicking of obscenities were the weapons of the weak. In France, such practices were called charivari (Italians spoke of scampanate; the Germans Katzenmusik), while in late eighteenth-century Britain the protests paraded under such strangely obsolete names as ‘shallals’, ‘riding the stang’ and ‘skimmingtons’, rowdy parades expressing moral disapproval featuring effigies of the proxy victims.

The End of Representative Politics

Today, in the much-changed, media-saturated circumstances of the 21st-century, rough music assumes different forms, as Simon Tormey convincingly shows in his newly-published work, The end of representative politics. The book is a precious gem. A genuinely original contribution to the field, it’s a beautifully crafted slim essay with a big thesis: we are living through the end of an aura, says Tormey, the slow but sure decline of legitimacy and vibrancy of party politics and representative government. ‘We are moving, remorselessly, away from representation and representative politics towards styles and modes of politics that engage us immediately, directly, now.’ Symptomatic is the world-wide flourishing of what Tormey calls ‘immediate or non-mediated politics’: flash protests, occupations, hacking, boycotts, Facebook- and Twitter-led campaigns, circles, pinging and micro-parties. Concerned active citizens, he says, are no longer patiently prepared to wait until election time to express their concerns. Harnessing state-of-the-art media ‘they seek to make their views, anger, displeasure, known immediately, now.’

Tormey examines the causes of the declining aura of representative politics. He’s right to say that the peccadilloes of politicians and the politics of enforced austerity are not the principal drivers of the trend. There are multiple deep causes, including such peculiarly modern factors as the collapse of old collective identities, like belonging to a working class community, individualisation and the spread of globalised capitalism. The weakening of parliaments by the massive expansion of executive state powers and the outsourcing of political decisions to corporate and cross-border bodies might have been added to the list. A more thorough analysis of the rapid contemporary growth of communicative abundance would have been helpful as well. But these oversights are minor blemishes in an outstanding book that most definitely is on to something of epochal political importance.

Its potent analysis naturally prompts the curly question of whether, as the title suggests, we’re living through times that count as the end game of representative politics. ‘It’s the end of the paradigm, the “metanarrative”’, answers Tormey. ‘Much of the enthusiasm has gone for the classical model of representative politics and all the paraphernalia that went with it: a belief in the essentially benevolent or well-intentioned motives of those who would represent; a belief that our deepest needs and interests are best off in some other person’s hands than our own; a belief that joining a traditional mass party will prove the best use of our time and energies as engaged citizens. The props fall away; but the superstructure is still intact.’

 

This is the first half of a longer article originally published in The Conversation. Read the full version of the original article here

Author(s)
John Keane

University of Sydney

Countries/Regions
United Kingdomglobal
Published Date
May 20, 2015