Games that People Play

Bill ClintonReplacing representative democracy with sortition would break the link between victory and power, end partisan tribalism and transform the governance of a nation into a mature decision-making process instead of the team sport it currently is, argues Daz Pearce.


About a month ago I was having a conversation with a mate who it's fair to say has politics that are well to the left of mine. Predictably enough, the topic was that of the Labour Party and equally unsurprisingly, our analyses of the situation as it stood headed off in rather different directions at quite an early stage. However, he raised two points which deserved nothing less than careful thought – one was 'the Clinton Paradox', the conundrum which faced Bill ahead of the 1992 presidential election. In short, there were two choices presented to the Democrats and their frontman ahead of that campaign were. First choice: pursue more obvious, recognisable and ideological left-of-centre positions on key policy areas to have a mandate for real change if successful (which, conversely, is also the strategy with the greatest risk of electoral failure).

The alternate choice was to effectively become a watered down, beige or vanilla version of their Republican opponents while amplifying the significance of what were really questions of degree rather than fundamental belief, principle, angle of approach or starting position. This also meant using the lexis of a social democrat to present policies that were not a radical departure from what was already in place – the throwing of a few rhetorical bones to your core supporters, while actually taking them for granted and focusing all your real efforts on the much-vaunted 'swing voters' who invariably end up the subject of focus groups (sound familiar?). The final analysis demonstrates that this was always the strategy more likely to win this first President Clinton the election, but once in office his mandate would be one for, at best, minor tweaks rather than major adjustments.

And it has to be asked...besides 'power for the sake of it' what's the point in that?

It's also fair to say that in terms of his approach towards party affiliation, my friend Chris isn't like most people. “The thing is,” he says, “people like me, genuinely left-leaning types – we haven't been in government for God knows how long and that New Labour crowd have been running the party, my party that I had to leave and then come back to, since the 1990s. Now it's finally the turn of people like me and they won't accept it." He left the Labour Party while they were in office, supported and then joined the Greens for a while before 'coming home' when Jezzamania and Momentum gave them a kick in the pants and a radical (albeit somewhat retro-tinged) makeover. If the world was full of people like Chris then representative democracy might work brilliantly, but it quite demonstrably isn't. This is just one of many things I rather like about the man.

In terms of mechanics, New Labour will be celebrating 20 consecutive years in office next year – even if the Blairite 'third way' policies were adopted and continued by the rehabilitated former 'poison brand' that is the Conservative Party under 'Call Me Dave' and now Chairman May. This is especially interesting as it leaves a substantial wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party far closer to their nominal opponents' platform than they are to their own leadership. It's clear to this impartial observer (and presumably many of you) that some sort of split and re-alignment process within both major parties would be ultimately best for all involved while also being highly necessary within the arrangement we currently have. That it probably will not happen, at least for a while longer, begs a different question regarding the nature and scale of the pull in the opposite direction.

When the fractious alliances that represent both major parties (and Labour in particular) call a temporary ceasefire amongst themselves ahead of the next set of local or national elections, it will be for two reasons. One, of course, is raw self-interest. Far from getting us 'the best and brightest' candidates our representative system has actually created a generation of truly dire career politicians, ill-suited to pretty much anything else and painfully aware that this is by far the best and most well-rewarded job they will ever have (the number who stand down voluntarily because they got a better offer somewhere else, or simply as a result of not liking it, is revealingly minuscule). The other is tribalism, a desire to win in the team sport that is representative democracy, and give the other lot a good kicking.

Television shows like the Daily and Sunday Politics serve as this sport's equivalent of Match of the Day

For Labour vs Tory, Democrat vs Republican or even more simply, the Red Team vs the Blue Team, you could just as easily substitute AC Milan vs Inter, Leinster vs Munster or the LA Raiders vs LA Rams. The game, the 'regular season' played out between elections culminates in the Grand Final, the 'Superbowl' where the winner takes all and for the loser a process of humiliation, self-examination and attempted regeneration begins, possibly under a new manager looking to bring fresh blood into the front line. Television shows like the Daily and Sunday Politics serve as this sport's equivalent of Match of the Day, complete with pundits on hand to offer analysis of recent results and current form, predictions on the likely outcome of upcoming 'fixtures' and, if close enough, the next showpiece event – be they the big one (the General, obviously) or some more minor elections (the political equivalent of the EFL Cup, maybe?).

Like failure in most sports, election defeat and time spent in the wilderness of opposition are accepted by 'fans' as part of the game. Something that our current postmodern and post-ideology age of politics has illuminated is that rivalry is based on the major parties trying to beat each other first – any fundamental difference in worldview comes second, if at all. Suppose one of AC Milan or Inter went into financial meltdown and were relegated a couple of divisions. It's likely that fans of the other would 1) laugh hysterically, engaging in wild schadenfreude while this unfolded and then, 2) direct their tribal hatred towards another 'big' team (i.e. Juventus), at least temporarily until their arch-rivals restored themselves to the top division. Adversaries have to be of comparable size for the whole thing to work, right?

Nor is it solely that you can't win all the time. I'm pretty sure that most hardcore supporters of political parties, like sports fans would either, 1) choose not to win everything if they could push a button and arrange for that to happen, or 2) they would do so but then get rather bored rather quickly. Without the war stories of failure, those wet nights when you lost in Doncaster, be it at football, rugby or in a by-election disaster, the value of whatever successes you have is diminished. The latter serves as vindication that your loyalty and dedication to what looked like a lost cause through the former was all worth it. Fair-weather fans will of course come and go, but those 'proper' supporters who stuck with it when you were at rock bottom have a 'greater claim' on any victory than fly-by-night merchants who just happened to notice which way the wind was blowing.

So if tribal rivalries require each side to win at least some of the time to keep them interesting and relevant, the biggest risk to their existence is one (either) side establishing too great a degree of dominance over too long a period. On an episode of This Week a few years back, Diane Abott recalled speaking to left-leaning MPs before the 1997 election, asking them how they could support the distinctly un-Socialist Tony Blair. “We just have to win,” was the recurring response. It's interesting to hypothesise where Labour might have gone had they been kept out of office for a further five years. Similarly, when David Cameron won the leadership of the Tory Party on a pledge to 'modernise it' in 2005, one of his opponents, the one nation centrist Kenneth Clarke, had actually given his campaign the working title “Time to win”.

Just as football fans will tolerate boring but winning performances, political parties invariably turn to what they perceive as 'winning' candidates when they've been in opposition for a while, even if they do not sit altogether comfortably with the core support (or necessarily believe in anything). Were the polls reading differently and Labour was in a clear and consistent lead, does anybody seriously think the recent attempted putsch against Jezza would have gathered any traction whatsoever? Power, the reward for and logical by-product of the glory represented by election victory, is the ultimate aim, even if it is merely for tribal purposes and its own sake. Anyone looking highly likely to 'win some silverware' in the near future is basically unsackable whereas those whose key indicators point in the opposite direction quickly find their position to be in jeopardy.

This concept of 'power as its own reward' explains quite a few other things. First up, it explains the current post-referendum confusion. We're used to the concept of power being handed over to whoever has won the vote and, in the case of Brexit, this has not happened. Secondly, it goes a long way towards giving us an understanding of why representative politics in the Western world has become increasingly authoritarian and statist on a more general level over the last 50 years. Having 'worked' and 'suffered' to 'earn' power, why on earth would any government want to relinquish it, particularly to those who voted for the other lot? With friends and supporters to reward, enemies to punish and the time pressure of the next election to consider, that's a hell of a lot of taxing, spending and legislating to crack on with.

And with these pushes and pulls driving their every action, it's little wonder they consistently cut corners, fail to pay attention to detail and get things so horribly wrong.

I'm immensely grateful that someone else remembered the obscure Jack Straw fan club sketch from the Saturday Night Armistice 20 years ago. This consisted of some lads following Straw around and singing “Ooh Ahh Jackie Straw” in soccer terrace stylee (no, really) to his initial amusement and later annoyance. Like most good comedy, this struck upon an unfortunate truth by using an example that was both a tad on the ridiculous side and hysterically funny at the time. Blindly and fanatically supporting political parties, chanting the names of the 'players' like Italian football 'ultras' before the Milan or Rome derby is, well, rather sad if we're being totally honest about it. However, these people (minus the chanting, mostly) exist on a significant scale, and their answer to 'the Clinton Paradox' is incredibly straightforward:- the colour of the rosette that wins is the only thing that matters.

Just watch the celebrations of the winning side and their supporters in any narrowly contested seat on election night and tell me I'm wrong.

Thankfully, there's hope. The recent surge in Labour Party membership has taken place under something of a cloud – are these new members ordinary people, re-energised by the re-birth of Socialism in the British mainstream, or hard-left infiltrators who will surely disappear once 'their man' is no longer in charge? Regardless, the general trend has been in the opposite direction. Political organisations will always tell you when they have attracted new members, but are understandably less keen to acknowledge when they fail to renew and head for the exit. Membership of the two main parties once ran into the millions and the headline in our lifetime has been one of dwindling uptake and increasing dependency on either big business or trade union cash to fight elections or merely stave off the financial wolves.

While it's true that in some cases (such as the SNP, whose membership has quadrupled over the last two years) fans have simply traded support of their previous team into following a new one, the number of active and participating political ultras across the whole of the UK has been in steady decline for more than 50 years, albeit with the occasional blip. It's also of immense encouragement to people arguing for an alternative that the Brexit referendum had a higher voter turnout than any recent national or local election since it serves as clear-cut evidence that it's political parties and not political issues that people are failing or refusing to engage with. The number of people who came out to vote for something for the first time ever in that plebiscite (particularly but not exclusively to vote for Brexit) strongly indicates that 'apathy' is not the real issue here.

Perhaps the case for sortition here is best made by spelling out what it isn't rather than what it is.

So...what's that alternative? Perhaps the case for sortition here is best made by spelling out what it isn't rather than what it is. No tribalism, no political ultras banging the drum and singing football songs with god-awful alternative lyrics, no 'compromise candidates', no 'centre ground' to strive for and no magnolia politics (perhaps tinted with beige to make sure absolutely nobody is upset or offended). No more glorious failure or dismal electoral war stories, no 'power for the sake of it', no friends to bribe or enemies to be punished, no more 'amphetamine government' desperate to get on with it before they get kicked out, even if it means getting it wrong and leaving some other poor sap to clean up the mess. And this last one should probably go without saying - absolutely no bloody Clinton Paradox.

Perhaps the ultras are right and in a representative democracy, winning really is everything – but then again, surely that's part of the problem and the only correct answer to the question pointed out by my friend Chris is... change the system?

Take care and thanks for reading.

Showing 2 reactions

  • Malcolm Saunders
    Once again a very incisive post by Daz. I am not a sports enthusiast and would never have thought of the analogy, but it works incredibly well.

    Representative democracy, especially with the pathetic first past the post electoral system, forces the wide spectrum of political opinion into large institutional parties which are broad coalitions without a clear political philosophy.As Daz points out, this results in dilution of what is presented to the electorate into a bland set of generalisations rather than an ideological clarity of direction towards a desired form of society.

    As with sporting teams, the desire to win drives the parties to ever greater spending commitments in order to seduce the voters ( supporters). Unfortunately in the case of political parties the spending drive results in ever increasing debt which can only ever be paid by the electors through their taxes or passed on to following generations.

    The only way out of this futile and costly tribalism is to abolish politics and politicians. Sortition offers a truly democratic way of doing that.
  • Daz Pearce