Britain's historical issues around racism, sexism and homophobia have left an awkward and potentially irreconcilable difficulty at the heart of our democracy – one which sortition would remove at a stroke, argues Daz Pearce.
A few months ago in the capacity of my 'regular' job, I was chatting to the human resources manager after (much to my own surprise) winning one of those 'employee recognition' awards. Among other things, we discussed a period several years ago when things were, shall we say, less positive than they currently are. One aspect that I recalled vividly in our discussion was a sense that there were a handful of individuals deliberately making my life more difficult than it needed to be – those familiar with toxic office politics will understand the idea of being 'set up for failure' and then 'chastised' in public rather than in private etc. That the departure of one of these people coincided neatly with a positive shift in my own career fortunes served as confirmation that this problem had been real, rather than perceived or imagined.
Apologies if that came over as self-indulgent, the relevance is this: when I look back, I now have no doubt whatsoever that this sense of having been 'got at' affected me in many ways, all of them negative. It caused me to spend time looking over my own shoulder for slings and arrows, rather than 'playing the next ball' with a positive approach. It exacerbated a suspicion of authority that if I'm honest had always existed to some degree anyway, and fed a cynicism about the fragility of whatever you have worked hard for, this idea that someone who doesn't like the look of you could come and take it away at any time. Painful as it was, in a very narrow sense I'm glad it happened – being white, male, agnostic and heterosexual pretty much disqualifies me from suffering as a result of most forms of bigotry, but I got an idea of how its victims, or at least some of them, must feel.
On the subject of bigotry, there are two key points that probably need to be communicated before we go further: (1) a clear majority (at an educated guess, circa 90 per cent) of the population are not prejudiced on the common race/gender/sexuality grounds themselves, while regarding acts fueled by such bigotry and attempts at discrimination as dumb and dangerous in equal measure; (2) unfortunately, a significant minority still have 'issues with difference' in one form or another and that minority will continue to exist ad infinitum in all likelihood. By significant, I am referring to their nature as opposed to their number – a minority sufficiently motivated to 'get off their arse and do something' even (or maybe especially) a 'lone wolf' minority of one like Anders Breivik, could never be written off as 'insignificant' by any objective measure.
Power resides in what you're capable of, not simply how many of you there are.
Few issues in public discourse generate as much heat, emotion and strong language as those around prejudice and discrimination. This is not helped one iota by those who cry 'racism', 'misogony' or 'homophobia' at every turn, nor are any favours done to anybody by pea-brained, arrogant would-be 'shock jocks' on social media or the blogosphere, offering 'aggressive life coaching' to people suffering real abuse and unpleasantness by telling them to 'man up', 'grow a backbone' or 'get over it' (I know). Like most questions in a society where the political framework is based on adversarial combat, a mentality of “everyone line up on one side of the road or the other” takes root. As is almost always the case, this ends with two noisy, emotive and wholly irrational 'sides' forming in a rather squalid debate - sides which in their own way are both wrong.
And when you're dealing with some of the context and history involved (such as the very real discrimination that has existed on the grounds of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation in the past), it's probably unsurprising that such a toxic discourse in which much mud is slung by all sides and yet nothing is truly settled, is what results. At some point in their lives, most people who are 'different' in one way or another will experience prejudice and/or discrimination somewhere – and once they have, the fear of it happening again is very real as opposed to being based on 'hypersensitivity' or 'a complex'. This does not mean they see 'haters' everywhere, or even in most places – the very point is that it doesn't have to be everybody, or even a significant number of people, to make the life of those on the receiving end extremely difficult.
Perhaps you need to have experienced some sort of bullying based on 'the many vs the few' or 'the strong vs the weak' to truly understand this – and perhaps those fortunate enough never to have done so should ask whether they truly understand the issues involved before offering free 'therapy', 'aggressive life coaching' or anything else to those who have.
So... how do these issues bleed into our public life and the question of representation within the democratic process? At the national level, the statistics after the 2015 election were as follows: MPs who were considered to be from ethnic minorities totaled 42 (6.6%) of those elected. This falls some way short of the equivalent 14% of the general population as of the last census, but still significant progress on the utterly jaw-dropping 6 MPs (0.9%) elected as recently as 1992. In terms of the gender split, the news is slightly better on face value with 191 female MPs (29%) of the total elected last year (the 1992 figure was 9%). While on the surface this outcome suggests real positive change within our representative system which just needs to be maintained, the reasons for it, and therefore the merits of those who have been elected, are themselves the subject of much debate and questioning which I'll come to shortly.
One surprising area of progress has been in the number of gay, lesbian or bisexual candidates elected to Parliament – the 32 (4.9%) who were successful last year was also a record, but quite strikingly it is also quite close proportionately to the percentage of the general population who would fall (however comfortably) under the LGBT umbrella. Apart from a clear shift in social attitudes over the last 25 years, this could be down to a multitude of other things – a person's sexuality is not 'instantly visible' in quite the way that say, their gender or ethnicity is. Some long-serving MPs were elected long before 'coming out' and most of their constituents decided that they could not care less, that he or she was doing a pretty good job or simply that come election time, they would happily vote for a martian if it had the 'right' colour rosette on.
Maybe there is no single answer and a more pressing concern is what effect, if any, the current makeup of our representative system has on its ability to function and attempts by all within society to actively participate in it if they want to. A question I have heard asked on this general theme is, “What does anyone think that a black/gay/working class MP would do that a white/straight middle class MP would not do?”. If you view the democratic process as a series of individual constituencies making their own choices honestly and without fear or favour then this looks like a fair point from that angle. However, in reality it misses the point entirely. In many ways the problem here is rather like one of many within representative democracy itself, namely that of 51 per cent of the population being able to hive off 100 per cent of political power.
If a quite demonstrable inequality of outcome has occurred, is the question regarding whether or not there was genuine equality of opportunity not a fair enough one to ask?
Once real people start genuinely believing (rightly or wrongly) that the dice (and indeed 'the establishment') is loaded against them, that it is somehow that bit more difficult for them to become an elected representative because of their skin colour, gender, sexuality or anything else, then it creates a plethora of political, social and economic problems. Something I know from personal experience (having been an activist, campaigned and leafleted for a few people at election time and been door-stopped on many occasions) is that the overwhelming majority of political (at least party political) activists are men, and every last one that I have encountered could be classified (crude as this is) as 'White European'. The perception of a glass ceiling ultimately manifests itself in a failure to participate in the process.
And when that quite demonstrably has been the case in the past, can you really blame anybody for thinking (or simply assuming) that it is still so? So the answer to the question “What would he or she have done differently?” is simply: they might have been better at the job than the person who actually ended up getting it. He or she might have possessed greater knowledge, intelligence, judgement, empathy, vision or any other quality, relevant to decision-making, relative to the incumbent. Much as it's a rotten system that hopefully everyone reading this is actively campaigning against, there are some MPs who are a slightly more acceptable face of representative democracy than others, and perhaps this guy or girl could have been one of them. Alas, the prophecy fulfills itself.
It's against this backdrop that you can perhaps understand the logically terrible idea of 'rigged shortlists' – of the significant UK parties, only Labour currently use them and, at least officially, only all-female lists have ever been used by any of them to ensure more even representation in parliament. However, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are seriously considering extending this principle to the concept of 'all ethnic minority' shortlists or in the case of the LibDems, even 'all gay' or 'all disabled' lists in future elections, a concept that cannot possibly sit comfortably with any notion of genuine meritocracy and equality of treatment. Surely any notion of 'positive discrimination' is an oxymoron and disqualifying someone from the process on such contrived grounds is plain wrong, however well-intended the thinking behind it?
Once you start rolling the ball down this particularly rocky road it's hard to grasp exactly where you might stop – there are all sorts of 'social groups' who you could construct and then argue are under-represented within parliament, citing discrimination as the sole reason. So why not all-vegan or vegetarian shortlists? Or lists comprised solely of people under the age of 30? Being slightly more serious for a minute, it's interesting and perhaps surprising that nobody has pursued something based on social class (maybe an insistence that the candidate was comprehensively educated?), a real battle line for those who consider themselves part of 'the silent majority' and/or 'the white working class', permanently suspicious of an 'elite' which has 'disenfranchised' and 'betrayed' them, angry at the perception of 'special treatment' for others while they get nothing.
The representative system is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't - and an almost inevitable fallout of either course of action is the rise and perpetuation of a rather ugly form of identity politics. Historically, MPs such as Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott have either taken on or been thrust into the role of pseudo-representative for ethnic minorities, sometimes with less than sexy results and issues around the rights of 'the historically oppressed' (remember the god awful gay marriage debate?) take on wildly distorted degrees of importance while more universal concerns such as mental health and Britain's ongoing skills crisis go largely ignored. Meanwhile, this so-called 'silent majority' who never shut up in reality has re-invented itself in the form of a British version of the American 'alt-right' – a large contingent of whom are quite openly racist.
With this group now getting the 'slice of the pie' it has craved for so long in the foul post-Brexit climate, the sense that politicians listen to the noisy minorities on both sides of the proverbial road while ignoring real people is probably as strong as ever.
In all honesty with the exclusion of the quite blatantly 'dodgy' outfits such as Britain First and the BNP, my own observation based on personal experience is that within parties, from the local association level through to running for the town or county council and finally parliament, under-representation of certain 'social groups' owes far more to 'connections' and 'old boys' networks' than it does to genuine bigotry, at least now. The number of friends, spouses or relatives of 'the influential' who soon find themselves fast-tracked onto one ballot paper or another is clearly no accident, and those 'local networks' tend to be dominated overwhelmingly by white men who consider it to be as much an extension of their social circle as anything else – if this image of politics does the golf club doesn't persuade you that sortition is worth a look, I doubt that anything will.
Then there are the 'never had a proper job' politicians, many of whom have come up through the uni-adviser/think-tank route, or for whom exactly what they did before politics (beyond a brief and less than helpful job description) is a little vague. Did they simply 'become' members of parliament and then leaders within major political parties or were they 'selected' and 'groomed' for such roles from a young age? I'd be interested in the results of a vox pop on that question, but surely anyone genuinely believing that the Miliband brothers 'just happened' to be the two guys duking it out at the end of the Labour leadership contest a few years back is displaying just a touch of naivety? Is the fact that Ed, the eventual winner, was among the 15 per cent of pure career politicians in parliament a mere coincidence?
Again, while distinctly unfair, it almost certainly owes more to the ability of some to make 'connections' and 'network' better than others, than it does to anything more sinister.
But we're in the cul-de-sac we're in, however we got here.
Fortunately, the sheer randomness of sortition offers us a clean break from this cycle of antagonism, suspicion and cheap identity politics. The removal of any (real or perceived) systems to play, poles to climb or networks to build means that nobody could ever claim their failure to be selected was because their face, accent or any other aspect of their person did not fit for whatever reason. No 'paranoid tribes' lining up on either side of the road, both believing that the other one is getting 'special treatment' at their expense and demanding 'their' slice of the pie. No more calls for or (god forbid) implementations of 'positively' discriminatory shortlists. Political 'dynasties' and the blatant nepotism/cronyism which feeds them while rendering so many of us cynical would die overnight. You and I really would have the same chance of being chosen as everyone else.
For once yes, we really do have quite a straightforward solution to a rather complicated problem – and unlike most simple solutions it's one that would actually work. Take care and thanks for reading.