Where to for Frome’s politics?

It’s interesting to see that councillors in charge of local government in the English market town of Frome are mulling over sortition. They face a byelection one year before the end of the council’s current, four-year term. Peter Macfadyen* and his fellow members of Independents for Frome (IfF) will be defending their record as part of the campaign.

No surprises there, it’s what any political party has to do mid term, even if IfF members see themselves as a “non-party party“.  It does raise the intriguing point of manufactured conflict, though. Elections, as readers of Equality by lot know only too well, create divisions among competing candidates and their would-be voters.

Opposing candidates must somehow differentiate themselves from their opponents. That generally means over-blowing your own qualities while demeaning the opposition’s. Exchanges do little to illuminate or advance public understanding or people’s engagement in political issues.

Yes, yes, you know all that too.

The Frome election won’t change the balance of power on the council as IfF control all the other 16 seats. It will also cost money to stage and for candidates to contest.

Ex-mayor Peter Macfadyen puts it bluntly in his blog post Frustrations and hopes:

I respect their right to contest elections and that of the electorate to vote. What I am so disappointed by is the tired old crap that gets wheeled out which encourages the electorate to stay in the status quo we know is so corrosive. Already leaflets are being delivered focussing on one unfinished project of the current council and listing a set of lies and half truths to demonstrate…. well what? Presumably, that this group of councillors makes bad decisions.

And all the rest. None of which makes for an appealing spectacle for voters. Money will be spent, effort made to sway voters and to get out the vote, divisions will be sown, all for no net change in power.

So the point is this. How could a sortition-based approach break the electoral habits of generations in this west of England town? How could Frome, with a population of about 26,000 people, use random selection to do its local politics differently?

I find IfF’s achievement totally fascinating. For now, they’ve broken conventional political parties’ habitual monopoly of power, albeit only at the local level. As ordinary, fallible human beings like the rest of us, Frome councillors now face all the perils of office and incumbent power that any of us would. Having made one political breakthrough, how might sortition help them avoid the traps of incumbency and take things further?

*Let me declare an interest here, too, I regularly exchange ideas over VOIP with Peter about politics and how to transform its practice for the better. I also plan to interview him, in due course, as part of my All Hands On series of short documentaries on democracy, the first of which covered Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, as previously featured on this blog).

18 Responses

  1. It is certainly useful to examine the sacred cow of competition, electoral and otherwise. It seems the modern ideology is very conflicted about the role of competition in society. In practice of course, winners of various social competitions (including electoral ones) are highly rewarded, and often celebrated. This results in reinforcing the competitive trends. And yet, it is clear that in many situations – the large majority of situations, I would say – competitions are detrimental to society.

    Of course, the alternative to elections must not be an unchallenged oligarchy, but a democracy based on collaboration. (Even elections, and the capitalist competition as well, are already forms of limited competition, when compared to, say, wars between contenders in a monarchy.)

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  2. Yoram: >It is certainly useful to examine the sacred cow of competition

    We need to be careful not to conflate the case for sortition with other projects to remodel society (or human nature, as some of us would put it) along ideal lines. I’m glad that you acknowledge that elections are an attempt to civilise natural hostilities (by translating war-war into jaw-jaw), but this is not the place to advocate the total reconstruction of society and human nature — from competition to collaboration — that you clearly seek as that is the domain of apocalyptic movements (both religious and secular) and romantic dreamers.

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  3. Hi Keith and Yoram

    What I find interesting is this idea of one or other process tending to create societal conflict or to lessen it, almost from a mechanical perspective.

    Are elections more prone to create division and conflict than would a system based more or less on random selection (with all the required caveats) and deliberation?

    If elections are more prone to create conflict and division than deliberative processes, who benefits when societies are perpetually divided? You don’t need to answer that.

    The old saying is most politics is local – which certainly applies in large part to things like schools, care for the elderly, transport, land use, food production and retail etc.

    Many of these issues lend themselves to some very sensible solutions. Yet my sense is our conflict-focused electoral politics, and the time and money we waste on it, mean policy solutions often get sidelined, distorted or otherwise blown off track amid the theatre. We also get perpetually focused on the next election as the moment when things might change, a recipe for frustration and disengagement, if you ask me.

    I have been intrigued to see how Irish PM Varadkar has changed his position (http://www.thejournal.ie/repeal-referendum-date-varadkar-3822918-Jan2018/) of a few months ago on abortion towards something more liberal. Leaving aside the underlying issue to focus on the process itself, I wonder did the Citizens’ Assembly provide the environment for this sort of change in position? It’s so refreshing to hear an elected politician say – I’ve changed my mind – and so unusual. Certainly some of the participants in my film talked of their positions having changed through the course of the process.

    Given the scale of problems we humans face – take your pick which one you think is most pressing – we somehow have to find ways to reduce conflict and promote harmonious policy deliberation.

    Sortition in its various possible forms, let’s not get into the specifics on this thread, there are plenty of those already, seems very promising.

    Frome’s specific case is of huge wider interest in that context.

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  4. Patrick,

    > Many of these issues lend themselves to some very sensible solutions

    What are sensible solutions to you, and to the 99%, are non-sensible to the 1%, for whom solving your problems makes no sense. On many issues, there is an inherent conflict of interests between the rank-and-file and the elite. It is counter-productive to pretend this is not the case.

    The problem with competition, electoral and otherwise, is not its inefficiency (a critique of electoralist-capitalist society which was an important theme in both Marxist and Fascist thought, BTW), but rather the fact that it necessarily means that society is arranged along elitist principles, where the majority of people are ruled over (and thus exploited) by a small elite.

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  5. Patrick:> Are elections more prone to create division and conflict than would a system based more or less on random selection (with all the required caveats) and deliberation?

    You could make an argument that elections exacerbate existing cleavages, but an alternative approach would suggest that a two-party system can exercise a moderating influence, due to the need to build a broad coalition around the middle ground. It can be an interesting exercise to take quotes from politicians at random and ask people to guess which party they stand for, as it’s not always obvious. No doubt deliberation can have a moderating influence, but an awful lot of work needs to be done to ensure that the resulting consensus around the “common good” truly represents what everyone would think under good conditions. Random selection alone will not achieve this, for reasons that have been discussed endlessly on this forum.

    Yoram:> What are sensible solutions to you, and to the 99%, are non-sensible to the 1%, for whom solving your problems makes no sense.

    I imagine that Frome town councillors would be surprised to hear that they are members of a plutocratic elite, intent on grinding the faces of the poor. As Patrick points out local politics is mostly about schools, care for the elderly, transport, land use, food production and retail etc. My father once stood for the council as he wanted to see a toilet block erected on the sea front in our home town.

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  6. Hi Yoram and Keith

    Thank you both for your replies.

    Keeping to the specifics – this is a 26,000 strong political unit with fairly limited political agency, or associated budget, and a four-year electoral cycle.

    To date, by my understanding but not direct experience or personal research, IfF has bypassed the conventional party political thinking and structure – introducing ideas of a locally-rooted non-conventional-party pragmatism.

    They are asking themselves how to renew themselves, that’s my sense in any case. Potentially, that relates to choosing candidates for the 2019 local elections in ways that maintain the approach that won them majority office, twice, and that guides their work in office.

    As Peter responded, in a tweet reacting to news of this blog post, https://twitter.com/flatpackdemoc/status/959445354902163457:

    “There is definately not time to get this together for a bye-election in a few weeks….. but talking about how it might be done in the future would be great (17 candidates to select in early 2019)”

    That’s the specific challenge.

    What sortition-based mechanism might help address the challenge of candidate selection and/or the exercise of power once in office. They have already dabbled in something like a participatory budget approach for specific local projects.

    My invitation to the EBL wise owls is for some pragmatic suggestions about possibility – not generalities about the big picture politics.

    Over to you!

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  7. Selecting candidates by lot sounds good generally, but there is the question how to set up the allotment pool. Are these posts considered a full time job? Are they paid jobs? How much?

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  8. It seems to me axiomatic that elections are competitive and sortition is unitary. That is, if you want to be an elected politician you have to compete against and beat other would-be politicians. Once you’re in it’s also the case that your job is to help your side beat the others. None of this is true of ‘unitary’ decision making where people find themselves together with shared problems to solve. Of course the problems aren’t shared equally. Low productivity is experienced differently by bosses and workers but both stand to gain from improving it.

    In the 1980s Governments in Australia and Ireland set up ‘accords’ of ‘social partners’. They asked representatives of employers, employees, and others onto boards which then proposed policy strategies and went through the process of social negotiation. In Australia, this produced strong consensus around the important problems to tackle. One was that wages were too high. So a deal was done between business and employee representatives on the Accord body for wage restraint in return for tax cuts and the introduction of a ‘social wage’ – better government-backed health insurance and so on. This was unitary decision making. There was plenty of argy-bargy, but not for its own sake.

    When the unions and employers had made a deal to 1) improve something and 2) divide up the spoils between capital and labour the Opposition party of the time – the right-leaning Liberal-National Coalition would oppose the policies and attack the Government (that’s what Oppositions do right?) But their heart wasn’t really in it, because their business backers didn’t want the deal messed up.

    A nice illustration of how productive unitary decision making can be and how distracted competitive decision making can be. Sortition is a unitary means of decision making. A group of people find themselves in a situation and try to respond to it constructively.

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  9. Nick:> Sortition is a unitary means of decision making. A group of people find themselves in a situation and try to respond to it constructively.

    In the Australian example the deliberative representatives were chosen by their principals (members of trade unions and employers’ associations either elect or appoint their officers). This is not the case with small groups of randomly-selected persons, so the example would not apply to democratic decision making, unless it could be demonstrated empirically that each sample of the population would arrive at the same decisions (a highly unlikely outcome).

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  10. Thanks Keith,

    As you point out the situation in the kind of ‘accord’ I spoke of is different to a jury.

    I’m just hoping you can see why I thought it was a germane example.

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  11. As for use of sortition, I wonder if any use might be made of the kind of mechanisms set out here.

    https://www.themandarin.com.au/83008-leadership-without-careerism-possible/

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  12. Hi Nick

    I think that’s a very relevant point. I would wonder how such a unitary arrangement could work with parties selected also to represent, say, the young, the retired, groups not represented, or under-represented in employment, and so on.

    I’d also, with a mind to the state of the environment, be intrigued as to how you could include representatives who could speak for other species on the planet and also, given the implications of our atmospheric pollution record of the last couple of centuries, future generations.

    My thinking specifically for Frome, not least since they haven’t got that much time either before the byelection or the 2019 local elections, would be what forms of sortition could be cheaply and easily road tested there.

    I would imagine that randomly selecting candidates to contest 17 seats for four-year terms would pose impossible challenges, in competition with conventionally chosen candidates, would be an absurdity.

    I would imagine it would also be difficult for the existing council to surmount all sorts of legal and technical barriers to introduce some sort of sortition arrangement for the 2023 elections. There would also be a massive information campaign required to make the citizens of Frome aware and accepting of such an approach.

    Perhaps the way to go would be to contest the 2019 elections in the same way as they did the 2011 and 2015 campaigns – pledging to maintain their “Ways of working” approach (http://iffrome.org.uk/our-successes/ways-of-working) and including an undertaking to consider sortition experiments locally.

    That could entail pledging to hold a G1000-type event (https://g1000nu.ning.com/english) early in their new term, if they win, seeking citizen perspectives on what their priorities for office should be. There are, of course, limitations to the representative nature of a G1000 approach, not least the challenge of encouraging habitually disengaged or neglected populations to attend and participate.

    It could also involve a medium-term sortition awareness campaign, encouraging local schools to adopt the Democracy In Practice (https://democracyinpractice.org/) approach to teaching students what democracy truly means. That reaches both students and their families.

    I’ll have a look at your “Leadership…” piece too, Nick.

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  13. Hi Nick

    So I’ve now read your account of the South Australian citizens’ jury and how its spokespeople were selected. Fascinating.

    I think the question of competition and careerism is also really interesting.

    I am less enthusiastic than you, I think, about the capacity of markets to determine willing buyer/will seller and what is a societally beneficial outcome from a potential transaction.

    I’ve been reading Creating Freedom just recently, which examines this question in very interesting detail (http://www.creatingfreedom.info/).

    There are many significant instances in which markets far from fair, or “free” – throwing into question the founding premises of “free”-market economics and all that follows from that ideology.

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  14. Thanks Patrick,

    It is interesting. Very interesting I think. Imagine a world in which, at least in quite a few places, we’d interdicted this presumption that promotion depends on self-assertion. Imagine if we tried to do it in politics.

    I’ve had a quick squiz at a few reviews of the book you reference and am pretty underwhelmed. Firstly basing things on fairly abstract ideas of justice – the justice meted out to someone born poor or disabled for instance – or just not very physically attractive. The world is so obviously very unjust in this way and always will be that for someone to present it as an original thought is a bit rich.

    Of course we should want the world to be more just than it is, but there’s a lot of evidence that people (including ourselves of course, let’s not forget ourselves in this) aren’t prepared to do much about it when it involves sacrificing their own interests.

    None of this is out of sympathy for the idea that we SHOULD do more, but having self-styled cultural critics wag their finger doesn’t seem to contribute much.

    The solutions he proposes seem pretty boilerplate left. I’m broadly in favour of them, but I’ll leave it to him to get the world to vote for them. For me, I’m interested in how we build a new culture for ourselves and see huge potential in sortition and similar mechanisms that are orthogonal to the existing system.

    And as an economist I’ve proposed all manner of things that I think are powerfully beneficial, but because they’re not particularly left-wing or right wing, they don’t get much airtime. Eg

    http://evonomics.com/success-means-competing-cooperating-adam-smith-youve-never-seen/
    http://www.themandarin.com.au/64566-nicholas-gruen-evaluator-general-part-two/
    http://evonomics.com/central-banks-for-everyone-nicholas-gruen/

    I don’t really understand why so much time gets spent rehashing stuff we’ve heard before.

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  15. More generally on the question of Frome, the size of Frome’s electorate is pretty significant. What IfF seems to have done it seems to me is to nest a party with a ‘unitary’ culture inside a competitive system.

    The other thing is that people who are doing battle inside an existing political system don’t want all their efforts going to just giving away the power they’ve just won – or if they’re decent and idealistic they’ll still be wary of giving it away if they see enemies to their own values all around – as I expect they would – I would.

    At the same time IfF has a problem certainly from a presentational perspective, but perhaps one they’re also concerned about themselves which is the lack of checks and balances external to the party. So I wonder if they could be attracted to the idea of a council of – say 50 Frome citizens chosen by lot or in some similar way that people regard as legitimate and they would then give important supervisory and other ‘check and balance’ powers to a super majority of that council.

    That council or an executive of it chosen in the way the Adelaide citizens’ jury spokespeople were chosen – itemised above – might join the IfF representatives in supervising executive appointments. I’m really just riffing here, trying to divine ways that the values that I take sortition to stand for might appeal to IfF’s values and practical and political goals.

    It seems like a very exciting development and one that is best responded to in a creative way – rather than just imposing an unimaginative solution from the sortition playbook.

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  16. Nick:> As you point out the situation in the kind of ‘accord’ I spoke of is different to a jury. I’m just hoping you can see why I thought it was a germane example.

    Not really, as the topic of this post is democratic politics and this presupposes a representative mechanism. In the example that you gave, the representatives were chosen by their principals; if they had been selected by sortition then the decision outcomes of your beer-and-sandwiches/smoke-filled-rooms pow-wows would have no democratic legitimacy. One of the most persistent (wrong) assumptions made by commentators on this forum is that persons selected by sortition are analogous to persons chosen by election, whereas the legitimising principle is entirely different. It’s simply not the case that the decisions of a body selected by sortition are “more” democratic just because the persons in the room look, in aggregate, more like America (as Bill Clinton put it) than a bunch of middle-aged, white, male lawyers. Contrary to the Gat doctrine, the interests and beliefs of the latter are not determined by their age, ethnicity, gender and occupation — they can (and do) make a variety of representative claims which are then taken up or rejected by their fellow citizens in elections.

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  17. Hi Nick

    Obviously you must make of the book recommendation what you will – I found its basic premise – that we are far less responsible/not responsible for who we are than we think, is a powerful place from which to then go on and explore the issues chosen. The author calls it the lottery of birth. Anyway, it’s a side issue to this thread, so I’ll say no more on that here.

    As for proposing/thinking about stuff that gets ignored – I feel your pain – and share it!

    Cheers

    Patrick

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  18. Thanks Patrick, my point about being ignored wasn’t a personal one. I was illustrating interesting directions that economics and public policy could be taking with my own work, but could have cited others.

    Sadly in most organisations – which includes both government and academic bureaucracies – you get recognised for focusing on all the same issues and if you show some originality, it had better be in the usual ways – with some new development of an existing technique for instance. :)

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