Rentoul: “Our politics may be utterly confusing, but it certainly isn’t ‘broken’”

John Rentoul writes in The Independent:

[Nigel Farage’s] leaflets, posted through every door in the country, say: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it for good.” Where have we heard that before? On the R side of politics, that’s where. The Remainers in Change UK left their parties complaining that politics is broken. They too rail against the two-party system, even as the two main parties’ combined share of the vote in European election polls is now 34 per cent.

On the other L side of politics, the left-liberal side, the consensus is also that politics is broken. It was a powerful part of Jeremy Corbyn’s message when he was the future once. For many Corbyn supporters, “politics” is an elite conspiracy against the many that needs to be swept aside by radical forms of democracy.

The same theme animated the Extinction Rebellion protesters when they had a sit-in in Parliament Square. The government has done too little to slow down climate change, they said, so politics has failed. As ever, the problem with our democracy is that it is the wrong kind of democracy. Extinction Rebellion want a citizens’ assembly – a group of non-politicians chosen by lot to discuss the climate emergency. Once upon a time, “the Commons of England in parliament assembled” was a form of citizens’ assembly, but now the protesters want to tear it down and start again.

Of course not, says Rentoul. It’s all just a technical issue.

To change the rules to allow an exhaustive ballot would require a yes/no vote. MPs would also vote no to that, because voting yes would in effect be voting yes to the deal: if there were to be an exhaustive ballot in the Commons, a no-deal exit would be eliminated in the first round, and the deal would defeat Remain in the second.


There is probably a name for this paradox, by which a group of voters ends up with a less favoured option because it cannot agree the mechanism that would arrive at the most favoured one. But it is not necessarily undemocratic, or evidence that politics is broken.

Better just keep things as they are.

“Politics is broken” is a powerful slogan, especially when parliament has failed to act on a referendum. But it is a dangerous one. Some of the alternatives to parliamentary democracy are less benign than citizens’ assemblies. Anti-politics sentiment can easily turn anti-democratic, and Farage’s opponents should be careful about feeding it.

3 Responses

  1. I was amused by the editorial in today’s Sunday Times on the Conservative leadership contest:

    Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, has brought energy and fun to the contest, but his proposal for a citizens’ assembly to sort out Brexit looks daft. We are not yet in the world of the loya jirgas of Mr Stewart’s beloved Afghanistan.

    Alex Kovner and myself are currently writing a book with the working title: The Jurga Manifesto: Toward a sortition-based democracy. “Jurga” is a neologism based on a cross between the tribal jirga and the Athenian jury.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This seems to be the reference:

    A significant point is that, pace oft-repeated claims on this forum that politicians will never willingly surrender power, it would seem that sortition would be welcomed with open arms when the electoral arithmetic means that a problem cannot be solved by any other means. Unfortunately, in the case of Brexit, it’s just too late as the polarisation means the losing side would not view it as a legitimate solution.


  3. The Spectator piece is interesting in that it conflates the Blind Break approach:

    The crucial element was that it didn’t matter whether the shaman was right or wrong – the group trusted the decision and were able to set off with a unity of purpose, unencumbered by rifts within the group.

    With the Invisible Hand:

    The beauty of the concept is that it gives the rest of the public a new body in which it can place its trust without having to follow the arguments themselves, essentially: ‘If it’s alright for them, then it’s alright for me’.

    The common denominator being “trust”. It also fits nicely with Helene Landemore’s advocacy of the argumentative theory of reasoning which posits a cognitive module for evaluating the arguments of others “thereby allowing communication to proceed even when trust is limited” (Landemore, 2013, p. 126).

    Liked by 1 person

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