Are political parties the problem not the solution?

I am slightly active in the political party that I am a member of, but it worries me that maybe it is the very existence of political parties as formal structures that is the problem in modern politics in democracies. Here is a brief argument why:

If you have a formal organisation in which the rules are made by elected or other officials, then that narrows down the target for corrupt behaviour: the smaller the executive body, the fewer people have to be corrupted in order to corrupt the entire democratic process.

This comes out in two ways:

  1. Individuals who may become or already are corrupt can become executive members of a formal organisation, in order to exploit their positions, or
  2. Vested interests can buy influence from executive members.

We have seen both occurring in Australian politics, which has over the last century rapidly become the preserve of a “political class” – you either have to be born into that class or have worked in the “right” institutions, like a union, or company.

This inevitably leads to a shift away from proper representation of the wider electorate to the representation of vested interests, and leads to the nascent fascism of our present western society. The plutocracy is inevitable when political parties are funded by corporate interests by people who are socialised into the political culture.

One solution here, and I say this as a member of a political party that represents individual liberty against corporate interests, is to delegitimise political parties as such. In the United States, Europe and the UK, political parties are part of the governmental fabric. The systems are set up so that parties can seek votes officially when the populace votes in elections. In the US, they seem to have a weird system where you actually register as a voter for one party before you even vote. This allows you to vote in primaries for party-approved candidates. Sounds democratic, but it normalises the rule of parties, and only two parties at that. There is talk of doing this in Australia at present.

This makes it almost impossible for new parties to form and get votes. One state in Australia – New South Wales – even makes it so hard to get a new party elected that the fourth most popular vote (my party – I’ll get back to what it is later) could not be registered in time for the last state election. The media, which let’s face it is not well prepared to deal with subtlety in politics, ignores these “minor” parties (a distinction without meaning in politics) and does not discuss them, which forms a feedback mechanism for reinforcing the two-party idea. When new parties are formed, and are successful, they rely upon massive amounts of private funding, which again means corporate interests.

The solution to this is, I think, to “deregister” political parties altogether. At present, in Australia you vote along party “preferences”, the result of deals made party-to-party by the executives of those parties (and not the membership), which means that the voting papers offer you the option to vote en bloc. Again this institutionalises the major parties and constrains voting preferences. Public funding to parties is given by the number of votes received in the last election. New parties get no public funding.

There is no mention of political parties in the constitutions of the US, UK or Australia. They simply have no legal standing with respect to the public institutions of our polity. Why, then, do we privilege these corporate objects? When the US formed, representatives were exactly that, they represented their constituents as individuals. That these individuals allied themselves with other representatives in the parliaments of their countries was a factor voters had to take into account, but the formal idea of parties was not initially what mattered.

So I want to suggest that we pass a federal law in which no candidate may be listed as a member of the party they really represent, either on voting papers or in the arrangement of members in parliament. Who governs should be reserved for the parliamentary vote, not the privileging of prior institutions. This would resolve the corruption issue to a large degree: corporate interests cannot easily corrupt a parliament that has no formal institutional structure, and voters would be forced to decide who they would vote for as individuals, not as cogs in a political machine. I do not think this would eliminate corruption, but it would make it a lot harder for systemic corruption to become entrenched.

The party I am a member of is the Sex Party, which is a civil liberties party. We stand for the rights of adults to make their own life choices (hence the name, since sex is the major arena which is regulated for no good reason). In the last federal election, the Sex Party made a preferences deal with various other parties that were, to put it mildly, less objectionable than the major parties, but they failed to reciprocate in time, and as a result the Sex Party candidate for the Senate failed to get elected despite getting an order of magnitude more votes than the one that did get elected (a motoring enthusiast party with no policies). If preference deals were eliminated because one could not vote along party lines, the result would be a more representative senate (and lower house).

So as a member of a party, I am recommending we drop all party affiliations from the voting papers. What think you, folks?

11 thoughts on “Are political parties the problem not the solution?

  1. In the US, not all states require a voter to register as a member of a specific party. In Minnesota. for example, there is no party specification; in the only elections in which you are required to vote in the election you are handed a single ballot so not even the election judge will know your party affiliation. However, if you vote in primaries across party lines the entire ballot is disqualified. We use a different system, a precinct caucus system. In order to participate in the caucus for a particular party, we only need to state when we register at the meeting that we agree in principle with the party whose gig we are attending. The idea is that it brings new people into the campaign process each election cycle, and one can declare a desire to run to be delegates at the convention at the next level up – district convention, congressional district convention, state convention and national convention. At each level, of course, the polticking is more intense.

    It is possible to join the machine and be an activist, and in fact I found it relatively easy; however I also got a bit disillusioned at the way seating is determined during the convention and was locked out of a key vote because of ranking. So, while the ideal is that the grass-roots activists have more opportunity, the reality is that there are politics involved in politics.

    George Washington had expressed dismay that factions were being formalized in the early days of the United States and I think that he would agree with you on this.

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  2. I sometimes point out that those of us who are non-lawyers are vastly under-represented. But you are right – it’s the same problem for non-politicians.

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  3. Political parties are like nature. You can expel ‘em out the door with a pitchfork, but they’ll crawl back in through the window. Anyhow, voters have a hard enough time figuring out what they are voting for as it is, and eliminating party labels makes it more likely that elections will go to well funded pretty faces even though the great questions of the time are decided by majorities in legislatures and the character and peculiar opinions of individuals are often less important than their affiliations. In my country, for example, a vote for a Republican Senator or Representative makes it more likely that abortion will be outlawed and that the courts will be staffed by reactionaries. I’d much prefer it if elections were regarded as expressions of popular will on a national basis rather than popularity contests on a local level. I’d like the parties to be more responsible and more transparent as to what they stand for; but I also wish they were stronger, especially since the current institutional weakness of the official parties simply increases the political clout of monied interests.

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    1. I’m not proposing that political parties be outlawed. Merely that when you vote, you vote for individuals, whether or not they are party candidates. Also, in Australia, the ballot papers are enormous, so partial votes should be permitted. That would clear away many of the minor candidates pretty rapidly.

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      1. The formalization of parties in America was done specifically to democratize the process. Parties arise with or without formal structures. The plurality voting system favors those who create coalitions approaching 50% — hence two parties. There will always be someone who dominates such coalitions, whether the party establishment or the party’s sugar daddies. The primary system was established to give regular voters a voice in this process… though with major concessions to the existing political elites, who actually had the power to write the laws.

        There is no value in targeting the party elite as such — they are just the professional managers of the ruling class (aka, the power elite). The ruling class dominates society (through the state) regardless of the details of how the state is organized. The organization may alter the composition of the ruling class (and how they delegate management tasks), but the existence of a power elite is inevitable once there is a concentrated power structure (i.e. the state). If you’re going to have a state, the best that you can accomplish is to guarantee some turnover among the ruling class — but when the sovereign power is handed over to << 1% of the society, there really is no way to assure that the power represents society as a whole.

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  4. I have not heard any talk in Australia about introducing American-style primaries. It’s hard to describe that notion in terms that don’t feel like an understatement, and part of me just wants to say “tantamount to the destruction of Australia itself” and have done with it. That part is my fingers.

    For whatever reason, Australian culture doesn’t take minor parties seriously. Even most people who vote for them regard them as merely a way of showing disatisfaction with the Big Two and nothing more. If a minor party does just one thing that people don’t like, people abandon it in droves, because its symbolic purpose as representing the fairytale ideal of “never done me any harm” has been tarnished.

    Minor parties are mean to each other, too. There’s a whole bunch of minor parties that have more in common with each other than a random two members of a given major party, and yet they regard each other more as competitors than allies and reveal this in their preference deals. At the last federal election, the Secular Party got my senate vote for being the ONLY moderately left-wing minor party that gave preferences to other moderately left-wing minor parties. At the recent South Australian election, I resorted to voting below the line.

    Anyway … back to the main topic of the blog post … I disagree with your solution, because it would make it much harder to make an informed decision at elections. I can easily research political parties and get some idea of what they stand for, but researching individuals would be much harder. (I suppose you could mandate a system for making information on all candidates available, but still…) Moreover, if all I had to go on at the polling booth was a bunch of names, the burden of associating each candidate with their political stance would be too great. In a preferential system, it would be too much information for the voter to retain.

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    1. It was all the rage last year: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4722740.html

      I agree about the motivation why minor parties must do no wrong. The Sex Party may have lost any support it had because their preference deal gave marginally more support for a right wing minor party than the Coalition, for example.

      As to the informed voter problem: in the first election under this regime it may be really difficult to choose (but if you can partially vote, say 1, 2 and 3, then the party how to vote cards would help), but in the second there would be a lot fewer people trying to gain preferences, and the number of candidates would reduce.

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  5. In the UK the situation is somewhat different. Independent and alternative candidates can stand in general and by-elections without a party’s backing, although they rarely do well.

    We are afflicted by another form of ‘partyitis’ though. For whatever reason, those who want to make a career in politics can use the party structure to work their way to the top. As a consequence any long standing party ends up being run by careerists for careerists, and the parties end up all looking the same, which defeats the original intent.

    Ideally you should never vote for someone that wants to be a politician, but how you could make that work is another matter.

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  6. FWIW, the main problem that I have with political parties is that once a person identifies with the party, they become biased. They see all the flaws in the other party and none of the flaws in their own party. They become eager to swallow the lies of their party’s leaders. Ultimately, political parties are just another way to legitimize the ruling class — as long as it is “our” faction of the ruling class and not “the other guy’s” faction within the ruling class.

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  7. In the Netherlands it is very easy to start a new party and win some seats in the parliament or city council. The Tweede Kamer (equivalent of House of Commons/Representatives) has 150 seats and therefore with our proportional representation system all that is needed to get a seat in parliament is about 0.7% of the vote. Elections often see new parties gain entry to parliament and also wild swings in the numbers of seats for the establishment parties.

    This has a major drawback: the government is formed by a coalition of parties that together have a majority in parliament. More often than not the only workable coalitions consist of parties with wildly different ideas about what is good for the country. So what happens is that they negotiate for months and months to write something called the ‘regeerakkoord’ (governing accord). This accord will determine 90% of the votes of the coalition parties in the next few years. Of course none of the ideals or ideas that made you vote for a party makes in into the regeerakkoord unscathed. It wouldn’t be so be if it actually consisted of good compromises, but it’s mostly a collection of stupid ideas that are in vogue at that moment among what Paul Krugman calls ‘Very Serious People’ class, like ‘ more deregulation!’ and ‘austerity!’

    Also, because of the ever changing governments, senior officials with long careers are much more knowledgeable and experienced that the ministers they work for, which leads to ‘Yes, Minister’ type situations.

    So maybe it would help if you could vote for people instead of parties? This was the idea in the Netherlands and so the voting law was changed. The parties still make their lists of candidates and determine their order. However, if a candidate gains more than 25% of the number of votes needed for a seat (so that’s a quarter of 0.7% for parliament), he or she automatically gets a seat, even if their party put them on place 48 on the list and they won only 4 seats (bad luck for number 4 on the list.)

    Although this is a low threshold, the vast majority of people still votes for the number 1 of the list, the party leader of in Dutch ‘lijsttrekker’ (list puller). This is because most people are so disinterested in politics, that they hardly know the names of the lijsttrekkers and what they look like, let alone that they will vote for candidate #48 because she has some good ideas that go against the main party line.

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