Thursday, 3 June 2010

Equality inside a democracy

There is, after Harriet Harman stated a desire for 50% women in the Shadow Cabinet, a glut of typical postings on the subject from feminists and feminist supporters on blogs and twitter. Unfortunately it's the same old crap we're always getting, that misses the point of democracy entirely.

This tweet perfectly encapsulates the moronic stance of the "equality of outcome" camp...

"@HouseofTwits oh look more straight white men voting to protect their position in the #hotvote I prefer to act to change things!" by @Andywhatthen.

The trouble is that this whole argument is being posed as an argument of equality of outcome versus "meritocracy", the trouble is that arguing from one side or the other is to ignore the realities and flaws in their own arguments. Arguing that cabinets, shadow or otherwise, and parliaments should be made up purely of those that have the most "merit" to be there ignores that it is entirely possible for people to be deemed to not be the best person for the job (though I'll come back to this).

This reality leads to the type of hypocritical commentary, as Andywhatthen's above, complaining about "privileged, straight, white males" standing against "equality" while continuing to ascertain that parliament/cabinets will be better with more women in them; that by providing the route for more women in to politics through positive descrimination will make us all better off.

It's essentially saying "Men are only good for half the jobs, the rest are worse than the women that should be in their place", and forgive me if I think that stance is as moronic as any implied "women can't do the job better than men" statements coming from any "meritocracy" supporters.

Arguing that these bodies should be equal and reflective of our own population's diversity ignores that it functionally does nothing more than the "meritocracy" that they decry to improve our politics. It may make us feel better that we're all being fair, but we're still left with the same problems we currently face in our democracy.

Yet it is this word, democracy, that is being willfully left out of the whole debate. And this is why I said I'll come back to this concept of "best person for the job".

As it stands the focus is on cabinets, though it has previously (and will be through this period of discussion) also be relevant to people's views about the demographics of parliament. The belief is that there are a set of skills that each individual cabinet post (or job of an MP) must be filled...specifically for cabinet ministers that they should have enough experience in the field they are now overseeing.

Is this a reasonable reality upon which to assess an MP's abilities? For a start it assumes there aren't a warren of competent civil servants that have all the relevant competencies to run a department and keep it ticking even when different ministers come and go, it assumes that the minister themselves are somehow operationally involved at a significant level rather than at a strategic one. It also ignores that a ministers job is not to "work" but to represent; represent the views of the government and provide direction to the department, represent the public's wishes to the department, and in return represent that department as it's face in the public eye.

The skills you need for this are no doubt helped by deep understandings of the subject matter, but ultimately the best person for the job is someone that can digest information from a number of sources, come up with the best direction, and act without jarring the cogs of the machine. Put simply you need to be objective, open to learning, in tune with your government's own strategic direction, and a good communicator.

Start applying an analysis of these skills to the current cabinet or shadow cabinet and you may find more people are "the best for the job" than you previously thought, though clearly you'd likely still have some people that are not. Engineering the demographics of a cabinet does not change this, in theory we have all elected our MP on the basis that they are good communicators, able to be objective with respect to our views while following a general party line...thus in theory they are all equipped with the skills for being a minister with only the weighting of experience in the functions of politics separating them individually.

All creating rules for the demographics of cabinets does is make those that feel under-represented because they base their view of representation on a statistical relativism a little bit more represented, albeit at the expense of others that feel their representation is being tied up in bureaucracy.

So with all this in mind, what are the problems that really need to be solved?

The 50/50 cabinet question is one that I would ultimately rather was left alone, but I can see the benefits in this one instance of gerrymandering. As I said above, anyone with enough experience of how governments and politicians work should be able to do the job, I'd just rather that the leader of the most powerful party wasn't forced in to using people that they perhaps trusted less, or were (by pure chance) necessary to involve under "quotas" despite being fairly rebellious to the strategic direction of the party. Indeed you could argue that a 50/50 cabinet situation that was entirely workable without danger of self-sabotage would, ironically, only be consistently available through a 50/50 parliament.

And this is where the crux of the debate is, and this is the real problem that needs to be solved and understood.

Anyone claiming that we need to create an equality of outcome in parliamentary terms is, as I've said above, simply trying to subvert democracy for the sake of a numbers game. If you take the power out of constituents hands to pick who they want and you are lessening democracy, you are by your very nature lessening the chance of the "best person for the job" to actually get it.

Yet the only way you can take this democracy away from the people is through current undemocratic practices by political parties, by using systems like all women shortlists, or through local parties selecting their candidates in manners that don't refelct local views.

While the Tories can be congratulated for trying open primaries for their candidate selection, anything short of any party member being allowed to try and run for a constituency seat and elected by a proportional system of ALL local members (at least) will create a situation where people are disenfranchised and discouraged from giving it a go.

Let anyone within the party run, let all the party members there vote for who best represents the party, then let all constituents vote for who best represents the area. You instantly have the best person available for the job, right?

Well, the one area which is absolutely true, and I think all sides will agree on, is that there is the barrier of lack of aspiration or incentive to get involved if you are from certain demographic groups, and this also means that the pool of "best people" won't be as full as it could be.

It is this barrier that "equality of outcome" groups are really trying to tackle when they suggest in the subversion of democracy through rules and quotas. And this is perhaps why I am so critical of these groups, as what point is there in trying to solve the problems in the system if you're just going to undermine the system for a period of time (if not indefinitely)?

Then there is the second issue which the Lib Dems have been consistently promoting, that of electoral reform...because it doesn't matter how democratic the election of all your PPCs are if your vote is not going to make any difference to the make up of parliament whatsoever. Safe seats are a bane to those that believe in "meritocracy", as their very existence allows MPs to abuse their privileges and to be less than they would usually be required to be.

If these problems were ironed out we'd have a country where anyone that wanted to could try to be an MP, and would get in if the public felt they were most able...with no safe seats each MP would be incentivised to keep on top of their game, and party leaders would therefore have the "best people for the job" to put in to cabinet posts, shadow or otherwise...however they see fit.

We could also have a country where our parliament was 100% disabled, or 100% female, 100% middle eastern in descent or 100% straight white male...but it would be a parliament that we the people have decided to create from an uninhibited pool of wannabes, and thus would be the most legitimate force of representation we could have, regardless of how "equal" it appears.

Ultimately you either want (unless you're an anarchist) representative democracy in this country, or you want a reflective democracy; but don't kid yourself that the latter brings a better quality of politician to the table through it's reality it offers no better chance, and at the expense of the democratic freedom we currently enjoy.