Saturday, 15 October 2011

26. Nine Party Democracy

As Prof. Colin Copus argues in his excellent book Party Politics and Local Government, for better or for worse, political parties have come to dominate the landscape of local politics in the UK. Most of the time it is the national political parties that determine the processes, outcomes and (within legally defined limits) the structure of local decision making.  As a ruling group, parties, or a coalition of parties can decide the number, role and size of council committees and other associated bodies.

But what if we turn this on its head and instead design a system that explicitly determines the shape of local political parties?  I had this thought when reflecting on something Jean Jaques Rousseau said. Rousseau didn’t like political parties -  he thought that they interfered with a communities ability to identify the general will of the people.  This is what he says in the social contract (Book II, chapter 3):

If, when the people, being furnished with adequate information, held its deliberations, the citizens had no communication one with another, the grand total of the small differences would always give the general will, and the decision would always be good. But when factions arise, and partial associations are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State: it may then be said that there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations. The differences become less numerous and give a less general result. Lastly, when one of these associations is so great as to prevail over all the rest, the result is no longer a sum of small differences, but a single difference; in this case there is no longer a general will, and the opinion which prevails is purely particular.

It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts: which was indeed the sublime and unique system established by the great Lycurgus. But if there are partial societies, it is best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from being unequal, as was done by Solon, Numa and Servius. These precautions are the only ones that can guarantee that the general will shall be always enlightened, and that the people shall in no way deceive itself.

The interesting point here is that, for Rousseau, if there are partial societies, e.g. parties, ‘it is best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from being unequal’.  OK, Rousseau is talking about all citizens rather than a representative assembly but it started me thinking about what a council decision making structure, designed around this principle might look like.  This is what I came up with.

The Nine Party System

The rules for this system are as follows:

First, every council will have exactly nine parties of equal size.  The size of these parties will be proportional to the size of the council but the number of councillors would need to be divisible by nine.  So, for example, a council with 64 councillors would have 63 under this system, seven councillors in each party.  The minimum size of a council would have to be 27 councillors for the system to work.

Second, elections would be for parties not individuals.  Voters would have a list of the available parties on their ballot papers and, depending on the preferred voting method would select one or more.  Of course information about the membership of each party would be made available.

Third, every committee of council, including the executive, would have nine members with one place allocated for each party who can nominate any of their members to that place.  Chairs and vice chairs would be decided by each individual body at their first meeting.  As places are for parties rather than people then if someone cannot attend, someone else from their party simply attends in their place.

Fourth, the requirements for forming and running a party will be established in law and carefully monitored.  Ideally funding should be provided and access to publicity regulated so that each party has a chance to operate on a level playing field.

Fifth, the number, type and functions of committees would be determined by the first full meeting of each council.  This meeting will also elect a chair.


Here are some of the benefits of this system, from a rousseauian perspective at any rate;
  • National political parties could not dominate.  They could stand as a single party in elections but, as they could only stand one party they could never have more than one ninth of the councillors;
  • Single parties could not dominate.  Every party in this system would have an equal chance to participate in decision making - there would be no more ruling groups;
  • A wider variety of opinions would be represented, more space would be created for local concerns to be raised;
  • It would be much easier for organised groups of citizens to access the decision making process by forming a party
  • Politics would be more fluid as it would be much easier for parties to form and dissolve. 
Why Nine?

Actually nine may be something of an arbitrary number.  Seven or even eleven might do as well.  There doesn't seem to be an optimum size for a council committee although for any group five seems to be the minimum worthwhile size and as groups get larger the law of diminishing returns probably kicks in.   An odd number seems helpful simply as it avoids needing the chair to have a casting vote on split decisions. 



Steve Milton said...

So extreme parties would have equal representation even though no one votes for them. Am I missing the point? I like the Swiss model where the executive has to accommodate the top three or four parties with seats in proportion to share of vote. They also rotate the leadership each year - which removes the excessive influence of the PM. Enjoy reading this blog Dave, really interesting stuff. Thank you.

Dave Mckenna said...

I would expect the mass parties we know at the moment to splinter into many smaller ones thus filling many niches in the 'mainstream' and plenty of competiton for the more extreme parties. I guess Rousseau would say that the less factionalised an assembly the more we will see the general will come through - that's the theory anyway!

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