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You have been expelled from politics Don't be fooled by calls for PR

'This general election is marked by an almost unprecedented degree of hostility to both major parties on the part of the electorate.' (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

'This general election is marked by an almost unprecedented degree of hostility to both major parties on the part of the electorate.' (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)


June 26, 2024   6 mins

In a short story published in 1955, Isaac Asimov imagined America’s Presidential election day in 2008. Amid intense excitement, the entire world watches on as an ordinary citizen is led forward to cast his vote — the only vote needed in the entire country, since he had been chosen by a supercomputer to be the completely representative citizen that year.

Asimov was inspired by CBS News’s Remington Rand UNIVAC I computer, which correctly predicted a landslide for Eisenhower on election night 1952 after only 3 million votes had been counted and Adlai Stevenson was ahead. It was the first instance of what has become a familiar feature of US elections, to the degree that most people treat the “calling” of the result early in the evening by the networks as the actual outcome of the election.

Asimov’s fantasy was a prophetic reductio ad absurdum of something which has played a steadily increasing role in modern politics: the idea that citizens can be represented by a carefully designed system in which they play no active role. The vogue for citizen juries is an illustration of this, while a number of theorists have gone even further and proposed that actual legislative assemblies should be chosen through some kind of lottery — what is technically termed “sortition”. The processes of voting and elections, on this account, are messy and corruptible: far better to have a system which is genuinely representative of public opinion. And a citizen jury will represent the population better than a committee of elected legislators scrutinising the same material.

It is also the case that politics since 1955 has come to be wholly dominated by opinion polling, to the extent that a great deal of policy is devised by governments to fit in with what the polls say. This is a practical form of daily representation, going far beyond what would have been conceivable to earlier generations. Imagine, for instance, what would be happening at the moment, were we still in the position we were in the 19th or early-20th centuries. Would our politicians be anything like as sure of victory or defeat as they currently seem to be? Would we even be having a general election at the moment, and might Boris Johnson still be Prime Minister?

In reality, however, today’s emphasis polling masks the fact that the general public has played no active part in these decisions; rather, a bloodless and abstract form of representation has replaced the old practices of mass action by citizens which once were used to bring about political change. People can lobby, demonstrate and be activists in other ways, but they cannot take part in the difficult business of decision-making — that is restricted to a small sample of the population.

So far has the assumption wormed its way into people’s heads that it now seems natural to give the vote to 16-year-olds even if they cannot be members of Parliament (allowing them to be members was proposed in Scotland, but nothing came of). Contrast this with what happened when women and working men were given the vote: they almost immediately became eligible themselves to be legislators, and it would have seemed ridiculous to those generations of politicians to have the one without the other. What’s different now is that our background assumptions about representation have shifted, such that elections now look like superior (or possibly inferior) opinion polls — and why shouldn’t everyone with opinions (which especially includes teenagers) have the vote?

Schemes for proportional representation have the same character. PR is often presented as a better form of representation in a parliamentary system than first-past-the-post, but it shares with sortition and opinion polling the feature that an essential decision — the question of who shall form a government — is largely taken out of the hands of the voters and given to their representatives. This was precisely the objection to PR in what is still the most thorough examination of the subject, the report of a Royal Commission in 1910, at a time when many alternatives to the existing British constitution were being touted, including the use of referendums. The Report decided against introducing PR on the grounds that:

“A general election is in fact considered by a large portion of the electorate of this country as practically a referendum on the question which of two Governments shall be returned to power. The view may be right or wrong, but it has to be taken account of in any discussion which turns on the composition of the House of Commons.”

This was a profound observation, with many implications. One of them is that there is a responsibility on great parties to avoid becoming narrow factions, and to present themselves as plausible governments. Another is that there is also a responsibility on citizens who want to think of themselves as legislators to treat their vote as genuinely a contribution to the creation of a government, and not merely as the expression of their feelings. This was the distinction Max Weber made between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction. As he said, real politics requires the former, a willingness to make difficult choices: “the strong and slow boring of hard boards”. But if we have left those choices to other people, we can be politically irresponsible — with consequences which are all too visible today.

A third implication (though it has seldom been recognised) arises from the fact that in the conditions of modern politics — and arguably those of 1910 — the electorate above all votes for a prime minister. It is the prime minister who personally appoints the government, after all, and whose power rests on MPs who are whipped and committed to a party manifesto. In this respect, the referendum-like character of a general election has been wholly disregarded, and, as we have often seen, prime ministers can be replaced without any fresh recourse to the public.

But what is the point of asking people who they want to have as prime minister, and then disregarding the answer without putting the question to them again? It is clear why MPs and party managers like the ability to do so, but it can be seen as another and very important instance of passive representation: the voters stand idly by while a matter on which they had once given a great deal of thought is decided anew by their representatives.

“What is the point of asking people who they want to have as prime minister, and then disregarding the answer?”

Like the populists in America, the European Left used to demand that their populations should be allowed to take an active role in politics. The British Social Democrat Federation’s programme in 1884, for example, included “LEGISLATION by the PEOPLE, in such wise that no project of Law shall become legally binding till accepted by the Majority of the People”, while the German Social Democrats at Erfurt in 1891 called for “Authorities to be elected by the people; to be responsible and bound”.

Left Parliamentarians, such as the nascent Labour Party in Britain, were able to disregard these calls only because they believed (along with the 1910 Report) that general elections, at least in Britain, were already referendums of a kind, in which the voters were exercising a genuine power to choose a government, though with many reservations in practice. But they were in complete agreement with the more radical Left that citizens should be thought of as active participants in their politics, behaving like legislators themselves and not as the passive subjects of representative systems. The age of mass parties, which lasted more or less down to the Seventies, was testimony to this: the general population was arrayed on two sides, like the members in the House of Commons, and saw itself as taking a real part in the contests there.

This world has disappeared, killed by a variety of forces, including supranational institutions such as the EU and the disappearance of an old kind of solidarity among fellow citizens, as the circumstances of people’s lives and work have changed. With communities more atomised and removed from power, it is hard to imagine any familiar Left-wing party calling for an increase in active participation on the part of the population, rather than for increasingly elaborate forms of passive representation.

The response to the Brexit vote in 2016 was a particularly stark illustration of this. The Heath government had pushed through the constitutionally far-reaching membership of the EEC on a slim majority (eight on the second reading of the Bill), and with a manifesto which had merely said that “our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more no less”. Partly for internal party reasons, but also for old-fashioned Left reasons of principle, Labour committed itself to a referendum on the issue, obliging any future government to extricate itself from the EEC through the same means. But as we saw in between 2016 and 2019, a large swathe of the governing classes could not stand the idea that they should be given specific instructions by the electorate.

In the end, Brexit was saved in 2019 by a very traditional (and democratic) means: a general election, understood as another referendum. But the politician most associated with this triumph was then removed without any appeal to the electorate — and largely because his colleagues quailed in the face of opinion polls. Citizen juries, votes for 16-years-olds and PR are all now high on the agenda of many political parties, and some of them are extremely likely to be implemented in the near future. Systems of passive representation seem, despite Brexit, to have won the struggle against active participation.

It is widely recognised that this general election is marked by an almost unprecedented degree of hostility to both major parties on the part of the electorate. But who can be surprised at this, given that they were offered the chance of real and active democracy only to have it snatched away from them — and this time, perhaps, for good?


Richard Tuck is the Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government Theory at Harvard University. His works include Natural Rights Theories (1979), Hobbes (1989), and Philosophy and Government, 1572-1651 (1993). His most recent book is Active and Passive Citizens: A Defense of Majoritarian Democracy (2024).


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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
25 days ago

Oh yeah? Well, perhaps…perhaps politics has been expelled from me! Yeah! How do you like them apples, politics?!

David McKee
David McKee
25 days ago

Prof. Tuck is right, changes to our democracy are being mooted, but it’s not to solve any particular problem.

It’s a form of displacement activity, trying to look busy when no one has much of a clue how to solve our very real and pressing problems.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
25 days ago

Authors such as Richard Tuck, and thoughtful, clear, original and useful articles such as these, are the reasons I subscribe to Unherd. Thank you, Richard. This is one worth keeping!

M James
M James
25 days ago

A really good point on why Boris Johnson should have been allowed to face the electorate at the next election, and why Trudeau should as well.

RM Parker
RM Parker
25 days ago

An excellent piece – thank you. Already I can see I’ll be rereading and chewing it over later on this evening. This sort of analysis and writing justifies my subscription: more such, please.

Rob N
Rob N
25 days ago

I think it is becoming increasingly clear that the voting age should be raised to 21 or even 25.

D Glover
D Glover
24 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

I think that this should be more widely known;
https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/running-electoral-registration-wales/eligibility-register-vote/how-does-mental-capacity-affect-right-register-vote
It includes the amazing statement “While electors with any level or no level of mental capacity may be registered to vote, the decision as to whether and how to vote at an election must be made by the elector themselves”
Just let that sink in; any or no level of mental capacity.

John Riordan
John Riordan
24 days ago
Reply to  D Glover

Who decides what level a person’s “mental capacity” is? There are lots of well-educated people in this country who would probably agree that anyone capable of voting Leave in 2016 automatically disqualifies themselves from entitlement to cast an informed vote, as a somewhat extreme example (but there are people who really do believe this).

I suspect that the rule you quote is an example of how democracy isn’t perfect, but is still better than anything else we can presently devise.

D Glover
D Glover
24 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

There are a battery of tests to determine learning disability, and if there weren’t doctors wouldn’t be able to make that diagnosis.
Every GP maintains a Learning Disability Register so that he can give those patients special treatment.

https://www.mencap.org.uk/easyread/join-the-learning-disability-register
Now, are you telling me that they’re OK to vote?

J B
J B
24 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

I agree (although have been thinking that 30 might be better). Make it compulsory.
Combine this with a requirement for most voters to have paid, say, at least two years of NI or UK tax (likes of homemakers carers and low wage exempt) and then I think we’re good to go…
Oh and anyone who doesn’t vote should be strongly encouraged to STFU between elections.
I can dream can’t I? 🙂

Andrew R
Andrew R
25 days ago

One factor is the bypassing of democracy by publically funded, unaccountable bodies such as supranational organisations, NGOs, Quangos etc. The same grouping who warns us that “Democracy is under threat” from the very electorate it claims to support, that’s quite a trick..

JOHN KANEFSKY
JOHN KANEFSKY
24 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

And judges, both here and abroad. Even more pernicious. No court should be able to say that Parliament cannot legislate on something the judges don’t like.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
23 days ago
Reply to  JOHN KANEFSKY

This is a fascinating theoretical problem in my opinion. If we believe (and I do) that Rule by Law rather than by Man is a central feature of civilized, successful states, then you have placed Law at the top of the decision tree.
But Law can only be interpreted and implemented by Man. So the very objective process you put in place (Law) to restrain the wanton self-interest of subjective Man, becomes controlled by him, and used by him to his own ends. At the end of the day, our best efforts to restrain Man fail.
It’s almost as if even political theory is, at root, theological.

JOHN KANEFSKY
JOHN KANEFSKY
22 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

Courts should stick to interpreting what the law says and if called upon knocking back policies and decisions that are illegal. Government and Parliament can then go back and change the law or abandon the attempt.

The judges should not be able to override the laws passed by votes of Parliament.

You either believe in democracy or you don’t. Too many judges seem to take the view that they can make their own law if they don’t like what elected politicians decide.

David Barnett
David Barnett
18 days ago
Reply to  JOHN KANEFSKY

“No court should be able to say that Parliament cannot legislate on something the judges don’t like.”

And yet there are things Parliament should not be allowed to legislate (eg. enslaving one part of the population to another). How to adjudicate legitimate statutes from illegitimate ones? Apply the agency principle. If it would be unlawful for an individual to do, then it is equally unlawful for the government t do it or purport to authorise it.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
21 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Y

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
25 days ago

Two party systems are an atrocious way to govern. A two party state shares far too much in common with a one party state.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
25 days ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

Hard to imagine why someone would go to the trouble of downvoting such a reasonable comment.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
25 days ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

Are you referring to the US or the UK?

We don’t have a two party system in the UK. We do have other parties. They don’t win that many seats. But they are there.

Our system is flawed. But does tend to keep out genuine extremist politics. Reform is not the AfD. The calls for PR should be thought through really carefully. It will likely bring more extreme political views and factionalism. Yes we will get some cuddly tree huggers but we will also get genuine fascists.

People really need to think carefully about the pitfalls of PR. It needs explaining to people. Not just the positives but also the negatives.

El Uro
El Uro
25 days ago

Our system is flawed. But does tend to keep out genuine extremist politics. Reform is not the AfD.
.
Is the AfD an extremist party?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
25 days ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

Each one of the two parties ends up having to accomodate groups with differing political agendas. As separate parties they get no electoral traction with FPTP, and are forced to become entryists or factions within the two main parties. Thus the two-party system consists of two behemoths that are constantly striving to keep the lid on internal civil wars. In the case of the Tory party, with no success.

AC Harper
AC Harper
25 days ago

As mentioned in other comments, but not the main article, one of the major differences between 1910 and now is that we used to have a Civil Service and now we are had by the Civil Service. Recent politicians find it extremely difficult to impose their will on the mechanics of state… and that is why we despise many politicians.
Whoever you vote for becomes the next set of scapegoats for the activities of the Blob, the Clerisy.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
25 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

There maybe a little, or a lot, of truth in this, BUT, whatever the truth, it sounds too much like a ‘tin hat’ed’ conspiracy theory to be admitted.

AC Harper
AC Harper
25 days ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

I’m open to alternative explanations – but if one set of politicians were hopeless then surely another set would take over? Unless there is some underlying systemic cause.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
21 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

For me the arguments between FPTP or PR are complex and I waiver between which of the two is better, or if it would ever make any difference.

But whenever I read articles about it by people connected to any of the parties the stench of self-interest is overwhelming.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
25 days ago

Thank you. A truly insightful and thought provoking article which points up several
Important points. The danger of changing of PM without public mandate is I think one of these..

Saul D
Saul D
25 days ago

Democracies are more complex things than just a method of voting. It embeds the idea that ‘the people’ are the primary source of law and places the idea of ‘by popular consent’ at the heart of policy making, and gives channels for the public to object and to be heard, even on small and local matters. Democracy is complex and chaotic, but involves us because everyone can have a voice, and everyone can try to persuade their neighbour, raise an objection or stand for election.
The contrast would be the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) which was a country run by one party who determined what the people should think and how they should behave, but without any popular legitimacy because decisions never involved the public or the people. Yes, there was a periodic vote, but it had to be a vote for the party and a proscribed set of policies. Up until the point that the people rebelled (Hmmm… that sounds familiar).

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
25 days ago

The calls for PR are odd.

Yes, you will get a wider range of thoughts and opinions but they won’t be necessarily the ones that ‘good’ people want to hear!

If you want PR and you think Farage is a facist just wait and see what PR welcomes in.

Point of Information
Point of Information
25 days ago

I would prefer PR to FPTP and think Farage is a moron (“facist” used as an all purpose insult is ineffective and his politics are big business not big state).

Under PR, Farage (or the Greens or other small parties) would have to moderate and compromise, so they should prioritise the main reason(s) people voted for them – as the LibDems utterly failed to do on tuition fees in the coalition and were rightly punished by their supporters.

So, if Reform were in a coalition, they would have to make immigration their priority – their voters don’t care about their other policies. The Greens would have to prioritise environmental protection and leave gender politics at the door.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
25 days ago

Look at other countries, the small parties don’t “moderate”, they just become one-issue. The Greens and Liberals in Germany being good example and there is no room for compromise which is one of the reasons the current German government is getting hammered at every election since it came to power. The resignation from a large majority of voters that they are not going to get what they want – or even what was promised – might fly in European countries but not here. People are angry that the Conservatives haven’t delivered as promised, in Germany that happens at every election for every party who wins (apart from Merkel who I think had a one term majority).

Point of Information
Point of Information
24 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

People don’t get what they want in the UK and are (sadly for those who support better representation of the electorate’s views) resigned to that fact, hence the term – much vaunted on UnHerd – “Uniparty” due to Labour and the Tories having such similar policies.

The Tories have not won more than 50% of the vote since 1931. Labour never have.

1983 Tories, Thatcher 42%
1987 Tories, Thatcher 42%
1992 Tories, Major 42%
1997 Labour, Blair 43% “landslide”
2001 Labour, Blair 41%
2005 Labour, Blair 35%
2010 Coalition Tory/LD, Cameron 59%
2015 Tories, Cameron 36%
2017 Tories, May 42% (no majority)
2019 Tories, Johnson 44% “landslide”

Source: House of Commons Library, UK Election Statistics 1918-2023

John Riordan
John Riordan
24 days ago

If Farage’s politics were “big business” as you claim, then that would actually partly qualify him as Fascist, according at least to Mussolini’s definition of Fascism.

However, you are wrong about this: Farage is not corporatist, he is free market, which is – these days – almost the diametric opposite.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
21 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

y

George Venning
George Venning
25 days ago

Mentioning the 1910 Royal Commission is fascinating as a point of rebuttal to the charms of PR but, the author then goes on to show just how profoundly out of date those conclusions are in 2024.
To start off with, the obvious – which of two parties shall form the Government.
I grant the author’s point which is that this approach rewards the party which is able to make itself into the biggest tent (the Tories). But there is an ideological bias even then – conservatives are people who like things as they are and therefrore form a coherent bloc. Progressives, by contrast, are those who want to change things and, it is immediately obvious that not everyone who wants change will want the same change. It is therefore easier for Conservatives to be a big tent than progressives – whether they be Whigs, Liberals or Labour.
Be that as it may, the fact is that we have more than two parties now. Several of them representing only one nation of the union.
Moreover, given that we have a multiplicity of parties, the experience of the UK is that parties which broadly agree with one another end up acting as spoilers and letting the opponents in. We’re about to see a striking example of that in 2024 where Starmer gets the same share of votes that Corbyn did in 2017 but ends up with a vast majority, because, Reform will split the Tory vote, costing the Tories a vast swathe of seats whilst winning hardly any for themselves.
In 1983, the SDP did the same for Labour (Thanks Polly Toynbee)
PR might not be ideal but FPTP is actively perverse.
The other point concerns the mass party system. The Labour party’s role in a two party system under FPTP might have been a bit odd but Labour was a movement as well as a party because of its historic link with Trade Unionism. It was, internally democratic as well as participating in a democratic election. You can, of course argue about the quality of that internal democracy but you can argue about anything.
Starmer’s Labour is no longer internally democratic in that sense and the Conservative party doesn’t even pretend to be so.
PR isn’t a panacea but it would be better than this nonsense.

Iain Anderson
Iain Anderson
24 days ago
Reply to  George Venning

Agree, while I am not hopeful of labour being brave enough to propose PR, it is the right thing to do. so many people have to vote tactically, and never get the party they want. give people real power.

william langdale
william langdale
24 days ago

The tag line on the home page here said “election apathy” but that isn’t really what the writer is commentating on in this very insightful piece although it is part of one of my favourite political quotes which is from the 1979 general election when Willie Whitelaw accused Michael Foot of “going round the country stirring up apathy”.All elections are really won around:-
“better the devil you know”
“kick the buggers out” or
“they’re all the same,why bother”.
How those three play out usually decides it and whatever way it goes,to quote Stephen Pound,the former Labour MP “the people have spoken……… the b@stards”.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
24 days ago

‘ It is widely recognised that this general election is marked by an almost unprecedented degree of hostility to both major parties on the part of the electorate. But who can be surprised at this, given that they were offered the chance of real and active democracy only to have it snatched away from them — and this time, perhaps, for good?’

This really hit home – I can’t remember any election where I’ve felt as utterly, utterly disaffected and pi**ed off as this one.

Stephen Solly
Stephen Solly
24 days ago

“In the end, Brexit was saved in 2019 by a very traditional (and democratic) means: a general election, understood as another referendum.”
If only this was the case! It seems to have gone unnoticed that in the 2019 election the parties that were opposed to Brexit and were offering either a say on the final deal or a second referendum garnered over 50% of the vote.
The Conservatives won 56% of the seats with around 43% of the votes. A landslide of seats but hardly a landslide of votes.
The same democratic shortfall also cost the nearly 4 million people who voted for UKIP in the 2015 election. The party gained over 12% of the votes but only managed to win a single seat. No wonder they came out in force in 2016.
The system is clearly broken.

jim peden
jim peden
24 days ago

I believe the assumptions underlying ‘representational’ democracy are wrong.
The views of the citizenry cannot be represented even if politicians had the integrity to actually try it.
I’ve suggested a radical alternative, which is an ongoing project, in which all shades of opinion are always represented. It’s done by cutting out the ‘middle men’.
It starts at https://panocracy.substack.com/p/panocracy and its simple intention is to restore democracy.
Please have a look and leave your comments.

David Barnett
David Barnett
18 days ago

Representative democracy is a derogation of true democracy. The powers delegated to our reperesentative must be severely limited to preserve as much true democracy as possible.

There are things that Parliament should not be allowed to do. For example enacting analogues of the 1933 Nuremberg laws, or South Africa’s Apartheid laws. What principle invalidates those statutes, and could it be that there are many statutes on the books now that are invalid under that principle?

Here is a principle that solves the Nuremberg problem – Agency theory. In the common law, an act which is unlawful for an individual to do is still unlawful if done through an agent. For example, in a contract killing, both principal and agent would be liable for murder. The government is agent for the people. Actions that would be unlawful for an individual to do are not magically lawful after 3 readings in Parliament and a Royal assent.