UK Constitutional Law Association

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Jeff King: Down with Pirates

In this post, I argue against protest voting for fringe parties that mock the conventional party systems.  To some it may look liberal and progressive, but it in fact offers a false and faddish mirage of progressive action that is liable to have precisely the opposite effect.  It  encourages dropping out of a viable party-system at a time that joining in is exactly what’s needed.

There has been a surge of such protest voting in Europe in the last few years. The most notorious example has been the rise of the ‘Pirate Party’ in Germany, a party that originated in Sweden in 2006 .  They have won seats in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany’s largest state (Land).  They also won 15 seats on the Berlin city council on 18 September 2011. And it is feared they will enter the Bundestag in the next federal elections, having won 2% of the 5% of votes needed in the September 2009 election.  Similarly, the comedian Beppe Grillo has led a party in Italy known as the Five Star Movement, which has taken a range of offices across the country. In my view, this is all a good joke gone bad.  Politics is no laughing matter.  We need parties that are serious, warts and all.  Why so?

1.         Parties offer collective intelligence and collective action

Modern government is extremely complex.  Adopting policies on taxation, fiscal policy, employment strategies, and managing a legislative programme requires a lot more than gut-feelings about right and wrong.  It requires comprehension of vast quantities of information, and mechanisms for processing it that are delegated and fragmented. It requires organisation.  Indeed this is a key reason for the rise of political parties in the first place.

The Pirate Party proposes to rely on ‘liquid democracy’ where it would consult the preferences of its members (see http://www.piratenpartei.de/mitmachen/arbeitsweise-und-tools/liquid-feedback/ or http://www.pirateparty.org.uk/wiki/Liquid_democracy).  They run software called ‘liquid feedback,’ which generates real-time party member preferences on all policy issues confronted.  This idea is related to a much wider problem of using direct democracy techniques in modern governance.  Shall we take a straw poll on the present need for quantitative easing?  Yes, me neither.

This is why we have representative democracy, and the division of labour required within political parties to have policy formed by people who know how to read the dense bits of the broadsheets. They then coordinate with each other to produce a coherent global political platform that reflects the general political principles of the party.   True, that coordination and discipline may provide cover for inertia and elite access, but it also comprises vast networks of interests and channels for careful negotiation, deliberation, and the discipline required to prioritise and carry forward public policies on crucial issues.

‘Liquid democracy’ threatens to replace that with gut feelings fuelled by a cyberbalkanised media landscape.

2.         Parties offer channels for compromise

Compromise sounds dirty. And since Weber coined the phrase ‘politics is the art of compromise’, politics has a dirty image as well.  Some even accuse politicians of acting ‘politically’!

The criticism is wholly misguided, however.  We compromise in life all the time. We do so in families at the grocery store, on holidays, and at the film shop.  And we also do so in national politics, in most areas of policy.  Compromise is about mutual accommodation. Entire political systems – consociational, those in perpetual coalitions, and many others – are founded upon the harmonious effects of effective compromise (see Bellamy; Braybrooke, below).  Compromises are only ‘dirty’ or ‘rotten’ (see Margalit, below) if they unjustifiably violate someone’s rights, or harm the common good or welfare by comparison with the alternatives.

The Pirates are likely to undermine parties’ capacity to compromise on the right issues, and grandstand as the champions of truth and integrity in the process. It can promote a bunker mentality and gridlock in legislative bargaining.  Some argue that public grandstanding (as opposed to hard bargaining) has destabilised constitution building at critical junctures in some countries’ development (see Jon Elster, “Forces And Mechanisms In The Constitution-Making Process” (1995) 45 Duke L J 364). At any rate, it will be interesting to see how the Pirate Party’s idealism evaporates if ever it would be given power over a public budget. It will then need to take collective decisions and assign someone to speak definitively with one voice for the Party.   When the decisions are big, someone, ultimately, has to hold the conch.

3.         Parties do offer avenues for change and protest

The constant refrain is that political parties do not offer choice.  Well, choice for what?  In Germany, voters can choose – and do – between five parties that span the entire political spectrum, from extreme right, to neo-liberal, to Christian Democrat, to Green, Social Democrat, to the farther left.  It is ironic in fact that these protest parties have proliferated in countries with proportional representation.

Perhaps there are some issues that these parties are not taking seriously?  Well obviously piracy isn’t one of them, but we shouldn’t let the costumes eclipse the fact that the movement includes serious and intelligent people with real policies and new ideas on offer.  The Pirate Party characterises itself as a social-liberal or centrist party, its link to the broader political agenda. But that declared orientation leaves unanswered the obvious question of why it should be seen as different from the Social Democratic Party or Green Party.  The big idea in the Pirate Party is greater Internet freedom. Is that the big single issue worthy of a new political party?  No doubt it is important, but the idea that it should eclipse jobs, monetary stability, equality for women and climate change (the Greens get a hall pass) frankly beggars belief.

Even in the realm of media regulation, it pales in importance next to the impact of concentrated media ownership, and the decline of print media and conventional investigative journalism, fuelled by the rise of blogging, tabloids, and online titillation posing as news.  If Pirates want to take radical action on media policy, try paying for a newspaper subscription.

There may in fact be a more troubling fact afoot.  It would be interesting to ask the Pirate Party how many of its members were in fact members of any other political party in their lifetimes.  (The Pirates’ Wikipedia page reports that two former Bundestag members of other parties have joined the Pirates, one of whom, Jörg Tauss, has since left for non-political reasons).  Have they tried for change from within, or merely recoiled from the business suit?

Party membership has plummeted in Britain, to take one example.  In 1957, one in eleven in Britain were members of a political party, whereas presently the figure has sunk to one in  eighty-eight.  (See generally, ‘The future of parties’ (2005) 59 Parliamentary Affairs 499 (special issue)).  And let’s not even ask about trade union membership.

Is it because these parties themselves no longer offer choice?  Hardly.  Within all the parties, discrete camps jockey for position within the party before, during and after leadership contests.  To say that this is mere ‘politics’  – a battle royale of type-A will-to-power personalities – is to deliver a crude and uninformed picture of politics.  Really, what else are they supposed to do?

And there is choice even in the most mainstream parties. In the UK, the Tories teeter between highly conservative backbenchers who want to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, withdraw from the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights, and a more pragmatic frontbench that wants to keep the Coalition alive and focus on slashing public spending and reorganising the welfare state.  In the Labour Party, the dispute between Brown and Blairites, and between Ed and David Milliband, was rightly understood as more than personality politics – it was a contest between left and right tendencies in the party.  In neither party is the result a winner-takes-all victory, either.  The claims of the losing side remain present at all times, because if entirely ignored they can fester and destabilise the party in government or opposition, whether by backbench revolt or leadership coup.

So there are avenues for change within political parties.  But one needs to join a party and vote.  Of course, in any big party with a diverse membership, people will disagree about policy. To turn one’s back on the parties is ignore the need to act collectively to create change on the issues that are crucial, and to take other people’s wishes seriously.  That’s serious business, and costumes aren’t welcome.

Jeff King is Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Laws, University College London. (The author extends his appreciation to Caroline Daly for research assistance, and apologies to Steffi Metzler).

Suggested citation: J. King, ‘Down with Pirates’  UK Const. L. Blog (20th October 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org) 

Further Reading

R. Bellamy, Liberalism and Pluralism: Towards a Politics of Compromise (London & New York: Routledge, 2002).

D. Braybrooke, ‘The Possibilities of Compromise’ (1982) 93 Ethics 139-50 (reviewing the Pennock and Chapman volume below).

J.P. Day, ‘Compromise’ (1989) 64 Philosophy 471-85.

A. Margalit, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (Princeton University Press, 2009).

M. Nachi (ed), ‘Compromise: Exploring Theory and Practice’ (2004) 43(2) Social Science Information (special issue).

 J.R. Pennock & J.W. Chapman,  Nomos XXI: Compromise in Ethics, Law, and Politics (New York: New York University Press, 1979).

6 comments on “Jeff King: Down with Pirates

  1. mymouths2big
    October 20, 2012

    You have to be joking.
    Every member of the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet are members of the Bilderberg Group, Blair is also President of the Fabian Society, both groups advocate a One World Government and an end to national sovereignty. Traitors, in a word. According to the British Constitution allowing the EU or any other power to legislate over us is, High Treason.

    Tony Butler

  2. Aileen McHarg
    October 20, 2012

    How refreshing to read someone defending political parties. Thanks Jeff.

  3. Piermario Porcheddu
    October 22, 2012

    In Defence of Pirates

    In his post ‘Down with Pirates’ of 20 October 2012 Jeff King argues against protest voting for fringe parties by referring to two examples: predominantly the German Pirate Party and in passing the Italian Five Star Movement.

    In response, I argue that neither party can be used as a good example of protest voting. What is more, protest voting itself is a misleading label of little use to understand the political reality behind the increasing popularity of certain small or fringe parties.

    1. Do you Need to Protest to be a Pirate?
    King’s argument is based on two interrelated assumptions. First, that fringe parties like the German Pirate Party own their increasing political success to protest voting. Second, that most if not all people who vote for those parties vote solely to ‘protest’, presumably against larger mainstream parties. Both assumptions are questionable.

    The first assumption fails to acknowledge that increasingly successful small parties, including the Pirate Parties do not operate solely as a mockery to the mainstream parties and the current political system, if they operate in such a way at all. They do have substantial political programmes. The first Pirate Party, founded in Sweden, had as its core policy the reform of the current intellectual property regime (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate_Party). The name of the party, therefore, is a play on word on copyright infringement rather than a call to mutiny the current political party system. Similarly, the British Pirate Party states that it stands ‘for Digital Rights, Civil Liberties and a politics fit for the 21st Century. We want a Britain where all can be part of our shared culture and economy’ (see http://www.pirateparty.org.uk/).

    The second assumption is also difficult to accept. Without some proof to the contrary, one can only assume that people vote the Pirate Parties because they consciously support different policies on the sharing of information. To hold otherwise is to offend the intelligence and integrity of both the people involved in those parties and their voters. Sharing of information, especially through digital media such as this blog, is an issue of great importance in 21st century societies; there is no immediately apparent mockery involved in a party that focuses its attention on that issue. Whether one agrees with the cogency of such issue and with how the Pirate Parties propose to solve it is a wholly separate issue that does not affect the integrity of the Pirate Party as a genuine political party.

    2. Consequences of Voting for Pirate Parties
    King is concerned that the rise of Pirate Parties may in the long term undermine the important role that compromise plays in effective political and legislative decision making. This concern is rather exaggerated and does not take into account the fact that the European Pirate Parties have also had their share of political compromise, albeit in a relatively reduced scale. In 2009 they met in Uppsala to agree on common goals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate_Party). If, as King points out, compromise is a fact of ordinary life to accommodate different views and needs, it is not difficult to imagine that some degree of compromise between the various Pirate Parties must have occurred during the Uppsala conference.

    It is also unclear how voting for Pirate Parties can encourage ‘dropping out of a viable party system’. If they are minor parties that receive a small number of votes, surely they do not have such mighty political power to make the current party systems in Europe no longer viable. And if in time they will gain a larger share of votes and enter into national Parliaments, at that point they will have become a major political force at the expense of some or all of the other parties without necessarily destabilising the current party system; in fact, they will have become incorporated in it.

    Indeed, if compromise is inescapable in politics Pirate Parties too will have to make more and more compromises if they want to survive. Green parties provide the best example of this. In 1980, when the seeds of the German Green Party were sowed, the Green party was a small party with a relatively narrow programme in comparison with those of the Christian Democratic Union and of the Social Democratic Party, focussed predominantly on the environment and the social justice. In time the Green Party grew more popular, expanded its programme and formed part of two coalition governments in which it had to make difficult political compromises often unpopular with its own electorate.

    But let us assume that the Pirate Party in Germany will never achieve the same popularity of Green Party; why should that matter at all? What is there so inherently dangerous for a modern democracy to have small parties campaigning on a narrow set of particular issues? Does not that put increasing political pressure on main parties to reconsider some of their policies and, if the popularity of the policy advocated by the small party increases, compromise on them? Is that not an overall desirable result in a liberal democracy?

    3. Confusing Pirates with Star Ranks
    When making comparisons across constitutions and political systems it is of utmost importance to be aware of the historical and cultural differences between the countries examined (see Fusaro and Oliver (eds) How Constitutions Change – A Comparative Study (Hart Publishing 2011) esp. 412-3). King draws a parallel between the German Pirate Party and the Italian Five Star Movement as ‘all a good joke gone bad’ without actually comparing the history of the two parties and the political environment in which they operate.

    As a starting point, we should not assume from the fact that a comedian leads a political party that his political effort is comical or should not be taken seriously. There is no monopoly of professions for leading political campaigns, nor should there be one.

    With that point in mind, there are some important differences between the Italian Five Star and the German Pirate Party that must be acknowledged before any parallel is to be attempted. First, the Five Star has a much wider political programme that includes economy, education and constitutional reform (see http://www.beppegrillo.it/iniziative/movimentocinquestelle/Programma-Movimento-5-Stelle.pdf).

    Secondly, Italian voters do not have the same degree of choice as their German counterparts. Italy has not seen the rise of a strong and independent Green Party. The Italian Federazione dei Verdi traditionally relied upon strategic electoral coalitions with left wing parties. In 2008 they unsuccessfully formed a coalition with fringe parties such as the Italian Communists (Comunisti Italiani) and Communist Refoundation (Rifondazione Comunista) and failed to gain even a single seat in Parliament. Following this failure, a major schism occurred that saw several Verdis forming the new party Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertá (Left, Ecology and Liberty) together with radical left parties (http://www.sinistraecologialiberta.it/). In September 2010, the leader of the Verdi, Angelo Bonelli, announced that the national congress of the party had agreed to dissolve the Verdi in order to form a new Green Party indicated under the provisional name of Componente Ecologica (his announcement can be heard at http://www.radioradicale.it/scheda/311605/lappello-dal-titolo-io-cambio-per-la-costituente-ecologista). This process of reformation has been particularly slow and as of October 2012 it has not yet been completed. Therefore, it is arguable whether presently there is a real Green Party in Italy. That does not mean that environmental and energy policies are not important political issues among Italian voters. The fact that the Greens have not been able to fill that political space has meant that green policies are scattered around a variety of smaller parties, including Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which has used its internet popularity to campaign against environmental abuses (see e.g. http://www.beppegrillo.it/2012/08/ilva_una_favola_noir.html).

    It is also unhelpful to make a general argument, namely that ‘there is choice even in the most mainstream parties’, by reference to a specific domestic example, that of the UK, and apply that example to the different political realities of Germany and Italy. The difficulties of such parallels become apparent when one considers that currently in Italy there is a technical government and both mainstream parties have gone through a series of leadership changes and corruption scandals (the latest is unfolding as I write: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/18/world/europe/italys-political-scandals-rattle-public-trust.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, see also http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/25/lazio-governor-resigns-amid-scandal). There have been many changes in Italian parties in the last twenty years but arguably change has not been substantial enough. This has promoted a culture of general mistrust of mainstream parties that is fomenting popular support for independent leaders like Grillo or investigative journalists like Marco Travaglio, one of the main contributors to the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marco_Travaglio).

    Whether this will lead to anything good or more instability, one can argue upon. For the present purposes, what I want to highlight is simply that it is not only difficult to label votes to the Five Star Movement as protest votes, but also that the substantial reasons for the increasing popularity of the Five Star Movement differ greatly from the substantial reasons for the increasing popularity of the Pirate Parties.

    4. What is Wrong with Protest Voting?
    Finally, it is important to consider when it is dangerous to ‘protest vote’. Before doing that, however, a definition of ‘protest voting’ must be agreed upon. I take ‘protest voting’ to mean voting fringe parties solely as a sign of protest against mainstream parties, with little or no consideration for the actual political programme proposed by the fringe party that one votes.
    Understood in this sense, I agree that protest voting should be discouraged as much as possible because it turns democracy into a vacuous lottery of power with regretful consequences that are not hard to imagine.
    If one adopts this or a substantially similar definition of protest voting, the Pirate Parties and the Five Star Movement cannot be good examples of it. Perhaps a more pertinent example is the Greek national elections held on 6 May 2012, where fringe parties saw a sharp increase in support. This was largely seen as a protest by Greek electors against the main parties that had previously agreed to austerity measures imposed by the EU (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/06/greek-voters-austerity-ballot, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304363104577387513275938738.html). Even so, this also does not fit squarely with protest voting as defined above as there was a substantial political reason for voting fringe parties, namely that they opposed austerity measures. Without thorough empirical analysis one can only guess what share of electors voted fringe parties purely out of protest against the main parties. It is certainly more comforting to think that the rise of extremist parties such as Golden Dawn is due merely to protest voting. But adopting this view would neglect a much more complex social and political reality.
    So, when does protest voting actually occur? I think rarely, if ever. What I sought to show in respect of the Pirate Parties and the Five Star Movement is that protest voting is largely a misleading label that covers the true political reality behind voting small or fringe parties. Protest voting is internally redundant, as by voting party X a voter impliedly protests against the policies of parties Y and Z. It also assumes too much political engagement on the part of electors, for if they want to protest against mainstream parties and the leading political class they can simply not vote at all.

    Piermario Porcheddu

    • Jeff King
      October 26, 2012

      Dear Mr. Porcheddu,

      Thank you for this very intelligent and insightful response, which I have considered very carefully. I nonetheless stand by my view that the original intent of these parties, and I suspect the main aim of those who vote for them, is both to mock the other parties and to protest against them. It’s true that some political programmes are evolving, but I’ve diagnosed the one offered by the Pirates and think it is so weak as to be a virtual afterthought. Have a think: people who support internet freedom can be anything from Marxists to radical libertarians who think nearly all economic regulation is morally suspect. Do you think we should know a bit more before putting them in charge of the budget? When we get more of the programme, the question becomes what is different from the other parties?

      I can’t speak of the Five Star Movement, sadly, but I grouped it together with the Pirates based on media reports I had. (The English wiki page lists the ideology as ‘populist’ first, whereas the Italian offers ‘ecologist’ ‘antiparty’ ‘direct democracy’ and a few others which are problematic for reasons given in my post). I also think that your claims about the lack of choice in Italian politics tend to support the view that there have been serious efforts to expand choice in Italian politics. And I think the experience in Greece supports my view. Syriza is not a protest party: I think it has a comprehensive and distinctive economic and social political programme that seeks to break the clientelle mould there, whereas Golden Dawn is either a protest party, or a standard far-right nationalist party (worse, but for reasons other than those identified by my blog post). I know these are complex matters, but that’s my (revisable) view of them at present.

      I’ll think more about your helpful arguments, but I want to clarify that I’m not defending the status quo – I’m rather suggesting that the best way to change it is to join a party with a comprehensive and serious platform and vote within and through it for change. Collective action is key.
      Thank you,
      Jeff King

  4. Martin Engelmann
    November 26, 2012

    Just a small addition: two days ago, the German Pirate Party decided on a comprehensive program for the election next year.

    Without (much) further additions, I am happy for Mr. Porcheddus reply. I consider most of Mr. Kings arguments based on fear and mere assumptions.
    Additionally, the first argument touches an unrelated matter that isn’t connected to the issue of alleged “joke-parties”. Just as a small thought: there are examples (Switzerland being the most obvious one) of systems with a much higher level of direct democracy. Surely, for an implementation of such a system, there has to be a cultural change of the perception of politics and the personal responsibility in politics. But wouldn’t a party promoting such a change be a great way of achieving it? Where else could such a change be promoted?

  5. Vassilis Perantzakis
    January 30, 2013

    Mr King, if mainstream parties adopt the main policies that the Pirate Party puts forward, then there would be no need for Pirate Parties. However, parties refuse to compromise downwards. They choose to compromise upwards where the money is.

    I would advise that you ask your self WHY is there even a need for a party with such a… funny name.

    In the age of information, control of it is the new world war. In the past, feuds that were created by the over concentration of wealth and military power. We Pirates are trying to put a set of rules down that will prevent the control of Information for the same purposes.

    Our agenda is cut and clear. It is not to mock or to steal votes from other parties that have done… so well (this is mocking) but to change their politics for the betterment of mankind.

    Vassilis Perantzakis. Member of the Pirate Party of Greece

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