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).