On the continuing failure and decline of binary choice in democratic politics…

Of all people, it was perhaps Jeremy Paxman on his retirement from BBC Newsnight who put his finger on the problem causing such disillusion with politics – it is the nonsense that all politics is binary. He said in an interview that it was utterly ludicrous to suggest the Conservatives have all the answers to the country’s woes and Labour has none of them; and equally ludicrous to suggest Labour has all the answers and the Conservatives none – and everyone knows it!

Thus, electoral politics has become a complete facade. The UK will have a Conservative or a Labour Prime Minister, but both are presenting an outright lie – that they have all the answers and the other hasn’t; that their party has a near unblemished record in government and the other is at fault for all the country’s woes. It’s nonsense. And we all know it’s nonsense.

There is another problem with this that we know in our hearts to be true even if we don’t like to admit it: the politicians we elect cannot possibly have all the answers to our problems. We have zero say, at the ballot box at least, about the likely defence policy of the next President of the United States, or the next financial move of the Chinese Communist Party, or the next decision on Quantitative Easing by the European Central Bank; yet in a globalised world these things may all matter more than any decision made by people we ourselves elect.

Of course, the decisions which affect us may not be made by politicians at all. Big oil companies, vehicle manufacturers or even gadget firms (like Apple or Samsung) make decisions which have far-reaching consequences for all of us – made by Board members or Executives we don’t know in places like Fukuoka or Ingolstadt or Cupertino that we’ve never heard of.

There is a degree to which we are comforted by the notion that David Cameron or Ed Miliband will have it all in hand; by the idea that some geniuses somewhere are running the show and they know what they are doing. This is why conspiracy theories still predominate about the assassination of Kennedy, for example – a world in which some random mad man can just shoot dead the “Leader of the Western World” is too crazy to contemplate, so we go to extremes to deny it is possible.

Yet in our hearts we know that it is, in fact, a crazy world – and that the next move of Islamic State will likely have as big an effect on us as who wins the next UK General Election.

Move this to devolved level, of course, and the political farce becomes even more obvious. The notion that the Unionist world view and historical narrative is 100% correct and the Nationalist 100% flawed, or vice-versa, is very comforting but we know at heart that it’s nonsense. From the very outset, therefore, again there is a lie at the heart of the binary system – yet anyone caught exposing that lie is deemed a traitor to their own side.

We see this even on single issues. Never mind a detailed analysis of how best to tackle poverty in a post-industrial setting struggling with the legacy of conflict – are you for or against welfare reform? Never mind a detailed assessment of how best to tackle low wages in a peripheral public-sector dominated region after the Great Recession – are you for or against the Living Wage?

Never mind a detailed view of how best to promote business in the context of the rise of China and the East – are you for against reducing Corporation Tax? We like to comfort ourselves that stopping reform, or introducing the Living Wage, or reducing Corporation Tax will prove the magic bullet to all our economic and social woes.

Anyone suggesting it’s a little more complex than this straightforward binary option is deemed a “typical politician, ignoring the question”; yet anyone who does stand out and suggest it may be a bit more complex than that is right – and at heart we know they are, even though we probably won’t vote for them…

We are not alone. In Germany a two-and-a-half party system is rapidly becoming a five-party system (with the half replaced entirely by a populist bloc challenging everything Germans professed to believe about Europe). In Denmark and Canada the centre right has been completely restructured (and the latter is now working on restructuring the left too).

In Ireland civil war politics is being replaced by outright populism. In the United States party membership is declining and people are becoming increasingly disenchanted by the gridlock delivered by an entrenched, binary system.

What is the solution to all of this? I have no idea! To move towards a solution, I know only two things for sure: politicians are elected by the electorate and they bring with them to their office all the foibles and hypocrisy of that electorate; and that it is therefore for that electorate, for us humble citizens in other words, to participate and deliver a democratic alternative which recognises the world is complex and that binary options will no longer suffice.

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  • Sergiogiorgio

    Within this set of circumstances revolution is easily borne. Nature hates a vacuum.

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    Just a couple of issues Ian-

    ” the next move of Islamic state will likely have as big effect on us as who wins the next UK General election “-

    Well most politics is local so unless ISIS bombs Dublin or Belfast or one of the local political party’s joins the UK Government as a junior party then you could be right -( as a political junkie I will be hooked on the next elections but thank God not everyone has my affliction -)-

    ” In Ireland civil war politics is being replaced by outright populism “-

    Could be the opposite with the blasts from the past Wars-the BlueShirts and Sinn Fein on opposing sides on who could be the next Government in 2016 –

  • Ian James Parsley

    I have that affliction too!

    Yet my point is this: Islamic State could affect oil prices and even food security in a way which puts up the cost of living dramatically, and about which Dave or Ed could do nothing.

    In the same way a few nutters flying planes into buildings changed everything globally in 2001 – with direct social and economic implications on our quality of life.

    These are the things which, as Baz Luhrmann put it, “blind side us at 4pm some idle Tuesday” – his definition of a”real problem”. They matter, but there’s nowt we can do about them.

  • Ian James Parsley

    Yes, precisely. I’ve written about that elsewhere.

  • tmitch57

    Interesting post. The problem with multiparty systems that result from a PR-list franchise system as used in most of Western Europe or Israel is that there is little accountability. The beauty of the parliamentary system matched with the pluralist franchise system is accountability. Whoever controls parliament also controls the executive branch and is responsible for whatever happens during their tenure. This is whey this system is so attractive for most ethnically coherent societies. The United States is in quite a different position than Britain as it has a checks-and-balances constitution in the presidential system that was deliberately designed to defeat ambitious government. With the usual situation that one party controls the executive–the presidency–and the other party controls at least one of the two houses of Congress there is a lot of finger pointing. I think that most Democrats would probably readily trade our system for a parliamentary system, whereas most Republicans would keep our presidential system. In NI you have a multiparty system that effectively breaks down into three two-party or one-party systems for mutually-exclusive electorates: nationalists, unionists, and others. And the NI system is even more convoluted and less functional than the American presidential system. It basically was designed with only one purpose in mind: to get various private armies to give up their illegal weapons and refrain from engaging in illegal actions.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    With some delight I find myself agreeing with Ian on some of the points he is making, for example his quoting Paxman’s “utterly ludicrous to suggest the Conservatives have all the answers to the country’s woes and Labour has none of them” and his own point that the creation of transnational power bases by business has ensured that “the politicians we elect cannot possibly have all the answers to our problems.”

    But his thinking is still completely within the party system. On an earlier post I’d laid into the concept of the professional career politician, and Ian had staunchly defended the need for us to have masters controling our lives, elected masters who have expertise and skill in political matters to be trusted to make the correct decisions.

    I entirely agree with him that much of the present voter disillusionment with politicians stems from their obvious powerlesness on most world issues, combined with their being “economical with the truth” about what they will actually be able to manage within our political system. But this is something that has been long encoded within the representative system, something that is now well over a century old, that has been incresingly hi-lighted by the speed of the contemporary media in permitting information to be accessed.

    In 1911 Emma Goldman wrote:

    “The average mind is slow in grasping a truth, but when the most thoroughly organized, centralized institution, maintained at an excessive national expense, has proven a complete social failure, the dullest must begin to question its right to exist. The time is past when we can be content with our social fabric merely because it is “ordained by divine right,” or by the majesty of the law.”

    We are now at the “dullest mind” stage, pretty much. Politicians such as Ian will continue to press for just another band aid on the gangrenous limb, but its the system of professional politics that they represent that is the real problem. While I’m not in agreement with the Five Star movement in Italy on a considerable amount of their platform, at least they are the first elected politicians to even begin to propose that modern media has taken away much of the need for “wise”, almost unaccountable professional masters brokering our needs from on high. Mick’s post on “enthuastic participation” essays something of this and I was sad to see it so woefully supported, as it was raising one of the most important issues in politics today.

    Perhaps the most dangerious things happening today is the alienation spreading through an almost total sense disempowerment. Ian points to globalisation as one thread of uncontrollability that any professional politician must be frustrated by. For most of us unelected it is the political culture of lies, electoral abuse, which he also points out, itself as a chorus underlining our powerlessness threading through these aweful lives we are expected to live, where wage slavery, processing the kind of debts that our parents could not begin to imagine, is relieved only by the blurr of alcohol and the sort nightly media pap I used to have to produce myself. This demand for a regulated homogeneous society, the most basic demand any modern centralised state makes (see Gellner) is perfectly described by Emma (again):

    “The strongest bulwark of authority is uniformity; the least divergence from it is the greatest crime. The wholesale mechanisation of modern life has increased uniformity a thousandfold. It is everywhere present, in habits, tastes, dress, thoughts and ideas. Its most concentrated dullness is “public opinion.” Few have the courage to stand out against it. He who refuses to submit is at once labelled “queer,” “different,” and decried as a disturbing element in the comfortable stagnancy of modern life.”

    The old binary political system was developed to manage the growth of modernity, and thus, even if unconsciously, to manage a drive to uniformity which incidently strengthened their own authority, while offering the illusion, through binary change, that such change would help eventually to relieve the monotony of modern life. But the core issue has always been the steady erosion of personal and social freedom to supply the requirements of incresingly centralised systems, many of them now non-elected business interests. And we are all complicit with this every time we vote! Emma again:

    “People have only as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take.”

    And it will never come from electing representatives who promice to give us our freedoms!

  • Abucs

    Seems like more socialist disillusionment and a ‘mea culpa’ from a leftist journalist for distorting politics and finally waking up to the fact that it gets you nowhere, except for division and denial of truth.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    While I’d agree I’d just add “not just leftest…..”

    To get a decent look at whats really happening you really need to get off the see-saw.

  • Morpheus


    Serious question: does this sort of crap appeal to the unionist electorate?

  • Ian James Parsley

    While I am delighted at the areas of agreement, I am mystified by much of the rest of your response.

    Frankly, it bears no relation to what I actually wrote!

    Indeed, I can’t help but think you have stumbled into another problem related to “binary politics”, namely that of “labelling”.

    In this case, you have decided that to label me as a “politician” – therefore regardless of what I actually write, I must mean “X” and “Y”.

    There are numerous problems with that, not least that, well, I’m not a politician…!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ian, I must cravenly apologise for sluring you with the obnoxious label “politician”, an insult that, in Northern Ireland I’d be anxious about labelling any decent person with. But you are a member of the Alliance party, and I was perhaps misdirected by that period of seeing you on election posters not so long ago, thinking as I do that anyone seeking election is a would be politician, involved in the contemporary political culture, ie: “a politician” but one without a seat. That, and your staunch defence of the need for professional politicians coupled with your anxieties about the electorate interferring with the actual power of professional politicians by being able to challenge parliamentary dictates with the possiblity a referendum on their acts of parliament, as in Switzerland. And I still feel that you are writing as an insider, a party member, with a rather Burkian belief that the British representative system is a very good thing that simply needs some understanding as to its limitations. Something I’d not share.

    I suppose what I wrote relates to your posting as an expansion of your critique of the binary system to take in the “elephant in the corner” issue of the structural disfunctionality of the entire system. I’d believe that while you are perfectly right that no one party can honestly offer an answer to every problem, simply throwing more parties at the problem is compounding the problem rather than answering it. While there are no magic bullet solutions to problems, but this does not mean that other approaches may not yeald better results than the tired old nineteenth century representative system that still seems to be all that is on offer to us in your suggestions.

    In your last paragraph you say that you have no solution but ( the old, old call) that the represenatives have to be brought to book by an involved citizenship who “participate” presumably by not voting for the bad guys who tell them ( lies!) that there are answers, but for good guys who tell them the truth, that they are just as powerless as their electorate in the face of the globalist big players. A sort of covert MOPEry lite for the plight of the poor representatives who cannot meet those expectations they have raised in their electorate!

    You end with the injunction for us all: “to participate and deliver a democratic alternative which recognises the world is complex and that binary options will no longer suffice.” But the implicit suggestion is that we should participate only by voting, and simply educate ourselves to elect rather more honest masters for the five year stretch.

    Perhaps if you thought of politics outside of the Westminster fish bowl and its clones, as something that needs day by day citizen engagement, we might get somewhere. As it is your no solution suggestions will simply imbalance the binary system until the see saw has a few more players at each end! Even in the european examples you offer, every parlimentary vote a covert binary system returns as representatives divide on issues concieved as a yes/no. The parliamentary system itself IS a binary system.

    If you really want the complexities of real world issues to stimulate an intellegent electorate to engage with politics, you cannot treat them as children who need to be excluded from real decisions over and above the choice of masters every half decade. They need to be treated as adults capable of making decisions about their won lives, who, so politically aware and engaged, may not need to be represented but may be able to handle their own political lives! Five Star in Italy are attempting to ask some these questions, and although I remember that in an earlier exchange you claimed that you thought of them as part of the ( no friend of mine) Farage “protest vote” effect, perhaps it might help if you actually read their manifesto!

    It might also help broaden horizons a bit to try reading a little Emma Goldman for a start, or to check out this earlier posting:


  • Zeno3

    What is the SF policy on Islamic State? Do they support them or condemn them?

  • Zeno3

    Ian, why do we even need political parties? They are of no benefit to the country. They focus all of their energies on getting into power and then staying there.
    Abolish political parties and elect a government by sortition. It is true that electing a government by random selection might give us people who are criminals who might fiddle their expenses. We might get people who don’t even have a single GCSE. We might get people who have murdered people. We might get sectarian bigots. We might get people who protect child abusers. We might get people who have bombed innocent civilians. But it’s worth taking the risk.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Zeno3, we should certainly be able to do better as regards representatives by choosing them by lot, and if we trust the ordinary Joe/Josephine to intellegently conduct the responsibilities of Jury service, why not trust them to conduct the business of government and so cut out all the temptations parties have to use patronage to their own advantage and in one move avoid the dangerious continuity of personnel in power that the elected representative system makes inevitable!

    This could not be called “election” as that word describes the old system where alongside those of us politically engeged a whole lot of indifferent people go and mark papers by standing order, ensuring the whole rotten system rolls along for another five years! It also suggests “popular mandate” so that these “elect” can claim that they speak for you and me, despite the fact that I would be reluctant to even exchange a few words with most of them.

    Try looking Emma Goldman! She has some great critiques on the old system!

  • Zeno3

    I will look at Emma Goldman. thanks.
    The system we have doesn’t work but they are unlikely to vote themselves out of a job. A system where the people who tell the best lies or are really good at stirring sectarian hatred can easily be elected is seriously flawed. Almost half of the electorate have realised that and are not voting. MLA’s can get elected with a lot less than 5000 votes in an electorate of 1.2 million and then claim a “mandate” It is just silly.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Zeno3, I’d put a few Emma Goldman quotes into the big 800 word posting below, the one Ian claims he does not understand!

    The last one was:

    “People have only as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take.”

    And yes, I entirely agree that “A system where the people who tell the best lies or are really good at stirring sectarian hatred can easily be elected is seriously flawed.” I’d include a system that encourages “the people” to let others tell them what they think and even what perfectly reasonable things they may be permitted to do. And yes, yes, yes, the thought of anyone claiming to speak with the voice of others (who have not been consulted over important details) with eevn a decent block of votes given on general issues or (all too often) on the standing order system of voting, is just silly.

  • Zeno3

    I couldn’t agree more with what you and Emma Goldman say. A simple but effective game is continuously played out for the proletariat. It has pomp and ceremony, elaborate sets and ludicrous and titles. Every so often a head rolls and the crowd cheer, but it all rolls along impervious to all and any revelations of fraud, corruption and nepotism.
    Any sensible person would withdraw from it because if we give them all the rope and all the power they will surely hang themselves.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Glad its making sense to someone, Zeno3! The thing that still astonishes me most is that anyone can continue to talk as if these people “representing” us can be taken at all seriously. Enjoy Emma, I first read her in the mid 1960s in the thin “Freedom Press” paperbacks.

    Just for the record, I get a neat mention in Bill Purdie’s 1990 book about NICRA, “Politics in the Streets”, p. 233:

    “Another tendency was the anarchists, which consisted of about two individuals whose contribution was to encourage the spontaneity and disorganised character of the early PD.”

    So, not just a passing phase……