Thoughts of a party pooper

The Party's Over

September 24, 2004

Keith Sutherland joins a long line of liberal commentators - from John Stuart Mill to that sadly underestimated Russian emigre Moisei Ostrogorski - who find themselves disenchanted with the working of representative institutions and with the tyranny of the political party.

Parties, Sutherland believes, were perhaps necessary and even desirable in a more ideological age when they really did represent, in Disraeli's words, "organised opinion". Today, however, when the great ideological movements of the 19th and 20th century have done their work, the role of the party has become obscure. They now differentiate themselves less in terms of ideology than in their ability to secure benefits that almost every voter wants: a more effective health service, better schools, trains that run on time and so on - matters political scientists call valence issues as opposed to position issues. In Britain, according to electoral analyst Paul Whiteley, valence politics has come to replace position politics.

Peter Mandelson argued in 1998 that the age of pure representative democracy was ending and that representative institutions needed to be supplemented by the machinery of direct democracy: the referendum, the initiative and the like. Sutherland goes further. He believes we should replace the whole machinery of elections with selection by lot or sortition: the jury selection principle.

There is an obvious objection to this, powerfully put by Socrates more than 2,000 years ago. One would not, he claimed, select a steersman by lot; why, then, should one select political leaders this way? Indeed, valence politics requires technical skills more than position politics. As David Goodhart, the editor of the magazine Prospect, has argued: "To take part... it is no good just feeling passionately that our society is too unequal or centralised or polluted, you have to know things about policy debates and how institutions work. And most people, even members of political parties, don't know enough to join in. Those who do know enough often lack eloquence or charisma, reinforcing the unheroic or simply uninteresting image of technocratic politics." Valence politics, then, is for the likes of Gordon Brown and Michael Howard. It has no need of men of the people such as Aneurin Bevan or Keir Hardie.

This criticism, however, misses the point. Sutherland wants selection by lot precisely because he does not want the state to be steered. He wants not to make the state more efficient but to limit its power. He follows Michael Oakeshott in seeing the state as a civil rather than an enterprise association. It is most definitely not a purposive organisation; its function is simply to keep the ship afloat. Rule by amateurs, precisely because they lack technical knowledge, would ensure that the state avoided serving any extraneous purpose or interest. Only in this way can a limited State be restored and preserved from the managerialists and the technocrats in a post-ideological world.

The Party's Over is quirky and far too discursive. It is, nevertheless, a spirited and unpretentious polemic that repays reflection - and especially perhaps by those who do not share its author's political standpoint.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University.

The Party's Over: Blueprint for a Very English Revolution

Author - Keith Sutherland
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Pages - 195
Price - £19.95 and £8.95
ISBN - 0 907845 90 8 and 51 7

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