Individualism and the need for PR

An article in this week’s New Stateman has really got me thinking. There has been a great deal of discussion about The Labour Party, and particularly Keir Starmer’s leadership of it, following the results of the local elections and Hartlepool by election earlier this month. This particular article, by the political editor of the Economist, Adrian Wooldridge hasn’t introduced me to any new ways of thinking or to any novel concepts, but by arguing that Starmer’s party should ‘Reclaim meritocracy’ as its central goal it has juxtaposed the pursuit of a meritocracy and that of promoting egalitarian policies in a way that I had never considered before. I accept that I may be very naïve, but somehow I’ve managed to hold onto both some sort of egalitarian principle whilst also believing that people should be rewarded according to what they actually achieve or the amount of work they put in. It would appear that many on the left, including the philosopher Michael Sandel, are now highly critical of a meritocratic approach. This needs exploring. I find it really frustrating, but also quite exciting, when I have my eyes opened to a problem I had hitherto ignored. My first task (when I’ve finished my current book) will be to read Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. I will report back on my findings.

Elsewhere in the media over the weekend I read an article that the Labour leadership are being won over to some version of PR. I really hope this happens. I don’t think that Labour instinctively warm to the idea, but are being forced in this direction out of pure necessity. Bottom line is, that if things keep going the way they have been for Labour it’s their only chance of having any influence at all. I have two main reasons for arguing for a move to PR. The first concerns pure fairness. At the last general election, nationally, the Conservatives received 44% of the vote. Under our first past the post system this translated into them being awarded 56% of the seats in Parliament and 100% of the power. How can this be described as fair? What about the views of all those who did not vote Conservative? Why do they count for nothing? No, we claim to have a representational democracy, a system where we elect a person to represent our views in Parliament, but in effect we have a system where we vote for a small number of different manifestos and the winner takes all.

My second reason for wanting PR is more philosophical. There is no ‘right’ or ‘correct’ answer to any problem or situation. The world, particularly the socio-economic world, is just too complex. What this means for the world of political decision making is that decisions made from the perspective of a single party or manifesto position will, of necessity, miss something – potentially something important. We need to start considering the possibility that good decisions emerge from compromise, from the weighing of all perspectives, from good critical debate. This means that we all, and I do mean all (including myself), need to accept that no matter how strongly we hold a view about something it cannot be the definitive view and cannot supply the definitive action. And this in turn means that the greater the range of perspectives presented on any issue, the greater the chance of arriving at a workable solution. I accept that many politicians will find some of this difficult to digest, but it may be the case that if we changed direction, had (through PR) a greater range of ideas presented in debate, the type of politician needed and elected would change as well.

In a way this brings us back to the debate between meritocracy and egalitarianism. One of the claims made by current critics of a meritocracy is that it promotes individualism. One of central claims of most capitalist economic theories is that if we promote the pursuit of rational self-interest, as if by some invisible hand, the greater good for all will be achieved. A meritocracy promotes such attitude. Without going into any detail, I agree that capitalist economic policy promotes selfishness and greed, but I would question the degree to which it promotes individualism. From what I see, rampant consumerism is fuelled by the desire to keep up with fast changing fashions, to be part of the ‘in crowd’. So rather than individualism being a selfish commercial attitude, one that ignores the community good in the pursuit of our own individual good, it could be seen as the opposite. It could be seen as an attitude that, whilst totally acknowledging our interdependence on others, totally accepting that we are, at heart, social beings, at the same time resists the ‘herd mentality’ by attempting to think from a unique perspective. This would not only challenge the dominance of consumerism, it would improve the health of political debate.

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