Reflections on Rupert’s Rawlsianism
Philip Hardy: Stand down as councillor for Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich, Norfolk.
The petition site explains:
Philip Hardy is the county councillor for the Thorpe Hamlet area. If you voted for him it would have been as a Green Party candidate. He has now, shockingly, defected to the conservatives, without standing down and putting himself up for re-election. Which means the Thorpe Hamlet voters have effectively voted for the Conservatives. The Green party won 46.16% of the vote whilst the Conservatives won 19.29%. Please circulate this to as many people in Norfolk as possible to put pressure on their representatives to force a by-election.
Out of interest, Rupert, do you think Alan Weeks should resign [fight by-election]? A genuine question whether you think the two cases are different.
It’s a fair question, and here’s the answer: No. The difference is that the LibDems have betrayed themselves. Defections from LibDems to Greens (or to Labour, for that matter) are reasonable. But there is no excuse for going Green-Con.
The obvious reaction to this argument from Rupert would be to accuse the Green party of double standards, and I suspect this is the response that most people would give. However, I think Rupert has a point which is worth exploring.
By arguing that the two cases are different because the LibDems are worse than Greens, Rupert is effectively making a case for the application of the first part of Rawls’ Second Principle of Justice:
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are a) to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society; b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity (Rawls, 1971, A Theory of Justice , p.302).
That is, Rupert argues that the potential damage done to the least advantaged in society by the Norwich Green’s defection to the Conservatives – because Greens are interested in this group and because Conservatives do bad things to it - makes it a separate case from a LibDems-to-Green defection, which will be good for disadvantaged people. Social justice, therefore, is best served by an unequal arrangement; Green-to-Tory defectors should face by-election, but LibDem-to-Green defectors should not.
This is a reasonable argument, and not dissimilar to the one I made when I argued that socialists shouldn’t simply accept the idea of equal-sized constituencies as a ‘no-brainer’, because what liberals would have us believe are unjust inequalities in constituency size are actually socially just, in the Rawlsian sense, in that their very ineqaulity of size is of benefit to the otherwise least advantaged.
There are, however, arguments to be made against Rupert’s Rawlsianism.
First, and most obviously, it depends on Rupert being right about the LibDems having “betrayed themselves” and that there’s “no excuse” to defect from Green to Tory. Clearly a LibDem/Tory is likely to argue the reverse – that if Rawlsian justice is pursued it’s the Hampshire LibDem-to-Green who should be standing down, and the Norfolk Green-to-Tory who is acting in the interests of the poor by staying put, because he’ll be in a position to put in place sensible local authority measures to benefit the most disadvantaged in the longer term.
That is, Rupert is favouring a system of justice which depends upon one side or other’s capacity to provide a convincing, but necessarily contestable, narrative about what is and what isn’t in the interests of the most disadvantaged. He favours this over the rules currently in force (as there is no requirement for any defecting councillor to fight a by-election) which are set independent of any Rawlsian considerations.
He may be correct ethically, but this stance has complications. For one thing, it sets a precedent for the application of Rawlsian methods which might be employed at a later time when Conservative forces are able to impose their own narrative more effectively (and they can already so pretty well); as such the negative unintended consequences for the most disadvantaged may end up greater than the positive ones he now envisages. What may be right ethically may be wrong tactically.
More fundamentally, Rupert’s stance depends upon a particular conception of the grounds on which councillors are elected in the first place which in itself actually militates against the most disadvantaged.
Rupert’s argument is that Philip Hardy was elected as Green party councillor and that for him subsequently to become a Conservative renders the previous votes in some way invalid. Yet, Philip Hardy was not elected as a Green party councillor. He was elected primarily as the person in his ward deemed most able to carry out the role, and who used his Green party membership, and profession of alignment with Green policies, as some proof of this during his campaign.
That is to say, he was elected as a representative of his ward constituents, not as a Green party delegate. The fact that he feels he can now best represent his constituents by adopting a totally different set of policies may be bizarre and reprehensible, but it does not make his election invalid.
To argue this is not to argue against the usefulness of party politics of a the most effective way of administering representative government (I happen to think it is the best way). It is, though, an argument against representative government as it is currently conceived and implemented, with its confused picture as to whom representatives actually represent.
More appropriate in the longer term, and in the pursuit of Rawlsian justice, is a system of delegatory democracy, under which those elected to serve know precisely who they serve, and (within agreed limits of discretion) how they will serve, because constituency and ‘party’ are effectively the same thing. This, in turn, creates a democratic space in which assertions on how best to meet Rawlsian aims of social justice can be more properly contested, because function (what to do) takes precdence over form (the rules of democracy). GDH Cole had a point in Guild Socialism Restated.
None of this means that Philip Hardy, the Tory councillor for Thorpe Hamlet, is anything other than a conniving scumbag who has put his own interests before those of the people of Thorpe Hamlet.