Building a Westminster system

“Nowadays the members of Parliament, with the exception of the few cabinet members (and a few insurgents), are normally nothing better than well-disciplined ‘yes’ men,” lamented Max Weber in “Politics as a Vocation.”
“With us, in the Reichstag, one used at least to take care of one’s correspondence on his desk, thus indicating that one was active in the weal of the country. Such gestures are not demanded in England; the member of Parliament must only vote, not commit party treason. He must appear when the whips call him, and do what the cabinet or the leader of the opposition orders.”
Essential to the Westminster system — parliamentary cabinet government — is an apparatus linking the cabinet to the ruling party that ensures the cabinet has the votes to smooth the passage of its legislation through the parliament, hence the link between the emergence of cabinet government and the growth of strong, top-down parties in Britain. Even in Britain, this system is not foolproof, as “backbench rebellions” have not been uncommon.
I call attention to this feature of the Westminster system because, of course, the DPJ is keen on growing a similar system on Japanese soil. And few DPJ members are as adamant about reforming how the cabinet and ruling party operate as Ozawa Ichiro, the DPJ’s secretary general. Six months into DPJ rule, however, some DPJ members are pushing back against the new system being put into place by Ozawa, having little interest in being “well-disciplined ‘yes’ men.”
The latest example is the party’s dismissal of Ubukata Yukio as one of the DPJ’s deputy secretaries general after criticizing the party executive for its centralization program and its stifling of debate within the party. As Michael Cucek observes, having been removed from office, Ubukata is going all-out in his campaign against the “Westminsterization” of the DPJ.
Ubukata’s insurgency is connected to the push to revive the party’s policymaking apparatus, which closed shop when the Hatoyama government took power last September. Ubukata is one of nearly fifty members of a study group that has formed to advocate for a new policymaking body. The intent, it seems, is to create a forum for receiving briefings from the government on current legislation and brainstorm new policies. Coupled with restrictions on the access of backbenchers to bureaucrats, a new policy outfit could be a useful safety valve for the government without unduly undermining the cabinet’s ability to formulate policy.
But even with a new policy council within the DPJ, the problems associated with the transition to a Westminster system remain. In truth, Hatoyama, Ozawa, and the other senior leaders of the DPJ face a challenge similar to that faced by William Gladstone and other British politicians who built the Westminster system in the first place. 
During the first half of the nineteenth century, patronage was rampant, as parliamentarians distributed jobs and favors with little regard for party leaders and the cabinet. The result was ineffective government, which, Gladstone and other reformers insisted, was increasingly unsuited the problems facing Britain. Bernard Silberman describes Gladstone in terms that would not be inappropriate for describing Ozawa: “Gladstone was in many respects an étatist who viewed Parliament, but especially the Cabinet, as the necessary source of legislation which would enhance utilitarian and commonsensical economic and social development.” According to Silberman, the solution was building a rational, centralized civil service, with admittance based on merit rather than political connections. “Deprived of patronage,” he writes, “parliamentary parties were now forced to turn to constructing party organization in order to finally subjugate the backbencher to party discipline.”
The DPJ-led government is trying to perform a similar feat, transform the civil service by breaking its ties with the ruling party, and by doing so, centralize the cabinet and ruling party leadership’s control of policy (and pork-barrel spending). From the perspective of a backbencher, it is not an especially favorable arrangement. Little wonder that many DPJ members — particularly more senior backbenchers accustomed to the permissiveness of LDP rule — are chafing against the new system. Controlling backbenchers is hard enough in Britain, with its well-established institutions; controlling backbenchers as those very mechanisms are put into place is considerably more difficult.
To a certain extent, the problem is Ozawa. While Ozawa is probably the most enthusiastic advocate of a Westminster system in the DPJ, he may also be the least well suited DPJ member when it comes to inducing backbenchers to accept their fetters. Intimidating first-term Diet members is one thing. Bullying more senior Diet members, including at least one with ministerial experience (Tanaka Makiko), is quite another. Being an effective whip — which Ozawa effectively is — takes more than bullying, especially in the case of more senior members, presumably those most prone to rebellion. It also requires persuasion and timely dispensation of favors and perks. It takes, in other words, subtlety and guile, traits which do not seem to be among Ozawa’s strong suits. (For more on the role played by whips and other actors in the Westminster system, I cannot recommend Donald Searing’s Westminster’s World strongly enough.)
At same time, however, the problem is also structural. After decades of permissive LDP rule, Westminster-style control does look “dictatorial,” in the words used by LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu and others to describe the DPJ under Ozawa. (In which case might we describe LDP rule during the glory days of the 1955 system as “anarchic?) I wonder whether the problem is that actors in the Japanese political system — including voters and the media — are simply not able to wrap their heads around the new system being introduced by the DPJ leadership. Not being clear on the goal of a Westminster system — more effective executive power — the system just looks like heavy-handed suppression of speech, not helped by Ozawa’s being the one doing the suppressing. Indeed, to a certain extent the DPJ faces a dilemma. In order for Westminster-style politics to take hold among both backbenchers and the public, it needs to deliver policy results. But to deliver results, among other things the party needs to be able to control its members.
Naturally introducing a Westminster system means trading the LDP system’s representativeness for the Westminster model’s executive effectiveness. There is no perfect system. But the outcome of the current dispute — which may widen to include cabinet ministers — could determine whether the “statists” like Ozawa are able to succeed in building a more top-down policymaking structure or whether they are forced to make concessions to backbenchers that preserve an important role for them in policymaking and the management of party affairs.
There is a point here about institution building. It is not enough for leaders to draft new institutions on paper and then put them into motion. To be durable, institutions require broader legitimacy. To date, the DPJ’s leaders have been mostly concerned about putting new institutions into place. The backbencher insurgency suggests, however, that it may be time to focus on cementing the legitimacy of new institutions.

8 thoughts on “Building a Westminster system

  1. Anonymous

    Too many chefs spoil the broth!Direction and leadership fails with everyone out for themselves. 50 years of LDP is eveidence of that…do they wish to follow the very same path, for their own \”personal status\” rather than party/Govt??Unless the \”bribary\” element so rife in politician/beaurocrate, coupled with the oyabun/kobun relationship of those aforementioned, the politican out on the back benches will always feel s/he has power/influence in the Gov.tThe whole \”local\” element of the constituency versus party line is very new for them, so it is no wonder \”they\” feel vexed when their ideas are rebutted by the party leader.Party issues are party issues, not local ones. This needs more emphasis. That which you have mention is a good start, identifying the lines of division….perhaps focusing on how the separation can greatly aid the \”local\” issues too….gives the disgruntled politican a direction and focus; espeically once they realise they can affect policy, not the beaurocrates. Albeit on a smaller 'local' scale, rather than Govt/party scale.Since it is no different to a drone worker feeling they have the right to control the say and direction of the company and tell the MD/CEO as much and have the power too!…this would never happen, so why does one expect any different in Govt?


  2. PaxAmericana

    Tobias,When you say the DPJ is keen on building a Westminster system, I'd like to know what you base your conclusion on. Other than Ozawa, of course. Also, I think it would be good for you to spend some time on the pros and cons, as well as the history of, such a system. Are there any cases of it being used in the non-English speaking world in a way that you think is worth emulating? Has Singapore had such a system?


  3. RMilner

    I am British.The Westminster system is buttressed by our 'first past the post' electoral system, which can result in governments with large majorities despite a clear minority of the popular vote.For example, at the 2005 general election, the Labour Party received only 36.5% of the votes cast, and got a 66 seat majority in the House of Commons. This is large enough not to have to worry about some disaffected backbenchers.The disadvantage of strong governments is that they can pass bad legislation as easily as good legislation.There is no perfect system.As I understand it, the Japanese electoral system combines direct election by majority with some element of proportional representation. Perhaps that might help avoid the disadvantage of first past the post.


  4. RMilner,Quite right. The advantage of the Westminster system is that it promotes a strong executive capable of producing quite profound policy change in relatively short periods of time.As I said in the original post, there is a tradeoff between executive decisiveness and representativeness. When the system is functioning \”properly,\” there are a very few checks on the executive.Pax,I have written enough about the DPJ's plans to introduce a Westminster system in the past that it would take too long for me to show you that it's far from just being Ozawa's program. After all, Ozawa isn't the only senior DPJ politician who has gone to Britain to study the political system. Since 1993 there has been a consistent push among politicians who eventually wound up in the DPJ to produce a Westminster-style, top-down policymaking system that would produce a strong, accountable executive to address the problems facing Japan.It is not my place to say what's best. I personally think that the DPJ has the right idea. The LDP was too tolerant of dissent, too inclusive of as many views as possible, which may produce consensus but more often than not produced stasis.Cases in the non-English speaking world? What do you have in mind? And Singapore? Why would the DPJ want to copy Singapore? It is the DPJ itself that is looking to Britain as a model.


  5. PaxAmericana

    The reasons for wanting a non-British example are pretty obvious. One is to try to see what isn't based on British culture or history. I used Singapore as it has had a strong executive for a long time. The drawback there is that it's practically a one-party state.In any case, a case can be made that the LDP was trying to emulate the US too much in the last 20 years or so, and it might be a mistake for the DPJ to simply look towards Britain as a good model. It is up to the Japanese to decide this, of course, and it's entirely natural that Ozawa would seem dictatorial to many observers.


  6. When it comes to looking abroad, there aren't too many models. Presidential systems are pretty much ruled out (it's possible to overstate — and is usually overstated — the degree to which the LDP \”presidentialized\” Japanese governance). Japan's electoral system isn't proportional enough to produce the kind of coalition governments — which ensure greater representativeness — seen throughout much of continental Europe. Canada and India are big federal democracies combined with Westminster parliaments. Russia? China? Out of the question. Ditto Singapore, which simply shows that it's easy to have a strong executive if you don't take democracy particularly seriously.In short, where else could the DPJ look for a model?In any case, the Westminster model is just that: only a model. As has happened in other countries with Westminster systems, the institutions will adapt to local circumstances.


  7. Joe

    This problem would have been solved a lot more quickly, I think, if Hatoyama had clearly shown everyone immediately after the election that Ozawa was on a leash that the PM controlled. Instead, his public appearances consist mostly of vacuous statements. Until Hatoyama smacks him down, and then clearly tells the public why this change to a Westminster-type system is necessary, no one is going to believe that Ozawa is not making his own \”dictatorship.\”


  8. Robert

    Dear Joe, then again, I think that the only reason that Hatoyama became Prime Minister and continues to be so is due to Ozawa. It was Ozawa that basically created the DPJ and the victories that it has/had. Ozawa was a household name way before Hatoyama (current PM) ever was. I equate Ozawa to Karl Rove. Both orchestrated the success of their party, both have/had serious controversies and both know where the bodies are buried. How does a controversial backbencher change the Emperor’s schedule for China and gets an appointment with the President of the United States if he is powerless? I am sure Ozawa knew about the (supposedly) monies provided by Hatoyama’s mother to Hatoyama’s campaign way before the average Japanese citizen knew about it. (Who knows, he could have been the one to sick the dogs on Hatoyama's mother to keep Hatoyama in line.) I am sure there are other concerns (dirt) that Ozawa knows concerning Hatoyama/other elected officials that the average Japanese citizen does not know about? So, once Ozawa has chosen his style of Westminster system, I am sure it will be.


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