One of the things I’ve been seeing a lot recently is the repetition by people who should know better of the idea that what we need in British politics is primary elections. It started with the Tories, who are more prone than most to a disease that affects almost everyone in Britain — fetishising the United States, especially those aspects of it we don’t really understand, to the point that they want to make cargo-cult versions of everything American — but I’ve recently seen it being brought up, apparently seriously, on Lib Dem Voice of all places, where it’s been suggested that open primaries should be compulsory and that we should demand this in future coalition negotiations.
Now, I have no problem with parties choosing to use primaries if that’s what they wish to do, but compulsory open primaries would be such a ludicrously stupid idea it’s hard to know where to begin.
Firstly, the Lib Dems already have a policy that would, were it to be enacted, solve all the problems that primaries supposedly solve — STV. Advocating two mutually exclusive solutions (and you can’t have both) to the same problem would make no sense whatsoever.
There are no problems that primaries solve that wouldn’t be solved by STV, and they have a large number of problems that they bring about. If you have compulsory primaries, how are they administered? Who pays the cost of the primaries and, if the government, how can you avoid that being in many cases effectively government subsidised partisan campaigning? Do you let the Bring Back Birching, Legalise Marijuana and Close All Schools Party run a “primary” with only one candidate? If not, how do you force them to get a second candidate when they only have one member? If you do, how do you stop the Tories also running a primary with just one candidate?
But the most important problem is that it is solving the wrong problem. The problem we have at the moment is that people aren’t getting their voices heard when it comes to who represents them in Parliament (a problem which STV would solve). Primaries don’t solve that — they instead give people a voice in deciding who represents *a particular party* in *an election campaign*.
Political parties are private organisations, and should have the right to run themselves as their members see fit. I do not think George Osborne or Ed Balls are particularly good candidates, but that’s because I’m not a member of those parties. I do not, and should not, have the right to impose someone who thinks more like I do as the Conservative or Labour candidate. The Conservative candidate should be chosen by the Conservative Party — that’s what being the Conservative candidate means. Of course, should any party choose, voluntarily, to open their selection process up to the public, that too is their right, but if Labour say in 2015 that they are putting Gerald Kaufman up as candidate in my constituency because he is the person they think best represents what the Labour Party stands for, what right do I have, as someone who is not a member of that party, to say they should put up a different candidate?
It is the absolute right of private membership organisations to choose representatives who actually represent them, and not to have people who don’t represent their positions foist upon them. If you don’t like your Tory MP, the solution is to vote for a party other than the Tories, not to make the Tories devote time and resources to campaigning for a candidate they don’t believe represents the Conservative Party.
And if voting them out doesn’t work, because you’re in a safe seat… then we need to get in a voting system that lets you do that. And that, not copying the Americans and getting it wrong, is what we should be devoting our campaigning time to.
This is something I’ve talked about here before, but only in comments, and it’s a subject that keeps coming up, so I thought I’d better make it a main post.
My single biggest political issue, the one I care about more than any other, is making Britain’s democracy something closer to functional. If we could get the constitutional changes I want — freedom of speech, proper federal assemblies for the English regions, increased devolution to Scotland and Wales, a fully-elected second chamber, no monarchy (or no role whatsoever for the monarchy in the lawmaking process, at the very least), no involvement of the Church in government, and every level of government elected by STV (or AV in the case of single-member roles like the Mayor of London), I would gladly let my political opponents have everything their own way, on every issue, for a full Parliament, because a properly working democracy can fix any problem, no matter how severe, while with a broken one like we have now it’s impossible to fix any of the major problems facing our economy, our environment, and our society.
So why, if democracy is so important to me (and the fact that the two major parties have spent this entire Parliament blocking those reforms while the Lib Dems have spent the entire Parliament fighting for them is, more than anything else, why I stay in the party despite any problems I have with the current government — it’s proof that they really are still better than the rest) why do I find the whole concept of referendums somewhat repellent?
There are many reasons, but it boils down to the same reason why I think that representative democracy is a real solution to many of our problems. It’s that I think people giving their informed opinions can only end up making the world a better place.
Most of us don’t have a real understanding of most of the business of government. I certainly don’t. There are issues — constitutional issues, civil liberties, technological issues, LGBT+ rights, copyright law — where I have very strong opinions based on serious long-term study of the facts and ideas in question. There are other issues — health, education, economic equality, the environment — where I have some idea of what kind of outcome I’d like to see, but no idea which of several competing policies might bring about those outcomes. And there are yet others — most economic issues, most foreign policy — where I simply don’t have a clue.
I suspect this is the case for 95% of people, or more. The areas that we know about may be vastly different, but everyone cares about some political issue enough to have an informed opinion about it, and everyone has blind spots where they’re clueless.
Now, in a referendum, the chances of any individual actually having a clue about that particular issue are small — and as we’ve seen with both the AV referendum and the Scottish independence referendum, the campaigns generate so much more heat than light that it’s effectively impossible for an ordinary voter to educate herself on the subject once a campaign has started. This means that in a referendum, noise swamps signal, and the chance of getting the “right” answer (where “right” is the one that will actually make most people happiest, or that most people would choose had they all the facts, or however you want to define it) is no better than chance.
This might suggest that democracy itself is fundamentally flawed, were it not for the fact that we have representatives.
For all that professional politicians are a despised class, they are people who are paid to spend all their working lives becoming experts on every aspect of governance at their level (that not all of them do so is partly due to the stupid system we have). Where they don’t have the expertise themselves, they defer to colleagues — in the same party so at least theoretically sharing the same values — who do. So in a representative democracy, such as I’d like to see (and, to the extent that we have one, in our present system), legislation is made by people who know what they’re talking about on every issue — something most of us (who have jobs that involve things other than knowing about every detail of politics) don’t have the time or inclination for.
So surely, then, this means that we should just have rule by our betters, and not bother with elections at all, if people don’t know as much as the politicians?
No — and this is the important bit about representative democracy, but it’s the bit that gets ignored, or glossed over, or not explained properly when we talk about this — because representative democracy is a great way of cancelling out ignorance and getting only the right answers out. It’s not a perfect way, but it’s very good.
Say you, I, and a neighbour all lived in the constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green (which I’ve picked for the example because it has one of the better current MPs), and we all have very different areas of knowledge. My big issue is democratic reform, yours is equality for LGBT+ people, and our neighbour’s is ending female genital mutilation.
I look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone is good on democratic reform, and vote for her. You look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone was one of the main people responsible for bringing in same-sex marriage, and vote for her. Our neighbour looks at the candidates, sees that Lynne Featherstone is campaigning to end FGM in developing countries, and votes for her. If a candidate is good on all our individual issues (and on schools, on health, on taxation, and on whatever other issues people in the area care about) then all the people who know about those areas can vote for her.
The result is that I know that the candidate I vote for is good on the areas I care about, and assume she will be good on the other issues, because she’s paid to investigate them all (and she obviously comes to the same conclusions I do where we’ve got the same information). But if I’m wrong in that assumption — if she’s very good on civil liberties but lousy on education, say — then all the people who care about education will vote for someone else.
This means that in a properly functioning representative democracy, what you end up with is a result that is better than any individual voter would have come up with, because it presumes everyone is competent in the areas that they care about, and that their competencies reinforce each other and cancel out their incompetencies. Someone who is good on most issues will be more likely to get elected than someone who is only good on one or two. Referendums, on the other hand, presume that everyone is equally competent at everything, which is dangerous nonsense.
Direct democracy is a tool for demagogues. Representative democracy is a tool for the people. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Last week’s election raised a lot of questions, including “should Nick Clegg resign?”, “should people calling for Nick Clegg to resign shut up?” and “why didn’t you vote for me? Is it because I smell?” (that last one mostly being asked by me, to be fair). But one topic I’ve seen coming up over and over is the low turnout.
And what people seem to be saying, over and over again, is “UKIP only won because hardly anyone voted! We should make voting compulsory!”
Firstly, because you don’t just change the rules because you don’t like the result. That’s not how democracy should work. I know (from bitter experience during the AV campaign) that the supermajority of people don’t actually care in the least about democracy, and just want to make sure their side wins, but a few of us actually do care about that kind of thing.
But also because compulsory voting, like internet voting, is one of those solutions in search of a problem that people keep bringing up, that wouldn’t actually do anything worthwhile.
Let’s look at those groups who don’t vote, shall we?
Firstly, there are a small number of people who have religious, political, or ethical objections to voting. It would be iniquitous to make these people vote. Yes, even if there was a RON or None Of The Above option, yes even if they could spoil their ballot paper. If you’re going to force people to act against their conscience, it should do much, much more for the public good than the average vote does.
That leaves the other two groups — the ignorant and the apathetic.
The ignorant are that group who simply don’t know enough to make any kind of informed decision. There are a lot of people who don’t know the most basic facts about politics — people who couldn’t name a single politician, or a single political stance of any of the parties. My own sister, for example, didn’t even know there was an election last week, despite me standing as a candidate. This isn’t because she’s stupid (she’s got a first class honours degree in physics) but because she’s never paid attention to politics. Unless you get very involved in political campaigning, though, you’ll never realise just how many of these people there are, because people who discuss politics on the internet tend only to talk with other people who know about politics. It’s only when you go knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, and phoning people up, that you realise just how many people still think the SDP is a national party, for example.
The apathetic, on the other hand, are those who consider that the result makes no difference to them. Again, this is a large chunk of the electorate. It may seem daft to those of us who spend our lives obsessing over such things, but there are a lot of people who really, really, don’t see any difference between, say, a UKIP government and a Green one.
Now, yes, you can get the ignorant and apathetic to vote, if you want, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage them, because they’ll essentially cast their votes at random. This is one of the things that confuses me about this campaign to make voting compulsory — since it seems to be based around a desire for a different result, it’s essentially saying “Yes, the people who cared enough to vote and who knew enough to know what day the election was disagreed with me, but all the people who didn’t know there was an election on and didn’t care would have voted my way!”
But more importantly, it’s not a solution to the problem. It’s a sticking plaster. The solution to ignorance isn’t to force people to make choices they don’t understand, but to make sure people have more information — civics lessons in schools, voter information campaigns, and political campaigns that actually tell voters what it is the parties stand for (the Lib Dem campaign this time, while misguided in many ways, at least had a clear message about the party’s policies and priorities).
And the solution to apathy isn’t to force people to make a choice they don’t care about, but to make them care. Have political parties that don’t all compete for the same tiny space of centre-right ground, but instead present different visions of how the world should be, and have a voting system that makes their votes matter, so they can see it makes a difference to their own lives and the lives of those around them who they vote for.
But these are things that require actual work, that can’t be distilled into a single tweet, and that take time to have an effect. No, far better to go around shouting for quick-fix “solutions” that don’t actually fix the problem they’re intended to solve, but that are simple enough to sum up in a soundbite. You know, like UKIP do. Maybe that result wasn’t as inaccurate as these campaigners think…
I get really, really annoyed at the Chinese whispers of the so-called ‘progressive’ internet sometimes.
You’ve probably seen a huge number of shared image macros calling for a boycott of Papa John’s Pizza, because they’re cutting people’s hours so they don’t have to pay health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. Awful, right? You probably shared one of the pictures yourself.
And it’s definitely true, because it clearly says so on MSN — “The pizza mogul announces he will reduce worker hours in light of Obama’s re-election”.
Except that their source is the Huffington Post, which only says “he will likely reduce workers’ hours”, not that he’s announced he’s going to.
Except that *THEIR* source is this story from Schnatter’s local newspaper, where he talks about what he perceives as good and bad points of the law, before saying that “it was likely that some franchise owners would reduce employees’ hours”
Papa John’s is a franchise chain, which means that in different areas of the US the restaurants are owned by separate businesses, which just buy the license from the central company. All Schnatter has actually said is that *some of those separate businesses, which he does not control* *MIGHT* cut hours, not that he is going to do anything at all.
I disagree with Schnatter about the Affordable Care Act, but it seems all he’s actually done is commit the terrible crime of having a nuanced position — saying it’s good that everyone will be covered, but that he could imagine some people, other people, cutting employees’ hours as a result — in an age when nuance is deadly.
But then, I don’t know why I’m bothering to write this — these words aren’t overlayed on a photograph, and they’re all correctly spelled, so no-one will read it…
There are people supporting every party and none who can make convincing arguments for a point of view, and who it’s worth reading whether you agree with them or not. But I find they are increasingly outnumbered by people who it’s simply not worth reading.
And there is a simple way of telling who they are — they use canned phrases that seem to come from some political party’s central office.
Mostly these seem to come from Labour supporters at the moment (possibly because Labour are the most popular party, possibly because my social circle skews leftwards). Some of these phrases sound reasonable, others definitely don’t, but they include “Conservative-led government”, “savage cuts”, “our NHS”, “most right-wing government in [insert time period]”, “ConDems”. The problem is when those phrases get used by everyone simultaneously.
It’s certainly not confined solely to Labour, though — “Tony Bliar”, “ZaNuLieBore”, “cleaning up Labour’s mess”, “Red Ed, the unions’ man”… these all have the same effect.
If you’re using these insta-cliches, which tend to spread through political twitterers and bloggers like herpes, then to anyone who is unaligned, or does not share your particular alignment, or even who agrees with you but has an aesthetic sense about the use of words, your post will actually be saying to that person “I have not actually thought about this issue myself, rather I have read a press release from the party of my choice, please ignore me.”
If I read someone saying “We must protect our NHS from the effects of the savage cuts brought in by this Conservative-led government, cuts which are too deep and too fast”, then I know that they haven’t actually thought about the issue themselves and there’s no point reading what they have to say.
If, on the other hand, I read someone saying “We need to protect *the* NHS from government cuts, which I think are far deeper than necessary”, I think “this is a person with whom I could have a discussion, and find out which cuts she thinks are most damaging and what we could do about them. It may turn out that she’s wrong, but it may not.”
Likewise, someone saying “The government need to do this because they’re cleaning up ZaNuLieBore’s mess!” gets instantly disregarded. Someone saying “Realistically, if we want the economy to recover, then some things need to be cut, and while it’s bad, better to cut this than let the recession continue” is, again, someone with whom discussion is possible. They may well be someone I disagree with, but I will at least be disagreeing with *her*, not with a press release she glanced at.
Each of these phrases sound focus-group-chosen to be convincing on an emotional level. “OUR NHS” sounds much more important than “THE NHS”, doesn’t it? But after hearing them a thousand times, they’re not. They’re manipulative, and to me at least they have an actively scary, creepy feel to them, like being surrounded by beings that have been mind-controlled by aliens.
But luckily, there’s a very simple rule you can follow, which will allow you to write convincingly and without people looking at you in the expectation that your faceplate will fall off to reveal the robot underneath. It’s this:
Think about what it is you want to say, and what words you can use to say that as clearly as possible.
It’s a simple rule, but one that’s rarely followed by bloggers and twitterers (and, reading through Orwell’s essays, it appears never to have been followed by pamphleteers).
If you’ve thought about something, and you have a clear idea of what it is you want to say, and you have chosen the words you think will best express your thoughts — chosen them yourself, not picked phrases that have been handed to you by a third party — then people will, when they read your writing, say “That’s a good point” or “I never thought of that”, or “You’re wrong, here’s why…” — all of which are useful reactions if you’re wanting to convince people of something.
If, on the other hand, you string a bunch of stock phrases together, you may well get five hundred retweets from people who already agree with you, but you’ll never change a single mind, except to possibly make some people who did agree with you before disagree with you in disgust.
(Doctor Who post will be up tonight, nearly a week late…)