Before the 2010 election, and for a couple of years afterward, I used to post here a lot on political topics. Since about 2012, though, I’ve barely talked about politics except in the most abstract manner (things like my Liberal Future series, which I do intend to continue).
The reason for this is simple. My political views are all about anger, and wanting to change the things that make me angry. I’m angry about poverty, about the treatment of minority groups and women, about the erosion of civil liberties, about the lack of democracy in this country, about the way London is an evil vampiric force sucking all the attention and power from the rest of the country, about generational inequalities, about rentier capitalism… basically, I’m angry about a lot of stuff.
This means that I am, occasionally, quite articulate when it comes to talking about bad things happening in politics. I’m a fairly decent attack dog, if occasionally so strident that I push people away, but I’ve found that I’ve managed to change quite a few people’s minds on a few important points.
What I’m no good at is talking about good stuff. My reaction to same-sex marriage finally being allowed is, simply, “good”. That’s it. That’s all I have to say about the subject. It’s a very obviously good thing, and I’m glad we finally did it.
This means I am no good at celebrating achievements, I’m only good at pushing for more.
Under normal circumstances this would be fine, but the Liberal Democrats, the party I think is, despite many obvious flaws, still the best vehicle in British politics for advancing towards the kind of society I want to live in, are the minor partner in a coalition government right now.
That government has done a few very good things (all brought in by the Liberal Democrats) and quite a few very bad things (mostly ideas from the Conservatives, some things that any government would do right now because they’re at the centre of the Overton window despite being ludicrous, and one or two bad ideas from the Liberal Democrats because nobody’s right all the time). To my mind, the current government is not much better — but certainly no worse — than any of the other governments of my lifetime, and so it makes me angry at about the same rate as the others have. However, this government is *extremely* unpopular, at least among people I know (who tend to be leftish).
This leaves me with three alternatives:
I could take a panglossian tone, accentuate the positive, and post constant reminders about how tractor production has increased 4%. This would be insulting to my readers and a waste of my time.
I could attack the current government. This would be counterproductive. Everyone reading this blog knows every bad thing the government is accused of doing (many of which are even real). You don’t need me to tell you about them, and me ranting and raving about the bad things the current government has done might well turn even more people away from the Liberal Democrats. Certainly Labour supporters could use anything I posted — “See? Even a Lib Dem thinks that X, Y, and Z were stupid” — while leaving out the fact that X was a Tory policy and Y and Z are both things Labour committed to as well. It would also give the impression that the constant attacks on the Liberal Democrats are justified, when for the most part they simply are not.
Or I could just talk about something else.
Now for the first couple of years of this government, I still had things to say, because lies were being told on a regular basis by the Labour party. I don’t mean differences of opinion, but many outright lies were being reported as fact in the Guardian, and so I could usefully turn my anger against them. But as the election has got closer and Labour have realised they might have to work with us next year, that’s mostly died off. Sadly, the effects are still lasting, and I still regularly get abuse, threats of violence, and even death threats, as do most people who dare to publicly admit to being Lib Dems and who aren’t completely sheltered from the general public.
But what I want to say is this: Don’t think that my lack of posts means that I care less about those issues. Rather, while we are in government, there are better methods to change things than shouting about it on my blog. When I get angry about something this government does, as I’m in a democratic party, there are avenues I can explore to try and fix it (sometimes it even works).
Those who follow me on Twitter will also know that I regularly froth at the mouth there. The difference is that my Twitter account is locked — it’s where I vent semi-privately, and only a relatively small number of people can see what I say there, and I trust those people, even when they’re not supporters of the same party, to be sensible enough to understand the difference between an angry tweet and an attack on the party itself.
But put simply, when other parties get it wrong, I scream publicly because I have no other recourse. When the Lib Dems get it wrong, I work within the party to make sure they get it right in future. And I don’t tend to write about when anyone gets it right.
One reason I’ll be finishing the Liberal Future series, though, is to say “these are the principles I do stand for, and this is why I think that the Liberal Democrats are still the best party to advance those principles”.
But as I said in 2010, I do not support the current government, but I *do* support the Liberal Democrats within the current government. That still stands…
I posted a link to Tim Farron’s rather good speech on Tumblr yesterday. Someone who’d been following me there for a few weeks posted Standard Aggressive Rant Number Five in response (take the couple of lines saying Thatcher wasn’t utterly evil out of the context of a speech that says she was wrong about everything important, in damaging, harmful ways that will take decades to fix, and use that to “prove” that Lib Dems are “really” evil, heartless bastards who deserve to be shot). I posted this in response, and thought it worth posting here too:
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.