Friday, November 25, 2016

A tale of two elections

OK, I was on the losing side in both. Obviously, I didn't have a vote in the US presidential election, which was won by the candidate with the fewest votes (other than the two fringe candidates). I did vote in the EU referendum, which was won by the side with the most votes. My view is that both results raise serious questions about democratic processes.

So why should we respect a majority in one case and not the other? Am I just trying to find reasons to wish away results I don't like? I hope not. Let me try and explain.

The most important point is that these votes were utterly dissimilar. One was to choose a president to head the executive branch of government, and the other to take a crucial and irreversible decision about the future of the country, arguably the most important for more than forty years.

In the US, the President is not a representative of a state or region, but the President of the whole country. Yet the Electoral College proceeds on the basis of state representation. This year, 55,000 people in three states delivered victory to the candidate with over two million (and still counting) fewer votes than his rival. If they had voted differently Clinton would have won. I might have met this troubling outcome with a resigned shrug if the winner hadn't been Trump, the most outlandish and unsuitable candidate imaginable. This was a critical election to be decided so bizarrely. The consequences of his election are unknowable, but it doesn't look good at the moment.

(Yes, and I know that if it had been a straight fight based on the popular vote both sides would have campaigned differently, but it is very unlikely that what may turn out to be a majority of two and a half million would have been overturned).

Now to Brexit. Here the majority did win. So what's the problem? Well, in elections for parliaments and presidents you get the opportunity to change your mind. Every four or five years the country gets to re-run the general election. A referendum like Brexit gives you no second chance, which is why the majority has to be secure and represent a broad consensus. If it isn't and minds change, we could see a decision being implemented against a majority of public opinion, despite a majority in favour being the sole justification for that decision. This is the reason why most referendums on irreversible constitutional change, like Brexit, require qualified majorities, rather than a simple one. And the onus should be on those seeking to make the case for change rather than on those wanting to keep the status quo. A 52/48 majority is fragile, and there is evidence that the result may well have been different if it had been run once the full consequences and the high cost of this decision were understood.

The polling has been interesting. A survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation in August, more than a month after the referendum, found that,
56% of British citizens wanted to stay in the EU, compared with 49% when a similar survey was conducted in March.
A more recent poll found that 90% of leave voters wanted to remain in the single market, but without the free movement of labour. This was something that the leave campaign insisted was possible, despite the EU constantly repeating that it was not an option. Once staying in the single market became contingent on accepting free movement, opinion divided 50/50 again. This is not a secure basis to enforce an irreversible decision, especially with a majority of both Houses of Parliament opposed to leaving, but acceding to what they refer to as 'the will of the people'.

Of course, this shows that the very notion of 'the will of the people' is a fiction. There is no such thing as a unified will. In this case there are deep demographic and regional divisions, so we can't point to a nationwide consensus. These two interesting posts suggest that even the original narrow majority no longer exists. There may be elements of wishful thinking in both, but one thing deserves close attention. When I talk about people changing their minds, it isn't just about individuals switching sides having learnt from experience; it is about the churn in voters too. At each election the electorate is different. People move, migrants become citizens, and, obviously, people die and are replaced by new voters coming of age. Surveys suggest that people under 25 voted by a majority of 70% to 30% to remain in the EU. They have lived with membership all their lives, appreciate the freedoms it brings, and are far less concerned with immigration. They are now facing up to living with a policy, which they have overwhelmingly rejected, being imposed on them by an older generation of voters, when it is only the young of today who will experience the full consequences of that decision.

In the years it will take to negotiate Britain's departure, the slender majority for leaving may well have evaporated. We could leave the EU against the wishes of Parliament, all our major allies and trading partners, most businesses, and the EU itself, on the basis of a small popular majority that has since ceased to exist. Yes, we could enact 'the will of the people' just at the moment that 'the people' will the opposite.

The moral of this story is that politics is a serious business with far reaching consequences for people's lives. It is not a tool for advancing the ambitions and prejudices of frivolous ex-journalists and dodgy businessmen. Therefore, it is imperative that the methods of democratic decision-making are fit for purpose. When I look at Trump and Brexit, I can only think, "FAIL."

1 comment:

George S said...

What have we learned from the farce on both sides of the Atlantic? That it doesn't matter what ridiculous things you claim as long as you claim them loudly and frequently enough. That bad questions lead to bad answers. That once you start downhill your acceleration is likely to increase. That representative democracy has lost a lot of support. That telling people they are bad is likely to make them worse.

But it's done, and maybe it was ready to be done. Ripe to be done.

There is worse to come, I suspect.