Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Bring back democracy, all is forgiven

Hardeep Matharu asks a question:

[Johnson is] ... implying that his Government is only giving the British people what they already desire. While it might be tempting to dismiss this as yet another piece of blame-shifting rhetoric conjured up when reality doesn’t serve him, in his perverse projection does Johnson have a point?

Simply put, it must be asked: do the British people have a kind of death wish?
The answer is no. It's another silly generalisation.

Anything that talks earnestly about the British people, extrapolating a collective psychology from random events, is making a category error - thinking that there is such a thing as a collective will.

This type of speculation rests on two false assumptions. The first is that people are paying attention and actually know about issues. The minority of interested obsessives may be, but the majority are, to the intense disappointment of activists, at best semi-detached. They aren't willing anything, certainly nothing abstract. The second error is thinking that there is a collective consciousness, rather than a preponderance of opinions and impulses, or a bundle of commonly held prejudices.

Talking about the broad ignorance of an indifferent people is very different from the idea of a 'silent majority.' This usually conservative idea is that the bulk of people agree with you, but their common-sense voices are crowded out by vocal smart-arses. It's another example of the fallacy of false consensus. You may think that you are right, but it doesn't mean that everybody else agrees with you. And, of course, they don't. They aren't even thinking about it. Their ignorance is perfectly rational. Why do they need to know? They want to get on with their lives. It's people like me who are the weirdos. And for those battered by politics - the poor, the victims of austerity, the vulnerable, etc - they have resentments but are too busy surviving to be actively involved.

So, if we overestimate people's engagement, what becomes of democracy, the moment we ask them to have an opinion? The answer has always been representation, the selection of people to use their judgement on your behalf. But for that to maintain its legitimacy, representative institutions have to function effectively, and we now have problems.

Parts of the constitution are not fit for purpose. I have lost count of the number of earnest analyses of results that were primarily the result of poorly functioning institutions. What did Labour get wrong in 1951? Hard to say when they lost the election with the largest share of the vote that any single party has ever managed in the post-war period - a larger share than the winners. They lost because of a disproportional electoral system. The same can be said today of the national endorsement of Brexit in the 2019 election, giving Johnson the legitimacy to leave the EU - on 43% of the vote, with the majority of votes going to parties that wanted a second referendum. While recent polling shows that a clear majority now oppose leaving and think it was a mistake. The same share of the vote lost May her majority in 2017 but gave Johnson a landslide victory in 2019 - utter madness. Then there is Trump. Why did the American people vote for him? Well, three million more Americans voted for Clinton. He won an election he lost because of the electoral college system, the disproportionate way it allocates its votes, and the cynicism of his campaign in exploiting it. 

The electoral system is entwined with the party system. It's a bit like Scottish football. However many teams there are, either Celtic or Ranger will win the title. There is a two-party monopoly on power despite multi-party voting. That means that if cranks and loons capture either of the two main parties, they inherit votes and power that they could not win on their own and which rivals cannot take away from them. It's a system made for hobbyists and grifters to flourish.

I find it curious how people on the left are still resistant towards proportional representation. Possibly, it's the temptation of power without a majority. I used to be the same, but it was Thatcherism - another landslide on a minority vote - that made me change my mind in the 80s. Arguably, Johnson would have got nowhere near No.10 and we would still be in the European Union if we had a proportional voting system.

As if we didn't have enough problems, the failure of our representatives to understand our constitution has compounded institutional failures. There should not have been an election in 2019. It was a constitutional outrage to bypass the Fixed Term Parliaments Act with a single clause bill setting its provisions aside, without repealing the legislation. That was egregious enough without the catastrophic misjudgement of the opposition's support. And what on earth was Parliament doing when it voted for a referendum on EU membership? There was no demand for it other than from a few fringe groups. Referendums have no place in a parliamentary democracy, even leaving aside the poor design and the lack of safeguards in something so significant. The fact that MPs thought that leaving was wrong for the country, but still felt bound by the result of a non-binding referendum, shows that they didn't understand their job. 

At the same time, social media is providing a potent vehicle for the manipulation of short-term opinion. It's short-term because the denial of reality cannot last when reality bites. When the warnings of "Project Fear" start coming true, cognitive dissonance can only take you so far before regret kicks in. The techniques for the denigration of expertise and the replacement of complexity with wishful thinking are well established (as in this superb radio documentary series from Peter Pomerantsev). From voter suppression in the USA to the irregularities and illegalities of the Brexit campaign, social media and data manipulations have a bleak effect.

The collapse in support for Brexit has come too late and is unrepresented in the system. Brexit is an elite project claiming to be anti-elitist, opposed by the majority yet being carried out because it is the will of the majority. The government implementing it is from the darkest corners of the Conservative Party. It's part of an over-confident and entitled circle from a protected elite, people for whom politics is a game with few penalties for losing. 

Democracy is not a fixed event, it's a process. The referendum result was the product of particular circumstances, timing, dodgy practices, and the quirks of turnout. It opened up a process, it didn't close it. Yet, due to the insistence of its adherents, it became fixed and immutable. The preferred version of Brexit was the choice of the Conservative government. When a hung Parliament promised scrutiny, the 2019 election was held to stop it. The election was about the prevention, rather than the exercise, of democratic deliberation.

All these failures raise questions about democracy and democratic practice. How do we deliberate on policy and scrutinise the executive? How could representation work in mass societies? The answers point to the reform of existing institutions and supplementing them with something new. Paul Evans has addressed some of the issues here, while deliberative democracy offers the possibility of a democratic renewal through enhanced representation and citizen participation. Both parties are mired in constitutional conservatism and complacency. However, Brexit is a constitutional earthquake. The UK may not survive. Northern Ireland is a circle that cannot be squared. As Britain leaves its regional trade block, in order to make trade deals that are worse than the ones it has already, to revel in its increased sovereignty which it hasn't the power to exercise, and to threaten its own well-being and stability as a multi-national entity, the adverse consequences of something that was sold as consequence-free may force a rethink about democratic failures. Perhaps, we will begin to try and renew our democracy and the democratic governance that we need to protect our rights and freedoms. And then we could go back to ordinary life, caring about our families, enjoying the company of friends, and watching the telly.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. One of your fellow students here. Always been a big fan of your blog, but just never commented before.
One thing I'm always curious about is your condemnation of Corbyn agreeing to the 2019 general election. In truth, he was compelled to. The Conservatives already had the necessary support of the Lib Dems and the SNP for the introduction of new legislation which would circumvent the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act with a simple majority. At this point, a general election was going to happen whether Corbyn agreed to it or not. Therefore he had to move quickly to supporting a general election, to make it look like he was being dragged into one.

However, I still hold Corbyn highly responsible for his mishandling of Brexit. My main issue with him is his arrogance that prevented him from supporting anyone other than himself as a caretaker PM, when it was immediately clear that too many other MPs could not stomach seeing him as Prime Minister. Had he agreed to throw his weight behind someone else, a unity government could have held for long enough to pass the necessary legislation for a second referendum. As it were, his stubbornness ruled out the possibility. This meant that the SNP and the Lib Dems eventually decided that the temptation of electoral gains was too strong to resist, and they signalled to the Tories that they would give them their required simple majority for a general election. And of course, our chance of remaining in the EU was doomed forevermore, because FPTP so cruelly ignored the fact that a majority voted for a second referendum.

The Plump said...

Hi. Good to hear from you and thanks for the kind words.

The suggestion that Labour couldn't have prevented the 2019 election because of the LibDems and the SNP supporting one is the latest line being spun by the left as an excuse for a catastrophic misjudgement. I have had it repeated to me several times. It's obviously a 'line' being pushed by the left. It's also not true. Johnson did not have the numbers. The vote was 438 for, 20 against, and 181 abstain. 130 Labour MPs voted for. Take their vote away and the vote for the bill got 308 votes - not a majority of the Commons. If those 130 had voted against then the combined total of opponents and abstentions was 331. It could easily have been defeated as many abstainers would have voted against instead, and, if it had been, the Speaker would not have allowed it to be reintroduced. Labour's support was decisive. And it was Corbyn's decision.

(Let alone, as leader of the opposition, he had a duty to oppose constitutional impropriety regardless of the consequences. Also, whether he was seen as avoiding an election or not would have made no difference - the election was lost, there was no chance of a Labour victory at all.)

Agreed on Brexit, but the thing to realise is that Corbyn was a leaver and had been all his life. He was an adherent of the Bennite line from the early 80s. He voted with the Tory Eurosceptic right against the party whip on every occasion that there was a vote on the EU. He called for moving article 50 the day after the referendum and his performance during the referendum campaign was awful. Brexit would never have happened with a committed and capable pro-EU leader of the Labour Party. It's a national tragedy.

Anonymous said...

"Referendums have no place in a parliamentary democracy": Oh really? Apart from anything else, you're implying that Australia, the Republic of Ireland, Canada and several other countries are not really parliamentary democracies. You might want to rethink your position, or at least that particular statement.

The Plump said...

Not really, Anonymous. I don't say that the use of referendums means that a country is not a parliamentary democracy, rather that they fit badly with any parliamentary democracy.

You say they exist, but don't discuss whether they ought to exist. You can defend their use, certainly. Especially if they are carefully and properly designed. But I will always have reservations as they undermine representative democracy. My argument is that they are based on a fiction of the rational and informed voter, which leaves our very irrational and ill-informed electorates open to manipulation by the unscrupulous. It's why referendums are the historic tool of choice for legitimating dictatorships (though they can go wrong beautifully, as in Chile). They are a poor method of decision making, divisive, and can disintegrate into tribal antagonisms. They produce a festival of dishonesty and deception rather than deliberation. May the best marketing win.

This is why representation is important. Our problem is that we do it badly. It's undermined by electoral and party systems that neutralise parliamentary power. We need better forms of representation and participation to augment parliaments.This is why deliberative democracy is important. Ireland does give us a good example, this time to improve the process of the constitutional referendum to legalise abortion. It used a citizens' jury to help frame the process and make recommendations to the electorate. Deliberative democracy provides a structure for wider participation, aims at people making informed decisions and reaching consensus after a longer period of discussion. It enhances representation, rather than undermines it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. I’m Adam, the author of the first comment.
I was not aware of that. I cannot understand why Corbyn instructed Labour MPs to vote for the bill, when they had the numbers to defeat it by voting against. I know you are right, but I’m just confused as to why Corbyn suddenly thought that he could win the election. Corbyn had not supported having a general election when the government tried twice to get the necessary support of 2/3 of MPs under the FTPA in September. He obviously did so because he was not confident of winning a general election. So what made him change his mind one month later?

Yep, totally agree about the need to prevent constitutional impropriety. The Early Parliamentary General Election Bill is a classic example of Parliament abusing its sovereignty. For me it’s a depressing reminder that there are no constitutional safeguards in our political system. Our constitution is whatever a majority in Parliament deems it to be.

I’ll admit that I did not actually consider the glaringly obvious reality that Corbyn is a eurosceptic. I think I just tried to convince myself that he was pro-EU, when it’s all to clear looking back now that he was nothing of the sort.