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.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Another door closes

I read this interviewContinuous Learning as a Right and a Necessity, with Li Andersson, the leader of the Left Alliance and Minister of Education in Finland, with sadness as well as pleasure. 

I have worked with numerous adult education programmes supported by the EU. This article refers to the European Agenda for Adult Learning, the most recent of several pan-European initiatives. Given the state of adult education in the UK, it's obvious that they can't compete with hard cash and ideology. However, European networks provided support and offered models for adult education's subsequent reinvention. A lifeline is being closed off. Britain pioneered adult education; it's now a backwater of retreat and regression.

There are two splendid quotes in the piece.

"... the alternative of employment should not be unemployment but education."

That's education in its broadest sense, not skills training alone. 

And it's conclusion is spot on:

“In major turning points such as now, participating in adult education can bring content and safety to everyday life amidst uncertainty. The education system should always offer an opportunity for learning, and there should be no closed doors.”

When I worked at Hull, our aim was to embed the University deep in the community - working in outreach centres, with voluntary groups, and in the prisons. Gradually, the doors swung the other way towards generational exclusion and narrow instrumentalism. Only a few leaks in the door seals persisted in providing opportunities for something wider, something much more radical.

And now we have closed the biggest door of all, the one to our European partners and the networks they provided. It's a national tragedy - and shame.