I’m returning to political blogging with a series of short blogs on my experience of standing for election as a new parent. I am persuaded that politics does not need to be as confusing and mysterious as it seems to most people – and I hope sharing my experience this year will de-mystify what it looks like to stand for elected office, and help make politics more accessible. I’ll also be candidly addressing what it is like to campaign as the parent to a young child – a whole new challenge for me!
If the result of a hung parliament has come as a surprise to everybody apart from YouGov, the biggest surprise is the sudden media focus on Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, the DUP. I know a number of people will be disquieted at the presence of the DUP as a potential party of government – so I wanted to use a quick bit of political science to show how the DUP are in the position that they have an effective veto on House of Commons business.
If you are of my generation (ie. born somewhere in the 1980s) and were at all involved in church life between 1995 and 2005 you will have almost certainly come across the W.W.J.D. bracelet fad beloved by young Christians of that time. The bracelet was meant to prompt the wearer to ask, in any given situation “What Would Jesus Do?” On the whole, I think aspiring to act like a man who urged his followers to love their enemies and to treat others as we would treat ourselves, is rather good advice. The trouble is that we are rather good at applying it to some obvious scenarios (not gossiping about the questionable office colleague; being patient with your annoying family member) and find it trickier when it comes to questions like “How would Jesus vote?”
Over the last couple of years Biteback publishing have been progressively releasing a series of political ‘How to …’ books, beginning with a new edition of Newport East MP Paul Flynn’s ‘How to be an MP.’ Titles in the range so far include:
- How to be a Minister
- How to be a Government Whip
- How to be a Spin Doctor
- How to be a Parliamentary Researcher
My eye was caught however by a new volume: How to win a marginal seat, written by the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell. For those wondering what makes a seat ‘marginal’ let me give the example that Gavin won his seat in 2015 by 165 votes – or to put it another way, if just 83 people had voted for his nearest challenger rather than him, he would have lost. A marginal seat is therefore a seat where the incumbent has such a small lead that there is a good chance that their opponent might defeat them – in contrast to a ‘safe’ seat, where a cardboard box wearing the correctly coloured rosette would win the election every time.
[As an aside, whether a seat is safe or marginal can change very dramatically. Oxford East MP Andrew Smith had a comfortable majority of 10,344 votes in 2001 which collapsed to 963 in 2005. His current majority is 15,280.]
Gavin’s book serves both as a fascinating historical record of the 2015 General Election campaign, but also in my view as the definitive handbook for how to fight a close political election. Having downloaded the sample to my Kindle, I was so impressed by Gavin’s honesty, transparency, and capacity to tell a compelling story, that I had no reservations in stumping up the £6.47 to buy the Kindle version in full, and it is well worth the investment of time and money.
Credit is due that at no point do you feel that Gavin has drowned you in excessive contextual detail, nor left any part of the story bereft of the background you need to understand his story. We pick up his story at the point at which he released he was (as the book’s subtitle puts it) ‘fighting for my political life’ – when Croydon Labour flattened the Conservatives in the 2014 local elections. Realising (as he politely puts it) he was ‘up a well known creek’ we get a fascinating insight into the strategy Gavin’s team developed to identify and motivate those Croydon residents most likely to re-elect him.
While subsequent chapters show how the strategy was rolled out on the ground, it is perhaps Chapter 3 “Designing a Paddle” that is the most helpful to readers, and especially those who exist outside of the political bubble. This paragraph in particular deserves all the airtime it can get:
Some people would vote Conservative even if we never knocked on their door or delivered leaflets to them. Some would vote Labour, UKIP, Liberal Democrat or Green no matter how hard we tried to persuade them otherwise. Some wouldn’t vote at all. We needed to concentrate our efforts on the people who were likely to vote, had yet to make up their minds how they were going to do so and might be persuaded to vote for me. They were the people who would determine whether I won or lost.
This is where Gavin’s warts and all revelation of his political campaign comes into its own. From conversations with friends who are interested in politics at the level of being good citizens, but rather sensibly have stayed away from the stress of actually being in politics, a common observation is that they never hear from politicians, except during elections. Gavin’s book goes some considerable way towards showing just how costly it is in time, effort, manpower and money to reach even a small section of the electorate, after which a significant percentage are still never going to change their mind about you.
A pertinent example is spelled out in Chapter 22, which focuses on their polling day operations. Labour put out 500 activists in Croydon Central on polling day, 200 more than Gavin Barwell’s campaign team. There is a distinct element of Michael Lewis’s baseball focused book Moneyball in the decision by Gavin and his team to focus their efforts where it would make the greatest difference. Where you have fewer resources, you have to invest them more intelligently if you hope to win. My own hope is that this frank revelation of campaigning realities might lead to more people helping out campaign teams, and also a greater sympathy for political candidates – Gavin was gracious enough to recognise that his Labour opponent Sarah Jones had the not inconsiderable obstacle of trying to defeat him while still holding down a full time job.
The book therefore is of great use to two very different readerships. The first is to the wider readership who normally consume politics via the ‘air war’ of media exchanges, whether printed, television, or online. How to win a marginal seat will give you the feel and smell of a tough political fight, and give you a much better understanding of why campaign decisions take the decisions that they do. You will not necessarily agree with everything that is said – but even if that is the case, I hope that the book would serve as an impetus for you to get involved yourself and to begin bringing the change you desire into our way of doing politics.
Secondly, I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that this book is now required reading for any person desiring to run for elected office, or to run a successful politician campaign. How to win a marginal seat is a play-by-play guide to winning a tough fight against the odds, and to maximise the resources at your hands.The lessons that you can draw from the narrative go beyond just one read, and include both immediate easy wins that can be implemented immediately, and longer cultural changes that will take longer to see the benefit of, but will repay a handsome dividend for your efforts.
The book lacks only in one regard, which is no fault of the author’s. Throughout the book Gavin Barwell acknowledges several of the advantages set before him: his incumbency advantage (especially in terms of issue familiarity); a strong team of local councillors; a strong Conservative association; and the fact that as the sitting MP residents both knew who he was, and also would be more likely to listen to him. There remains a gap in the market for people like myself, who need to come from behind to unseat an entrenched local candidate (for those wondering, I’d need a 20% swing to win Littlemore in the 2018 City Council elections!). It will be interesting to see if Biteback have plans for such a book, perhaps based on MPs such as Marcus Fysh in Yeovil who managed to take a long-held Liberal Democrat seat with a 16% swing; or Tania Mathias who unseated Vince Cable in Twickenham with a 11.8% swing; or indeed Byron Davies, who took a seat in Wales that had been held by Labour for 105 years! If they are anywhere near the outstanding quality of How to win a marginal seat, they will very quickly also become required reading for those in politics.
How to win a Marginal Seat was released in March 2016. You can buy it on Amazon for £12.99 in print, or £6.47 on Kindle:
Let me start with a question: should it matter if a group of people decide two different things? I’m perfectly serious – if you’re heading for a night out with your friends, then half of you want to go bowling and other half want to go to the cinema, what is forcing you to do the same thing?
In just one scenario we capture the essence of social choice theory. Social choice is the antithesis of the free market – in the free market you make your own choice and carry the benefits and costs of that choice. Social choice means you express a preference, that preference informs the decision of a group, and the group fall in behind the final decision, even if that decision is at variance with your own preference. On paper, social choice seems madness – what possible merit is there in forcing a person to embrace a choice at variance with their preference?
Of course, social choice is no new madness, and we can account for several instances in which collective choice is either the only way to decide, or the best way to decide. If a town decides to build a bridge across the river running through the town, it would be insanity to build a bridge everywhere the residents wished one built – so of necessity a choice mechanism is used to determine the one place the bridge is built. Thinking back to our social outing, while it is of course true that your group of friends could go off and do two separate things, it is more likely that you will want to do one thing together, as the whole point of the evening was to do something together.
Social choice, which underpins all our modern understanding of democracy, can be summarised thus: that a group of individuals sacrifice their individual autonomy, recognising that a single response reflecting the aggregated will of that group is preferable to the alternative of separate decisions. To give a slightly flippant example – I may prefer going to Germany to watch the Grand Prix more than the holiday destination my wife and I have chosen together – but I quite cheerfully sacrifice that preference because I consider it much more important that my wife and I reach a decision together that works for both of us!
This is why the #NotInMyName hashtag is so fundamentally dangerous. It’s entirely understandable that those who voted Remain feel a sense of shock and grief. Elections are a recognition of division and sincerely held differences, and defeat is a painful pill to swallow. The contestation however that “I did not vote for this; therefore, the result is not legitimate” is a fundamental rejection of social choice theory. It should perhaps come as no shock to us; the trajectory of modern thought has been the elevation of the individual above all else, whether in morality or in economics. While some reforms have undoubtedly been for the good in freeing individuals from tyranny, the response of the young generation has two implications, neither of them good for our nation.
The first implication runs as follows: if you do not agree with me, you do not belong to me. There is a bitter irony that a campaign whose slogan was ‘Stronger Together’ now sees its acolytes pleading that they would rather be separate from those who disagree with them. Social choice means that you accept that your preference may not always win, but that forsaking a degree of autonomy is preferable for the sake of the good outcomes that come when you work together. The alternative to accepting this, as we are sadly seeing in Scotland, is to conclude that you’re going to take your decisions elsewhere. Anyone who has spent five minutes in political circles knows that such a mindset of ideological purity leads to individuals bitterly wondering why the world cannot see why their views are clearly the right ones.
The second implication is this: if you do not agree with me, then your opinion is worth less than my opinion. Social Choice is a force for good, in that it enshrines a principle that everyone’s preference should be equally weighted in the decision that is reached. To decide a decision does not represent you when it goes against your own preference, is to say that the losing side is worth more than the winning side. It rejects one-person, one-vote – it could indeed be put in the Orwellian phraseology that ‘some animals are more equal than others.’ Down that path lies neither the individual autonomy of the free market, nor the collective decision reaching of social choice. Instead lies the horrifying edifice of totalitarianism: choices made for the common good, for your own good, because the wise ones know best. We Conservatives know full well that such wisdom is folly, for it has no answer for when the wise ones are wrong or corrupt.
There are many issues to be worked through in the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU. Fundamental to the health of our nation’s governance, and I would even venture the health of our communities, is that we reject this dangerous notion that a decision reached in contrast to our preferences is ‘not in our name.’ We belong to each other, we are far better when we work together than when we flee from each other, and we all deserve to be respected as possessing equal worth. #NotInMyName stands in opposition to all of those principles – and it is entirely right that we should point that out.
I had hoped to make a statement on the EU Referendum when the dust had settled somewhat. In the ten days since the historic decision there has been so much confusion and change that I think waiting for that moment would be foolhardy! Rather than give a long and deeply thought out blog post, I thought I would share a few reflections from conversations I have had with others on the outcome of the referendum:
- The Referendum has not caused divisions, but it has exposed them.
I think the single thing that has most alarmed and frightened people in the aftermath of the Leave vote has been the perceived change in the country. The referendum campaign itself was nasty and dirty, and there’s a sense that bitterness and divisiveness remains – not least in the disgusting increase of racial abuse we are seeing. I do not believe that this is new – I think there has been an undercurrent of racial tension that we have suppressed but not addressed, and I think there has been a disconnect between political elites and ordinary voters. The referendum may have exposed them more brutally and drastically than would be preferred, but we must acknowledge that the roots run deeper and longer than one referendum campaign.
- We need to learn how to do politics
The referendum has also brought into sharp relief that we have forgotten how to disagree with each other. While it is fundamental to our freedom of thought to uphold the right of individuals to hold opinions, it is a mockery to say that everyone must be right. That is what we do however when we create an academic culture where everyone expresses their opinion and ‘nobody is wrong’ – unless of course they dare to speak contrary to an accepted orthodoxy. The divisive discourse of the campaign and the dramatic rejection of the democratic result by sections of society (and especially younger generations) shows that we need to learn democracy and politics again.
- We have to be brave enough to listen – and to lead
From a partisan viewpoint, huge swathes of Labour voters voting Leave ought to delight me. It does not. These communities feel abandoned and left behind, and have fixated their hurt, for both good and bad reasons, upon migration. We have to not just listen to them, but show we are listening to them – otherwise we drive them to extremists who sing the tune they want to hear. But at the same time, we must be ready to lead as well as listen. Democracy means that you respect the people when they decide. Leadership is what happens when the people need to be offered a positive alternative – it does not mean ignoring them or their decision, but means meeting them where they are at.
- It’s more important than ever to show up
I voted Leave, but I certainly do not want to live in Farage’s Britain. I do not think that continuing our relationship with European nations from outside the EU means an end to our commitment to social justice, closing the door to migrants, nor becoming an isolationist state. If the choice had been ‘Little England’ I would have been vocally advocating a Remain vote. Now that we have voted to take the wheel, it’s up to us to step up, show up, and cast the direction we want to go in.
In practical terms, I would like to encourage every reader to think what this looks like for them. It may mean writing to your MP to ask how they will be shaping our exit from the EU. It may mean joining a political party or a pressure group. Even if it is not in overt party politics, you can make a big difference just by starting political discourse – having the robust but respectful discussions with your friends, and playing out in the micro what we aspire to see played out in the macro.
And I conclude by recognising that we live in a time of turbulent change, and that is easy to be anxious. I am especially prone to be anxious, and take comfort from the words of Jesus of Nazareth:
Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
All of us can think of seasons of change and uncertainty. Sometimes it went on for longer than we would like; I’m sure often it was not pleasant to go through that season. We came through those seasons however, and I remain confident that we will do the same this time.
In just under twenty-four hours, the United Kingdom will have decided. Not long after the polls close, we will then learn what we have decided. In one sense it will mark the end – the end of campaigning, persuading, and the agony of indecision faced by many voters. In a very practical sense however, tomorrow is not the end, but the beginning.
Part of the reason I posed two questions to determine how to vote in the referendum, was to highlight that we are voting for a future, not for the present. Whether we decide to Remain or to Leave, on Friday 24th June 2016 we wake up as a nation to a new series of challenges. Our choice is therefore not whether to stay the course for the status quo, but rather to decide which challenges we believe are most likely to bring out the best in us.
In the middle of what has been a bitterly divisive campaign it is important to remember what unites us – the hope and aspiration for Britain to play an outstanding role in helping all of the peoples of the world to flourish – not because we are better, but because it is worth aspiring for us to be doing the best we can for all human flourishing, not just the flourishing of our own nation. Whether we do this as part of the European Union, or outside of it, that goal does not change.
Given that the goal will not change, it seems prudent to ask what challenges lie ahead depending upon how we vote. I am fully prepared to face whatever outcome we wake up to on Friday: while I believe that it is better to leave the EU and hope that is what we decide, should we vote to remain it is important to set that to one side and endeavour to make Britain the best player in Europe. Below I venture a few thoughts on what challenges may lie ahead for either outcome:
Should we vote to leave …
There is no fairytale if we vote to Leave. I do not accept that the Chancellor will introduce anywhere near the catastrophe budget he projected previously, because in adversity you react strongly and positively to challenge. Nevertheless, the priority will be to set out quickly what the next steps will be. If there is a very narrow vote for Leave (by which I mean anything less than 51%) it could well be that the ramifications go beyond our shores. Other European nations are not entirely content with the EU and may decide to follow our lead. If the EU is pressured into wholesale reform by a Brexit vote, the government may well have grounds to offer a second referendum based upon the reformed EU.
There is no guarantee of that however, so we have to assume that the government would need to set out a timetable for separation from the EU. The government will be busy negotiating new deals, both with the EU and (more positively) with other nations spotting the opportunity to get a favourable deal with the UK. While this goes on, we must be ensuring that the government does not withdraw, but uses its freedom from Europe to become a positive force in international relations. We also need to positively step up to whatever the short term economic challenges would be that result from the vote.
Most crucially, we must all stick a proverbial two fingers up at Nigel Farage and love our neighbour. In speaking with friends, I cannot agree more that the biggest difficulty with the Leave vote is how it will make those who have immigrated to Britain feel. The only way we can overcome that if we vote to Leave is by committing to demonstrate as overtly as possible that we want migrants to continue to play a flourishing role in our nation. It means getting over our natural British reserve (or in my case, my crippling introversion and shyness!) and saying that leaving the EU is not about closing the door to the nations. Both at the level of our own streets and communities, but also as the government begins to pull together a post EU migration policy, we must actively share that culture so that it is warm, generous, and truly loving of our neighbour.
Should we vote to remain …
If we vote to remain, our attitude to Europe needs to change. We can no longer be disinterested in how the EU operates, or sneer that we are ‘in Europe but not of it.’ Having wedded ourselves to the project, if we remain we need to make it work well. That means that where a Leave vote means setting out a timetable for departure, a remain vote means setting out an agenda for reform.
Top of the list is an easy reform for home – changing the electoral system for European Parliament elections from the frankly awful Party List system to either Single-Transferable-Vote (as used in Scottish local elections and most Northern Irish elections) or the Additional Member System (as used in Scottish and Welsh devolved elections and the London Assembly elections). Our attitude to these elections needs to change from treating it as a glorified opinion poll on the national parties, to instead judging how our elected representatives are doing in Europe. I’d of course prefer First-Past-The-Post … but as the EU mandates we must use a proportional system, either STV or AMS are preferable for establishing a clear constituency link.
That reform would be easy – the rest sadly not so. An EU reform agenda would need like-minded statesmen from across Europe to have vision and political courage on a par with the framers of the United States Constitution. It would mean producing a roadmap to provide for the appropriate division of powers and responsibilities between the national and the supranational level, and providing for a genuinely federal, genuinely democratic Europe. The distinctly British contribution to this would also be a general commitment to liberty – the European tradition has been much more grounded in technocracy, and trust in the wisdom of a governing elite. In his book How We Invented Freedom, Conservative MEP Dan Hannan spells out the key difference of the Anglosphere – a commitment to individual liberty; a conviction that it is preferable that everything should be permitted unless it is prohibited (rather than the reverse in Europe); a persuasion that humans flourish more when they are freed from excessive restriction and regulation.
Of course – the reason I am voting Leave is that I don’t think the above is possible – I think the EU is culturally opposed to such a mindset. The ever-closer-union of the EU does not envisage individual freedoms and the principle of subsidiarity as set out in the US constitution, which makes me fundamentally nervous of being tied to it in the longer run. That said – if we vote to remain, then we must not shirk the challenge merely because it is difficult!
Regardless of how we vote …
There is a challenge for all of us that does not depend on the final outcome, and that concerns the health and vitality of the way we do politics. Just before the last General Election I made a plea which is echoed today in this post. Where the election was fraught for parties not reaching beyond their natural base, the referendum has been fraught for each side trying to win over the undecideds by demonising their opponents. One of my very first blogs on this site was simply entitled: Politics is missing basic courtesy. A recent article on Conservative Home put it differently but makes rather the same point: Our politics is unlikely to change unless we all do. As the author so eloquently puts it, it is much easier to carry the day when you adopt the moral high ground and paint your opponent as unethical – even evil. Sadly, democracy and governance is what ultimately suffers. Debate is stifled, thoughtful persons are reluctant to articulate their view lest they be attacked for it, and we make democratic debate a matter of how loud your point is, rather than how deep. There isn’t an easy or short way to fix this – and ultimately it is for all of us to ask what part we will play in encouraging our politicians to do politics better.
There is also an issue that I will revisit in future which relates to migration. While it will perhaps be more pressing if we vote to remain (as EU freedom of movement will remain uncapped) I think it still applies if we leave. Successive governments have enjoyed the benefit of inward migration in terms of reducing the price of goods, but ignored the costs to ordinary people in terms of the ever decreasing stock of housing and the ever increasing pressure on already over-subscribed services. Regardless of how we vote, the government must find the courage to face these challenges, and provide the infrastructure to match the needs of our society. Obviously this the issue is even greater and more nuanced than this, but it must wait for another day!
And finally – regardless of the outcome, we must all find a way to come together again. When I commented on The Christian Heritage of Voting, I observed that elections were not primarily divisive in function, but unifying. They were supposed to bring those who cannot agree together to one outcome. That is why I have maintained in all of my referendum posts that the important thing is not what we decide, but that we come together having decided. So one thing that all of us can do, regardless of how we vote, is to help move the conversation on post referendum – and face the new challenges together!
After my last few relatively balanced posts on the European Union referendum, I am going to honour the promise of my initial post and confirm my voting intention: this Thursday, I will be voting for the UK to Leave the European Union.
When asked by friends about how I plan to vote, and what is persuading me to vote that way, I begin by describing myself as a ‘reluctant Leaver.’ In that regard, I think I belong to the vast majority of the UK population – not satisfied with the way the European Union currently operates, but persuaded that it is better when the nations of Europe (and indeed the world) work together. I firmly believe that we agree as a nation on the above assessment – European co-operation is a good thing, and the European Union can and must do better to serve the peoples and nations of Europe. The issue that the public at large are largely wrestling with is not whether some form of European co-operation is a good thing, but instead whether the EU can be reformed. The plea of the Remain campaign is akin to buying a run-down house – you are urged to look beyond what you are immediately buying and instead imagine what it will look like when you have done it up a bit. The Leave view would be akin to the salesperson advising that the house is structurally unsafe – which is the view that I have come to.
What we do not disagree upon
To begin with, I wish to dismiss some of the arguments that have been advanced by both sides in the campaign, and assert that they are not relevant. First and foremost, and in contrast to traditional electoral wisdom: “It’s not about the economy, stupid!” The most helpful observation in this regard was made by Martin Lewis (highlighted in this previous post) – we cannot predict the future with any degree of certainty. The appeals that a vote to Remain/Leave will leave us with more or less money in our pockets are so much fanciful thinking. Let me put it this way – if it were up to economists, we would never have elections. A change of government represents uncertainty, and economic assumptions are based on nothing changing. By definition, a vote for change upsets future assumptions. Equally importantly, a vote to stay doesn’t guarantee that change will not happen. There could well be a crash in the Eurozone. There may be a global economic crisis. The economic debate is important, but only in the sense that whichever governing arrangement we have at the end of it must be equipped to deal with it.
Secondly, it’s not about immigration. Both sides have to shoulder blame for this – the Leave campaign for allowing a ‘Little Englander’ mentality to creep in by association; and the Remain campaign for painting the Leave campaign as being entirely based around xenophobia. The debate around migration runs much wider than the EU debate – it involves us asking deep, difficult and honest questions about whether we really welcome people when they come to live in the United Kingdom; whether we are prepared to challenge community isolation and separation; and whether we are prepared to acknowledge that when migration is net positive rather than net negative, it places pressure upon our resources. It is a very important debate, and Labour’s failure to rouse their traditional base of support shows that we cannot postpone having the debate – but the referendum is not about whether we should accept migrants (so that there is no doubt, I believe both emigration and immigration are positive for human advancement), and it is unhelpful to paint the vote as being a choice between open or closed borders.
Finally, it is not about personalities. A popular internet meme at the moment (used by my wife’s colleague for a school assembly) shows those that back Remain against those who back Leave. Of course it makes me uncomfortable that Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Donald Trump back Brexit. It is a grave misjudgement however to reason that the support of a distasteful person for a policy, means by extension that the policy itself is distasteful. By that reasoning, policies introduced in Nazi Germany such as public work schemes and prevention of cruelty to animals, should be ranked in the same category as their genuinely abhorrent policies of hate, racism and murder. When you equate either campaign with a distasteful supporter of that side, you are effectively saying to any sincere person backing that side on good and reasonable grounds that they are no better than the distasteful person. That does nothing to advance democratic debate and public reasoning. It’s a powerful campaigning tool, which is why it used by politicians – but in the long run it does more harm than good, and takes the focus off of the debate.
So, we are clear on what we do not disagree upon. Where might we disagree, legitimately?
The necessity of reform
I posed two questions in deciding how to vote, and the first is essentially “do you believe that the European Union needs reformed?” My unequivocal answer is “Yes, urgently!” I can think of no better way to illustrate my concerns with the EU, than to quote the late Labour MP Tony Benn’s five questions (here taken from Wikiquote):
One can ask five questions:
- What power do you have?
- Where did you get it?
- In whose interests do you exercise it?
- To whom are you accountable?
- How can we get rid of you?
Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.
For all of the flaws of the Westminster system, Benn’s fourth and fifth questions remind us that it is possible for a government to be unseated when it ceases to hold the confidence of the British electorate – the same is also true for Holyrood and for the Sennedd in Cardiff, and sadly not so true for the Northern Ireland Assembly (but that’s another story). I will venture a more detailed post on democracy in Europe ahead of polling day, but the heart of the problem is that government ought to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. The ‘pro-democracy’ argument of Europhiles assumes that as the European Parliament is elected, and the unelected European Commission can (theoretically) be unseated by that Parliament, Benn’s fourth and fifth questions can be answered satisfactorily.
I am not in the least satisfied with this reasoning. Parliament can (and does) stop the government from using the considerable power invested in it, where it feels it is out of step with public opinion. The government (whether Conservative, Labour or coalition) may well pass laws that sections of the public profoundly disagree with, but does so where they have a mandate to do so. Where that mandate is absent, Parliament attempts to stop the government, and the government knows that the penalty of disregarding public opinion is the genuine risk of losing power at the next election.
The technocracy in Brussels lives under no such fear. Vested with considerable power, the Parliament does not possess the means to block their policies, replace a failing Commission with a new Commission, nor does the Commission’s composition ever change hands at the electorate’s expressed will in European elections. Let me put it this way: when Westminster makes a bad decision, we have the opportunity to kick the government out. In the European Union, we do not have that power.
All of this matters because whether we stay or leave, there are challenges ahead, and we are relying upon those who govern us to choose wisely, and to choose in our interests. The technocrats of the European Commission have thus far demonstrated that they do not answer for the interests of all of the European nations, and southern Europe has suffered as a result.That is why the analogy of the run-down house is most apt when considering a Remain vote. Beyond all doubt, reform is needed – there is a broken connection between public opinion and the decisions reached in Brussels. All governments are unpopular, and all those who vote for non-governing parties believe the government is doing the wrong thing, but they hold on to the hope that they might win next time.
For this reason, a sizeable number of Remain campaigners, of which perhaps the most obvious example is Jeremy Corbyn, are campaigning under the banner “Reform within Europe” – that is, vote Remain to ensure we stay in, but use this as the catalyst to deliver reform. The Prime Minister’s attempt to renegotiate over the last two years has demonstrated what a vain hope this is – the European Commission has been recalcitrant to budge one inch on its projected course, and resistant to the least idea of change. How can we expect accountability, much less reform, from an unresponsive institution?
In this regard, Vote Leave‘s official slogan: “Take Control” has actually cut to the core of the matter. As it stands the EU is utterly uninterested in public opinion or preferences, and demonstrates no willingness to change. Voting to remain, is voting to let the European Commission continue to decide on our behalf regardless of whether their decisions are right for Europe.
That is why on Thursday 23rd June 2016, I am voting Leave. Europe can do better than the European Union – and it’s our privilege to lead our European friends in saying that enough is enough.
Suppose that you had the opportunity to explain to a seven year old why representative democracy was a good idea; what might you consider as the key reason? Where older and more jaundiced ears might sagely agree with Churchill’s view that ‘Democracy is the worst system in the world, apart from all of the other ones’, a seven year old will cut through that and justly ask “What makes it better than the rest?”
Or let me put the question another way – what makes it better that the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is decided by a referendum, and not by officials or elected representatives?
It is a question worth asking, as judging by a link shared on several of my social media feeds there is a considerable body of opinion that would not trust the public with this decision. A survey recently conducted by polling company Ipsos Mori (available at this link) showed a massive disconnect between public perceptions of the EU and reality. To give a few of the examples from the survey:
- On average we think EU citizens make up 15% of the total UK population (which would be around 10.5m people), when in reality it’s 5%1 (around 3.5m people).
- The majority of us (67%) correctly say the UK annually pays more into the EU’s budget than it gets back – but we overestimate how much we pay compared with other countries.
These headlines have been doing the rounds in social media posts, with the unspoken rider being ‘should we really be trusting this vote to the uninformed?’ And it is a fair question – there is something quite tempting about only allowing people to vote if they have demonstrated reasonable grasp of the issues involved. Of course, the problem with that suggestion is that you would very quickly disqualify masses of the electorate for failing to be sufficiently informed. The logical conclusion to allowing people to be involved in a decision only if they’re informed enough would be to not have public opinion at all – why not have informed guardians of the people deciding on their behalf? So we come back to the question – what reason would you give a seven year old child for defending representative democracy?
One hint to this can be found in the excellent Sex, Lies, and the Ballot Box. A number of chapters look at questions related specifically to polling, but Chapter 7 in particular examines exactly the kind of issues Ipsos Mori have uncovered – the public being wrong about their understanding of issues. The author observes:
One of the perennial puzzles about the nature of mass opinion is how, despite the public knowing little about politics, and caring even less about the ebb and flow of public affairs, collective public opinion often turns out to be coherent and responsive to events and new information.
Three opinions are advanced as to why this may indeed be the case: (1) the public misjudge specifics, but are good at relative judgements (eg. misjudging the level of unemployment, but knowing if there is relatively too much); (2) there is some reasonable communication through official statistics, which is not always trusted (crime statistics being the prime example); and (3) that the average uniformed citizens cancel each other out, leaving the informed ‘opinion leaders’ to shape the direction of public opinion. Or, put more succinctly, the collective wisdom of the electorate tends to be a reasonably sound barometer of the direction the public wish to take.
Of course, with the opinion polls showing the EU referendum currently neck and neck between Leave and Remain, it is understandable that both sides are concerned that the result could be swung by a small number of uniformed voters. Is that really defensible? Would we feel comfortable waking up knowing that the final result was 49.75% to 50.25%, and that the 0.5% difference might not have been decided by the ‘opinion leaders’, but instead by voters who voted based upon incorrect information or assumptions? How would we defend that to our hypothetical seven year old?
For my own part, I would revisit an argument that I made in my previous post: the important thing is not what is decided, but that a decision was made. Self government is indeed dangerous, as any parent will tell you. While freedom to make your own choices gives you maximum potential to react to opportunities and to use your creativity for good, you also have the freedom to make bad or harmful choices – one need not spend that long at any university to see this principle at work! It is dangerous to grant freedom – but it also is the greatest gift to increase human potential, creativity and community. Yes, in our fallen and imperfect state that freedom has been abused, misused and misjudged – but it has also brought out the very best in mankind, and been a bulwark against tyranny.
I posed a question as the title of this article: name your alternative to trusting public opinion? I believe a key part of self government is not only trusting the public to take the right decision most of the time, I think it is also about trusting that the right decision is usually taken in the long term, even when unwise decisions are taken in the short term. It’s about believing that people can take a decision, and in time take even better decisions as they see how those previous decisions play out. It’s about believing that through debate, discourse, and discovery, we will flourish even more than if we passively let a minority lead the way. That’s why it matters how we talk about the electorate in this referendum – and also why we need to trust them.
“If you could do anything you wanted to, and be guaranteed you would succeed, what would you do?”
Thus began one of the most helpful seminars I have ever attended on planning for the future. The speaker, who has spent his professional career giving one-to-one consultations to senior executives, wisely identifies that the biggest obstacle we all face when deciding what to do is the fear of failure. As a perfectionist I have no problem identifying with this phenomenon; 90 percent of my paralysis when facing a decision is due to my own fear of doing the wrong thing. This cultural phenomenon owes much to the way we do education in the United Kingdom – from an early age you are encouraged to know the ‘right’ answer, and chastised for giving the ‘wrong’ answer. Formal education eschews the patient methodology of Edison, who did not see the 10,000 attempts to find the right material for his invention as failures, but rather as 10,000 lessons learned.
That same conviction has carried into our modern culture, and especially into social media. No longer are we permitted to explore ideas, to venture opinions, or to entangle the depths of a complicated issue. The strange oxymoron of today’s liberal society is that it is utterly binary in upholding ‘established wisdom.’ Those who comment on anything, whether the EU referendum or the latest Budget, do not venture an opinion – they speak either truth or heresy. Mistakes are not tolerated; misspeaking is a one-way ticket to ignominy and ostracism; and there is no grace for those who make even well intentioned mistakes.
In view of this, is it really a surprise that the Electoral Reform Society are able to reveal polling data showing that 75 percent of respondents do not feel “well informed” to take a decision for the European Referendum? (£ – The Times) Our entire society and culture is focused on risk avoidance, and we are paralyzed by the crippling fear of doing the wrong thing. While it is good and proper that we weigh up opportunity, risk, and cost in decision making, that becomes counter productive when we daren’t decide for fear of deciding incorrectly. Human progress has deluded us into believing we have somehow ceased to be fallible, and rather than embrace the comfort of “to err is human, to forgive divine,” we neither allow ourselves to err, nor descend to forgive.
“Project Fear” is the epithet both Remain and Leave have used to describe their opponent’s campaign. Certainly the campaign has developed in such a way that thoughtful voters, precisely the kind of voters you would want to take a considered and balanced approach to their vote, are being terrified by prophecies of what it would mean to ‘mis-vote.’ Vote Remain and you’re signing up to pay for the Greek bailout. Vote Leave and you’re putting up your mortgage by £1,500. Both sides have already paid tribute to the national religion and declared that only they can save the NHS – although only Sir John Major has gone as far as to say that a vote for Leave would condemn the NHS. These are but a few short examples; the many more that spring to mind demonstrate why many voters feel sick of the referendum campaign.
What if you could do whatever you wanted to do, and know it would succeed?
My favourite (and therefore most overused) quotation about democracy is attributed to Arthur Balfour, who said: “Democracy presumes a people sufficiently united that they may bicker safely.” One of the most unhealthy developments in modern representative politics has been the growth of identity politics – about them vs us; absolute right vs absolute wrong; truth vs heresy. As I commented in an earlier piece, the Christian heritage of elections was that an electoral contest recognised a group did not agree, and was supposed to unify the group behind a decision. The most important thing is not what they decided, but that the group reached a decision, fairly and transparently, so that everyone could accept the outcome.
I very much appreciate my friend sharing Martin Lewis’ helpful blog on the EU referendum – the most helpful part comes near the end, when he says the following:
I’m generally risk-averse, and that pushes me just towards an IN vote for safety, maybe 55% to 45%.
Immediately of course, the Remain camp rushed to seize the plaudits that the highly-regarded and trusted Mr Lewis had ‘backed Remain.’ But that’s not quite what he said. The referendum is a binary decision, so of necessity he could only endorse one side. But when it came to reaching that decision, he effectively said “If I had 100 votes, I’d cast 55 for Remain and 45 for Leave.” Lewis deserves to be upheld for correctly pointing out that the decision before the electorate is extremely difficult, finely balanced and nuanced, and absolutely not an instance of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Undoubtedly there are people on both sides using wrong, even abhorrent arguments, but that is not the same as one option being conclusively right or wrong.
Why does this matter? Because this referendum is every political decision in a microcosm. This referendum is also about whether we choose to vote, or not. It’s about how we vote for Westminster, or our local council. It’s about whether we choose to engage in a debate recognising that if we all agreed there wouldn’t be a need for the debate. It’s fundamentally about recognising that debate, democracy and decisions are meant to enable us to divide for a season, to come back together and move forward together.
I began by asking “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I conclude by saying “When you vote in two week’s time, you cannot fail – however you vote.”