In part two of my special blogs for the 2017 General Election (read part one here) I’m going to address the question of why I am supporting the Conservatives. This will partly be a positive exhortation that there are good reasons to support the Conservatives, but also to address criticism levied at the government. In my earlier blog I asserted that government has a positive role to play for our good, and that as active participants in a democracy we should seek the election of people who will govern us well and wisely. Nobody disagrees in this objective, but instead disagrees on what good government looks like in practice! (This is also the root of many a frustrated political argument between friends)
Britain wakes up in shock, and thanks to social media it does not take very long for that shock, dismay and disbelief to appear on our timelines. While the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is shocking in itself, the shock is intensified because none of the opinion polls or commentators predicted it would happen. Some of us worried that a Trump win was possible, but few worried that it was likely.
This is probably the fifth big political shock in the last two years – following the surprisingly close Scottish referendum, the unexpected Conservative majority in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, and the vote for Brexit in June this year. In such a time of shocks, convulsions and change, people are understandably nervous and unsettled – especially when you consider the personal character of individuals like Mr Trump. It will take time to process the sea change that lies ahead of us, but in an increasingly divided world, I wanted to venture a few ways we can react positively today:
1. Be generous in appreciating women today
The first point really shouldn’t need to be a point – but sadly it is not the given that it ought to be. While I don’t think Trump’s victory was mainly due to misogyny (though it definitely is a factor), it is hard to ignore the fact that he has an unacceptable and disrespectful attitude towards women, even before considering certain of the allegations that have been made against him. For Trump to defeat Clinton, who for all her flaws is an articulate, hardworking and intelligent woman, is not a reassuring message to women that they enjoy equal esteem with men. We cannot do much about the heart attitudes of others, but we can make a small difference today by going the extra mile to make the women we know feel valued and appreciated, and ensuring we make a lifetime habit of that appreciation.
2. Take the time to grieve
Yougov released some fascinating polling regarding Brexit this week, comparing the reaction of Remain voters to the five stages of grieving. I think it helpfully shows that an unexpected political result, while obviously not comparable to the loss of a loved one, is nevertheless a severe shock to the system. Recognising the shock (or indeed the hurt) is the first step to giving yourself the space to recover from that shock.
3. Do not be anxious
One of the biggest comforts but also biggest challenges of my Christian faith is the exhortation: “Do not worry.” Even though we can see the wisdom in the saying ‘Who of you, by worrying, can add a day to their life?’ we still find reasons to be anxious! Whatever challenges lie ahead (and I have no doubts under President Trump we will face many challenges) we gain nothing but ill health by worrying about it. Yes, we might have to deal with some bad things, but a more positive response is to take comfort in our incredible capacity to rise to meet adversity.
4. In time, ask what you can do for your country
Finally, we each need to ask what role we have to play. Across the whole of the world there is a growing disconnect between communities and individuals; a dissociation from one another that is bigger than this blog has space for. The one thing Trump’s victory has shown us, is that complaining about the problem, or shouting at the problem, is not going to make it go away. Many people voted for Trump for bad reasons, but many also voted because they are crying out for someone to hear them. If we are to belong to one another again, we need to learn to listen to one another again, to bear with our differences, and to ask what we can do for our communities. Only by modelling something better, can we deliver something better.
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.
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!
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.”
Since the date of the EU referendum was confirmed for 23rd June this year, I have had quite a few of my friends asking for my thoughts on it. I have been especially struck by the number of people who have candidly admitted their nervousness in knowing how to cast their vote. Quite understandably, these good and thoughtful voters feel the pressure that in a referendum there are no wasted votes – your vote makes a difference between the referendum motion succeeding or failing. Whether we vote to remain or leave, the outcome will impact the challenges and decisions we will face in the next decade. In view of that fact, it would be strange to not feel pressure in considering one’s vote.
To add to that pressure, there really isn’t anything by way of impartial analysis in how to cast one’s vote. Both sides are using quite similar tactics of describing the ‘doom-scenario’ should the other side win, while casting a vision of the sunlight uplands that lie before us if we only vote for their preferred option. The trouble is that it is foolish to predict the future: in the last 13 months the Conservatives won an unexpected majority, the SNP won almost every Westminster seat in Scotland, Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party, and Leicester City defied 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League. The predictions of the In and Out campaigns are deserve to be treated as lightly and cautiously as any other prediction.
While I will venture some of my own thoughts on why we should vote a particular way, I can with a clear conscience give some advice which may result in readers voting contrary to the way I would hope – and doing so with my blessing and encouragement. I very strongly believe that the most important outcome of this referendum is not what we decide, but rather that we decided. Elections and referenda draw us in to the process of government, and are the crucial check on how authorities exercise their power. I feel no tension therefore between campaigning for my preferred outcome, whilst simultaneously encouraging everyone to get involved and vote, regardless of how they plan to vote.
The good news is that you can decide how to vote by answering two simple questions. These questions will enable you to assess the EU, based upon three principles below by which I believe authorities can be rightly judged.
The first principle is that effective co-operation between nation states should be encouraged. This principle applies not only to our role within Europe, but also in global trading agreements, in humanitarian initiatives, and in peacekeeping duties. Reducing barriers between nations helps to advance human flourishing; promoting greater trade, exchange of ideas, and cultural understanding. Put in a question, this would be “Are these nations delivering better outcomes by working together?”
Secondly, authorities must be accountable for their decisions. Democracy’s chief virtue is that it acts as a safety valve on public opinion. No government can govern for long without the sufferance of the nation, which in turn incentivises good decision making, and (more importantly) punishes poor decision making. I would express this principle in the question: “What can the public do to change a bad decision?”
Thirdly, authorities must deliver conditions for human flourishing. Put in simple terms, the role of all governments, whether national parliaments, elected mayors, regional assemblies, or local councils, is to use the power and resources at their disposal to leave the people they represent better off than if there were no governance at all. Put in three questions, one should ask whether a government:
1- has dealt with injustice or unfairness?
2- has invested to develop their area of jurisdiction?
3- has done so efficiently?
These three principles allow us to assess the role of the European Union as an overarching authority over the people of Europe, not just the United Kingdom. As you consider each, it enables you to answer two questions that will best determine how you should vote:
Question One: Are you satisfied that the European Union is delivering upon the three principles that are set out above?
Question Two: If you are not satisfied that is doing so, do you believe it is possible for the European Union to be reformed so that it delivers the principles set out above?
If you are able to answer either of these questions ‘yes’, then you should vote to Remain. Like many others involved in politics, I contest that it is better to be in politics, making a difference and looking to deliver change, despite the imperfections of our system of governance. I suspect that many who campaign for us to remain in Europe hold precisely that persuasion – Europe is not perfect, but we can only improve it if we remain in it. While I have sympathy for those who answer the first question negatively, and the second question positively, I have grave concerns about the wilful blindness who would argue that the EU can remain as it is and does not require root and branch reform.
If on the other hand you answer both questions in the negative, then you should vote to Leave. If your careful analysis and assessment leads you to conclude that the EU is not delivering on human flourishing for the peoples of Europe, and that there is no prospect of it ever amending its ways, then it would be not just illogical, but even immoral to consciously remain in an organisation that suppresses human flourishing and is beyond reform. It is of course a bold statement to say that the EU irredeemable – which is why I think that is the difficult question you have to answer honestly.
Let me conclude by crystallising the above down to one simple question: “Which outcome do you think we would respond to better as a nation?” Once you cut past the prophecies of the campaigns, the question really is about the challenges we will face on the other side. If we vote to remain, we are committing to being the best and most co-operative team player in the EU – which means dealing with the democratic deficit, slashing the oversized bureaucracy, and ensuring that it genuinely delivers for every member state. On the other hand, voting to leave means still playing a positive role in Europe from outside the EU, and building new trade arrangements around the world.
I imagine 75% of the electorate will vote with reluctance – whether to remain or to leave, those voting remain will wish they could register their discomfort with how the EU operates, and those voting leave will wish they could register their desire for a thriving Europe advancing human flourishing. Whatever way the country votes, the most important thing is not what we decide – it is that when we face the subsequent challenges we are able to say that we chose them.
Which way am I voting? Well if you tune in over the next fortnight, I will be explaining which way my conclusions took me, and what the key factors where in leading me to decide. For now I will keep you guessing – because this article isn’t about persuading anyone to vote a certain way – it is about encouraging everyone to make their vote count.
True or false – ‘The Coalition’ of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that governed between 2010 and 2015 was the first coalition in Westminster since the Second World War.
If you confidently answered ‘true’, you’d be factually accurate – but wrong.
The idea that single party governments are not coalitions has been built for years on the observation of such governments rolling out their programme for government with near iron discipline. With the government whips ensuring that their MPs vote the way they are told, it is rare for government with a healthy majority (ie. more than 20) to lose a vote in the House of Commons. Indeed, as early as the 1950s one observer suggested it would be more economical to keep a pack of trained sheep that could be driven through the division lobbies in the appropriate numbers when a vote was required.
There are a number of rebuttals to this model, not least of which is the rise of independent minded and disobedient backbenchers being more prepared to rebel against the government. But for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on proposition which I believe to be true – that we are a nation of coalition builders.
Let’s be clear first of all what we mean by a ‘coalition.’ The narrow definition, typically used in political science, refers to two or more parties coming together to form a government. The parties have distinct beliefs and objectives, hence they do not formally merge, but for the purpose of being enable to accomplish at least some of their aims they unite behind a shared programme, compromise where they are able to, and agree to disagree where they cannot compromise.
You will notice however, that the narrow definition used where two or more parties form a governing coalition, applies equally as well in a broader context. It applies to every kind of political action, from the resident in your street looking to build support to oppose the closing of a local amenity, to the would-be party leader gathering support for their leadership bid. Success in politics looks like persuading people who wouldn’t ordinarily stand together to unite behind what they do agree with. Politics, by its very nature, is about coalition building. This matters, because ultimately choosing who governs us is not about ideological purity, but about building the broadest coalition of support – every majority government since the war has had to build a broad enough consensus to win the trust and support of the electorate.
Two particularly noteworthy examples are Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. While Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 was in no small part due to the personal appeal of Tony Blair, it was just as much because the Conservative Party was badly and publicly divided, and had retreated to their party base rather than appealing to the broad electorate. Mrs Thatcher meanwhile is only remembered for the “Iron Lady” image she cultivated of being a conviction politician. What is forgotten is that her first two terms were marked with distinct caution – her convictions steered her, but she knew she needed to carry enough of the electorate with her to win power. Her abandon of that caution, and a narrowing of her base, led to her downfall in 1990, as the Conservatives realised they could not win the next election with her as Prime Minister.
The exact same principle was seen in the coalition of 2010. It’s easily forgotten that Gordon Brown had the opportunity to stay in power heading a Lib-Lab coalition. On paper it should have been a no-brainer – while the Parliamentary arithmetic would have been tricky, the Liberal Dems were guaranteed a change to the electoral system, and probably would have been more ideologically comfortable with Labour. One of the main reasons that they ultimately went with the Conservatives was down to attitude – the Tories were willing to treat the Lib Dems as coalition partners, whereas Labour led with a series of demands and expectations. A government was formed by the party prepared to build a broad base.
What lessons does that give us for today? For one, we should take caution to presume that multi-party coalitions are necessarily a ‘broader base.’ I became convinced that the Tories would win after David Cameron’s party conference speech in 2014. The Prime Minister made a pitch to the whole nation, and continued to do so. The ‘Anti-Austerity Coalition’ (ie. Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens) was only a coalition in the narrow sense – in practice, all of the parties had a very similar platform, appealing to a very narrow section of the electorate. Part of the reason the Tories won was that the single party was a broader coalition than the actual coalition of left-leaning parties.
It also spells a warning for both Labour and the Conservatives. Some very interesting research emerged today showing that the Labour Party’s membership is broadly in agreement with the stance of those who identify as Jeremy Corbyn supporters. These supporters are deluding themselves however if they think they can be elected on an ideologically pure programme – not because the programme is unpalatable, but because the programme cannot appeal to a broad enough base of the electorate. Similarly, the Conservatives must remember to come back together after the referendum result. I think the media are premature to assume present divisions will fatally split the party – the Tories have been successful in winning elections historically by their capacity to come together and present a broad coalition for government. If they forget that and allow public disputes to arise, they may be in for an unpleasant shock.
It also serves as a warning for advocates of electoral change. Aside of arguments of fairness, the biggest argument made by those who favour a more proportional system of voting is that it is perceived to produce a more consensual style of politics. The rationale runs that as it is unlikely that one party will win a clear majority, parties must necessarily learn to work together in a coalition, producing more nuanced and compromised decisions than would be the case under a majority government. I think it is entirely fair to observe that it is not a case of a coalition system against a non-coalition system. Every political environment requires successful coalition building, and it is not necessarily a given that formalising this improves the quality of decision taking.
Finally, it should hopefully encourage us (and I include myself in this) to take a nuanced view of political parties. In recognising that the only non-coalition party has only one member, we recognise that when we say ‘Conservative’ or ‘Labour’ we are actually referring to a broad spectrum within those labels of political views, passions, and perspectives. It hopefully encourages us to be generous towards our political opponents, and to build our own coalitions to achieve succes.
In the last two weeks Westminster and Holyrood have voted to go in two separate elections – the national Parliament voting against an SNP amendment to allow voters aged 16 and over to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, and the Scottish Parliament voting to extend the franchise in all Scottish elections (ie. Scottish Parliament and Scottish local councils) to all aged 16 and over.
With the focus of electoral reformers largely focused on attempting to get rid of First-Past-the-Post, it is easy to overlook that the likes of the Electoral Reform Society have also been campaigning to lower the voting age to 16. The franchise has not been extended in such a manner since 1969, when the threshold was lowered from 21 to 18, and pro-reform campaigners largely focus on three main arguments:
- Young people are increasingly impacted by government decisions, therefore ought to have a say in their government.
- Young people are less likely to turn out to vote than older generations; introducing the vote while at school may encourage them to learn the habit of voting.
- The age of adulthood is rapidly being reduced – by 16 you can be married (or living as married), employed, living independently of your parents, and a parent.
On the face of it, it would appear an open and shut case to extend the franchise to those aged 16 and over. I however would like to approach from a slightly different angle, and ask the basic underlying question: “What entitles someone to the right to vote?”
Last week also saw the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and it served to remind us that the vote was not an automatic birthright. Parliament in the first instance was the reluctant recognition by the monarch that if he wanted to tax men of property to pay for his wars, then the men of property expected to be consulted on how the nation was run. The franchise was therefore established primarily on the basis of property, not birthright, and over time this clause was progressively weakened until the point it was eliminated entirely. The decision that all men were entitled to the vote paved the way for women to have the vote, and in time to remove the entitlement of special voting privileges – such as the so-called ‘university seats’ (voted for by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge). In summary therefore, the question of entitlement to vote has effectively moved from who is entitled to vote, to who is not entitled to vote – which aside of certain specific restrictions is determined solely by whether one is old enough.
I think we can agree that the vote is not something you are immediately entitled to from the moment of your birth, and that there is a transitionary point at which one is deemed responsible enough to be entrusted with the vote.This is very well expressed in this excellent article by Julia Hartley-Brewer in the Telegraph. She points out that her eight-year-old daughter is more politically savvy than the average grown-up, but it is somewhat absurd to suggest she is entitled to vote!It is worth briefly asking if there were criteria other than age by which one could judge a person mature enough to vote.
While the neatest solution would be some sort of objective test by which a person proves they have sufficient command and understanding of the responsibility of voting that they can be entrusted with it, I could never support that. It would be ridiculously easy to set the bar too low or too high, or to introduce criteria into the test that have no right to be there, even if intended with the best intentions. We therefore use age as the determining factor for the same reason that there are age restrictions for other activities – while an imperfect measure, it is a means of ensuring that the person involved is mature enough to responsibly engage in the activity.
And that seems to be the greatest weakness in the argument for electoral reform – there is an arbitrary call to reduce the voting age without asking why a person should be entitled to or excluded from the electorate. The debate on the voting age is not as narrow as a debate on the electoral franchise. It is a debate about a bigger and much more significant issue – the age at which we ask our young people to accept the full responsibility that comes from being a mature adult. And the huge flaw in the call to reduce the voting age, is that it is not accompanied by calls to confer other adult ‘rights’ usually granted at 18. There is a good reason for that – under 18s are still children.
This statement is intended to be provocative, and every one of us can think of teenagers who are uncommonly mature for their age – but that’s rather the point. We are struck by a mature teenager (or even younger child) precisely because it is so unusual to see such maturity. I don’t think it does any of us any harm to swallow our pride and remember what we were like, even in our late teens. This is most obviously seen at universities – in between fresh-faced first years and a student’s final year a lot of maturing happens – surprising though it may seem, there really is a lifetime between those three or four years.
Don’t get me wrong – conferring responsibility is an important part of the process by which a child matures. The most beautiful description I have ever heard of parenting is “it is the act of progressively letting your child go.” It recognises that there is an equal risk of harm in giving your child too much freedom too soon, or not enough freedom quickly enough – but that the ultimate aim is for the child to become independent and able to successfully support themselves. On the face of it, this might sound like a good argument to let children vote earlier and learn the responsibility of their vote – why not have votes for even younger than 16? I would present two arguments however, as to why the franchise is best left at 18.
The first recognises that children are especially vulnerable to coercion, whether from parents or from peers. The problem here is not with children who have strong political convictions, who are protected by the secrecy of the ballot. The issue is for children who either have not yet developed the self-esteem to defend their choice, or those who have less interest in politics and are cajoled into voting a particular way. While this also applies to some over 18s too, they are less likely to be influenced as they are more likely to be living independently of their parents, nor are they in a hotbed environment like schools, where school elections demonstrate it is often popularity and forcefulness of character that carry the day, rather than issues. You only need to look at the example of the ‘Cybernats’ to imagine a scenario where schoolchildren are bullied into voting a certain way just to fit in. Regardless of the age you believe a person should be entitled to vote, I think it can be agreed that the action of voting should be an action to promote the maturity and independent decision-making of the voter. Giving the vote to children not yet ready to take that responsibility is not encouraging this – and arguably gives them a negative impression of the democratic process.
The second reason also pre-empts a reaction to the first point. “Of course you wouldn’t let young children vote,” you might say, “But 16 year olds are surely mature enough to take these decisions?” I therefore refer you back to the terms in which I have framed this debate – I think we can accept the point that voting should mark a transition to adult life with adult responsibilities. But the decision to lower the voting age is not consistent with lowering the age at which one can buy alcohol, or drive a car, or leave full-time education. Voting is a responsibility that ought to be tied to a transition to adulthood; and we should not be encouraging our young people to grow up too quickly.
Unlike the debate on changing our electoral system, I have very little patience for the appeals to give votes to 16 year olds. The reasoning for change has not been grounded in any kind of rigorous logic, nor does it merit the narrative of reform or justice that advocates for change have been using. It is my view that the age at which one is entitled to vote should be tied the age at which one is deemed ready for adult responsibilities – and that at this present moment there is no convincing argument that the age of adulthood should be lowered to 16.