A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Tag: democracy

Democracy is for losers

After 90 minutes, it is still 0-0 between France and Portugal and one thing is becoming very clear – England are almost certainly not going to win. Of course, England left the Euros a couple of weeks ago, just days after the UK voted to leave the EU. But England football fans believe they can win every tournament, and must have been hoping for some technicality or rule that meant they did not have to leave after all.

It’s especially odd, though, given that expectations were so low for the national team this time round. For once, nobody really expected England to win. It seemed they were being given room to develop, to build a team perhaps with the 2018 World Cup in mind instead. But then some idiot at the FA came out and said only the semi-finals would be a good result for them. Maybe he was trying to motivate the manager and his team by saying that halfway through a competition that they’d come in to with such low expectations, but we all saw the impact that attitude had – the team froze (against Iceland, fittingly), the manager resigned and the FA was left scrabbling around for someone who could parachute into the set-up and deliver a tournament win in 2018 instead. For a country that has only won one cup in so many decades of trying, it seems bizarre that – for all the protestations of low expectations this year – we do so expect to win every single time.

In British politics, the cycle is five years rather than two, but the expectations seem to be the same for our two main parties. Both believe they could – should – win every election, even when expectations are low. This seems clearest with the Labour party at the moment. Having lost in 2010 and seen five years of an austere coalition government, they seemed to believe they had a right to win in 2015. Having lost again, they fully expect to win in 2020 – except for one factor bringing their expectations down closer to those of England winning the Euros tonight, which is their leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The accepted strategy for winning an election in Britain these days appears to be just to avoid losing. Nobody likes politicians, so anything negative will be seized on and used by your opponents to discredit you. With Labour, it’s the economy – they really couldn’t do worse than the Conservatives, and yet voters are so easily convinced that Labour would fritter away all the nation’s cash. With the Tories, well their weak point is the way they blame the poor and disadvantaged for all of society’s ills, but Labour hasn’t managed to exploit that weakness recently, perhaps because it makes them sound as though they would fritter away all the nation’s cash on those people (always ‘other’ people, because voters don’t tend to think of themselves as poor or disadvantaged) instead.

I believed Corbyn when he was elected leader of the Labour party on a platform of basically wanting to change the nature of politics in Britain. I think he would still like to do that but I fear it is beyond his capabilities, faced as he is in the middle of a battle between competing claims of democracy within his party. On the one hand, he was elected democratically by the members of the Labour party; on the other, most of  Labour’s MPs having decided early on that Corbyn was essentially unelectable (I think because his style and politics are seen as so attackable that the Tories would walk all over him), they have now given up any pretence of supporting him. And a party leader whose MPs do not support him is like any other leader without followers – just a lonely politician walking into the sunset by himself.

As a result, the prediction of so many Labour MPs that Corbyn would be unelectable has been made to come true. And the saddest thing is that they have been so quick to abandon any desire to change politics. If any party is to reform politics, surely it is the progressive elements of the left rather than the conservative bulk of the right (it’s in their name, for goodness sake). But no. Most of Labour’s MPs also want the game to stay the same – they feel they know how to play it and how to win, if they only had a leader who could effectively exploit the Tories’ weaknesses and give the electorate a viable way to make the Tories lose; to be slightly less bad than the Conservative party, just less bad enough to attract enough votes. And if that means making promises to avoid scaring the horses and living up to those promises once in power, then that’s the price they – and we – will pay. Because that’s how the system works and if you want to win, that’s how you have to play the game. And if it doesn’t work, sack your leader and scrabble around for someone else.

With Corbyn unable to take his MPs with him on a different course – one of building slowly and reforming the structure of politics in this country – they will depose him and choose someone else. But it’s hard to see how a different leader would achieve a different result for Labour. It’s like choosing a new England manager to take the same players to the next tournament and expecting a win to miraculously follow.


In the footballing analogy, the Brexit referendum was a penalty shootout. Nobody ever wins a penalty shootout – it is a process that requires someone to miss, someone to lose. The winner wins by default.

I was surprised at how quickly the referendum became a political campaign like an election. It was all personalities and parties and campaign slogans and branded buses. But on a single issue, every voter can make up their own mind – it’s not the same degree of compromise that’s involved in choosing a candidate or a party to vote for in an election (so I don’t see how people can really believe that Corbyn coming out more strongly in favour of Remain would have affected the result). It was not about persuading people or changing their minds; it was more about getting the voters out. And they came out. And they voted out. And now we’re all losers.

But here again there are competing claims of democracy. At  one level, what is more democratic than the country voting on a simple choice between two courses of action? The majority wins, of course, every time.

There is another manifestation of democracy, however, which is not about winning majorities, but acknowledging, supporting, even protecting, minorities. Human rights, freedom of movement, tolerance and compassion – simple, decent humanity.

It was 2005 when I realised this other idea of democracy existed – I was studying for a Masters degree, and a far-right demagogue was doing well in Austrian politics. One of my professors started a discussion with us about what should happen if they won power in Austria. My opinion was that if you believe in democracy, you have to accept the will of the people, even if you hate what they’ve voted for, even if they’ve voted away their democratic rights. The liberal academic’s view was that democracy exists not so much in votes but in the much broader set of rights given to people to live their lives the way they want to, and that a far-right government would undermine that and undermine democracy, so something radical had to be done to prevent this outcome, even if it was the popular choice.

So while going against the popular vote from the referendum would be, by definition, undemocratic, I think it might also be the most democratic thing we could do. Because democracy is for the losers as much as – if not more than – the winners.


(Congratulations to Portugal, by the way, who won the Euros after extra time, but also to France, who lost.)


Power and politics

(Image by Pete on Flickr)

(Image by Pete on Flickr)

Less than a week to the UK General Election. I haven’t been thinking about it a great deal* – I know who I’m going to vote for in my constituency, and I believe in letting the votes be cast before futilely arguing over who should make a deal with whom to form the next government…

What has interested me is the perennial (or quinquennial) focus on voter apathy and the way politicians and celebrities (and people who are neither) exhort anyone who will listen to vote, to make a difference, to have their say. But voting in a General Election is not a powerful act. When I go to put an X on the ballot paper, it is not with a feeling of political influence coursing through my fingers and that stubby little pencil, it is more with a feeling like the one you get when you look at the picture made famous by Carl Sagan – the pale blue dot that is Earth, suspended in a sunbeam somewhere in the universe. It’s famously humbling, but also rather thrilling, in a way, to be so insignificant!

There are 64 million people in the UK, some 45 million or so of whom are eligible to vote (though far from all do, of course). My constituency alone has an electorate of some 75,000. One vote does not – should not – make “a difference” to the outcome. Those who decide not to vote because theirs will not be decisive in determining the outcome ask too much. It is, after all, the tallies of all our votes, the collective counts, not the individual Xs, that are the expression of democracy in an election.

Politics is not easy

Democracy is built on compromise. Whether it is holding your nose to vote at all, or choosing a candidate despite their party, or vice versa, or – for those who are elected – to give ground to your allies or opponents in order to make gains elsewhere. So for me, voting, and the majorities and minorities that it inevitably defines, isn’t really about influence or power, not at the level of the individual, anyway. Holding a vote lets you know (in theory, in a world without tactical voting, which I dislike**) how many people you have yet to persuade before you do get the right to exercise some democratic power (if only our politicians were more interested in persuading voters than pandering to them, though***).

Those who complain that voting is pointless and powerless have missed this point: it is not voting that gives power to the people, but rather it is opportunities to participate. If you don’t like the options on your ballot paper, and cannot bring yourself to compromise, it is both possible and incumbent on you in this democracy to create an alternative that you can stomach. Find others who agree with your politics, or persuade others that you are right. Persuade more people to join you, and you have a chance to find a candidate that you can vote for. It might even be you. If you can’t persuade people you are right, maybe you’re not.

Why vote?

Voting is a vital part of democracy, but not because it is de facto an act of democratic power. Voting can help you to know your own mind and to find out how many people agree with you (if everyone voted ‘honestly’). That’s important, but the implication is that to actually wield real democratic power, you must do more than cast a vote each time you are asked: you have to be active, engage with other voters, listen and argue with them, and perhaps compromise a little.

My vote is not going to change the world on its own. Nor should it. I still think everyone who is eligible should vote because it lets the rest of us know where we all stand. But if we want to exercise democratic power, we have to stop bleating about the pointlessness of voting and make an effort far greater than it takes to get to the polling station and write an X on a piece of paper.

So I would say vote precisely because it won’t alter the outcome, because it is ‘merely’ the reckoning. And if you actually crave the power to change this democracy, you will have to work for it and find it beyond the polling booth.

* Unlike Simon Kane and Tassos Stevens, for example, who have been thinking about the election most excellently, thank you very much…

** Of course, this is the problem, which is that the system has become a game and our politicians know how to play it and, if not how to win it, then at least how to stop other people from winning. Maybe we should change the system – but to one that doesn’t inherently advantage political machines (aka “parties”), please…

*** Naturally, this implies that I should try to persuade politicians to persuade me, but I’m not after power, and I’m not sure I’m right about any of this anyway…

Yes, I am voting No….

The Economist would vote No were it enfranchised on 5 May. I am inclined to vote the same way, albeit for rather different reasons. The Economist says it is in favour of an element of proportional representation (PR) within our elected systems, with the remainder being the mis-named first past the post (FPTP). I don’t like PR. I think it accepts and enforces the de facto status quo and doesn’t address the real underlying problems with our electoral system. So while The Economist rejects the alternative vote (AV) system because it is not like its favoured 20% PR (I don’t understand how this would work), I reject AV because it is irrelevant to the actual problems in our politics and would, I suspect, reduce the likelihood of us ever getting a Parliament that I would be happy with. Read the rest of this entry »