Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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We the People, Ewe the Sheeple
I suppose people have always insulted their political opponents: "Tory scum" is hardly a new coinage. But it's only recently (in this country, at least) that people seem to have started suggesting that their political opponents are so irresponsible/evil/stupid that they should not be allowed to vote, or that their votes should be ignored.

I won't say it began with Brexit, but it's been very noticeable in its wake. The narrative that those who voted Leave should be overruled because they were a) too racist, b) too stupid, c) have probably changed their minds by now, etc., kicked in pretty much immediately after the vote. Even if all these things were true, though, it doesn't change the result: in a democracy, even stupid people get a say. If you don't like it, then why not just come out and say honestly that you would rather have a different kind of political system - a government of technocrats, for example, like Mario Monti's or Xi Jinping's? A case could be made, I'm sure. What you don't get to do is call the result democratic. Yet, in a wonderful but it seems unconscious irony, one of the movements to overturn the referendum result and take the power to decide on Brexit away from the voters has named itself "the People's Challenge". That kind of double-think is not untypical of political discourse in the UK today.

The result of the last Labour leadership election (and probably the next) is another case in point. The determination of many people not to see Corbyn's victory as legitimate, except in the trifling and legalistic sense that he got more votes than anyone else, is bolstered by a move to delegitimize the views of those who voted (or intend to vote) for him. Here I don't refer to the literal disenfranchisement of 130,000 Labour members by the NEC, though that's not irrelevant, but to the dismissive way in which those who support Corbyn's position are routinely described: they are members of a cult, they are bewitched, they are too young to understand the issues, they have had their arms twisted by Trots, they are Trots, they are "Nazi stormtroopers", or simply (as Financial Times journalist Janan Ganesh has it) "as thick as pigshit". Otherwise, they wouldn't be voting for a "lunatic",* would they? Given that, their views and votes can be safely ignored, and we can start undermining the result the day after it's announced, secure in the knowledge that we are defending democracy, war is peace, freedom is slavery, etc.

* Copyright Owen Smith.

Interesting post. I had this conversation a few hours ago "The Brits have caught the Irish disease" (compare Brexit Mark 2 with Lisbon treaty when "we got it wrong").
Now to another point - Corbyn. I voted for him last night. I feel that the M.P's (90% Blairite) do not want what 90% of the Labour membership want!
Finally, insults. The Emir was attacked on Twitter for contacting the far right.Not to support but to exchange ideas.

I was remembering the Irish and Lisbon, too. Nor was theirs a unique case.

The problem with democracy is that it's a snapshot of a particular point in time. If you re-ran the EU Referendum today, you'd get a different result. The question then is, should you be making major decisions that effect the future of a whole country for decades to come based on people's mood on one particular day, especially as that mood was based on misinformed opinion? There is no question that the Leave campaign lied and neither had they any plan of what a UK outside Europe would look like.

Regarding Corbyn, my view is that he had a chance to prove himself a leader and he's failed. If he was true leadership material and an astute politician, he'd have managed to unite the Labour party so they could prove an effective opposition to the Tories. That was his only task and he has failed. Yes, you may say he's only had 12 months, but football managers are usually allowed far less time and some of them can turn a team round in one season. We desperately need someone who can do that and despite the loyalty of his fans, Corbyn is not that person.

As mentioned in the post, you can certainly make a case against a democratic system, and indeed you just have. Any election is a snapshot of a point in time, after all, and I can't remember one in which politicians didn't lie, so your criticisms are by no means specific to the EU referendum. Feel free to advocate an undemocratic alternative: all I ask is that you acknowledge it as such.

I'm not going to get into the rights and wrongs of either Brexit or Corbyn's leadership here, as that's not what the post is about. Simply on a point of fact, however, he was allowed 10 months rather than a year before the coup was triggered.

Edited at 2016-08-24 11:41 am (UTC)

Personally I'm with Churchill when he said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

We normally operate by the system of representative democracy. That is we elect our MPs who then devote themselves to running the country. To help them do this they have the Civil Service, who know what's possible and who, by means of Permanent Undersecretaries, advise the government.

This system generally works and means that I can concentrate on running my own life without having to know everything about economics and international politics. Things only went pear-shaped because we switched from this tried and tested method to having a direct referendum where people (and I include myself here) were voting based on limited knowledge.

With regard to the Labour Party, as I understand it, something similar has happened. In the past the electorate elected the MPs and only a limited number of people then voted on who was leader. Throwing the leadership vote open to all party members has resulted in the complete collapse of the Labour Party. So basically, democracy is good up to a point, but it seems you can have too much of it.

But the referendum was the creation of the system you approve, being brought into being by those very elected representatives in the European Referendum Act 2015. In that sense it wasn't a switch from the representative system, but a decision devolved from it, after an election won in no small measure on the promise of such a move.

Do you also disapprove of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, as a matter of interest, or is your distaste more selective?

Ironically, the change in the Labour party rules was loudly applauded by the right of the party, who saw it as a way to take power from the unions. I would suggest that the "collapse of the Labour party" (if such it be) was precipitated not by the rule change but by the refusal of some in the party to accept the consequences of their own decisions. To that extent I would suggest that more democracy, rather than less, would be helpful in this case.

I wouldn't use the word "distaste" to describe my feelings about referendums. I just think they are problematical.

I'm not at all sure that democracy and referendums have anything to do with each other. I regard holding a referendum as an abdication of responsibility on the part of a government. I hire them, damn it, to make decisions on subjects of which I don't know enough to come to an informed conclusion. I no more expect them to delegate that duty to me and to even worse informed people than I expect to hire a builder and then find myself and my equally hamfisted neighbours carrying hods.

Well, I tend to agree that referenda should be used sparingly for the reasons you give, but I don't think one can easily argue that they're undemocratic! And there are some decisions where it's hard to see how else they could be made - Scottish independence, for example..As far as I can see, the only other way that independence is ever won is through violence, and a referendum is definitely preferable to that.

I don't know how it works in association football, but in American football, team owners who fire coaches who haven't turned the team around in one year are impulsive, impatient, and unwise. Either that or they made the wrong hiring choice in the first place. Bill Walsh took over a wretched 49ers in 1978, and his first year got the same terrible record as the team had the previous year. Only some of the more detailed statistics suggested there had been an improvement. By the third year, they were hoping that maybe this time they'd actually get a winning record. Instead, they won the Super Bowl. So patience can be a virtue.

As for whether Corbyn was a bad choice of leader in the first place, remember that his two (three, if you take the long term) predecessors turned out pretty lousy too. Since the only other options were all Blairite of some kind, you can hardly blame the voters for having picked the only other choice on offer.

One point of order:

The concept "...that their political opponents are so irresponsible/evil/stupid that they should not be allowed to vote..." was decidedly the position of elitists in the UK before 1776, refusal to address this was a major cause of the Revolution, and as far as I can tell things have improved in that it is no longer enforced.

Leave out "evil" and the specificity of political opponents, and the concept that "hoi polloi are too irresponsible/stupid to vote" was a central argument of opponents of the Reform Act of 1832. And indeed, everything they warned of has come to pass. It's just that we decided that was the price we would pay for democracy.

I really appreciate it when you put into words what I am feeling.

I`m delighted if I`ve managed to do that.

An interesting trend, I'd kind of noticed it, but this is a valuable elucidation of the issue.

This is one of the reasons why, despite being instinctively a Smith voter, I vehemently oppose him. People assume that because it's just the Labour Party, that this attitude that you can hedge-out / just ignore voters because they don't think the right thing won't spread.

As you point out it's becoming ever more popular to dismiss voters because they're considered stupid or mad, and this could easily lead to Westminster policies which favour largely ignoring them. This attitude is very bad for democracy indeed.

Thanks for the post!

I'm reassured/depressed to find that it's not just me seeing this!

I take your general point, without knowing enough of UK politics to say I agree. I certainly don't think that not getting the desired result at any one point is a good reason to change a whole system of government/party management.
But as I understand it Corbyn was elected leader a couple of years ago - that doesn't necessarily make him leader until the next election, does it?* So why shouldn't he be challenged now?

*Or does it? For all I know it does, under UK Labour Party rules.

He was elected less than a year ago, with a huge mandate from all sections of the membership. The full-scale coup was launched some ten months into his leadership, but throughout that time he was continually undermined by MPs from his own party discontent with the result.

There's no rule saying that he must be allowed to continue until the next election, but in fact (at any rate since WWII) no Labour leader has been challenged without being allowed to contest at least one election.

Yes, that certainly puts the challenge in a different light - thanks for such a useful link. I've now read up on the new (Miliband-introduced) leadership election system - that's very, very interesting, and not a little depressing as well.

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