Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Like to Teach the World to Vote?

Give people a vote,
The illusion of having secured democracy may last a day or two.
Teach people how to vote,
And they can mobilise as citizens for the rest of their lives.

What we all too often hear in Britain, America and elsewhere is that there is no point in using the vote. The vote, allegedly, won’t change anything because the people standing for public office are all as bad as each other – which anyone who has worked with politicians would know is not true; and their proposals are basically the same – which is patently false when the policy differences can be measured in the vast number of people given or deprived of vital assistance.

The main reason why so many people feel that having a vote is irrelevant is because it is presented to them like a mystery gift, with no explanation of how to make use of it. They hear one set of politicians saying they should vote for them, and another lot arguing to the contrary. One side attacking those in government, and the other denouncing their critics. As words and figures clash, confusion is spread, and many end up either voting for the party saying the things they like to hear, or they don’t bother voting at all.

Without informed guidance on how to interpret politicians’ claims, voters are effectively disempowered. Imagine what would happen to the jury system if the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense can say whatever they like with no judge to rule out irrelevant diversions or strike out baseless assertions. Or how patients may cope with presentations from two rival doctors competing to treat them (and obtain their fees) without any body untied to profit-making to arbitrate on claims of miracle cures or groundless warnings.

Politicians will no doubt be concerned with anyone providing guidance on how to make sense of their arguments, and will understandably try to dismiss any advice contrary to their own position as unfairly partisan. But there already exist many research institutions, whose independence can be validated by the absence of funding from party or profiteering sources, which are capable of assessing the implications of policy proposals and the consequences of their implementation.

Educators should not be afraid or hesitant in teaching others how to navigate the claims of politicians, look behind the rhetoric, check the veracity of conflicting assertions, and ascertain the consequences for them and society more widely with one party rather than another in power. Furthermore, they should help citizens learn about the impact of their vote under different systems so as to maximise it for existing electoral arrangements and enhance it through future reforms.

And to provide an impartial framework for ensuring activities relating to electoral discussions and voting practices do not breach democratic propriety, we can build on the work of well established institutions such as (in the UK) the Electoral Commission; and (in the US) the Federal Election Commission.

So teachers in schools and tutors of lifelong learning, if you have acquired a critical understanding of how politics works, don’t keep it to yourselves, share it with your students – the future of democracy depends on it.