Thursday, 15 January 2015

Politics: what is it good for?

The politics of Robinson Crusoe, the original rugged individualism, can only get you so far provided you are kept relatively isolated from other people. But when we have pervasive proximity to others in everyday life, rapid transportation to reach diverse areas, and 24/7 media linkages across the world, isolation is not an option.

We have to live with others. The only question is how. The most optimistic amongst us like to dream that if there were no government around, everyone would cooperate in perfect harmony. Their naivety is sadly exposed by the regrettable, but quite undeniable, existence of exploiters who would never miss a chance to take unfair advantage of others. Using force, stealth, or deception, they would feed off the labour of others while accumulating ever more land, wealth and power for themselves.

Nine years before Crusoe’s creator, Daniel Defoe, was born, the dangers of leaving people to do as they pleased without any kind of law and enforcement were vividly dissected by Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book, Leviathan. It would not matter if there were saintly people who would always put the interests of others first, or the majority of people would prefer to live in peace with others, so long as some were inclined to cheat, manipulate or dominate others, everyone would have to submit to endless mistreatment or fight back by whatever means available.

On Hobbes’ analysis, even well-meaning people could through misunderstanding end up mired in violent conflicts (he lived through the English Civil War). But while most of us would grant his conclusion that a government is therefore indispensable to make and enforce laws for the peace and wellbeing of all, few could go along with his prescription for giving the power of government to an absolute ruler.

If not an absolute ruler who can make decisions without challenge from anyone, Hobbes would ask, then who is to be entrusted with such power? The answer is: politics. Not politics in the distorted sense of ‘petty party political point-scoring’, or as a short-hand term for the unsavoury business of some professional politicians. To equate politics with such activities would be like treating medicine as what is practised by quacks and charlatans.

Politics is the art of organising society so that the people can govern themselves through a set of rulers who will look after their common interests by the laws and policies they institute. The progress of politics through the ages has consisted in it evolving more effective means to select and remove those with ruling powers peacefully. A key aspect of this has been to give the public the understanding and authority needed to judge and choose who they can count on most to guard against private encroachment and secure the public good.

Unfortunately it is this aspect of politics that has been most neglected for decades. As we saw in ‘The Voter Vanishes’, for example, in the UK nearly half those eligible to vote either don’t register to vote or don’t turn out to vote. For those who do vote, the majority are routinely disappointed that the parties they back don’t get to govern.

The physical wellbeing of people can only be advanced through a combination of medical training of the experts and health education for everyone. Similarly, the collective wellbeing of our society can only be improved with the help of leadership training for those in government positions, and political education for all citizens.

In partnership with the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association), the Question the Powerful project has developed a series of day schools under the title, ‘Politics: what is it good for?’, to engage people in taking a fresh look at political ideas and practices, and learning about why they should exercise their democratic power as voters. Each day school will explore:
• Political history: how did we get here?
• Political approaches: what options have we got?
• Political action and impact: why we can make a difference?
• Political imagination: which future awaits us?

If you would like to participate in one of these day schools or explore developing similar learning opportunities, you can find out more about the initiative here:

On leadership training for those in government positions, see article: ‘The Everest of Senior Public Service Management’

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Voter Vanishes

Democracy’s proudest achievement was to create the opportunity for everyone to play a part in determining who should rule, without resorting to violence. It is an achievement that many people across the world are still striving to emulate.

Yet ironically, in countries where democracy has in principle been established for centuries, the people who are already eligible to vote in elections have shown much less enthusiasm about the power to secure regime change peacefully.

Take a look, for example, at the British Parliament, which long ago inspired the development of democratically elected executives and legislatures around the globe.
In the four parliamentary elections held in the 1950s, turnouts averaged 80%. In the last three elections (2001, 2005, 2010) the average was 62%.

Some might say that despite the drop, 62% is still not too bad a figure in terms of providing some semblance of democratic legitimacy. But let us unpack the numbers to see what is really going on. Although 62% - of the people registered to vote - actually turned out to vote, many people who were eligible to vote had not even put themselves on the electoral register.

Most estimates put the proportion of people eligible to vote in the UK but not registered to vote at 15%. Taking this into account, it means that in the last three elections, only 52% of the people eligible to vote actually cast a vote, leaving 48% of eligible voters not voting (comprising 15% not registered, and 33% registered but not voting).

And furthermore, although on average the party that has gone on to form the government (or take the lead role in running a coalition government) in the last three elections won 39% of the votes cast, as a proportion of all the people who are eligible to vote that represents merely 20%.

So the UK, with its purported respect for democracy, is routinely governed these days by a political party with the electoral backing of merely 20% of all those eligible to vote. Of the remaining 80%: 15% of them omitted (deliberately or otherwise) to register to vote; 33% registered to vote but decided not to use that vote; and 32% voted for other parties they would prefer to see govern the country.

On the basis of there being around 40 million people in the UK who are eligible to vote, that translates to 8 million people backing the government of the day, and 4 times that number – 32 million people – opting not to give that government their support.

In case anyone thinks this is not a fair way to present the balance of votes cast, we should remember that in 2012 Conservative-led Government in Britain strongly criticised the National Union of Teachers when it went ahead with strike action after just 23% of its members voted in support of the strike. With many of the union members not voting, Conservative politicians attacked it for acting on the basis of a “paltry mandate”.

That is what many governments in modern ‘democracies’ are relying on for their right to govern – a paltry mandate.

If people want to put an end to the policies such governments push through, they should aim to rally enough support from the 80% of eligible voters who don’t back those currently in charge, and elect a different government. Even just getting a third of them on side would suffice, and that would already be a stronger mandate. Of course building a political platform and persuading people to back it would be more difficult than just yelling with no coherent policy alternatives to install. But ultimately, the problem with letting votes disappear into the ether is that it just allows those intent on serving the wealthy elite to retain power.