Wednesday, 1 April 2020

3 Steps to Democratic Consensus

If collective action is to reflect the concerns and informed judgement of all those who will be affected by that action, then it has to be grounded on a high degree of democratic consensus. But how feasible is it to obtain democratic consensus when people’s views seem to be becoming more polarised in society?

What needs to be recognised is that polarisation is not inevitable. And agreement cannot be guaranteed either. Any group seeking to reach a common understanding on what they should do, require a systematic approach, which is encapsulated by the following T.O.P. tips:
Togetherness
Objectivity
Power Balance

TOGETHERNESS
Democracy cannot function with one voice dictating to everyone else or each insisting on doing what one wants regardless of the impact on others. The only way for people to feel that they ought to take each other’s concerns and perspectives on board is by cultivating a meaningful sense of togetherness, whereby interdependence is recognised as a fact and appreciated as an asset. In practice, this calls for:
• Promoting a shared mission, so people can see and remember what are the essential objectives they have in common, and why they need each other in meeting them.
• Declaring a commitment to mutual respect, so that rules and procedures are visibly in place to root out discrimination, and no one’s needs will be brushed aside.
• Formulating the terms of coherent membership, so everyone knows the basis of how people become members, what responsibilities and rights are to be expected, and when membership might be refused or suspended in light of specified criteria.

OBJECTIVITY
Lies and innuendos from social media deception as well as mass propaganda have made it extremely difficult to conduct informed discussions about what any group, from a neighbourhood to a country, should do. But remedial actions can be carried out to ensure that distortion is substantially curtailed, and people’s capability to assess the veracity of claims is greatly enhanced. These actions should cover:
• Extending opportunities to learn through cooperative enquiry, so that people are familiarised and skilled in reasoned discourse that progresses by means of exchange of objective evidence and cogent analysis.
• Building in systems for critical review of claims and arrangements, so that both dogmatic assent and arbitrary doubt are displaced by beliefs linked to rigorous scrutiny and appropriate re-evaluation.
• Enforcing rules for responsible communication, so that the spreading of lies and misleading information is prohibited under clear definition and curtailed by adequate sanctions.

POWER BALANCE
There can be no genuine consensus if some are so powerful that they can force or bribe others into backing their demands, or if many are left weak and vulnerable that they cannot speak up for themselves. Power inequalities must be reduced to a level where people are confident and able to exchange ideas and question one another’s assumptions without fear or hesitation. The key elements to be put in place include:
• Facilitating participatory decision-making, so that as much as possible those affected by a potential course of action get the chance to take part in deliberating what form that action is to take.
• Maximising civic parity, so that by means of reduction of income/wealth gaps and strict limitations on corrupt or intimidatory practices, people can influence collective processes on equal terms.
• Strengthening public accountability, so that where power needs to be vested in certain individuals for efficiency or emergency reasons, they can be held to account effectively by others.

In conclusion, while we must never be complacent about how securing the conditions to facilitate democratic action, we should not slide into the opposite extreme of assuming that it reasoned consensus is an impossible goal to reach. Many groups, from the local to the international level, have found that taking the key steps outlined above can be transformative in enabling people to reach a shared position on what should be done for their common wellbeing.
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For a detailed exposition of how democracy should be developed and safeguarded, see Time to Save Democracy: https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy

Sunday, 15 March 2020

The Case for Regulation is Going Viral

For decades we’ve been bombarded by anti-government propaganda. Leave things to the Free Market, to the Big Society, to generous philanthropists, to brilliant entrepreneurs – and tell government to back off, and we’ll end up with the best of all possible worlds.

This mantra knocks every regulatory measure as unnecessary ‘red tape’, every rule as an infringement against our liberty, every policy initiative as a drain on resources that should have been left in individuals’ own pockets.

But the reality is that without a democratically responsive government to deal with the many problems that would otherwise be left to fester, we would all end up significantly worse off. While this is obvious to a lot of people, it is sad – and at times tragic – that there are many who are disposed to ignore it until something terrible happens.

Health and safety requirements are dismissed as irksome, until innocent people are killed and then we get the outcry about deficient legal standards. Financial institutions wind people up about the state getting in the way of their business, until they mess up and insist the government must step in to help them. Environmental protection is resented as costly and unnecessary, until repeated flooding destroys homes and residents call for urgent action. Privatisation is lauded as the way forward, until the gross inadequacy of profit-based care provision leaves families in despair and people demand government to come up with an alternative.

Now the rapid spread of Covid-19 around the world is leaving us with no doubt. Just leaving individuals and businesses to act on their own with no coordination or supportive intervention would be disastrous. We need government to pool resources when few individuals can spend their own way out of a global pandemic. We need regulation to prevent a dangerous problem from worsening. We need collective planning and action to find the means to tackle a major threat. We need an established authority to bring the evidence and expertise together and apply them to devising suitable solutions.

Anti-government ideologues and laissez faire opportunists will no doubt continue to make out that the world is better off with government powers shrunk to just the level sufficient to help the rich or defend certain fundamentalist sects, but no more. Yet the case against them is inescapable. Everyone across the world can see, we cannot leave what happens all around us to irresponsible individuals who care more about the hotels and gold courses they own than the fate of their fellow citizens. We need government institutions that engage in the democratic concerns of the public, and we need political leaders who prioritise citizens’ wellbeing above all else. If we haven’t got them, we must make urgent changes.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Five-A-Side Model for Electing National Leaders

Bitter in-fighting, draining of time and resources, and airing of ‘flaws’ and ‘weaknesses’ that ultimately only help their real opponents – these are what the Democrats in the US and the Labour Party in the UK have been undergoing as they try to select someone to challenge for their respective country’s top political position.

A common problem with both the US presidential primaries and the UK party leadership election is that they in effect eliminate any meaningful choice for voters in the election that really matters down the line (the ones that decide who will take over at the White House or 10 Downing Street). Worse still, the process of elimination is unreliable, and often counter-productive.

Absurdly, people who dislike the Democrats or the Labour Party can get involved and vote for a candidate they believe would be easier for their preferred party to defeat when the main national election comes. The candidates themselves are put in a position where they have to find high profile ways to appeal to sections of activists to maximise votes at this stage, and thus fuel polarisation within their own party. And a small minority in the country end up ruling out all candidates bar one to face the electorate when the big choice has to be made (in the US, figures for participation in presidential primaries range from 20% to 30%, while in the UK it is an even smaller percentage since party leadership is determined by the party’s members and the Labour Party’s members, for example, amount to only about 1% of the UK’s overall electorate).

Can it be done any other way? Yes, and here’s the ‘5-a-side’ model I would put forward.

Political parties can choose their own chair, leader, secretary-general, etc in their own way. However, when a presidential or general election is coming, the party must ask their members for two things: [1] any of them wishing to be a candidate to indicate their interest and reasons why they should be considered; and [2] all of them to register the candidate they would like to nominate for the main national contest. The 5 candidates with the most nominations in any party would become the representatives from that party.

In the presidential and general elections, voters will be asked to cast their vote for one of the approved candidates from the party they favour. All the votes cast for the candidates of any given party will be totalled up as the votes for that party. The party with the highest number of votes will be declared the winning party, and whoever out of the five candidates from the winning party has the most votes against their name would be the one elected to take the highest office.

In such a contest, instead of attacking others in their party for an excessively long period of time, the five candidates on each team may devote some time to showing why they offer more than their colleagues, but they will concentrate on showing up the deficiencies of the party they all oppose. Voters would not need to worry about having to choose between the party they support and that party’s sole representative whom they do not want to back. Instead of the prolonged, unhelpful, intra-party discord we have been witnessing, we will have a straightforward 5-a-side contest, giving voters real choice of who they want to lead their country.

And instead of arguing viciously and speculatively about who would be most electable, each party can put forward its top 5 candidates and see who might actually get elected.

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Note: some questions that may arise:

Question 1:
Would this displace the electoral college system in the US?

If the US wants to continue to give the citizens of its less populous states a boost to match the voting power of citizens in the more populous states, it can make the process more transparent by allocating a higher weighting to the votes from smaller states. That would show how the vote from a citizen in a smaller state in effect counts more than the vote from a citizen in a larger state – which is what the electoral college system in a more obscure way delivers currently.

Question 2:
Is it not possible that the top candidate of the party with the most votes could end up having fewer votes than the top candidate of the party that has lost out overall?

With the prevailing electoral systems in the US and the UK, it is already possible for the person who ends up as President or Prime Minister to have won fewer votes from citizens compared with their opponent (in the US because of the electoral college system, in the UK because the leader of a party can win a bigger personal majority than everyone else but still not get to be Prime Minister because their party has fewer seats overall). With the proposed system, the country gets both (a) the party with the highest support from the people, and (b) the candidate within that party who has the highest support to take charge.

Question 3:
In the UK, the leader of the party is the one who has by convention been the one contesting to be Prime Minister. Would the 5-a-side proposal not sever that link?

The link made sense when the leader of a party was chosen by the majority of the party’s MPs, and the Prime Minister was whoever could command the majority support from MPs in the House of Commons. But all political parties have already stopped their MPs from determining who their leader is, and handed that decision to party members. And it is now possible, for example, with the Labour Party choosing a leader (Jeremy Corbyn) who was neither chosen by his fellow MPs nor able to command their confidence of his ministerial team. The proposed approach would mean that while the leader of a party can be one of the 5 candidates for that party to be considered by the country to be Prime Minister, voters would have a chance to choose someone else from that party. Furthermore, unlike the current system, there is no room for spoiling tactics to back someone who may be more easily defeated by one’s favoured party, because on the crucial ballot, the vote must be cast for one party.

Question 4:
Why turn the UK system into a quasi-presidential system? And what if the party with the most MPs fails to win the contest to decide who should be Prime Minister?

The UK system has become increasingly a de facto presidential system. But instead of ensuring the person who is to become Prime Minister has to undergo a transparent and accountable process, the case of Boris Johnson taking over from Theresa May as Prime Minister has illustrated how the present system would allow someone to be picked by 0.43% of the electorate (who were Conservative Party members), and give him the country’s highest office when he did not command a majority in the House of Commons. As for the scenario of a party securing most MPs and yet failing to win the Prime Ministerial contest, the candidate chosen by the people to be Prime Minister should be offered the first option to form a coalition government – since the people’s wishes are for the legislature and the executive to be under the direct control of different parties, but that the two sides should work together. If that does not prove possible, the next option could be to invite the candidate with the next highest number of votes from any party to negotiate on the formation of a government.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

The Toxic Spread of Authoritarian Intimidation

Authoritarian regimes want to dictate to people what they should fear and what they are to ignore. They do not care about evidence, just what is likely to suit their own ambitions to retain power. And they will use every means at their disposal to intimidate people to go along with their version of events. The tragic death of Dr. Li Wenliang in China from the new coronavirus is a vivid illustration of such intimidation.

Dr. Li was one of the first to suspect the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus and warned of the need to prepare for it. But this was deemed a threat to maintaining submissive compliance, and the police arrested him and forced him to sign a confession that he had spread false rumours about a dangerous virus. In the absence of concerted efforts to contain the virus, the disease spread and claimed Dr. Li as one of its many victims. Before long, we have a global crisis.

Like the harmful coronavirus, authoritarian intimidation has spread across the world, and unless action is taken against it, it will ruin an ever-greater number of lives.

While environmental awareness rose steadily through the 1990s into the dawn of the 21st century, authoritarian politicians have more recently become emboldened in denying the impact of activities that damage the environment, and promoting the silencing of those who dare to speak out. Between 2002 and 2017, the number of environmental activists murdered had doubled to 1,558 people (in 50 different countries). Nearly all of them took place where the ruling regimes were assessed by international standards to be amongst the worst performers in terms of corruption, human rights violation, and lack of legal oversight (many were to be found in Central and South America). Conviction rates of those charged with committing these murders were just 10% (compared with an average of 43% for all global homicides). [Note 1]

Intimidation against critics and whistleblowers is becoming the norm, not just in China, Russia, and the many other authoritarian regimes around the world, but even in countries purporting to support democracy and the rule of law.

In the UK, the majority of the media backs the Right, and collaboration has meant that journalists who do not give the government favourable coverage are denied access to ‘special’ meetings; while those who are ‘on side’ can be counted on to deter critics of the ruling regime from coming forward by threatening to dig up or fabricate negative stories about them. As for independent bodies that might hold the government to account, Conservatives have made it quite clear that they have no qualms about curtailing the resources and power of the likes of the BBC, the Equality & Human Rights Commission, or the courts when it comes to carrying out judicial reviews.

In the US, Trump and his die-hard Republican supporters in Congress have made authoritarian intimidation a routine practice. With control over the Senate and through it, a guaranteed majority voice on the Supreme Court, the Trump administration can break rules at will. Any official prepared to speak up about the regime’s wrongdoing is summarily dismissed, and systemically smeared by the well-financed propaganda machine. By contrast, people with no relevant qualification whatsoever, but unwavering loyalty to the leader in the White House, are given powerful positions to help silence dissent.

Many people in the US and the UK may still shrug at the intimidatory actions of those with power. But if the intensification of authoritarian controls is not widely opposed and reversed, the oldest democracies may soon become the newest members of the club of autocratic nations.

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Note 1: See The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/05/environmental-activist-murders-double

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Brexit Blues

Stop all the clocks, turn off your mobile phone,
Don’t let the damn thing ring out with a cheery tone,
Silence the TVs and with muffled drum
Bring out the ashes, let the mourners come.

What have we now but crumbs of bread;
All around us the same message, 'Hope is Dead'.
Hatred and fear have triumphed over precious love,
Lunacy and chaos working hand in glove.

What now our North, our South, our East and West?
Our working week and our Sunday rest?
Our noon, our midnight, our police, our NHS?
No respite is coming, just endless stress.

Their lies are upon us now; conning every one,
So shun the Mail and discard the Sun,
A sad fate awaits each and every neighbourhood;
& nothing now can ever come to any good.

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Adapted in sorrow from W. H. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

A Smokescreen called ‘Politically Motivated’

Are we not getting tired of politicians shamelessly shielding their repeated wrong-doing by rejecting any criticism of them as ‘politically motivated’? When the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are found to have lied about sexual liaison, making up stories about their opponents, covering up policy failures, or putting their personal interests above their public duties, they and their allies trot out the same old line – this is all politically motivated. And that is supposed to be the end of that.

But let’s pause and think …

[A] Is there anything wrong inherently with being politically motivated – if what that means is that one’s actions are motivated by political objectives? Surely, it’s hardly surprising that politicians are often driven by political aims, and though some of these aims may be questionable, others could be quite appropriate or indeed noble in serving the wellbeing of society. Compare the notion of ‘religiously motivated’ – must it be bad if someone criticised an organisation out of a religious motive? It depends on what the criticism is directed at – is it simply because the organisation is being kind and welcoming towards people of all faiths, or because it is worshiping Mammon in its constant celebration of greed?

[B] Even if in a particular case, the political motivation has more to do with causing problem for an opponent than anything else, one still has to look at the facts of the case. If someone has committed serious fraud, or ordered a murder, it does not matter what is motivating the exposé, the crime should be brought to light. Authoritarian-minded political leaders, not unlike crime bosses, will readily accuse others of seeking to tarnish their ‘good’ name, but if the charge in question is correct, then they deserve to be punished. Deflection about motives should never get in the way of holding wrongdoers to account.

[C] Of course, ‘politically motivated’ may be used interchangeably with ‘biased on partisan grounds’. For example, if one is going to take action to hurt the other party when one would not otherwise do anything similar towards one’s own side in similar circumstances. No one is keener on dismissing criticisms as ‘politically motivated’ than the Republican Party in the US. They should know. They channelled energy and resources in their attempt to impeach President Clinton over his lying about his sexual affair. But when Trump has been found to lie about his sexual affairs, cover up his financial dealings from public scrutiny, make money through his public office, side with Russia in dismissing the US’s own national security experts’ analyses, and pressurising a foreign government to help him discredit his potential rival in the 2020 presidential election, the Republicans rally to Trump’s defence by saying the move to impeach him was unfounded simply because it was ‘politically motivated’. In the sense of ‘biased on partisan grounds’, it would be appropriate to dismiss Republican posturing as ‘politically motivated’ and irrelevant.

[D] One final point: there are cases where the charge might be accurate, yet it serves no real public interest other than to harm the reputation of someone, embarrass them, or ruin their career. For example, a politician who has a long track record of serving the public dutifully is found to have behaved badly when much younger – e.g., committed some acts of vandalism. If it has no real bearing on the person’s character and behaviour now, dredging something that happened thirty odd years ago in an attempt to put the person off from running for a higher office could be rightly dismissed as ‘politically motivated’, but only because in such a case the motive is not one worthy of endorsement, and the censure sought has no public value.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

The Path of Thoughtfulness

When lies, hatred, and anger seem to be shutting down the voices of reason everywhere, it is tempting to surrender to the cult of irrationality. One can slip into thinking there is no scope for distinguishing truth from falsehood anymore. The politicians who perpetrate deception on an unprecedented scale have not been isolated as charlatans, but like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, have managed to create an atmosphere wherein evidence and expertise are readily discarded, and beliefs are secured by those most adept at manipulation.

But all the more we must strive to stay on the path of thoughtfulness, and make important choices with mutual respect and objective understanding. Plutocrats and fundamentalists alike want to stop schools teaching anything other than what they favour – money-making skills, readiness to serve the rich, or unwavering acceptance of groundless doctrines and denunciation of anyone not sharing their ‘faith’. With no sense of irony, they insist that anything else would be indoctrination. Brazenly, they intimidate teachers from inculcating open-mindedness, and condemn anyone daring to counter the real prejudices being advanced in society.

We must not give in to them. Resistance against subjugation, deceit, and atrophy is fuelled by thoughtful exploration of what we, in cooperation with others, should come to believe and pursue. Instead of closing our mind to every option except for what the manipulators and dogmatists want us to accept without question, we need to cultivate three related forms of thoughtfulness in discerning what should be the way forward.

First, everyone should learn to develop empathic thoughtfulness and recognise our mutual responsibility. Our actions can impact on each other, and just as we would not want others to behave thoughtlessly with no regard for the consequences on us, we should be mindful of how our attitudes and actions may affect others. Ideologues and fundamentalists tell their followers to wilfully disregard the feelings of others; they thereby cut themselves off from any reciprocal consideration that would otherwise be extended to them.

Secondly, all should advance in cognitive thoughtfulness and acquire the capability for cooperative enquiry. Over centuries, human beings have come to realise that the only viable alternative to arbitrary beliefs is sustained objective examination with a free flow of evidence and analyses between people. Only when we facilitate hypotheses-making, careful observations, experimentation, and informed revisions, without repression or groundless dismissal, can we at any given time, reach a reasoned consensus on what warrants belief.

Thirdly, we should foster our volitional thoughtfulness and ensure that decisions made on behalf of others should in line with the democratic ethos of citizen participation involve others appropriately. In a moment of rashness or when swayed by misguided confidence, we may give the go-ahead to a policy or a process without having sounded out others who will be affected. We would not want anyone to get away with deciding what is to happen to us regardless of our informed assessment of the options; we should equally be vigilant against allowing ourselves to impose our unilateral decisions on others.

While there are undoubtedly other skills and dispositions that should be taught, they will all need to be underpinned by the capability for thoughtfulness. Educators should not hesitate in prioritising the emotional and intellectual development outlined above. The further we deviate from this path, the closer we are to wandering off to a thoughtless existence.

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For more details, see ‘Political Literacy & Civic Thoughtfulness’.