Polls: Bad for Debate?

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In this general election we seem to be bombarded with polls on an almost daily basis. Whilst it is fascinating stuff for the political wonks to pour over, I wonder if it is skewing the debate in an adverse way that is bad for the democratic process.

It seems to me the polls affect matters in two ways. The first issue is the media treatment of the information. Polling has now become the main story, and instead of a forensic analysis of the relative merits of the manifestos, we instead get bombarded on a minute by minute basis with speculation about coalition building and potential alliances. Now, I am not saying that this is not important, but the matter has become so prominent that the content of the manifestos seems to have been largely forgotten by commentators and interviewers. It also means that the smaller parties, who may eventually hold the balance of power are receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage to the detriment of the main issues.

The second disadvantage is a philosophical one really, and that is that the daily polls seem to be encouraging people to vote tactically in marginal seats. As a result, votes will be cast on the basis of which policies people wish to avoid rather than on the basis of which policies people prefer. Now this seems to be a very negative aspect to me that devalues our democratic right. It may provide some instant satisfaction when a party is kept from power but the cost is that the government that does eventually form may not actually represent what people want and this will increase voter dissatisfaction in the longer term. It seems to me we should cast our vote in a positive way for what we want rather than for what we don’t.

It is interesting that some countries such as France, Italy and Spain ban polls in the run up to elections, and I wonder if we should consider doing the same. The media wouldn’t like it because it gives them daily fodder to talk about, but it might improve the outcome of the result. There would need to be a discussion on when the ban should start but I would have thought 3-4 weeks prior to the election should do it.

When Two Tribes Lose the War

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With only 17 days left until the general election, the polls suggest that the two main parties seem to be roughly tied on 35% with the remainder of voters’ intentions spread across a number of different smaller parties. Historically, Labour and the Conservatives would command a much greater proportion of the vote than this, and both sides must now look back at the past with a degree of nostalgia and wishful thinking. But how is that two party politics has fallen away to such an extent? It is my belief that they only have themselves to blame.

In the past, electoral campaigns were couched in terms of competing political philosophies. Specific policies could be traced back to the main intellectual bedrock, and when voters made their mark they were making a choice as much about the philosophical arguments as they were about specific spending plans or tax cuts. It was classic left versus right, with key questions argued over endlessly about such matters as the role of the state, property ownership, wealth creation and wealth redistribution.

Today this intellectual foundation is missing from the most of the campaigns. Instead we have piecemeal and standalone policies aimed at specific sections of the electorate, and supported by no obvious underlying philosophy. So for example, we have Labour targeting commuters by promising to renationalise the trains, and the Conservatives trying to lure tenants by promising to allow them to buy housing association homes. Neither side couches these policies in terms of the role of the state or the benefits of property ownership. They are purely for the benefit, of a particular section of the electorate, and without the ideological discussion of why these policies benefit the wider country, they are of little interest to the rest of the electorate.

This situation has arisen because Party strategists, started by New Labour in 1997, decided that there was electoral advantage to be gained by directed polices and by avoiding the ideological contest. It confused and smeared the political spectrum, uniting different and opposing wings of the party and was an effort to broaden the appeal to a wider cross section of the public. It is not just Labour, however, and the same principles have been embraced by the Conservative Party. There are a number of unintended effects, however.

First, campaigning has become characterised by media management, spin and, in the eyes of the electorate, intellectual dishonesty. This has resulted in voter apathy and a complete lack of respect for our democratic processes and Parliament. That is worrying enough, but in adopting ideologically barren campaigns, the two main parties have sown the seeds of their own demise. Voters have become confused. Previously, they may have felt energised by the old ideological battles and were willing to to take a stand on principles rather than specifics. Now, they have been encouraged to vote on the individual and narrow policies that personally affect them. However, the problem for the main parties is that these policies may now be on offer from the smaller parties too. In fact, voters may find attractive policies within the manifestos of a number of different parties and find an obvious choice hard to find. Combined with the electoral cynicism I mentioned earlier, this has encouraged the electorate to vote on the basis of how they are personally affected rather than on the basis of what they feel would be best for the country. The smaller parties have profited massively from this situation, and as the old allegiances have fallen away they have been able to campaign on quite narrow issues such as immigration in the case of UKIP, for example.

This creates a huge amount of uncertainty for the main parties as they flail around trying to find the policy equivalent of a golden goose. Without a change in voting system, it is hard to see the situation changing unless there is a resurgence of political awareness and a return to an ideological based system of campaigning. Instead we are doomed to suffer the uncertainty and watered down politics of coalition government. More warm and fuzzy and less confrontational maybe, but in my view less effective. But perhaps that’s what they want in the sheep shed.

New Life

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I’m sorry but the stream of posts may slow slightly for a week or two whilst I get to grips with matters in the sheep shed. Things kicked off last night with these two fine chaps who initially seemed a bit resistant to enter our modern world and needed a helping hand. Wonder why?

Normal rumination will be restored shortly.

Pick and Mix Policies for the Politically Homeless

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The problem with tribal politics is that politicians and voters are forced into narrow categories where there is little scope for interpretation or shades of grey (no we’re not going there today). Politics has always been tribal to some extent, but the 24 hour scrutiny of a media that is hungry to write stories about internal divisions has made party politics even more partisan and boring. The Whips hold sway, and with some notable and interesting exceptions, politicians rarely put their head above the parapet to challenge their party orthodoxy with interesting and new ideas. I discussed some of this in a previous post, Avoiding the Debate.

Recently, I have started to reflect on which political pigeon hole I should adopt as my home, and I found that I don’t really fit anywhere particularly well. I suppose if I was forced, I would say that I’m socially liberal but economically conservative. I believe that self-reliance should be promoted wherever possible as it enriches lives, but on the other hand I want the State to provide a temporary safety net for those of my fellow citizens that fall on hard times. But, note, a safety net not a means of dogmatically redistributing wealth, and so I would place limits on the extent of taxpayer support (see here for my post on the welfare state). In a similar vein, I think that the State should be as small as possible for efficiency but that does not mean zero state activity as government intervention in some areas is necessary and beneficial. I don’t think governments should run trains but they should run the security services and law enforcement, for example.

Even on other economic matters I do not necessarily adhere to conventional doctrine as whilst I believe in a free market I also think that limits should be placed on its excess. I don’t want higher taxes but I do think Google and the like should pay their way if they expect to trade here. Similarly, I’m not opposed in principle to the private sector providing public services so long as it is properly regulated to ensure the necessary standard. Sometimes, the private sector can do a better job than civil servants, and that can offer value to taxpayers so long as we don’t get ripped off. And, finally, do let the bankers make loads of money so long as its not at our expense, they pay their taxes and they don’t rely on us to bail them out when they cock it up.

On other topical matters, I have decided that on balance I would like the UK to leave the political and legal structures of the EU and to implement proper immigration controls (see post here) for the benefit of all the people living in these Isles. Yet, I also want to protect the rights of our existing immigrant population now that they have settled here. I see them as British as myself. On civil rights, I believe in our democratic rights and legal system but I also think that with citizen rights come responsibilities and that the balance occasionally gets skewed the wrong way by inappropriate laws some of which are imposed from outside the country. On social affairs, what’s wrong with gay marriage, for example? Why should I try to stop someone experiencing the same happiness that I have found in my own union. It affects me, my lifestyle and my country not one jot. It is only religious and extreme political dogma (see post here) that would oppose such ideals and I have no truck with that.

I think a bit of me is also nationalistic in the sense that I believe we should act in the interests of the UK and all its citizens. Now that may sound a bit scary or suggest that I could be a closet EDL or BNP supporter but I could never vote for them because I believe in the equal rights of all British citizens whatever their ethic origins or religious beliefs. I believe that the UK should continue to play a role on the international stage but with our own interests placed at the centre of our approach to diplomacy and international aid, and not necessarily for the benefit of those around us (depending on the issue, they may coincide, of course). In this regard, I would like to see us deploy our overseas aid budget more strategically to support foreign policy.

Above all, I want to feel that I have some kind of influence on what happens around me. That means that I am gravitating away from the centralized Westminster political model towards a more federal system of government. That is the preferred Labour answer for English devolution if I correctly understood their comments following the Scottish Referendum. Following my earlier post on Devolution, blackandwhiteram made some interesting remarks about the US federal system, and on reflection I think that the size of our population could now make a similar system viable for the whole of the UK. A fully federal system would allow the regions to tax and spend (but not borrow) in order to provide services but with a greatly reduced federal government at Westminster providing mainline services such as defence and foreign policy. There are some difficulties with this model which we discussed previously and it would be necessary to design the regions carefully (or come up with an English Barnett formula to reduce regional inequality – see the Devolution post I linked). A federal system needn’t cost a lot more if Whitehall was reduced in size and a layer of local government stripped away to make space for the regional assemblies or whatever you want to call them. Most importantly, it would improve voter representation and influence, and we could get away from this charade that is currently taking place in the run up to the general election.

So I am indeed politically homeless. There are signs of new thinking. I notice that Tim Montgomerie has started to promote a right-leaning initiative that challenges the Conservative orthodoxy by introducing an element of social justice, and maybe this is a sign that some of the dogmatic political boundaries are starting to erode. Its worth a read although its still not quite right for me.

So, homeless for the moment. Good job I’ve got a sheep shed to sleep in.

Political Leaders: Made of Plastic

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In an earlier post, Avoiding the Debate, I discussed some of the reasons why the electorate is increasingly switching off politics and I made the point that some intellectual honesty during political discussions would go a long way to repairing the situation. I would like to develop this theme with a short post for the weekend on the curious incidence of the plastic political leader.

They are all seem to be the same, don’t they? Completely ruled by their media advisors, they all speak the same politico, media-friendly language, and they even wear the same tailored suits. They refuse to acknowledge both sides of the argument, they issue inane and meaningless soundbites and they appear unprincipled shifty, and lacking conviction. Wait for the Leaders’ TV debates if you want to test this theory. Here they are already being prepared for their live TV appearances:

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If only they could allow some individual humanity and personality to shine through! We all know what’s required, and it’s not made of plastic. It’s made of real flesh and bone. You can argue about his politics (and I agree that there is probably a degree of political cynicism under the facade) but how is it that Boris is able to win his mayorship twice in a city that votes predominantly labour? Yes, it is probably by appearing eccentric and by by quoting Greek mythology. But the fact of the matter is that people are bored with plastic leaders. At least Boris appears different. He is unconventional and interesting, and this makes people listen to him. Whatever your political leanings, we need to bring back some flawed humanity into the political discourse and a slightly unconventional, offbeat and unpredictable figurehead, so long as he/she was a capable and intelligent manager, would be a good start.

Finally, I don’t wish to endorse any particular politician with this posting and I am sure there would be suitable candidates to replace the plastic Miliband. George Galloway perhaps? Or the maverick Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Now he’s certainly not plastic! Any ideas for Cleggers?

Welcome

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Welcome to my personal blog called The Ruminating Sheep. Have you ever shouted in frustration at politicians and commentators for either refusing to debate an issue properly or for re-framing the question to suit their own personal agenda? In my opinion, most thinking people would accept that there are pros and cons to any preferred course of action and they understand that policy is often about choosing the best path rather than one that is right in all respects.

Sadly, today’s media-centric world prevents important matters being debated in such rational terms. Commentators are so restricted by time that there is only a brief moment to blurt out some meaningless sound-bite before the matter is closed and the forum moves on to the next topic. Personally, I am infuriated that politicians’ media advisers tell their proteges never even to acknowledge the existence of a counter-argument. Instead, they are told to promote solely their own stance even seemingly at the expense of personal integrity. As a result, the pros and cons of a policy are never properly exposed, and politicians and commentators are left looking evasive, dishonest and to most of us, utterly foolish. It is no wonder that respect for Westminster is so low and that voter apathy is so prevalent. Why cant they understand that the country is crying out for some honest public debate? An individual that was able to explain rationally why he thought his proposed course of action was better than the alternatives would really tap into this rich seam of frustration, and the political system might be surprised at the electorate’s response. Media permitting of course, but perhaps we’ll come onto that in due course.

Here at The Ruminating Sheep, I would like to open up topical items for friendly and analytical debate. In terms of my own politics, I suppose most folk would describe me as right leaning. That said, part of the problem with modern politics is that the whipped party system seeks to corral opinion into tribal pigeon holes whereas in reality most people have a variety of views that don’t necessarily fit into any one particular political compartment and I would hope that this would apply to me as well. We don’t just want to be policy wonks either as politics can get a bit boring after a while so I will also provide respite by posting on other matters in the news that I think you will find interesting. I would like to point out that the views on this site are my own as an interested layman. I am neither a political scientist nor a member of any political party. With that in mind, what you see is what you get. The blog is completely run within my own resources and without sponsorship.

Technology will also prevail, and you can follow me on twitter at the link on the page. Whilst I hope that you will come here routinely, I will periodically prick your conscience by tweeting links to the latest post if you elect to follow the flock of ruminants.

Lastly, can I please ask that you remain polite to me and to each other, and that you remain on topic. Many of our subjects will invoke strong feelings and opinions but in the spirit of open and rational debate lets try to channel these emotions into some really sharp intellectual analysis. I will moderate the comments for offensive remarks and bad language and repeat offenders will eventually be banished from the sheep shed and into the pig pen! Oh, and by the way, that means offensive in terms of common decency rather than politics!

So, thank you again for visiting. Let’s eat up our hay and start ruminating…..