Tag Archives: democracy

Hot take: polls are bad for democracy

Why do we vote?

It’s a pretty interesting question, with a long answer. The history of democracy is a good read, but what you need to know is that – like all good things – it was invented in Greece. The city-state of Athens around 5 BC is generally regarded to be the first implemented model of one-person-one-vote democracy as we would recognise it today.

It was a direct democracy in the sense that the people of Athens themselves were the voters on each decision, without further representation. (A footnote to say that ‘people of Athens’ referred to citizens – a somewhat non-inclusive group, excluding women, slaves, young people and so on). And for a while that was good.

Today, in the UK, we have a representative democracy. We don’t vote on each and every issue like the Greeks did – we vote for people who make those decisions on our behalf. Further still, our model is one of parliamentary democracy where we vote for representatives to form a government and the head of government is appointed by the head of state (Queenie!) to run things – that being whoever is the leader of the most popular party, as voted for by that party’s members. Yeah, it’s a bit complicated.

But the basics of it is that in the UK we vote for parties. We divide the country up into about 650 constituencies (voting areas), and the parties field candidates in each constituency. At a general election, whichever party wins the most seats gets to be in charge, since we have a dumb and stupid non-representational voting system.

So far so good. It’s fair, open, easy to understand, and about as democratic as you can hope for in the 21st century. The old Athenian system simply wouldn’t work in 2018. We can’t be expected to understand or have an opinion on every issue. We don’t even have referendums that often (imagine this current Brexit mess, but for EVERY SINGLE DECISION).

There’s some debate about whether MPs are meant to be ‘delegates’ or ‘trustees’. As delegates, they’d be the absolute instruments of their constituents will – perfectly channeling the voice of the people. But as members of a political party that isn’t really feasible. Yet having them as ‘trustees’ means letting them make decisions that might even be against the will of their constituents, if it’s actually in their best interests. For example: most constituents will oppose an increase in tax, but support better public services. A trustee can make the difficult decision to oppose the ‘will’ for the overall good.

BUT I DIGRESS I WAS GONNA TALK ABOUT POLLS NOT JUST REGURGITATE MY POLITICAL A LEVEL IN FULL SORRY

When describing how democracy works above, we haven’t mentioned polls at all. That’s because they’re simply not part of the concept. In fact, you could say that there’d an inherent idea core to democracy that is incompatible with political polling: the idea of the secret ballot.

The ‘secret ballot’ is the idea that everyone’s vote is a secret. Everyone has a voice, but nobody knows what everyone else has voted for. This is a good thing for democracy: it prevents voter intimidation or squeamishness. We always have a desire to fit in, and our votes being public might stop people voting from how they really want to. Yes, it helps extreme groups win more votes, but overall it’s a good thing.

Do polls violate the idea of a secret ballot? Clearly not. The secret ballot idea applies at the individual vote level, not overall. After all, we have to know the outcome! But there’s another idea at play here: that the outcome of a vote is uncertain.

Democracy works best when it’s a disinterested process. By this I mean that the result of a vote is up for grabs. After all, what’s the point in voting if it’s a foregone conclusion? Brexit and Trump were ‘good’ votes in that the outcome was surprising (what they demonstrate about the democratic process is another conversation). The will of the people needs to be a potent force, and that’s not possible when decisions are robbed of their jeopardy.

And yet this is precisely what polling does. By ‘polling’ I mean the forecasting and publishing of election results. Bodies like YouGov, ICM, and Ipsos Mori do this, attempting to predict the outcome of elections before they happen. And this is bad, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, as said above, it robs elections of their jeopardy. If the outcome of an election is a foregone conclusion – which for polling to have any authority, it must consider it to be – then the process is likely not truly democratic. Sure, in a perfect direct democracy there would be issues with a 99% consensus already. But even still, publishing the result of an election, even a ‘predicted’ one, before the vote seems to betray the concept of uncertain outcomes that makes democracy effective.

And don’t think this doesn’t have an impact on turnout. Ask people why they don’t vote and you’ll likely hear “because it wouldn’t make a difference” anyway. I live in the Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency – which elected Labour MP Diane Abbott to Parliament in the 2017 election with 75% of the vote. The Conservative candidate got 12% of the vote. So if I was a Tory voter, would I feel an empowered democratic citizen having this repeated again and again in the polls running up to an election? Clearly not.

Something that drives me crazy is the use graphs like the above in election pamphlets. “Can’t win here” is the catchphrase they use, and it’s awful. Every election is a blank slate, anyone could win. If every voter decided to vote Green in your constituency, you’d get a Green MP. And yet polls set an alternative narrative: that of the status quo. That the incumbent state of affairs will more or less be maintained. It’s no wonder that young people and other groups feel disenfranchised and powerless.

Polls also shift the way we think about voting, in bad ways. ‘Tactical voting’ is a symptom of a broken democracy. That’s when you vote, not for the party you actually want to win, but in order to help prevent someone else from winning. Cleisthenes must be turning in his grave. Vote-swapping systems and things like that arise because polls turn an election into a scientific game rather than a legitimate decision-making exercise.

And it encourages bad behaviour from our representatives too. During the election cycle, incredible levels of attention are paid to the polls. And the campaign strategy is informed by the poll results. Sure, it’s the sensible thing to do given that polls exist – but it’s a reflection that elections have become a vote-winning version of marketing. And that’s bad for democracy too.

Can we beat this? Can we claw back democracy from the damage polling has done to it? I don’t know. As with all technology and science, once the genie’s out of the bottle, it won’t go back in. On the TV debates they’ve started doing recently, they’ve now got those live ‘worm’ graphs, where support for each speaker is displayed live in real time along with the program. I think that’s too far – encouraging a safe, boring approach to politics where every word of every sentence is rehearsed to media-trained perfection.

Keep polls, sure. But for the sake of democracy let’s stop obsessing over them. Bring back the uncertainty to politics. It’s an open field, anyone can win. Trying to predict the future just sucks the joy out of it entirely.

What’s the deal with online petitions?

Petitions are weird. On the one hand, they’re part of a healthy democracy – the people making their voice heard when other channels have failed them. They definitely have their place.

But they’re also pretty bonkers a lot of the time.

For a long time I’ve been suspicious of the efficacy of online petitions. Sites like change.org seem to be churning out hundreds of petitions daily, and you’ve got to wonder… what’s the point? How often do petitions actually change anything?

Are petitions a symptom of so-called slacktivism? Where people thing they’re making a difference, but in the most low-effort/low-impact way possible? And, even worse, is there a danger of online petitions snowballing into quasi-witch hunts? (I’m thinking of those petitions you get that demand companies fire employees who’ve done something Twitter has decided is bad).

But rather than attempt a serious discourse on whether or not petitions are bad (my position in one sentence: mostly harmless and sometimes good), I thought I’d rather do the MUCH FUNNIER THING of just digging up some funny ones. Stuff like these –

And yeah, I’ve personally signed all of those.

Change.org has a great section where you can browse by most recent. And that’s just great for finding bananas ideas. Here’s some I’ve dug up in the past –

But these aren’t real petitions. They’re directed at nobody in particular, or at least, no democratic entities. Let’s have a look at what people are actually petitioning their government for.

Sadly, the UK Parliament Petitions website is no longer accepting submissions because the recently general election screwed things up for everyone. But there’s still some gold to be mined from their archives.

There’s a lot of this kinda stuff –

But thankfully for every one of those, there’s one of these –

907 people signed that one. 907! The Government was not obliged to respond and so it has closed.

There’s something absolutely mad about letting people have their say about things. I know that’s literally an argument about democracy, but just look at this…

Like what. There’s a good argument to be made about making the HoL more accountable (though I think a fully-elected Upper Chamber would be a disaster, cf. my Year 13 Politics Coursework). But I don’t think any constitutional expert has ever, ever, ever considered the possibility of a ‘House of Heroes.’

The petition itself goes on to explain what this would mean. “The new House of Heroes will consist of 100 members, who will be known as ‘My Honourable Hero’. Of these 100, 33 will be “Everyday heroes”, 33 from the Armed Forces and Emergency Services, and 33 Heroic National Treasures, plus 1 speaker to moderate

So, instead of a body filled with specialist industry experts free to scrutinise upcoming legislation without the pressures of fixed-term service, the proposal is to let this job be done by ‘Everyday Heroes.’ I can’t quite determine what this would involve, but presumably it’s something like nurses, soldiers, firemen. The ‘are lads and ladies‘ that ‘should be paid footballers wages‘ you often read about.

I dunno if it’s a good idea to be honest. But hey, democracy is all about debating ideas. 100 people thought this was a good idea. But it too got closed.

This one was almost certainly a joke. But I like that someone in government still had to look at it, read it, reject it, and write a response. What a good use of everyone’s time.

What a disgrace.

I like ones like this, where it’s not that the idea is deliberately stupid, but rather betrays an absolute misunderstanding of the system. It’s not ‘get enough votes and this will definitely happen.’ It still has to be debated by Parliament and all that stuff.

But just imagine. Theresa May logs onto her Government Petitions account to check out the day’s business. The ‘Deport Theresa May’ petitions has reached x number of votes. “Well,” she says, “I guess that’s that then” and proceeds to start packing her bags.

I think that’s enough for you to get the idea. Yes, petitions can be a good way of making your voice heard on a particular issue that falls outside the general scope of an election (or even a referendum). But in opening up the door for everyone to have their say on every topic, you invite chaos. Not everyone understands how governments work, and how policies are implemented. The system won’t work if it has to bow to the whim of every individual.

And I really, really don’t want us to bring back the death penalty after Brexit.