Democracy Café: November 2020

This is a report of the DC which was held via Zoom on 14 November 2020

At peak, 14 attended this meeting which is probably a record for the discussions we have had during the pandemic.  We discussed a single topic: should we adhere to the wishes of the people or should governments take decisions based on what is the best policy?  Clearly, this strikes at the heart of democracy and the belief that ultimately, it is the people who decide what should happen.

What do you do when people vote for something which was a potential disaster?  Just because you are in the majority, it doesn’t mean you are right, the ‘tyranny of the majority‘ someone noted.

Allowing a government to decide on what is best and not necessarily follow the will of the people [referenda and Brexit was in people’s minds] assumed that MPs knew what was best for people: how can they it was asked?  On the question of ‘that referendum’, it should only have been advisory only, not binding on the government.

Many in the West thought that democracy – as practised here – was a superior system yet in reality it has been a sham for some time.  There has been a considerable loss of trust in the system and the people and organisations in control i.e. the government.  Several contributors said that key was the quality of information upon which people made their choices.  As we have noted on these discussions before, there were huge amounts of mis- and disinformation.  Vast amounts of money swirled around the system – some of it never declared – in an attempt to persuade people to vote a particular way.  There was also media impartiality.

Was proportional representation together with citizen assemblies the answer?  It was pointed out that Donald Trump was elected on a system – the electoral colleges – which was a form of PR.  Whether you think that was a success or otherwise depended on your point of view of course, after all, POTUS did attract 70 million votes.  The Senate voting system was no longer fit for purpose it was noted since all states had two Senators irrespective of their size.

The debate then moved onto the interesting area of how people came to their decisions.  The assumption that given good information then it follows that people will take sound decisions was challenged (and not just on the narrow point of what ‘good’ means in any context).  People often voted on party lines come what may.  Many of our decisions are emotionally based not based purely on reason.  People are often driven by ideology or feelings first then more rational thinking later.  This was in part the theme of the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  Rationality was not always the key therefore.  It was argued that perhaps there was a need for an independent commission of some kind to agree on what information was appropriate to base decisions on.  There was a desperate need for decisions based on evidence.

Another factor was that not only do we find it hard to admit we are wrong but also, to admit that the other person was right – two aspects to the same coin.

Back to parliamentarians and whether they represented people’s views in any event.  First past the post meant a minority of voters were needed to allow a party to form a government.  Jason Brennan’s book Against Democracy was referred to which argued that democracy was failing and was ‘rule by the ignorant and the irrational’.  The problem of ‘elective dictatorship‘ was also noted.  MPs used to be people who came into politics having done something else in life first.  Nowadays, we had more and more career politicians who have left university and ended up (!) as members of parliament having never done a ‘real’ job.  Was it any wonder we had the government we have?  They were ‘career’ politicians whose primary concern was er… their career.

MPs have access to good information (from the HoC library and elsewhere) but how certain could we be that this is made use of for the benefit of their constituents?  If MPs were under pressure to follow the party line then what use is information however good it was?

Final reflections concerned education and whether pupils are taught to evaluate information.  Was the impetus simply to learn and absorb not assess what is being given to them?  This lack of ability to evaluate information meant the population can be easily manipulated.

Did we settle the question?  Probably not.  Perhaps Auberon Waugh sums it up well:

Anyone in England who puts himself forward to be elected to a position of political power is almost certainly to be socially or emotionally insecure, or criminally motivated or mad.

Peter Curbishley

Books referred to:

Kahneman, Daniel: Thinking Fast and Slow.  2011, Penguin Books

Brennan, Jason: Against Democracy. 2016, Princeton UP.

The question was raised about how do you know how your MP votes and the Hansard site They Work for You is extremely useful.  Type in the name or postcode and it’s all there …