Democracy Café, December meeting

The December 2019 meeting took place a day after the emphatic win by the Conservatives in the General Election. Boris Johnson was returned with an increased majority of 80. The Labour party is now engaged in what will be an extended period of soul searching and will in a few months, elect a new leader. The LibDem leader lost her seat and although they increased their vote this was not rewarded with any additional seats

It was not surprising therefore when the various suggested topics all centred around the state of politics today. There seems little doubt that the main issue in the election was the seemingly never ending saga of Brexit. Boris Johnson had stuck to his key theme of ‘Get Brexit done!’ and this clearly had resonated with the public many of whom are fed up with the whole issue and want it all over.

The discussion about what happened ranged quite widely. What was the meaning of traditional Labour supporting areas in the north voting for the Conservatives? Many of the traditional jobs in large areas of the north have gone and with it those ideas of collectivism and solidarity. ‘Thatcher’s children’ were now the norm. Many have forgotten the battles of the past such as the Jarrow march it was noted. The achievements of trade unions have also been forgotten.

What do people mean by ‘socialism’ now? Was it some combination of public ownership and controls on capitalism? Someone argued for the complete absence of private capital. People wanted capitalism but with limits and were happy overall with a mixed economy.

Mention of a more equal press drew the only applause of the meeting. It seems undeniable that, although fewer and fewer read a newspaper, the relentless bias of the right wing press did have some kind of effect.

The discussion had focused thus far on the problems experienced by Labour and where they might go in the future to recover. The point was made on the other hand that the Conservatives had their own ideological problems. Their beliefs – dating back to the Thatcher era – were based on small government, low taxes, private enterprise, deregulation, competition and free trade. The effects of these policies were increasingly becoming clear. They have been acutely experienced by the ‘left behind’. To reverse these problems, to retain what Boris Johnson called the ‘borrowed votes in the north, and to rectify a decade of cuts to health, schools and to infrastructure generally, was going to require significant reversal of policy. All this while the next stage of Brexit was in full swing. Will the Conservatives be able to carry out such a change in their core ideology?

Individualism seemed to be a thing which counts now. Many of the public who are interviewed seem only concerned with their own situation not on wider issues. The ‘aspiration of the individual’ is what counts someone said. Or was it to be a member of a fairer society? Did people understand the difference between capitalism and socialism in any event?

Inevitably, we got onto personality. It seems that neither of the party leaders was liked nor trusted. At the Salisbury hustings for example, people laughed at John Glen when he referred to trust in Boris Johnson. Studio audiences also laughed when trust was mentioned in the same sentence as his name. Corbyn was widely disliked and distrusted on a wide number of issues. So is the result of this election a one-off and a result of people’s attitudes to these two men?

An argument developed about immigration – one of the prime political concerns today and one that crops up on the doorstep. Indeed, at the last Salisbury for Europe street event, there were two people with strong and fierce anti immigrant views. The difficulty it was stressed was the difference between genuine concerns about the scale and impact on the one hand and prejudice on the other. ‘White working class people look out of their door and see something completely different’ it was said. It was regrettable that words like ‘swamp’ and ‘flood’ were used however. The point that without immigrants, the health service could no operate, food would not be prepared and vegetables left unpicked was not made. The problem has a long history it was noted, Enoch Powell for example.

We continued along similar lines after a break and the discussion moved on the nature of the current system – a familiar topic for the cafe. Salisbury is a safe Tory seat which means that someone could live a lifetime in the City and not ever be represented. That an MP represents all the constituents cut little ice.

One theme was how well can the public understand the complexity of government? This brought up the issue of the Referendum: do MP’s go with what they believe or what the voters told them? This was the difference between an MP being a delegate or a representative. Large parts of the public seem to want the former.

Proportional representation has its own problems and can lead to a small party wielding disproportionate power. The DUP is a recent example. Now that Johnson has a big majority, he will safely ignore them. But in a sense that illustrates the basic problem: one minute the DUP is influential, a day later, they can be ignored. Whatever one thinks of the DUP – and few this side of the Irish Sea will think favourably of them – how representative and balanced is this system of voting. For three years, the ERG has wielded enormous power and influence over government policy. Now, a day later, they can be largely sidelined.

The point was made that democracy is about the ability to challenge the government and Gina Miller was instanced. It was about the right to speak. So in a sense, no votes were wasted as it showed the depth of feeling about a subject.

Conclusion

No definite conclusion but a widespread feeling that things are not right. The damaging effect of a foreign owned right wing press and its influence on voting was expressed. First past the post might, on occasion, produce a strong government which its supporters claim, but it more usually ends up with marginal government and does not represent actual voting. In Salisbury, some felt that they are never represented nor ever can be.

Peter Curbishley

Democracy Café

This meeting (9 November 2019) took place a couple of days after the official start of the General Election campaign which will take place on 12 December 2019. Both topics chosen had a political feel to them – to be expected I suppose – and both were related.

The first topic was should we be able to delete social media history from when we were young? The concern was that rash or ill-considered comments made in someone’s youth could be dragged much late in life to embarrass them. This applies to political and other public figures of course and the point was made that the media was always on the lookout for such remarks. The main charge laid against someone in these cases was hypocrisy and some wondered whether this was said too quickly. Maynard Keynes is credited* with saying ‘when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?’

Someone observed that to change one’s mind shows you have one.

Much of the discussion focused on trust and how to establish it. Consistency was one aspect and being able to see what someone said in the past and compare it with today was a way. Deleting the past would frustrate that of course. Some examples were quoted of well known politicians arguing, before the Referendum, for a second one once details were known are now to be heard saying people knew full well what they were voting for. The question of course is where and when to draw it.  These were not statements made when they were young. 

It was noted that student debates were often on some nonsense subject so to hold someone to things they said then would perhaps be unreasonable. It was also said by several people that we all change our minds as we go through life, cannot politicians do the same? It would seem that time and distance in the past is the key here. If someone did change their mind, was it not justified to ask them why and to give a reason?

The debate moved on to freedom of speech issues and the issue of causing offence was discussed. There is arguably an increase in the number of instances where politicians and others are asked to apologise for ‘causing offence’ to a group, usually a minority one. There was a difference of opinion here with some thinking that causing offence was a real problem and can make minorities feel vulnerable or victimised. Sometimes this hate speech led to physical acts.

Another significant point made by several, was the importance of teaching children to question what they read and the information they receive. They should learn the important distinction between facts and opinions.


The second half of the session switched to the question ‘can a politician tell the truth today and expect to be elected?’ The election had started with some startling claims to spend vast sums on various parts of the economy. Could any politician stand up and say that this may be reckless or unaffordable and would in any event take many years to achieve (the promise of more GPs for example would take a decade)?  Was it possible for a prospective politician to say for example ‘our economy is weak, our debt is 80% of GDP, our productivity is poor and if we want a better NHS and more help for the elderly, we are going to have to pay for it with higher taxes.’  

It was pointed out straightaway that arguably there were a few who did(do) and Shirley Williams and Caroline Lucas were both mentioned.

The discussion moved quickly onto the life led by MPs now and in particular the role played by social media and the tech giants.  A number of MPs – particularly female MPs – were not standing again the main reason appeared to be the constant stream of death, rape and other violent threats they regularly receive.  The life of an ordinary MP was described at length in Elizabeth Hardman’s book Why we get the wrong politicians. She paints a fairly dismal picture of life in parliament and the expense and problems of getting there in the first place.  At the end of the book you get a good understanding of why we end up with such poor decision making, bad laws and poor governance.

Another key debating point was the nature of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and who decides? A lot of what politicians say is about what will happen in the future if they are elected into office. This is by its nature speculative. In this connection, a local MP can make all sorts of promises but they are promises about his or her party and over which they will have little say (unless they become a minister).

Needless to say the Referendum was mentioned and the point was made that our system was based on the concept of an MP being a representative. This had changed into them becoming delegates. So an MP who thought, prior to the referendum, that we should stay in the EU but his or her constituency voted to come out, what should they do? Were they honest to continue carrying out a policy which they believed to be wrong? Some thought they were not. Also, carrying on supporting a policy knowing that it could not be done was dishonest.

The role of the media was discussed and it was suggested that they often focused a lot on the future which, as we’ve said, is essentially speculative. It was here that we touched on the first debate because what politicians say they will do has to be looked at in terms of what they said they would do in the past and did they do it?

Was it the media’s duty to inform? Some would say yes but it was also noted that newspapers were about selling papers and they had to reflect to a large degree what their readers wanted. No doubt if there was a demand for facts then they would be provided. At least conventional media was subject to some kind of control and the laws of defamation. Social media platforms were outside anyone’s control and enabled people to say anything and say it anonymously. Which is where we came in and the role social media is having in the nation’s discourse…

No doubt we shall come back to this topic area in the future.  The next meeting was scheduled for 14th December but it may be too noisy to have a debate in the Playhouse.  We shall meet anyway and see.  

Peter Curbishley

*there are doubts whether JMK said this.

Democracy Cafe

The next DC is tomorrow Saturday 9th November at 10 as usual in the Playhouse. With the general election announced the other day, there will surely be lots to talk about. The bidding war between the two main parties is extraordinary: it only seemed like yesterday that the cry was our financial woes, and the need for austerity (remember that?), was due to the Labour party recklessly overspending. Now countless billions are promised.

Is this degree of spending the right answer anyway? Will pumping that degree of money into the economy risk inflation? Are the promises to be believed?

Lots to discuss and it doesn’t have to be about the election anyway.