Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Democracy - it seems as though they had to destroy the concept in order to “save” it

In elections, winning matters. There are very few politicians or political activists who would suggest with an entirely straight face that, by taking part, you influence the debate and that winning is thus not so important. Yes, I acknowledge that your better, more attractive ideas will be stolen by your opponents, which is on the whole fine, but it’s how you implement them that really counts. Someone who steals something shiny probably won’t understand the basic mechanics that make an idea truly effective.

So, winning matters.

But, in a democracy, you ideally want voters to be properly informed, able to make choices based on a range of fact-based ideas so as to elect people likely to make their communities better (the definition of “better” may not be wholly inclusive, of course...). And that makes the notion of truth important.

In advertising, you are obliged to be able to demonstrate that your claim for any particular product is true. The Advertising Standards Authority takes a dim view of false claims, and this is obviously in the interests of consumers - especially when a false prospectus can have serious effects. We label food products to prevent mischance, for similar reasons.

We have no equivalent for political campaigning, of course. After all, politicians are promising that, by doing X, Y will improve. There’s no certainty - economic circumstances are not wholly within the control of nation states, political theories are only really tested in the actuality - and so there’s quite a lot of aspiration involved. If taxes are raised, what will be the likely impact? And what will be the actual impact?

Many politicians have been blurring that for some time. “We will increase the number of nurses in the NHS by 50,000.”, for example, rather depends on there being 50,000 people who want to be, or remain, nurses. Appointing people and retaining them is difficult, especially if you don’t address the underlying causes of nursing shortages. So, you would be more truthful in saying that you believe that the NHS needs 50,000 more nurses, and here are my ideas for achieving that.

For people who care about process, that can be a bit frustrating, but given that most people are only really interested in direction of travel, that level of detailed argument is probably a pipedream.

Falsehoods are a different matter though. For example, claiming that homelessness had fallen sharply over nine years of Conservative administration, as Sajid Javid did, when the truth was the reverse, is a falsehood. Deliberate or accidental, only he can tell, although the fact that the error was clearly in his favour leads one to be sceptical about his honesty. But his error was then reported as truth by a mostly friendly media with little or no incentive to fact check him.

And then there is the out and out lie. You can, for example, sieve through every policy motion passed at a Labour Conference, put an estimated price on it - your estimate, mind, not necessarily an independent one - add them all up and claim that that’s what a Labour government would cost. No government ever does everything its members want it to, it trims its coat according to the available cloth - yes, even Labour governments. And, of course, the expectation is that additional means can be found to pay for additional spending.

Social media now allows something new and altogether more troubling - the co-ordinated mass lie. The story of the young boy lying on a bed of coats on the floor of the A & E department at Leeds General Infirmary was not a good image for an administration seeking re-election. But the number of Twitter accounts all suddenly claiming to have a close friend working at Leeds Hospital who knew that the story, and the image, were a set-up, was no coincidence. The fact that they were all the same smacks of cynical news manipulation, but it will be effective. Most social media users will only see one or two of them, whereas if they saw the same claim on a poster, for example, or knew that two hundred or more people were tweeting exactly the same thing, perhaps their suspicions might be aroused.

There are those who will claim that, in order to protect the country from X, there are no tactics that are unacceptable. They will argue that, if a Corbyn-led Labour administration is elected, the country will be ruined, and so must be prevented at any cost.

The problem is that lying is cumulative, that foul play is cumulative. And, if rewarded, sends out a message that, in order to win, you have to do the same. And thus, any hope of an informed democracy is destroyed, leaving a toxic wasteland of lies, misrepresentation and voter alienation.

And, if you’re willing to do those things, what else are you willing to undermine? The independence of the judiciary? The neutrality of the Civil Service? In other words, if winning is all that counts, have you actually forgotten what you were winning to protect?...

No comments: