Sacred cows can be milked, but they can’t be slaughtered – such is the pitiful nature of today’s political discourse.
One of those bovine creatures is the NHS: one can bemoan its difficulties, lack of funds, shortage of qualified medical staff, overlong waiting times – whatever. But, on pain of hitting the career buffers, one can’t say there’s something wrong with the very idea of socialised medicine.
The NHS thus leaves the domain of serious discussion and enters one of totemistic worship, with reason excommunicated.
That was evident in yesterday’s debate. Every time Corbyn accused Johnson of planning to do awful things to the NHS, the PM reacted the way St Athanasius would have reacted to charges of Arianism.
The same goes for democracy. You can point out all sorts of symptomatic problems, but never the underlying systemic one. Finding anything wrong with the very notion of indiscriminate, unqualified, universal suffrage is strictly off limits.
Daniel Finkelstein illustrates this simple rule in today’s article This Isn’t the Election Politicians Think It Is.
Drawing on statistical data and on the material gathered in the book Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Lord Finkelstein proves that most voters vote for spurious reasons. They know little about the candidates, even less about their policies and next to nothing about the issues on which the elections are decided.
For example, only one per cent of the respondents to a current poll have heard of the suppressed Russian report that’s very much in the news. And 42 per cent truthfully admit they haven’t noticed a single election story over the past few days.
Half the respondents have never heard of Shadow Chancellor McDonnell, which means they don’t know this rank communist is the eminence grise of the Labour Party. Only 18 per cent can place Dominic Cummings’s name, and he’s believed to pull Johnson’s strings.
“So,” asks Lord Finkelstein not unreasonably, “if people aren’t following much, what determines election results? Do elections actually hold politicians to account at all?”
No, is the answer to that, if one reads Democracy for Realists, which analyses reams of statistical data. Evidently most people hold contradictory or even mutually exclusive views on many political subjects.
Nor do they know what the politicians’ views on these subjects are. For example, half of German voters didn’t know whether a party called Die Linke was on the left or right. That’s like not knowing whether the Brexit Party supports Leave or Remain: Die Linke means The Left in German.
Here in Britain many people support nationalisation, but oppose Labour policy on this issue because they don’t know nationalisation is Labour policy. Similarly, they are indifferent to Johnson’s promise to increase state spending because they don’t realise this represents a dramatic change of Tory policy.
The book shows, numbers in hand, that policies don’t really affect how people vote. Nor does the government’s record.
“The problem,” writes Lord Finkelstein, “is that voters aren’t very good at working out who to blame when things go wrong or who to credit when they go right”.
And they judge whether things have gone right or wrong almost exclusively on the basis of their income over the past two quarters – not even over the lifetime of the current parliament.
Other factors coming into play have nothing to do with politics at all. For example, a natural disaster, such as the current floods, damages the incumbent, while England’s success in a football tournament benefits him by increasing the ‘feel-good’ factor.
Another important, practically decisive, factor is the herd instinct: people vote a certain way because that’s how they believe the PLUs (People Like Us) vote now or have voted traditionally.
Since the previous generations of one’s family usually qualify as PLUs, Lord Finkelstein concludes that: “This election could be decided by the extent to which grandparents are left spinning in their graves.”
Yet to me this isn’t the conclusion of the argument, but its starting point. Lord Finkelstein doesn’t seem to be aware of this, but his informative article punches an irreparable hole in what I earlier described as “indiscriminate, unqualified, universal suffrage”.
He shows persuasively that most people cast their votes for utterly frivolous reasons, reducing elections to a roll of the dice. Because a chap hasn’t had a rise in the past six months, and because his Grandpa voted for Harold Wilson, he may vote in a communist (well, Corbyn’s) government without realising that’s what he’s doing.
A few years later he’ll look at the smoking ruins of everything Britain used to be and will perhaps change his vote. That is, provided he realises that the destruction has been caused by certain policies – and, for that matter, assuming he’ll be allowed to vote at all.
Democracy etymologically presupposes self-government, with the demos trusting its most qualified representatives to look after its interests for a few years. But if, as Lord Finkelstein shows so well, the demos is manifestly unqualified to act in that capacity, doesn’t that undermine the whole concept?
His findings tally with both my observations and thoughts on this subject. Unlike me, however, he isn’t prepared to draw the conclusion his facts demand. That’s shoddy, timorous thinking.
Daisy the Sacred Cow is so lovely, and she moos so cutely, that she’s impossible to slaughter. And if a politician or a pundit dares to suggest such a thing, he’ll instantly stop being a politician or a pundit. Lord Finkelstein knows this very well.