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When it comes to elections, I’ve always been a big believer that you should vote for policies rather than people. Instead of deciding who should run the country, we should be focusing on how to run the country. As such, rather than basing our vote on whether “he’s a bit weird” or “he’s a bit posh”, we should all be taking the time to read the manifestos, visit the party websites, and then make our decisions based on what policies we would actually like to see enacted within the next government.
In envisioning how to achieve this goal, a few years ago I came up with an (unoriginal) idea for a no-party system. Within this system members of the public would receive a series of unmarked manifestos through the post, printed on plain-white paper with no distinguishing features – Manifesto A, Manifesto B, Manifesto C etc. Voters would then be able to read through these manifestos without the biases of lobbying, life-time voters, or one-sided journalism, voting instead for the policies that made the most sense to them. The manifesto with the most popular policies would then be enacted over the next five years. Better still, perhaps voters could actually mix and match their favourite policies into a whole new manifesto. A sort of crowdsourced democracy. Pick-and-mix for politics, as it were.
While such a vision for the future would involve significant changes to the political system, it would at least encourage the voting public to learn a bit more about the options available and, ultimately, make a more informed decision when it came to their vote. Unfortunately the likelihood of such a dramatic change is virtually unthinkable. Thankfully however, websites such as voteforpolicies.org.uk are already testing out the “blank manifesto” approach in a voluntary setting online.
In fact, I myself used voteforpolicies.org.uk to cast my own (previously undecided) vote. Now however, I’m starting to regret my choice.
Yes, it’s time for me to admit that – as usual – I was wrong. Voting for faceless policies only gets you so far. Political analysis has to go far deeper than just what is said in a party’s manifesto.
As an example, consider my results from voteforpolicies.org.uk. Having reviewed the manifestos in a one-hour online survey, it turns out that I agree with 30% of the Green Party’s policies. At the same time however, just because I agree with them, doesn’t mean I should vote for them. Take the party’s stance on education. According to their party manifesto, the Greens want to increase the schools’ budget by £7 billion a year, invest up to £15 billion a year in higher education, and scrap tuition fees. I agree with all of this, unfortunately however – to quote the twentieth century philosopher Victor Meldrew – I don’t believe it!
“99% of the voting public cannot be trusted to vote on “issues” in anything resembling an informed or educated way”
These manifesto promises sound absolutely lovely, and yet, as multiple interviews with Green party members have shown (including *that* interview with Natalie Bennett) the funding aspirations for this plan are just not viable. And yet, a simple reading of the manifestos (blank or otherwise) will never uncover this insight. To do so requires a deeper political analysis, it requires journalistic inquiry, face-to-face interviews, and most importantly of all, it requires that we vote for people, not just policies.
But there is another slightly subtler reason why voting policies is doomed to fail. The truth is that my “blank manifesto” utopia could never truly work. Why? Because 99% of the voting public can’t be trusted to vote in anything resembling an informed or educated way. I know I can’t.
The truth of this statement was brought home to me last night when I spent several hours discussing restorative justice with a close friend of mine (who happens to have worked in the prison system for the better half of his life). After several glasses of whisky, and several overly confident assertions from my end of the table, I began to realise that I don’t know jack shit about restorative justice. I don’t know about the existing legislation, I don’t know the rules or regulations, I don’t even know about the general standard for care. And yet, despite this complete lack of knowledge, I was still more than happy to spew my ill-informed opinions like projectile vomit at an EDL rally.
This disconnect between breadth of knowledge and strength of opinion is why we are forced to rely on a purely representative democracy. If the voting public were ever truly unleashed on issues such as justice, education or EU membership, they would rain down a plague of such ignorance that the entire system would buckle under its weight. And yet, here we are, planning for an EU referendum and telling people to vote for policies rather than people.
At the end of the day, democracy doesn’t actually come down to purely voting on policies, people, or even parties. Instead, we are allowed to vote for a general ethos – a vague distinction between social welfare and economic advantage. Do you want Big Brother (nationalisation, more regulation, higher levels of social support, etc.) or the Big Society (privatisation, deregulation, reduced social support). That’s it. Without spending a lifetime studying each and every issue, that’s about as far as we can (and should) be allowed to delve. And who would honestly want more than that? After all, I have no idea what I’m doing, and realistically, neither do you.