The Democratic Deficit | Mario Laghos
Politics in Western modernity is stagnant. The Blue and Red teams bicker over symbolic issues, a bickering which mostly serves to signal to their cheerleaders and fans the virtue of the team itself. Should income tax be 40%, or 45%? Well the Blue team argues the former, and the Red team, the latter. Each team claims their proposal is sure to bring in the most cash to the exchequer. Neither team is interested in the evidence of course, all that matters is that Red must want their ‘preferred’ tax rate to be a deviation above Blue, but no more than one deviation of course, and Blue must maintain their proposed level of taxation to be one deviation below Red.
In 2019, the Institute for Fiscal studies estimated Labour’s tax plans under Corbyn would have seen a person on an annual income of £100,000 pay an additional £1,000 annually. This is equivalent to an extra £83.33 per calendar month. The IFS also estimated that this increase in taxation would bring in another £3 Billion per year to the exchequer. Or it could cost the exchequer £1 Billion a year, they don’t quite know. Neither did Corbyn know, or McDonnell, or Labour voters, or Tory voters, all that matters is that Red went higher than Blue.
Of course, neither side really cares whether X or X+1 will bring in more money to the treasury, team Blue’s tax rates are set with a view to the immorality of taxation, and team Red’s with a view to the immorality of wealth accumulation. If either side were interested, they might conduct some research, or heaven forfend, a trial of some kind to come to an informed conclusion. But they won’t, because they don’t. It is theatre.
As the century-long shadowbox continues, issues which have overwhelming public support go without mention in the mainstream arena of politics. Why dirty oneself with the business of enacting the popular will when you can continue to confound the masses with such minute disagreements on tax policy that even the IFS can’t give you a straight answer?
Let’s take a look at the death penalty for serious crimes, a course of action which has had, and continues to have overwhelming support. A 2019 YouGov poll showed that amongst the general population, 70% of people think criminals ought to be punished more harshly, while just 3% think they receive too harsh a punishment as is. The pollster continued to ask respondents their attitude toward the death penalty, and respondents told YouGov they support execution for ‘murder as part of a terrorist act’ 58% to 32%. YouGov asks similar questions routinely, including ‘Should the death penalty be reintroduced for cases of multiple murder?’ and ‘Should the death penalty be reintroduced for the murder of a police officer? In no instance have those opposed outnumbered those in favour. Typically, when hypothetically faced with the most heinous of crimes, Britons will support the death penalty at a rate of 2:1.
I would wager that in confidence this number would increase, vis a vis confessing to a pollster. It would seem then in the face of voluminous psephological evidence that any political party out to manifest democracy would take up the cause of the death penalty, but yet, curiously, they never do. Our politicians never come from the majority opinion on this question, and if they do, they lie about it. Or at least they are forced to lie about it due to external pressures.
I do not claim that politicians should be led by polls in all instances. To the contrary, leadership is often about carrying the public with your will to a different position. If polling led all of decision making, we would have hundreds of referenda a day. But the people have not been led, or persuaded, they have simply been ignored. It is a curiosity that at least within my lifetime, there have been no serious calls for the return of such an enduringly popular policy.
In my research for this piece I discovered that even UKIP’s most right-wing leader, Paul ‘Nutty’ Nuttall, went into the 2017 general election without putting the death penalty in his manifesto, despite apparently having sympathy with it himself. If not him, then who? If it is a question of circumstance rather than of agents, then what better time than the past two decades, in which we have witnessed the most disgusting terrorist attacks launched against civilians on our own streets? The very same decades in which politicians have been most silent on the question. It’s shocking even that the death penalty is enduringly popular, given our common understanding and experience of it is rooted in newsreel of the worst depravities of totalitarian regimes. Iran hanging gay people, or North Koreans firing Anti-Aircraft guns at dissidents. We rarely consider Japan, and the restraint that guides their approach to execution. Perhaps because that consideration would imbibe in us an even more positive disposition toward the practice, or perhaps simply because the more frequent and graphic monstrosities of Iran makes for more pertinent news.
On immigration, the publics’ sentiments are even more starkly in support of restrictions than they are in support of reintroducing the death penalty. Poll after poll since records began, by every measure shows the British public oppose mass migration and multiculturalism. Even contemporaneously where one might expect to see opinions soften as these things often do, the contrary is true. A 2016 YouGov poll showed 76% of the public want immigration reduced, compared to just 4% who want to see it increased. The party that promises to be toughest on immigration, provided the public see that party as being able to win, seems to win every general election. This can go both ways, as with the 1974 election in which many credit Enoch Powell for Labour’s election victory over the Conservatives. The entire entry on immigration policy within Tony Blair’s 1997 manifesto reads as follows:
‘We will ensure swift and fair decisions on whether someone can stay or go, control unscrupulous immigration advisors and crack down on the fraudulent use of birth certificates’
‘Every country must have firm control over immigration and Britain is no exception. All applications, however, should be dealt with speedily and fairly. There are, rightly, criteria for those who want to enter this country to join husband or wife. We will ensure that these are properly enforced. We will, however, reform the system in current use to remove the arbitrary and unfair results that can follow from the existing ‘primary purpose’ rule. There will be a streamlined system of appeals for visitors denied a visa.’
And of course, New Labour was swept away by Cameron and his promise to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, a promise set against the backdrop of Bigotgate and Gordon Brown’s flailing promises to provide ‘British jobs for British workers’.
In European elections, where third parties can win, we have witnessed UKIP coming second in 2009, winning in 2014, and their successor-party BXP winning outright in 2019; 2009 also saw two members elected to the European Parliament from the BNP. And of course, 17.4 million people voting for Brexit against the advice of every mainstream party, institution and corporation.
There really can be no mistaking what the British people think about immigration. Yet immigration never meaningfully decreases. The trajectory is always up. Illegal immigration is never meaningfully tackled. Thousands of illegal immigrants are being housed in hotels and given spending money, their perverse reward for criminally crossing the Channel. Pew Research informs us that the UK has the fifth-highest immigrant population in the world, a population which doubled between 1990 and 2015. How can this possibly square with public sentiment? Yet again, the main two parties close ranks, jostle over the deportation of a handful of individuals here and there, case by case, one by one.
No comprehensive policy proposal is every introduced, and there are few indications the incoming points-based system will meaningfully reduce numbers. On the contrary, the so-called ‘Vote Leave’ or ‘Hard Right’ Conservative government is set to receive as many as up to one million Hong Kongers in the next five years, according to the Guardian. How does that square with the court of public opinion, with democracy? But if the Red team want the same thing, or even more of the same thing, what choice is there? If we cannot close our borders in the middle of the pandemic, then when? What mechanism exists to enact change? None. Where there has been such a mechanism, the mass of the people has shocked the establishment by rushing to the exit door, and yanked the emergency lever, referred to as ‘Brexit’. But as time passes the possibility the lever was a dud, a distraction, approaches 1. We will have to wait for January the 1st, to know for sure if they were duped.
Cutting foreign aid is also universally popular. Two thirds of the general population support it, including a majority in the Conservative party (92%), and a plurality of Labour (44%) and Lib Dem voters (49%). Only 18% of voters support the current level of foreign aid spending. Ironically, the target to spend 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid, was initially set by the 1974 Labour government, that very same government which we earlier talked about as being propelled to narrow victory by one Enoch Powell. Even more ironically, it was only ever finally reached in 2013 under Cameron’s Conservative government. The view that one could earmark record spending abroad at the same time as one oversees a programme of austerity in one’s own country is one I just cannot comprehend. And neither can the vast majority of the public. Yet even with a pandemic with threatens to inflict on our nation the economic crisis not seen in hundreds of years, the cut that has been made is both derisory and temporary. The Chancellor has told us there will be a return to the 0.7% level when the financial situation allows, and the budget still remains at 0.5% of GDP, one of the highest levels in the world.
Yet despite overwhelming public support, John Major dubbed the move ‘morally wrong’. Does he think those who support the move are immoral? We do not know, he doesn’t debate, he just briefs the newspapers and enjoys his words bounced around the airwaves thereafter with no recourse for interrogative. Every living former PM backed him in his opposition to the foreign aid cut. How can virtually every Prime Minister come from the 18%? It’s strikingly odd, like a dice that only rolls a 6, 80% of the time.
These examples go on and on, as with the US and the publics’ consistently expressed will for stricter gun regulation, set against the failure of any branch of government to bring that will to fruition. Or in the UK where train nationalisation is supported by a majority of voters on either side of the political aisle. To try and say why it is that our political class ignores the popular will whenever, and to the greatest extent that it is able is difficult, there is no knowing.
It could be to impress dignitaries at dinner parties, or because of the expectations of extranational forces like the IMF or the World Bank, the UN or some development index. It could be for reasons of real politic or bilateral agreements that take place in smoke filled rooms. Is it the civil service, the advisors, the leaders themselves or some other thing? Is it the NRA, or AIPAC? In any case, maybe they’ve got it right. If we are going to colonise Mars, enter the singularity and cool the earth, maybe democracy is retrograde to those ends. I’m quite sure the technocracy which governs our international institutions would say as much, and perhaps they’re right.
Perhaps the people who run global governance know best, and in their technocracy we ought to trust. But it would be nice if they told us that, rather than letting us bang on about an immigration rate we know they will never let fall.