Friday, 1 July 2011

I'd happily never hear this again

There are of course many hate speech phrases and words I'd rather not have to hear again, but this one is a little more seemingly-innocuous: "Elections have consequences".

I'm seeing this phrase a lot at the moment - both in a UK context as the coalition government brings out terrible policy after terrible policy, and in the USA as State and House Republicans bring in ever-worse laws to eliminate anyone not like them.

Specifically I'm seeing the phrase used a lot by centre-lefties whose centre-left party was defeated in an election (for being generally not very effective) as a way to say "We told you so. Hopefully you'll make a better choice next time.".

It of course very nicely fits the centre-left (and general right) narrative of "personal responsibility" and seeking individual solutions to structural problems.

Firstly, it assumes the existence of a meaningful choice. For people whose interests do not align with the interests of the default people, while a left-wing party might be a little better on average, this is only on average. On many issues the choice is between "bad" and "terrible" on policy. On some, the choice is between "terrible" and "terrible, and they enjoy it".

Furthermore, the electoral system in both the UK and the USA severly restricts voters' choice of candidate. Electoral boundaries can render votes entirely irrelevant (and with the partisan boundary decisions that much of the USA has, this is even more likely) short of a tremendous swing in opinion. First-past-the-post voting makes it very difficult to have more than two locally-viable parties in any seat: three-way marginals are incredibly rare in the UK, and barring the occasional charismatic independent candidate, completely absent in the USA.

It's hard to vote for a decent candidate if there are literally none standing in your constituency. It's not always the best idea for minimisation of harm even if one is, if they're unlikely to actually win.

Throw in electoral fraud and it's quite possible that the voters collectively were fully aware of the consequences of electing a particular candidate, and if the votes had been counted properly that would have been clear. Similarly, polling station inaccessibility, or malfunctioning voting machines, or errors in the electoral roll, can prevent someone casting a vote that they should have been able to.

Elections might have consequences, but that's not the same thing as voters being able to do anything about them. Blaming the voters for the fact that the system often entirely disregards their votes is absurd.

Secondly, there's a serious information problem. In the 2010 general election I had great difficulty deciding who to vote for. I had a lot of advantages - many of them privilege-related - in getting information about the candidates - time to read manifestos thoroughly, time to look up previous voting records of their parties on issues that matter to me, enough knowledge of recent political history to be aware of what they weren't saying, and so on.

Even with that information I still wasn't entirely sure at the time whether I was voting the right way1. The average voter is not going to have all that information - may not even be aware that the information exists, in some cases - and is often not going to have the free time to find it out. In theory, the press should help fill this information gap... in practice, of course, they're often more interested in extending it.

Where some of the most unpleasant policies of a government weren't even mentioned in their pre-election speeches and publicity, it's even less fair to blame the voters for not seeing it coming.

There are a lot of things that could be done - nationally, structurally - to reduce the voter information gap. Individual voters have very few options for doing the same.

Thirdly, it's such a smug statement that betrays the speaker's attitudes towards voters. "Well, you see, elections have consequences. Did you not realise that? Did you think that it was just an exercise in who could sort and count bits of paper faster?". Yes, quite obviously elections have consequences. That's why we have them. Voters2, believe it or not, are actually quite aware of this. Mostly, it does not fill them with hope.

It's not as if smug political explainers are particularly good at predicting the real consequences of elections either (see also: "progressive majority").

Voters who have seen the speaker's party also fail to deliver while in power or usefully oppose while out of it will of course treat the statement with the contempt it deserves.


1 It's a testament to Miliband's recent direction as leader of the Labour party that I'm still not sure.

2 In which I include people who could vote but choose not to. (For instance, on the grounds that they're aware that all possible consequences are really bad, and can't bring themselves to add legitimacy to any of them) Abstention is a legitimate decision.