Friday, October 20, 2006

The Hague effect

William. The great communicator.

One more thing to add to my previous post about Shuggy’s line on the environment and electoral cycles.

He raises the question of how representative democracy is suited to long-term problems.

I'd suggest there is a clue in his notion of ‘the Hague Effect’ – the phenomenon whereby a popular policy is not necessarily an electoral asset. If I understand Shuggy correctly, it arises when politicians and the chattering classes believe that high profile and controversial policy matters decide elections when really, people are much more persuaded by a party's position on a wider range of non-headline grabbing issues.

In reality, this argument seems to suggest that they vote for the broad range of policies that seem less likely to bugger the country up.

This assessment is very superficially attractive, and almost one that I’d agree with. But not quite. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the public are voting for a sensible batch of policies at all. They are, I believe, nearly always voting for sensible-looking people (or more likely, the least stupid-looking). The policy debate only serves to show people what the politicians are like in action. A sort of pre-nuptial peacock display. The policies are instrumental rather than central.

Hague will go down in history as a poor leader because most people saw him as a bit of a twit. The way his party debated policies may have given him little choice but to act like a twit, though I think we can all conclude that he brought his own special quality of twittiness to his role as leader of The-he Conse-eh-veh-teve Pa-harteh.

If you need this argument testing, ask yourself this: Did Hague give the impression of being a sensible man saddled with silly policies? Or was it the other way around? I suspect that most people thought of him as a silly man with policies that were irrelevant because of the silliness of the bearer.

I can’t prove this, of course. But I suspect that most people are a lot more agnostic on most things than we give them credit for. Certainty and grandstanding are for Question Time. That programme self-selects the lumpen intellegencia to it's audience. Ask the kind of people that don't go on programmes such as that to make decisions on complex policy matters and they will – quite wisely – duck them.

Ask them to read the many signals that senior politicians give out, on the other hand, and they will be a lot more at ease with this. People with few firm opinions on policy issues will speak with conviction about particular politicians. They will, I suspect, pick the ones that look the least dodgy. It is something that we all can do. It's a democratic skill that we all have. We don't need to be specialists to know how to vote in elections - and this is a good thing.

The actual policies are less relevant than anyone in the nit-picking chattering classes will admit. And if this realisation ever becomes common currency, I'd hope we'd start to see a bit more statesmanship and a bit less single issue posturing.

In the United States, we see a much more direct form of democracy. Politicians are much more vulnerable to organised lobbies. The result is more short-termism and less statesmanlike policies. In many states, for example, no politican would dare stand up to the capital punishment lobby. Bill Clinton famously went out of his way to attend executions on the eve of major elections.

In the UK, however, for many years there was a large majority in favour of hanging*. But politicians recognised that people may want hanging brought back, but didn't want to be governed by hangers. I'd suggest that one of our assets in this country is that politicans can gain a little bit of political capital by standing on unpopular principles, as long as they don't overdo it. I suspect that this is less the case now than it used to be, but is it still there to some degree.

And, by the same token, no US politician would raise fuel tax to UK levels.

So I'd argue that representative democracy is more likely to rewards statesmanship than the more direct forms that are emerging. I'd go further and argue that - if politicans took the time to reflect on this, they'd realise that pandering to populist demands - while superficially appealing - damages their personal standing in the medium term.

In the meantime, those direct forms of democracy are partly a phenomenon of a more powerful mass-media, and we can only expect long-termism in politics if we can reverse this process. The jury is out on the impact that the blogosphere and the wider, atomised web 2.0-led media will change this. But if climate change is the challenge we are told it is, this starts to become an important challenge.

So, Shuggy, if you want a system of democracy that is more likely to take difficult decisions, you have to drop everything and jump on the (as yet, empty) bandwaggon that this blog has been trying to start rolling for a long time now. The single biggest obstacles to an effective representative democracy are the various power-structures within the media that dictate how public life is conducted every day. Changing those power-structures is not that big a job, surely?

*I'm told that 2006 is the first year in which some polls have shown a majority opposing capital punishment in the UK - but I can't remember where I read this now.


Shuggy said...

Hmmm - need to get back to this more fully later on.

The 'Hague Effect' of politicians failing at the ballot-box with policies that are popular is a more straightforward idea, really.

Hague lost the election, not because people didn't agree with the Tories on the Euro and asylum; it was just that these were floating around number 10 on people's priorities behind the economy, the NHS, education, crime etc.

Tim Almond said...

Good point about Question Time. If you watch early editions, the audience looked very normal.

Over time. the audience has become full of activists spounting cliches from both sides who only deal in the currency of the mainstream political debate.

Wolfie said...

Absolutely right.