How should I vote?

How should I vote?

English: US President Barack Obama and British...

US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron trade bottles of beer to settle a bet they made on the U.S. vs. England World Cup Soccer game (which ended in a tie), during a bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Toronto, Canada, Saturday, June 26, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elections are upon us again. In the USA it’s Romney or Obama, and in the UK we have our first ever police commissioner elections. For some people the choice will be easy: they will vote the way they always vote, even though, as fixed voters, it means that their political influence is minimal. But what if you are a floating voter? Or what — as, for many Liberal Democrat voters facing the police commissioner elections — your party or favoured candidate is not on the list?

We once organised a meeting on this subject in the city of Ghent, Belgium. Unfortunately, most people who came to it did not want to know how to vote, but what to vote. They were not intersted in the principles for making up their own minds, but simply on an instruction  as to which candidate they should select.

If you’re a fixed voter, and your candidate is available at the next bout of elections, you’ve probably already made up your mind. But, even then, there are a large number of things in modern life which call us to make a choice where there is no party candidate standing. X Factor votes may not be particularly significant, but choice of school governors, staff reps in a job negotiation and even club elections are potentially substantial choices which will shape the future.

People vote for essentially four reasons, two of which (I argue) are good, and two of which (I maintain) are bad. This isn’t just me. Aristotle, in his Politics, describes six kinds of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, versus tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Monarchy he saw as one ruler ruling for the benefit of all. Aristocracy was the noble ruling for the benefit of all, and polity was the citizens ruling for the benefit of all. Tyranny, by contrast, was a single ruler ruling for their own benefit, oligarchy was the powerful ruling for their own benefit, and democracy was the people ruling for selfish purposes.

Most modern thinkers would argue that monarchy and aristocracy inevitably lead in time to tyranny and oligarchy. However, we have appropriated Aristotle’s demeaning term democracy to describe the polity which he recommends: citizens, deciding together for everyone’s good. Equally, though, we recognise the tyranny of the 51% vote where the majorrity rule at the expense of the minority, and we deplore it.

My belief is that people vote for four reasons:


  • Rationality
  • Reaction
  • Prejudice
  • Self-interest
Rationality is when we vote because reason tells us to. We examine, perhaps, the policies of the candidate, or their track record, or their expertise, or documented actions which inform us about their character, and we vote accordingly. Essentially we are asking ourselves: will voting this way further the common good, based on my interpretation of what that is?
Reaction is when we vote because of a gut feeling. This is by no means counter-rational. Every day every one of us increases our experience of people. We observe what they say, how they say it, what they then do, and what the result is. These observations are tiny and unnoticeable, but they build up into a coherent model which we use without thinking about it in millions of ways. It tells us who to trust, when to get out of trouble. When making a political speech, we all know that a candidate will make the best possible case for his programme and his candidacy. If we agree with the programme, we still have to ask ourselves, ‘do we trust him?’ Better a candidate who is honest about what they can and cannot do, than one who will promise the world but deliver nothing.
Prejudice is the debased form of Reaction. It can be prejudice about gender, ethnicity and religion, or it can be more subtle things: we don’t like someone’s accent, we don’t like the car they drive, we don’t like their job, we don’t like where they live. Barack Obama was attacked by many because he had an Islamic sounding middle name, and an African sounding surname, despite all the evidence that he was an American from an at least nominally  Christian background
Self-interest is the debased form of rationality. There are laws in most country against overt  attempts to buy votes, which is considered to be a form of corruption. Appealing to people’s self-interest, though, is the key to the difference between Aristotle’s polity and democracy. This self-interest appeal is fundamentally an appeal to what benefits you over what benefits everyone, including you. This is not a left-right issue: conservative voters are perfectly capable of voting for the good of all, even when it will cost them something, and socialist  voters are equally able to vote for the good of a particular union or community against the wider good. Historically, I don’t see a greater pattern of altruism on the left or on the right, though people on the left tend to be more concerned with social morality and those on the right with personal morality.
It’s very easy to get tricksy about these things. Demagogues can effectively present an appeal to self-interest  as an appeal to the greater good. Fascist parties and extreme nationalists are skilled at dressing up their appeals  as more virtuous and honest, in order to create an impression that you are responding instinctively to their character whereas you are really responding on prejudice. Even highly skilled and perceptive analysts are susceptible to flattery.
You may be responding to this by saying that it is your vote, and you are entitled to use it in pure self-interest. You are certainly entitled to cast it any way you want, but there are certain  ways of casting it which, in the long run, will result in there being no society to cast it in. Rational voting may well be enlightened self-interest, but pure self-interest logically results in societal collapse, since it was the principle of collaboration and seeking the common good which enabled societies to function in the first place.
You may also be responding by saying that you always and only vote rationally. If that really is what you think, then most likely you are voting out of prejudice or self-interest. In a series of seminal studies, Drew Weston showed in his book The Political Brain that those pre-committed  to a particular view go through a series of mental exertions when confronted with facts that run against their view. However, they quickly post-rationalise, and come out more convinced of their original position than ever. It’s one of the marks of rational voting that the voter is willing to reconsider when new evidence emerges — and also prepared to recognise that often the evidence is insufficient. The truly rational voter is humble about that rationality, and looks to support it with human reactions.

You may yet be saying that you always vote with your gut instinct, and you can’t trust the politicians anyway. Unfortunately, being nice and being honest don’t necessarily equip someone to lead a country, or even a police authority, any more than being nasty and brutal do. It’s still necessary to ask the question: what will they do?



What now with Megrahi?

Barak Obama has expressed his disappointment to Gordon Brown. But Gordon Brown continues to insist that he had nothing to do with Megrahi’s release. Who should we believe, what should we think?

Few in the Western world, I think, have any sympathy for the Lockerbie bomber. I certainly don’t.

There are of course many who believe that Megrahi was not the bomber. There are, regrettably, a few who believe that the whole thing was a cynical western plot. Nonetheless, to think that what the bomber did was anything other than one of the most reprehensible acts of cowardly mass murder in recent history is no more nor less than a refusal to face the truth.

However, one of the fundamental principles of justice is that it is blind, and another is that it is not interfered with by politicians or through the political process. Back in the democracies of ancient Greece, citizens wrote on shards of clay pot – ostraka – the names of who they would like to see exiled from the city. Those who ‘won’ this poll were expelled, ostracised. Such a thing surely goes down in history as the clearest early example of the tyranny of the 51% majority. A tyranny indeed, and nothing more than an adult version of the kind of class room bullying which we try to stamp out in schools.

If we had all voted as to whether Megrahi would be released, then he would never have been released. But, on the same basis, if we all voted on every crime and every criminal, the sentences of some would become horrific, while others — celebrities, the media-friendly, the very wealthy who could court our sympathies — would go almost free.

Megrahi’s sentence was passed in a nation which gives compassionate release to those within three months of death from terminal conditions. Why three months? Why not let them die in jail? Scotland may reconsider its laws in the light of the Megrahi affair. But, at the time it passed the sentence, such were the laws. Was Megrahi really so ill? We remember all too well the time when General Pinochet, whose hands were probably no cleaner than Megrahi’s, was not extradited to Spain to stand trial because of his health. Yet Pinochet staged a remarkable recovery on his return to Chile. It is entirely possible that we have had the wool pulled over our eyes.

But justice must remain blind. Nobody, nobody at all, except the justice minister who was charged with reviewing this case, should have applied political pressure, neither before nor after. If we allow political pressure to second-guess justice, then we will end up with the kind of show-trials of Stalin’s Russia, and the kind of injustice that saw a British football supporter jailed in Bulgaria for a sentence of 15 years, even though another man confessed.

Of course Scotland’s justice minister is now deeply unpopular. Of course many people are furious. And of course the entire Western world collectively put its head in its hands when Megrahi appeared to be welcomed back in Libya as some kind of hero or celebrity. But leaders are not leaders if they cannot make unpopular decisions. And Libya’s own decision to take Megrahi back in the manner in which it did has surely done it immeasurable harm in the eyes of the world.

Restoring trust – how?

IPSOS Mori’s poll on trust in politics at the end of May should surprise no-one. 3/4 said that Britain’s system of government needed improvement — the most negative view since Mori started asking the question in 1995. At 20%, less than half the number of people believe that the Westminster parliament is doing its job, as compared with the last time they asked the question in 2001. 76% of people do not trust MPs to tell the truth. 62% believe that MPs put their own interests ahead of party, constituents and country — again, the worst that Mori has ever recorded. 2/3 think that MPs use power for their own personal gain. Even so, 80% believe that the system of expenses was to blame, not just the politicians.

52% of people were prepared to vote for a candidate not caught up in the scandal, even if that meant voting against the party they want to win the election.

It’s not hard to see how we got to where we are. But the question is: how do we get away?

Given that only 1 in 4 people have said they trusted MPs in general to tell the truth, and this figure has stayed fairly constant since pollsters began asking the question, we could perhaps say that it is inevitable that voters don’t trust politicians. But this is clearly not universal. 51% of Americans think Obama’s leadership is excellent or good, and 47% think his ethics are excellent or good.

Are the British naturally more cynical than Americans? Most of the world — we are given to understand — still believes British democracy to be above par on its ethics and honesty. Or do they simply believe this because they just don’t pay as much attention to it as we do?

Certainly, right now, everyone who wants to distrust politicians (that is, 3/4 of us) can find lots of evidence for it. But, as Mori points out, even before the scandal, approximately the same number of people still distrusted politicians. It is therefore clear that it is something other than our observation of what politicians do that sows our distrust.

It was said of King John that nobody trusts a man who trusts nobody.

This struck me deeply when I heard it on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time during the run up to the Euro elections. No-one trusts a man who himself trusts no-one. The more I consider it, the more I am compelled to believe that it is the culture of sowing distrust, innuendo, constant attacks on the character of opponents, and, worse, constant mocking, that makes all politicians (including those who don’t indulge in this, because all are tarred by association) appear to be untrusting, and therefore untrustworthy.

And yet, and yet. If we were to say that politicians were not allowed to be in conflict with each other, and to point out each other’s failings, then we would have no debate, and no means of holding government to account. The duty of opposition is to oppose, and it is one of the things which holds us back from tyranny.

So, are we therefore left with a choice: either our politicians by their behaviour will forever command our distrust, or, by their silence, will appear to earn our trust while, in truth, betraying it? This is a truly Shakespearian conundrum.

The answer, surely, is that there is a middle way. We are now engaged in a national process of hand wringing about standards in public life in relation to expenses. But it would not be beyond our power as a nation to start imposing standards on the the discourse of MPs. It was two elections ago that the Advertising Standards Authority threw its hands up and ceased to police political advertising. You can now, in a very real sense, say anything you want on a political poster, and get away with it. But the imposition of a standard of debate both in and outside the chamber of the House of Commons is something which could be done, and, for that reason, should and must be done.

At the moment, the only thing which limits a politician’s ability to make any accusation they want is the risk of being found out later on.

We are expecting the new Speaker of the House of Commons to reform members’ expenses. But we should also expect and require the Speaker to reform the standard of debate.

We, the electorate, should also seek to vote, in the new parliament, for new MPs who will not stop at nothing to obtain and maintain power. In this, in the past, we have signally failed, and we should therefore, collectively, accept a large part of the responsibility for the politicians we have elected. Because, ultimately, the electorate does not necessarily get the government it wants, but it always, collectively, gets the government it deserves.

So, should Christians vote for Christian parties? Here’s why not…

Former vicar in Hyndburn MP bid — Lancashire Evening Post
Two Christian parties stood on the same ticket at the recent Euro elections, and now a former Vicar is planning to stand on a Christian ticket in Hyndburn, Lancashire. In these times of national distrust of politicians (more so even than usual), doesn’t the existence of Christian parties offer hope and an alternative to traditional politics? And, as a protest vote, it is surely better than voting BNP? Here’s why I think not.

1 Christian parties do not stay Christian for long
We don’t have a history of Christian parties in Britain, but they have lots of them in mainland Europe. The problem is, that it’s fairly hard to identify what the ‘Christian’ component of the Christian Democrats is. This is a problem which has particularly taxed the Dutch, whose own struggles with ‘Christian’ parties that were no longer Christian enough, resulted in a baffling 23 distinct Christian parties during the last hundred or so years. A fascinating timeline of their mergers, splits and acquisitions is presented in this Wikipedia article. Christianity grew up as a counter-culture within the Roman state, and flourished despite intense persecution for around 300 years. It was Constantine, the only emperor to be proclaimed in Britain, who proclaimed toleration for Christians in 313 AD, followed later by the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire. We can argue backwards and forwards about the real impact of this, but, certainly, by the fall of the Roman empire, a great many practices, symbols and philosophies from the pagan world had been adopted into Christianity, and the track record of supposedly Christian emperors was, to say the least, patchy, when it came to implementing the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Clearly, in the modern world, no Christian party is going to advocate persecution of non-Christian minorities, or crusades to recover lost ‘Christian’ lands, but the history of a too-close union between Christianity and political power is that the, quite soon, Christian regimes and Christian parties lose the Christian distinctive, and become just like other regimes and other parties. For Christians — such as myself — this creates huge problems. Get into any argument with atheists about the existence of God, and they are certain to bring up the Crusades and the Inquisition as examples of the malign impact of religion on the world. The solution to this problem is to challenge them to identify exactly how the philosophy and practices of the Crusades and the Inquisition were derived from the teachings of Jesus. In fact, they derived almost exclusively from the philosophy and practices of the Roman empire. But, at this point, we, as Christians, need to step away, and accept that applying the label ‘Christian’ to really any brand of politics creates enormous risks for the faith itself.

Over the last years, we have seen the spectacle of American presidential candidates scrabbling to present how ‘Christian’ they are. But, with the exception of Jimmy Carter (and, we hope, Obama), their actions once inside the White House have shown no particular Christian influence. If the only purpose of having ‘Christian’ parties is to bring out a captive vote, which can then be treated in a cavalier fashion, just as Tony Blair was able to treat the left-wing vote, then we would be better off without such parties.

2 Christians are called to be involved in mainstream society
Jesus called his followers to be salt and light in society. Through the pages of the New Testament, we see the early Christians engaged in all manner of ordinary, secular jobs. One of them was a city administrator. At no point do any of the New Testament writers suggest that Christians should distance themselves from secular politics. Going a little further back, the book of Daniel presents a clear picture of godly action by a civil servant and later prime minister in a thoroughly pagan regime.
The moment that we create Christian parties, we put a dilemma before Christian voters: should we vote for the best candidate, or should we vote for the Christian party. In some cases we may even be faced with the challenge of voting for the best candidate who is a Christian in a mainstream party, or the Christian party candidate.
Great Christian politicians such as Gladstone and Wilberforce were Christians active in ordinary mainstream parties. Their influence was much greater because they were involved in regular politics.
At the European elections, which traditionally favour minor parties, less than a quarter of a million people voted for the Christian parties, and their average vote was just 1.64%. But even if all regular church-goers had voted for them, they would not have attracted more than 10% of the vote. Of course, with a low turn-out, as we saw for the last election, 10% of the total electorate, if every church-goer voted, would be 20% of the actual vote — enough to put a Christian MEP into every region, but nowhere near enough to make those MEPs any more than an irritation, in the way of UKIP or the BNP.
For Christian politicians to have an impact on the society in which they live, they need to work with non-Christians. Which, of course, is exactly the way of things in business, the public sector, and most of the voluntary sector. And that means being in parties made up of many kinds of people.

3 Protest votes of any kind do not work
And that brings me to my third point. Everyone likes to make a protest, and the protest vote has a long tradition in British democracy. But not a very healthy tradition. Labour voters protested in their droves at the Euro election by simply not bothering to vote. The result? Two BNP MEPs were elected. And, rather worse for Christians, these BNP MEPs actually claim to speak for Christians. As I have pointed out in a previous article, they have no credentials for doing so, and they have no track record which would support it. However, the result of all the protest voting that took place is that the BNP got seats, whereas the Christian parties got none. I struggle to believe that all the people who voted for non-mainstream parties were happy to see the BNP elected. Nonetheless, the English Democrats, the Christian parties, and Socialist Labour were each worth an average of around one and a half percent, with the others all together probably worth another couple of percent between them. Even if these votes had been evenly distributed across the three mainstream parties, it would have been enough to keep the BNP out.

I am, personally, a committed Christian, and I joined a mainstream political party because I believe that faith does matter in politics. I certainly wouldn’t agree with anyone who suggests that you should keep religion out of politics. This is a frankly baffling and illogical perspective: why should we arbitrarily reject one part of our society from having a role in our common life. We might as well suggest that scientists should keep out of politics, or musicians, or dog-owners, or people who drive particular kinds of motor-cars, or people who do not drive at all. But, just as I would advise against a ‘Science party’, or a ‘Musicians’ party’, or any other kind of single-issue or special-interest party, I would advise Christians who want to have an impact through the democratic process against Christian parties. No party can possibly have a monopoly on Christians, nor can any party guarantee its future to the extent that it can be sure it will always behave in a scrupulously Christian way. History — and mainland European politics — is littered with too many examples of people who believed passionately in what they were doing, but were also entirely wrong.

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