Monday, April 11, 2005

VoterVault, Debating Societies, and the Decline of Intelligent Debate

I was at a family party last weekend, and in conversation with a relative I hadn't seen in a long time, he said to me, "you people in debating societies are ruining the country." I wanted to put up a spirited defence of the Union - I've enjoyed the debating I did both there and at school greatly. Yet the fact is he is right.

The style of debating in both the Chamber debates at the Union, and in the inter-varsity debates, is heavily adversarial. That in itself is not a bad thing. Politics should be discussing serious issues and if something is important enough, it is likely to be divisive. Yet the way these things tend to be judged, both by official judges and by the media, supports people who make shallow debating points, who distort the truth, who present arguments in ways that make it harder for someone to counter, rather than actually providing the best solution to a problem.

This creeps in insidiously into our political system. A parliamentary system - especially one which has three big players (if some are bigger than others) - should provide for reasoned discussion of issues, with really good ideas and watertight legislation the end result. Instead, we are creeping further and further towards presidential politics in a parliamentary system. Both Blair and Howard are trying to turn the election campaign into a referendum on the other. Rather than trying to present policies intelligently, it is more a case of identifying the weakness of the others and exploiting it. When the Tories were last in government, Robin Cook was famously caught out by a BBC report which spoke to a former policy advisor of his. Cook reputedly said "I've got an opinion poll in here which says that most of the country think our health policy is better than the Tories. You and I know that we don't have a health policy. But why do we need one?"

VoterVault, the system used to great effect by Karl Rove in the 2004 US election, is now finding its way to Britain. In particular, the Tories are using it to identify the key voters in the swing seats that they need to win the election. Not only does this greatly limit the active participation in the election for most voters (Howard is apparently concentrating on appealing to just 800,000 voters), but it also makes policy-making an appeal to stereotypes rather than constructive policies.

I am white, middle-class, in the 18-30 age range - indeed, I can be classified in any number of ways statistical agencies want. What trying to group people together in such a way does, however, is completely depersonalises politics. It ignores the fact that I have a brain and am able to assess the merit of policies independently. Policy wonks may try and find a bone to throw to the Catholic voter, or the suburbian voter, or the rugby-supporting, wine-drinking voter. But it doesn't make politics any more intelligent. It compartmentalises debates into often unhelpful channels.

The issues facing the country don't have easy solutions. If they did, any political party worth its salt would be able to solve them quite easily. By pretending that niche issues can be dealt with easily, the political establishment is selling the country short. This blog has been used recently to debate the merits of increased funding in public services. It is sad that although we are expanding on issues raised by political parties, the leaders do no seek to make such detailed arguments. Instead, its a slanging match about who will cut more, or who is more wasteful, or what-have-you. It's no wonder people aren't interested in that. If politicians started treating the electorate with a little more respect, we might go a long way towards tackling apathy.