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Preconceptions

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About the author

A freelance writer and editor based in London, J Clive Matthews is Managing Editor of openDemocracy's EU and deliberative democracy blog, dLiberation.

In the real world he has co-authored two books and edited numerous others (ranging in subject-matter from movies to modern Russian politics), been acting editor on a glossy history and travel magazine, editorial consultant for a big name women's magazine, a freelance news editor for AOL UK, worked in both the House of Commons and the European Commission, and contributed to publications as diverse as Starburst and the Times Literary Supplement.

Best known as Nosemonkey online, he has been blogging about British and European politics daily for several years both at his own blog and sites like The Sharpener, General Election 2005 (now defunct), AgoraVox, France 24 and the Washington Post / Newsweek's Postglobal, as well as about movies for the BBC, and has been shortlisted for blog awards by the likes of the Guardian, Deutsche Welle International and the Weblog Awards, amongst others.

My initial thinking about the Tomorrow's Europe poll was that the aim was to see what would happen if a representative selection of EU citizens were given access to better knowledge. "What's the point in that?", I thought, "as soon as you make them more knowledgable than the average, they cease to be representative, and so the final findings of the poll will be useless. All you'll prove is that people who know what they're talking about will make different choices to people who don't - which is both obvious and hardly of any use to policy-makers."

Then, on first looking at the Tomorrow's Europe briefing materials, my initial reaction was that they were packed full of differing opinions, but contained little in the way of actual facts. "How," I thought, "can you come to a considered opinion on any given issue without looking at the background information and trying to weigh up the facts? How are these people meant to increase their knowledge and make informed decisions when all they are being exposed to is subjective opinion rather than objective evidence?"

But I think I may well have been missing the point.

The real aim of deliberation seems to be to expose the participants to alternative viewpoints, not to additional knowledge. Because the vast majority of us, after all, adopt the viewpoints of those in our immediate circle, most frequently from our families. If you were born and raised in Sussex, you're likely to have been raised a Conservative, whereas if you were born and raised in Northumbria you're more likely to think of yourself as a Labour supporter - just as if you're born in a Christian country, you're more likely to end up a Christian, a Muslim country a Muslim, and so on. World views are largely a matter of geography.

Likewise, if you have certain opinions, the tendency is to stick to people who agree with you - be this friends or be it through your choice of newspaper. In the UK, if you're vaguely left-wing, there's a good chance you'll read the Guardian, the Independent or the Mirror - if vaguely right-wing, it might be the Telegraph, Mail or Sun. In the process, your opinions are confirmed and repeated back to you.

If the aim of democracy is to avoid warfare - the ballot box replacing the ramparts and all that - deliberation seems to be aiming to take things one step further. Rather than simply replacing arguments settled by force with arguments settled by votes, as standard democratic systems do, deliberation aims for some kind of reconciliation and understanding between the opposing sides.

One way of doing this? Get people of differing opinions discussing what they think and why in a civilised, moderated setting - with none of the usual shouty ranting that happens when people of opposing political views "debate" in other settings, most notably on the internet and in the House of Commons - and then see if they change their mind.

The added benefit, of course, is that the polling method used removes the artificially binary split so often seen in democratic elections, which seem all to frequently to boil down to a two party system and a single, uncompromising vote.

Of course, quite what use this exercise might be to policy-makers still remains anyone's guess. Until, that is, we all calm down a little and pay more attention to the views we normally dismiss outright thanks to our own ingrained political preconceptions. So I'm still not entirely sure what the point is... I think I may be getting somewhere, though...

A entirely irrelevant sidetrack:

How much nicer it would be to be able to break it down to the issues in actual elections, just as the participants in the Tomorrow's Europe poll were able to do. How much nicer to be able to give progressive scores to the various parties - agreeing with Labour 60% on education, the Tories 60% on taxation, the Lib Dems 60% on civil liberties, etc. etc. - and see who's got more approval for more policies at the end of the day. Why, if you vote Labour because you want increased investment in the NHS, should that also count as you giving your approval for the war in Iraq, after all? Why should any party of government be able to claim a democratic mandate for a policy that featured in just one brief line in their almost entirely unread manifesto?

Maybe I should dub it the Clive-Matthews model? On election day, all voters have to fill out a 100 question multiple-choice questionnaire on the full range of policy issues, compiled to reflect the various parties/candidates' positions, marking each statement on a scale of one to ten - each party/candidate then has their score worked out from the totals, the highest-scoring winning office. I mean, yes - it would take about an hour for each person to vote, the election would therefore have to take place over the course of several weeks, and it could well take a year or more for the results to come through, by which time everyone could have changed their minds - but it should nonetheless end up a far better reflection of public opinion than simple first past the post, where so many votes are cast based on blind party loyalty...

What? I can dream, can't I?


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