An attempt at a conclusion

J Clive Matthews
2 November 2007
Today dLiberation is coming to an end - for the time being at least. I've spent the last 24 hours trying to come up with some kind of neat final post, wrapping up all the various issues we've been covering here over the last few weeks, and laying down a final judgement on the successes and failures of the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll.

But, of course, it's just not that simple. I've jotted down (literally) thousands of words today - re-writing, cutting and pasting, editing and starting again from scratch countless times - only to realise that there is no short, simple conclusion here. Because almost all points that could be considered failures with the Tomorrow's Europe poll could equally apply to all other forms of representative democracy.

All forms of representative democracy are more or less flawed when you look at the details. Constituencies are not the same size, minorities end up under-represented, voters fail to turn out, one vote amongst millions breeds apathy, different voting systems can lead to either political stalemate - as in Belgium at the moment - or parties gaining sizable parliamentary majorities thanks to picking up a few extra votes in a small number of marginal constituencies - as in Britain.

At the last British general election, Labour won 55% of the seats in the House of Commons with just 35% of the vote (which was itself, thanks to poor turnout, only 22% of the electorate), while the Conservatives ended up with 30% of the seats with 32% of the vote. Labour's additional 3% of the vote led to a 25% advantage in seats. At the same time, the Cabinet - the executive - is appointed by a Prime Minister who runs the government not on a popular, personal mandate, but because he was chosen by his party, not the people (or, in the case of the current Prime Minister, because of an agreement made between two people in an Islington restaurant a decade and a half ago, combined with the lack of a viable alternative). The second chamber in the UK is made up of appointed, permanent peers. In the US, the second chamber treats California as an equal to Rhode Island, despite the disparity in population and economic might. All democracies involve party systems, where groupthink dominates and minority voices are drowned.

This, however, hardly anyone acknowledges. It is far easier to criticise the new than to look in detail at the old. The debate over the EU is a prime case in point - one of the things that always amazes me about the British anti-EU arguments is just how many of them can be applied to the government in Westminster as much as the proto-government in Brussels. The Commission draws up all the legislation without any democratic involvement? Same as the Civil Service. European Commissioners are unelected? So are the Permanent Secretaries at the various government departments. The Council of the European Union isn't directly elected? Neither's the Cabinet. Some EU laws can come in to force with little in the way of analysis from an elected body? What about statutory instruments?

The problem deliberative polling faces as it attempts to be accepted as a new way of giving the people a voice in policy making is the same as that faced by all other new methods. Innovation is mistrusted - the consensus always seems to be better the devil you know.

It is also far easier to find fault than to come up with practical alternatives - and it is very easy to find fault with pretty much every suggestion that has ever been made to encourage greater political participation. Proponents of proportional representation, for example, can agree that first past the post is bad, but not on which alternative system is best - and all are more complex than the existing method, which leads to further misunderstandings. Misunderstanding breeds distrust even more than innovation.

It's all very well the organisers of the Tomorrow's Europe poll claiming that their methods are "scientific" and "balanced" - but to verify these claims involves far too much in-depth investigation for most people to attempt it, because such polls are so complex in their organisation and structure. Referenda, on the other hand, are easy to understand - hence their popularity with the people.

In fact the Tomorrow's Europe poll was a perfectly good attempt to do what it set out to do. It was, despite my doubts, a fairly good representative sample of the population of the EU - it may not be statistically perfect, but then nothing ever is. From what I can tell, the briefing materials offered both sides of the argument in a fair, if necessarily simplistic manner. The small group discussions that I sat in on did appear to feature some proper debate, and were well moderated without the participants being obviously led to any one conclusion - and the final poll seems to show that opinions were changed as a result.

However, I cannot see such methods being accepted by the public at large - because to be told "this is what you would think if you knew what you were talking about" will always smack of patronising elitism. Yet without the acceptance of the public - notably not one of the three criteria for success laid out by Professor Fishkin - such innovative attempts to increase participation are doomed to failure.

An added problem is that if there's one trend in Western democracies during the last three decades or so, it is a tendency towards scepticism and mistrust of the political class. Be it Watergate or the dodgy dossier before the Iraq war, the public has learned not to believe what they are told by anyone official - and having such a poll conducted in the European Parliament, organised by a pro-EU thinktank set up by a former President of the Commission, and part-funded by the European Commission as part of a Commission initiative, is naturally going to make it look official, whether the EU institutions themselves had any direct input or not.

But even ignoring the perception of official status, the complexity of the deliberative polling method is always going to be its downfall when it comes to public acceptance - because there are simply too many areas to be sceptical about. A referendum? Fine - simple and easy to understand. A system of gauging public opinion that involves a "scientific" selection, "balanced" briefing materials and "moderated" debate? All three words in inverted commas are instantly going to raise suspicions - "scientific" sounds too much like the obfuscation of a shampoo advert, "balanced" sounds too much like the utterly misleading slogan of the utterly biased Fox News, "moderated" sounds too much like censored.

In addition, the third of Professor Fishkin's criteria for success was to influence decision-makers. With such an aim, the public at large - sceptical as they are - will understandably start to wonder what the agenda is.

The fact that the agenda is nothing more than to give the people the voice they have been lacking will, sadly, not be believed - and there is little that can be done to rectify this, as it is a problem that lies at the heart of representative democracy. For people to feel that their voice counts they have to see that it counts. They want to see their opinions reflected in official policy. They want their party, their candidate to win. They couldn't care less about some other group of people they've never met who are supposedly representative - they want to be listened to as individuals.

But this is not a problem unique to exercises like Tomorrow's Europe. As the problems with the British first past the post system amply demonstrate, politics isn't a simple case of black and white. You may agree with Labour on immigration, the Tories on the NHS, the Lib Dems on the war on terror - but you have only one vote, and can't specify what it signifies beyond putting an "X" in a box. Your individual voice, your individual opinions, will never be heard amongst the mass of alternatives, and will be lost amidst the compromises that all politicians and parties must make to secure as much support as possible.

In this, the Tomorrow's Europe poll has a sizable advantage. By breaking down the different policy areas into a number of different, specific questions, and with participants asked how much they agree or disagree on a sliding scale, the multiple shades of grey are allowed to become far clearer. As an aid to attune policy-makers to the desires of the public, such a system could well prove invaluable.

But this is a service that focus groups already provide. The only difference is, if anything, a negative one. For the difference is that those involved in a deliberative poll are given information and encouraged to discuss amongst themselves to reach a more informed, deliberative opinion. As the public at large do not do this, no matter how representative the participants in such a poll may have been when they went in, they are no longer representative when they come out - and so for policy-makers to listen to their views makes little sense.

Because for policy-makers, democracy necessitates keeping the public on board and maintaining their support - as without that support, the power to make policy will be lost. To keep that support, policy-makers have to work with the public they have - not the ideal public that deliberative polls seek to create.

So the difficulty is not proving that the participants are representative, or that the materials are balanced, or that genuine deliberation took place - the problem is in getting the public to accept that they would think differently about politics if they knew more about the subjects at hand. And how do you do that without insulting the public's intelligence?
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