We should vote less … but consult more.
For political party members to vote for their leaders sounds a manifestly reasonable practice, and seldom questioned until the recent election of Liz Truss by a tiny unrepresentative electorate of Conservative Party members.
In fact, one can argue that both major parties in recent years saddled themselves with leaders who lacked the required skills-set for the onerous role of Prime Minister. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Truss attained leadership because they were popular among activists, and numerically, they polled well, defeating better-qualified or better-suited rivals. A case could also be made that Theresa May and Boris Johnson were also unsuitable; the one for having insufficient charisma; the other for having too much!
Tough decisions come in many forms. Deciding to build houses in a quiet village; to reallocate roadspace in favour of cyclists; to rationalise accident and emergency; to build an onshore wind farm …or a nuclear power plant. To be topical, to allow fracking; to increase tax rates … to select a Prime Minister ….
In all these cases, a good argument can be made for extensive consultation. This means hearing people’s views, considering different arguments. After all, the beauty of a good consultation is that we can generally discover who believes what, and hopefully why. In a democracy, decisions should be taken by those who are accountable – and surely it is best if they have the benefit of an objective assessment of stakeholder views – especially if we are ALL stakeholders! The qualitative insights obtained through consultation are invaluable. What works less well is when consultation becomes a vote. Excessive emphasis on the numbers game has long distorted the process.
Would it perhaps have worked better if the Conservative Party (or Labour, for that matter) had sought to consult its members rather than given them a vote; if, instead, it had tried to understand their members’ views, and why they held them rather than just register a Yes or No. It could, for example have fully appreciated the view that taxes were too high and should be reduced immediately. The debate could have tested members’ assumptions that such a policy would be feasible and acceptable to financial markets. Decision-makers could well have given these views ‘conscientious consideration’ but used their experience and know-how to decide whether or not to follow this path. With a vote, there is no such opportunity. Winner takes it all. A vote allows no nuance. We can’t say Yes …provided x or No, unless y.
We have had these debates before, notably over the 2016 EU referendum, decided on a fairly slim majority. Had it been a consultative exercise (which, constitutionally, it was!) and not a binding, decision-making vote, the UK might have had the chance to negotiate a different settlement with the EU – one that took account of the numerical result rather than be bound by it.
The range of tools now available for those running consultation and engagement exercises enables us to discover the factors that influence people’s perceptions. This becomes critical in the age of mass-misinformation and the more pernicious impact of social media. Fickle public opinion can mask some deep-seated changes in values, beliefs, and opinions, and we are still struggling to fully grasp the effects of modern communications on diverse communities. Weighing up these cross-currents is the ultimate challenge for the problem with any plebiscite is that it depends on who turns up to vote. Many disadvantaged groups have a lower propensity to vote. In a consultation, a powerful argument can have influence no matter how many support it. When the mechanism is merely a vote, mass-support for weak arguments or even deliberate misinformation trumps everything else.
This is the case for more deliberative democracy. Elections will always be required, but maybe we need more deliberation on complex issues where competing interests need to be balanced and where those we elect can elicit views without being bound by the tyranny of arithmetic, where those who participate are self-selected.
The Consultation Institute
Joint author of The Politics of Consultation
20 October 2022