I was listening to Stu Peter on Manx Radio recently and I heard him repeat a view that he has previously propounded during the debates leading up to the 2016 general election.
He doesn’t get much pushback on this particular view and I suspect it is a fairly widely held belief. Stu Peters argued that allowing more direct forms of democracy would not be viable because, given any particular question, irresponsible choices would be made. He made this argument through the hypothetical example of a vote for the level of income tax. He asserted that people would vote to abolish income tax (let’s ignore for a moment that corporation tax was in effect abolished on the Isle of Man by Tynwald without approval of the people).
While he didn’t say so, I deduced from his commentary that he wouldn’t vote for no income tax (sorry about the double negative) because of the impact it would have on public services such as health and education etc. In other words, his evaluation of the question went as far as examining the potential implications of the proposed policy. After all that’s what smart people do.
It follows that anyone voting for no income tax is either unable to evaluate the potential effects of any given decision or is irresponsible.
This is an example of “illusory superiority” a condition of cognitive bias whereby a person overestimates their own qualities and abilities, in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other persons. Now I mean no disservice to Stu. I consider him to be of independent thought and have an enquiring mind. That’s no mean feet on a government owned radio station that is regularly threatened by same with funding cuts.
Illusory superiority is a heavily researched area. One study in the US found that for driving skills, 93% of people sampled put themselves in the top 50% and for safety, 88% put themselves in the top 50%. That’s one I can relate to.
Of course, MHKs are not immune for illusory superiority. Perhaps they are even more susceptible to it as having been voted in their abilities have somehow be endorsed by the people. The reality is of course that very few people vote but it may still serve to strengthen their belief. This is an example of confirmation bias.
Coming back to Stu’s question I wonder how the electorate would have handled the Island’s biggest financial challenge, the £3.5 billion public sector pensions black hole? Something tells me it would have been sorted some time back. Successive governments’ failure to do so must be put down to a lack of understanding or a lack of responsibility.
Hello? (hello) (hello)
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me
Is there anyone at home?
Only 46% of eligible voters actually voted in the last election. The average MHK has only 14% of possible support. That raises the question of the democratic legitimacy of our representatives (see my blog ‘the Mandate Myth’) but also why people don’t vote?
Whenever voter turnout is reported in the local media you can be sure it is put down to voter apathy. I think that is a convenient explanation for Tynwald but one that does not survive even a modest level of scrutiny. It’s a bit like blaming your customers for not buying your product.
Apathy implies a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. Now I have yet to meet anyone that has no interest or concern for anything. People do care about many issues particularly those that directly affect them. The same media that explains away low voter turnout as voter apathy is filling its pages and airwaves with stories on education, housing, healthcare, cost transport, childcare, cost of living etc presumably because they think they will interest people.
Research in the UK found that amongst the supposedly most apathetic – those who do not vote in general elections – 37% were members of, or active in, a charity, community group, public body or campaigning organisation. Hardly symptomatic of apathy.
So why is a population that is active in many political and non-political areas so unwilling to participate in the institutions and processes of formal representative democracy?
The explanation is much more worrying than apathy. People have lost faith in our political system and because it’s difficult to change from outside the system, people have disengaged. Attitudes to institutions are no longer defined by left and right, but by a political realignment around those who have ‘faith in the system’ and those who don’t.
Indeed, people feel there is little or no point in voting because it doesn’t make any difference. That's because the political system is designed to further concentrate power away from the people. Such mechanisms include:
So there’s no mystery in low voter turnout. It’s an entirely predictable result of a system that has become more important than the people it is meant to serve. Just like companies that put themselves ahead of their customers, so too are political systems that treat the electorate with contempt doomed to fail.
Democracies rarely die these days by the tank. Democracies die slowly as politicians seek more power to push through what they think is best either for themselves or for the nation. Whether for noble purposes or not, concentration of power and the erosion of democracy must be guarded against. Once democracy is eroded significantly it is hard to recover.
The contemporary history of Manx democracy is a story of gradual evolution from the control of Westminster. However, this glacial progress seems to have stalled and with news this week symptomatic of increasing centralisation of power and the deafening silence from all corners of Tynwald (with the noticeable exception of David Cretney MLC and Kate Beecroft MHK)
In a democracy all power comes from the people.
In the Manx version of representative (or indirect) democracy, we elect MHKs to represent us. However, once we elect our representatives, we have little control over their actions. In fact, if an MHK does not act in a way that is aligned to the wishes of their electorate we are stuck until the next election. We have no mechanism for removing them. We have effectively written a democratic bank cheque. That seems at odds with most other areas of life where we are held accountable for our actions (or inaction).
There is a tool to deal with this. It's called a recall mechanism. Recall is a term used to describe a process whereby the electorate can petition to trigger a vote between scheduled elections on the suitability of an existing elected representative to continue in office.
In order to ensure democracy prevails and our representatives are accountable to us at all times, I am asking MHKs to introduce a Recall Bill. Initially, I have written to Chris Thomas MHK as Minister for Policy and Reform asking him to seek leave to introduce such a Bill.
The Recall Bill would provide for a notice of intent to recall signed by say five per cent of voters in a constituency to trigger a recall petition. If the recall petition is signed by say 20 per cent of voters, a recall referendum is held and the seat is vacated if the majority of people voting vote in favour of the member being recalled from Tynwald. This should also include MLCs as their duty is to the people.
I urge you to support the drive to enable the electorate have the right controls in place to ensure MHKs act in accordance with the will of the people. After all, that is what democracy is all about.
Please write to your MHK asking them to implement a recall mechanism.
In my last blog post, I expressed disappointment that the newly elected MLCs had opted to take up departmental positions which, along with a significant salary uplift, obligates them to the convention of 'collective responsibility'.
While Jane Poole-Wilson was not newly elected and therefore outside the scope of my previous blog, the Manx Radio article incorrectly reported that 'All are taking up positions within departments'. I have updated my blog to make it absolutely clear that Jane Poole-Wilson MLC did not take up a departmental position or a salary uplift.
It is important that we hold our representatives to account, but it is equally important that we recognise those acts that respect good governance and democracy. By not succumbing to the single party block vote system Jane Poole-Wilson has put her independence and duty to the citizens of this Island ahead of personal profit. We should commend her for that.