…of all juries, the most incompetent, the easiest duped and misled, the least able to comprehend the questions laid before it and the consequences of its answer; the worst informed, the most inattentive, the most blinded by preconceived sympathies or antipathies, the most willingly absent, a mere flock of enlisted sheep always robbed or cheated out of their vote.
Hippolyte Taine on the French electorate - The Modern Regime (1890-93)
A few years ago, Mrs H and I were out on a walk, during which we found a very pleasant spot on a Derbyshire hillside to sit and eat our packed lunch. In the valley below, a chap was working with two dogs to herd a flock of sheep through a gate from one field into a neighbouring field. Once he’d done that, he had the dogs herd the flock back to the first field.
To our inexpert eyes he was using an older and more experienced dog to train a younger dog. Even we could see a clear difference between the ability of the two dogs. The sheep seemed quite used to the situation.
Of course there is an obvious parallel between this story and general elections here in the UK. So obvious it feels like a cliché. Like those sheep being herded from field to field, we voters seem to be herded between the two major political parties. An arrangement which seems to suit them both very well.
Upstart parties are in for a forlorn battle against both the inbuilt inertial of the first past the post electoral system and establishment hostility towards anyone likely to rock this cosy arrangement. Media hostility and indifference don’t help either.
This is wholly familiar, but it leaves us with the question of what we think we are voting for if only one of two parties has any chance of gaining power. A change of government? New directions? Social justice? One field rather than another even though the grass is much the same?
The recent pandemic has raised an old question about the nature of parliamentary power. It showed us how power is diffused into outside influences, including expert opinion. We heard it from the podiums although the process isn’t usually so public. We see it when the situation requires us to see it, but this time it was much more intense.
We never see all of it of course, but enough to remind us that power is much more diffuse than political rhetoric would have us believe. Who made the pandemic decisions? Do we know? Do government ministers really know? Yes, blame and finger-pointing are easy, but do we know how the diffuse miasma of pandemic politics arose, was modified and sustained? The risks weighed and assessed behind closed doors? The likely input of psychologists?
Taking it a step further, it is most unlikely that the Labour party would have handled the pandemic more effectively than the Tories. To begin with, we would have to know what “more effectively” could possibly mean given all those external influences.
We could go on to conclude that it isn’t possible to vote for a change of government. The overwhelming influence of people we didn’t vote for showed us that. It is possible to vote for different actors in Parliament, but not for a different government. Power is too diffuse for political actors to make much difference. It sounds unduly cynical but may not be, merely realistic.
There are no political guarantees of course, we do know that. Government power is so diffuse that there are no guarantees about anything, whichever party we vote for. There are no guarantees that whatever a governing party does would not have been done anyway. Or at least something similar would have been done because its time had come, events dictated it or irresistible outside influences demanded it.
It may be that voting for the least bad option is all we ever can vote for. Nothing else makes sense because nothing better will ever come to pass. Nothing better can come to pass, all we can ever hope for is a certain degree of integrity as the least destructive option. And as we know, even that is usually beyond our democratic reach.
It is hardly a startling claim to say that the political party system has subverted our democracy. Any new party would merely evolve into another field for the sheep. Yet modern technology allows us to follow the activities of our MP, see how they vote, read the speeches they make. It would not be at all difficult to vote for the person over the party, but we don’t.
Politics could be more fluid, party groupings could form and dissolve as they respond to events. Party discipline could be much less effective. Sounds good so bring back the Whigs and Tories of Sir Robert Peel's day we might say, bring back top hats and personal integrity.
It won’t work of course. Politics and government attract the corruptible and we voters are lazy. We would have to be far more clued-up than we are now. But the grass is always greener in the next field.