The Electoral Reform Society’s latest report, It’s Good to Talk, recycles – in the politest possible way – a treasured middle-class Remainer myth: that the Brexit vote was simply the result of ill-informed (or simply stupid) people voting to sabotage the country.
The ERS claims to show that there was a huge gap between voters’ very high levels of interest and their very low levels of information. Accordingly, they call for an inquiry into the conduct of referenda, and suggest mandatory six-month campaign periods, and the empowerment of the Electoral Commission or some other neutral technocratic body to issue official rule books, publish a ‘minimum data set’ to establish a truthful basis for debate, and to ‘intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated’. The ERS is thus joining a growing chorus against ‘post-truth politics’, echoing similar calls for more political regulation – already criticised on TCM by James Heartfield. The ERS also calls for a more deliberative approach to referenda, pushing its own approach of online toolkit plus face-to-face discussions, which it trialled during the campaign period.
Yet there is no real evidence that the public felt any less informed in this referendum than at any other time they are asked to vote. The ERS displays its own prejudices by starting its report with the worn-out canard that the phrase ‘What is the EU?’ was extensively Googled the day after the vote. In fact, fewer than 1,000 people did this. The ERS’s own data shows that the proportion of people feeling ill-informed shrank throughout the campaign, from 46% to 28%, while the proportion feeling very well/ well informed doubled to 33%.
The ERS still tries to claim that voters were more poorly informed than during the Scottish referendum, where ‘56% felt informed’ or 59% felt they could make an informed decision’. Yet, if one adds those reporting an ‘about average’ level of information to those feeling well/ very well informed, the overall number feeling ‘informed’ is clearly higher for the EU referendum, at around 63%. This figure is also higher than for the general election in 2015, and previous polls.
Nor is the ERS persuasive in arguing that voters’ sources of information were unduly limited. The data show that people drew from a vast range of sources, including media, political campaigners, social media, and their friends and family, to make up their minds, with no single source dominant. Voters certainly did not rely only on the claims of a few big name political campaigners in making their judgement – quite the opposite. That is surely a good thing, and surely preferable to relying on the Electoral Commission as the singular fountain of truth, as the ERS counsels.
The report also shows that people were incredibly sceptical of what they were hearing. 46% of voters felt politicians on both sides were mostly lying, versus 19% who thought they were mostly telling the truth; the figures are virtually identical for both Remain (47%) and Leave (46%). A majority also saw both campaigns as overwhelmingly negative.
So there is simply no evidence that people were particularly ill-informed, still less that ‘stupid’ voters were ‘brainwashed’, as many Remainers suggest. Most people displayed normal or above average levels of information; drew liberally from many sources; and assessed those sources sceptically. In other words, most people took their duty as citizens very seriously.
This is not to say that the campaigns were good – far from it. As TCM has argued, they were lamentable, with the nature and operation of the European Union barely discussed at all, whereas issues like immigration, taxation and healthcare were liberally and sometimes irrelevantly canvassed. If British citizens did their duty, it was in spite of the poor mainstream campaigns. But nonetheless, there is no solid evidence here to suggest that voters were any less informed in the referendum than for any other electoral event, such that special rules and regulations for referenda are urgently required. The standard of any campaigning period will naturally reflect the general quality of a democracy – and there are certainly no technical fixes for the profound malaise that British democracy finds itself in. Arguably, under the circumstances, citizens did pretty well.
If the data don’t support the idea of ill-informed voters and post-truth politics, why does this canard continue to be recycled, including by respected bodies like the ERS? Arguably it reflects a simplistic, elitist and technocratic outlook. In this worldview, there is an objective and neutral ‘truth’, established by ‘experts’. Any disagreement with these experts must therefore result either from a lack of access to this information (if one is being generous or polite), or sheer stupidity or malice (if one is not). This is why the ERS recommend both improved citizenship education in schools, intervention by technocratic authorities to establish the truth and quash campaigners making ‘inaccurate’ statements, and their own programme of ‘deliberative’ discussions, which allows experts and academics to dialogue with the great unwashed and correct their misapprehensions.
This is a naïve and degraded view of political contestation. It implicitly assumes that politics is no longer a fundamental clash of different values or interests, but instead a problem-solving exercise of comparing the costs and benefits of policy options, with appropriate technical input to ensure we make the ‘right’ choices. That political life is often conducted in this way is something to be lamented, not encouraged. All it reflects is the entrenchment of policies preferred by particular social groups as the only valid way of doing things, and the pre-defined exclusion of more transformational alternatives.
This viewpoint also expresses a childish notion of ‘truth’. It is absurd to imagine that the Electoral Commission can become an arbiter of truth by publishing a ‘minimum data set’ and intervening to correct ‘untruths’. First, all but the most rudimentary facts are inherently open to interpretation and contestation in political life. For instance, the Commission could have intervened to say that the UK’s net contribution to the EU was not £350m, as Leave campaigners claimed, but about £149m. But it could not have debunked the Leave campaign’s statement that £350m would be added to the NHS budget – because that is a political claim about the future, not something one can prove or disprove with reference to facts. Whether it comes true or not depends entirely on what political actors do next, including the general public. The same goes for the Remain campaign’s threat of a ‘punishment budget’ and two additional years of austerity – depicted as absolute necessities and since swiftly abandoned.
Secondly, even apparent statements of fact are often no more than vague predictions or preferences dressed up as scientific ‘evidence’. How would the Electoral Commission have been able, for example, to address competing claims that Brexit would either cost households £4,300 per year, or leave them better off? If the Commission had surveyed the experts, given the Remainer consensus among professional economists, the Treasury, the IMF and so forth, it would have presented the £4,300 claim, or something like it, as ‘fact’. Yet, their predictions have so far been found wanting. A mild recession seems possible, but not the economic collapse most ‘experts’ predicted.
How, then, are voters meant to make sense of such competing claims? How can they reach ‘the truth’ without some enlightened expert to tell then what it is? A partial answer is that each individual must judge the matter for themselves, and it not democratic to dictate the terms on which that judgement must be made. Ultimately politics is irreducible to ‘facts’; it always involves value judgements. We can seek to make these judgements better informed, but not through technocratic regulation. Rather, the answer is, ironically, a process the ERS itself favours: deliberation. Interestingly, as claims and counter-claims mounted, the proportion of voters relying on friends and family as ‘important sources of information’ grew to over a third, leading the ERS to highlight, positively, ‘an increasing reliance on real-life deliberation’. Once we abandon the childish notion of infallible truth in politics, as JS Mill argued, we can only move towards relative truth through open discussion that subjects different truth claims to sceptical scrutiny. All the evidence suggests that this is precisely what the British public did – in far greater numbers than the paltry 500 participants in ERS forums.