Some reflections on politics and democracy

My experience of last Thursday’s meeting of Dorset Council was more positive than the one four weeks before, but not to massively so. The main area of contention was a Conservative motion that condemned the actions of the two women protesters who disrupted the previous one. The meeting was accompanied by a demonstration taking place outside the council chamber, an occurrence that seemed to further inflame many Conservative councillors – causing one to describe the protesters as “a rabble” and say “I’m disgusted at some of the people we represent.” An amendment to this motion, one which softened the language to “regret” but which was additionally critical of how the Council leadership handled the previous disruption, was proposed by the Lib Dems. I was prepared to support this amendment, even though I wasn’t sure that I did regret the disruption. What had made me angry was being denied an opportunity to speak at the previous meeting by the Chair’s decision to go straight to a vote when the meeting reconvened.

The outcome of the voting was predictable, with the Conservative’s voting en bloc: The amendment was defeated and the main motion was passed. What I found so hard to swallow, apart from the obviously inappropriate condemnation of a peaceful protest, was the seemingly inability of many Conservative councillors to understand the purpose of such protests. Many of these councillors made a point of saying that none of the people they represent had contacted them to raise concerns related to the climate emergency, thereby implying that it wasn’t an issue for them – which is exactly the point! For the many residents of Dorset (and many Conservative councillors) it is not an issue – at least not an urgent, in-your-face issue. The point of the demonstrations was to make it an issue; to try and inject some urgency into the climate emergency.

The main issue for me, however, was not addressed. As I said at the meeting, in reference to the previous reconvened meeting which, on the Chair’s direction, went straight to a vote: “I utterly fail to understand how a motion can be voted on without those who oppose it being given an opportunity to speak. This was a flagrant erosion of democracy.” The closest we got to an answer was the Chair saying she did it in the best interests of the councillors, presumably to get the meeting over with, and allow councillors to go home, as soon as possible. But if she didn’t think that there was time for a proper debate she should have deferred the debate to a later meeting, not deny councillors the right to speak against the motion. In many respects I am becoming increasing concerned about the gradual erosion of democracy on Dorset Council.

The following day I had an entirely different political experience. I have recently joined Bridport’s University of the Third Age (u3a), and Friday morning saw a meeting of their Political Discussion group. This meeting, actually about the results of the recent local elections, sparked a number of thoughts. How, for example, do you get people interested in local politics? Many people, possibly the majority, whilst very quick to complain about a whole range of things that directly inconvenience them, have very little idea about what local councils and local councillors do. In fact many would probably tar all politicians (both local and national) with the same ‘only in it for their own benefit’ brush. This is probably why the turnout for local elections is usually so low. Which is a shame. So how do you get people to become actively involved in democracy? To want to understand the issues?

Part of the problem, I think, may be the blatant bias of many national newspapers. Whilst I’m sure that many people to the right of the political spectrum would claim that The Guardian, for example, has a definite left wing bias, they at least carry headlines that appear to be objective statements. Papers like the Express and Daily Mail, however, usually carry headlines that openly support the Conservatives and condemn Labour politicians. My concern here is that many of their readers, particularly those with only a limited interest in politics, will simply accept the messages being sent. And even if they venture beyond the headlines they will probably read the article uncritically. They will not ask questions of it. They will not try and find alternative accounts. They will not ask what hasn’t been reported.
I know that I’m being unrealistic, but don’t you think that our democracy would become so much healthier if people were better able to think critically?

Critical thinking used to be taught in some schools, but nearly always only as a ‘fill-in’ GCSE or A-level course. I think that we would be helping our future generations no end if we started teaching them critical thinking as a integral and core part of their general education. We should be teaching our future voting public to not accept at face value what they are told and hear. We should be teaching them to ask questions, of their own thoughts as much as those of others. We should be teaching them to try and understand an issue from multiple perspectives. We should be teaching them a healthy scepticism. And it wouldn’t only have a positive effect on those who vote for politicians of course – it would also help provide far more effective politicians. Perhaps such politicians would even be better able to understand the motives of protesters who disrupt their meetings.

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