Culture matters in politics. But so does information: something that is more possible to influence.
‘Cultural identity and political disposition’ are two factors that were significant in voters’ choices in the EU referendum, over and above the facts, according to Michael Cunningham’s 2016 article in The Political Quarterly. Cunningham claims that more and better quality information would not have improved the EU referendum, arguing that the Electoral Reform Society’s report on the vote, ‘It’s Good To Talk’, puts too much emphasis on facts, objectivity and evidence – and underestimates the role of emotion, ideology and identity.
While it may be the case that an independent information source and powers to intervene on misinformation would not have ‘transformed’ the referendum as Cunningham argues, this is not a reason to sidestep the responsibility of providing voters with the basic tools to make informed choices. Unless we believe we live in a fully post-truth age, the facts do matter.
Better public information
Identity and emotion of course played an important part in the referendum. But it is the provision of information, and the rules around such provision, that are regulated by law – and which need serious attention if referendums are to continue to be a feature of our democracy. These are the factors that are controllable and which can be improved.
With two UK-wide referendums in the last seven years, we now have a greater understanding of their operation in a UK context and how well our current regulations provide for a free and transparent contest and support well-informed political discussion.
Campaigning has changed dramatically in recent years, not least in the growth of online campaign activity. Yet the rules which regulate campaigning, both in elections and referendums, now look out of step with how political campaigns are being funded and fought. Bringing regulations up to date is essential if we are to ensure our democratic principles are upheld.
In ‘It’s Good to Talk’ we call for better public information, provided by a single trusted authority, and also better pre-legislative scrutiny, a minimum six-month regulated campaign period, and other technical improvements.
Making facts more meaningful
We would agree, as Cunningham argues, that for many voters, the details of the functioning of the EU would have played only a small role in their decision to vote leave or remain. However, information doesn’t have to play a marginal role – and there are ways of making the facts more relevant and meaningful for voters.
The call for better information in ‘It’s Good To Talk’ sits within a number of recommendations that go beyond the provision of information and which seek to improve democratic debate. We call for greater use of deliberative discussion around referendums – because we have seen the powerful role that genuinely informed discussion can have in shaping people’s choices.
Our recommendations set out suggestions for how to bring citizens into the debate and create a space where both identity and information have a role. Using deliberative discussion to inform the debate – as set out in ‘It’s Good to Talk’ – has now been piloted in the Citizens’ Assemblies on Brexit project. In situations like the EU referendum, where facts are contested and cultural understandings are important, this deliberative forum is exactly the sort of place where complex and difficult decisions can be debated and discussed, and where the accuracy of information is monitored and agreed by both sides of the campaign to avoid it being dismissed as biased.
We are experiencing a rapidly changing and increasingly online political world which, as we have previously noted, is now something of a digital wild west when it comes to campaign activity. We cannot sit back and observe these changes without trying to find a way to work through them.
‘Identity, disposition and culture’ are important drivers of political decision making, but it is the job of lawmakers and those who enforce the rules to ensure that our political contests meet the highest standards of fairness. The regulation of campaigning and the provision of information is part of that responsibility.
To mark the centenary of women’s suffrage the Prime Minister recently announced a consultation on changes in electoral law that would make it an offence to intimidate candidates and campaigners and to protect those who stand for election. It shows there is a recognition that electoral law has not caught up with changing technology.
There are many steps that can be taken to improve our democracy. So for as long as political campaigns continue to evolve, finding innovative solutions and frameworks to ensure fairness will be vital – indeed, just as vital as recognising the role of culture and identity.
Jess Garland is Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society.
Image by Chip Griffin.