Credit where credit’s due: an under-appreciated reason why Britain voted for Brexit – and a possible solution

This morning, Theresa May tweeted this. She must have got up pretty early on a Saturday morning to make that nice infographic. Who’d be prime minister, eh?

What an excellent policy! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of this kind of basic, decent move as something I would naturally associate with the Conservatives.

They don’t usually show much interest in tinkering boringly with the finer points of consumer finance to give us all a better deal. (They’re usually more interested in keeping their donors onside, often by shaping the financial system in their favour.)

So, this is almost certainly good news. Most of us have probably experienced unexpected surcharges on card payments at one time or another, whether it’s at your local cornershop or when buying train tickets online. This ought to cut that out at a stroke.

There’s one small problem with how Theresa May’s presenting this. And here it is: the UK government didn’t come up with the idea. It’s a requirement of the EU Payment Services Directive 2, which came into force in January 2016. Today (13th January 2018) is actually the last possible day for EU member states to enforce this part of the directive.

This is also key to the policy’s success. Because it’s being introduced as an integrated requirement across the 28 member states of the EU, the likelihood of companies raising prices to compensate, or stopping card payments entirely, is probably pretty small.

Armed with this information, we can now revisit May’s tweet. It can be read two ways:

  1. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is taking sole credit for an EU initiative that had nothing to do with her;
  2. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is associating herself and her government with the EU to such an extent that she is willing to use the first person plural.

I don’t know about you, but I’m plumping for 1.

Why does this matter?

This kind of failure to allocate credit for policies that actually benefit voters and society is a big part of why the UK voted to leave the EU. Voters see the benefits without understanding the process. (It’s also, incidentally, why people continue to vote for the Conservatives rather than the Lib Dems despite the coalition government’s most popular policies – on income tax, environment, marriage and even plastic bags – all coming from the smaller party.)

This is a huge problem in democracies the world over. Democratic governments generally don’t advertise, and that’s a good thing. And if they do, it’s generally to market new policies that are reliant on widespread public knowledge, an approach that often fails, and often because the policies are terrible.

Two recent examples are the Green Deal (a catastrophic failure where the government over-promised, rushed the policy out, and failed to market it, sometimes all at once) and the Help to Buy scheme (quite good take-up, but for a policy that actively exacerbates the housing crisis).

But that general lack of marketing means it’s political parties who market successes as their own, even when they aren’t.

A possible solution

I have been giving some thought to this problem of late. It seems to me that we need some kind of independent platform – maybe just a website – that details the source, development and impact of policies, and gives credit where credit is due.

Sure, not many voters would read it very often, but if done with sufficient quality and transparency, it would be a hugely useful resource during election periods – potentially making VAAs more accurate, and enabling journalists and broadcasters to refer to it.

Although there is a ton of money going into new fact-checking initiatives at the moment, these tend to be reactive. This would be one way to build a bank of accurate information that could also serve organisations like Full Fact, strengthening their ability to scrutinise.

It would be a major undertaking, requiring a number of permanent researchers and fact-checkers to aggregate the information, and then some savvy marketing and social media activity to promote its existence.

If you’re interested in helping to create such a website or platform, I have many further thoughts. Feel free to get in touch with me via the comments, Twitter, or Facebook.

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The Manifesto Problem

An excellent piece from Helen de Cruz, an academic at Oxford Brookes University, has been doing the rounds. The article explores the reasons why so many pro-EU voters ended up choosing Labour, despite the party’s evident “hard Brexit” stance. This is based on data from surveys conducted by de Cruz in pro-EU groups on Facebook. It lands on the conclusion that those who lent their support to Jeremy Corbyn’s party

did vote Labour for tactical reasons, but they were also attracted by the Labour manifesto and identified with the party’s anti-austerity message. They voted for Labour in spite of its Brexit stance, not because they were all of a sudden pro Brexit.

Anecdotally, this chimes very closely with the decisions many of my friends and family made in choosing Labour. They were closer to the Liberal Democrats on the issue of Brexit, but saw a tactical vote for Labour as more important given the danger of a large Conservative majority.

Jezza and Maccy D

I could not personally agree with this stance. While I was terrified of a renewed mandate for Theresa May (who I’ve written about extensively as a massive threat to the United Kingdom and to the world), I saw a polarisation of the UK’s domestic politics along with an alignment around ‘hard Brexit’ as the worst possible outcome. In short, this was an election in which Brexit was the be-all, end-all issue; however popular Labour’s flagship policies may have been (and they were undoubtedly popular, rightly or wrongly) they were meaningless against a backdrop of a poor deal – or no deal – with the EU.

Of course, that’s not how the election campaign went down. Both Labour and the Tories were allowed to get away with either limiting their references to Brexit or avoiding any kind of specificity on what precisely they planned to do during negotiations.

In Labour’s case, this vagueness was so complete that the position taken by Corbyn and John McDonnell since the election – a reiteration of the party’s manifesto statements on the single market and freedom of movement – has been met with dismay by a lot of Remainers.

There seems to be a commonly held belief among some voters that party manifestos, far from being complete plans for government, are a kind of pick-and-mix. I thought I would test this through a Twitter poll. Given my followers are predominantly pro-EU, liberal types with a disproportionate interest in politics national and global, I expected the answer to be pretty clear, but instead it was surprisingly split:

This seems to be the most salient question arising from this election. Is the Labour party’s leadership entitled to claim that its voters supported its stance on Brexit? This obviously has huge implications should the embattled Theresa May eventually decide that it’s time to go and a new election eventuate. Because, after all, Labour massively outperformed expectations despite adopting a stance on Brexit that, in isolation, clearly alienates a large number (perhaps the majority) of its voters.

The broader question, of course, is what manifestos are for. They are important for parliamentary procedure, because the Salisbury Doctrine, which limits the ability of the House of Lords to contradict government policy, is based on them. As such, it is essential that parties feel able to rest on the support of voters for their manifestos as a whole; yet this election has thrown up more than ever the confusion that can ensue as a consequence.

It is probably about time we revisited the idea of deliberative democracy in broad terms as a theory of civics. Democracies surely cannot survive this amount of cognitive dissonance for long.