Written by Dotty Winters


The thought that doesn’t count

Politicians have access to a wide range of facts. Why, then, asks Dotty Winters, don’t they use them more often?

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You know that thing with taxi drivers? How you just need them to do the job they are paid to do, but they insist on regaling you with their opinions? Often they don’t take time to see what you think before trying to impose their views on you. So often, the views you hear are misleading, uninformed or demonstrate one or more prejudices so that, even if the specific taxi driver you are speaking to doesn’t fall into this category, you can still feel tense and unsure what to believe.

There is no effective, or polite means to shut out the noise, so all too often we just end up listening.

Sorry, not taxi drivers. I meant politicians.

How have we created a world where politics is driven by opinions rather than facts or evidence? Observing recent election or referendum campaigns you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are no legal consequences for politicians who lie to us. You’d be forgiven for this because it is mostly true.

Though politicians cannot lie or mislead in Parliament, the same rule does not apply to campaigning. And while there are a range of bodies that can, and will criticise deliberate misinformation, it seems they are largely unable to enforce any meaningful consequences.

The now-infamous ‘£350 million into the NHS’ claim is a high-profile case. From the outset there was factual information to refute the figure (which was based on, at best a fundamental misunderstanding of EU funding, and at worst was a deliberate attempt to mislead).

“Margaret Thatcher was ‘not for turning’ and Tony Blair had ‘no reverse gear’. I had a car like that; it was useless and dangerous.”

This was pointed out by a range of reliable observers and organisations. Yet in a world where we expect campaigning to be a whirlwind of claims, counter-claims and accusations of spin, we’ve accepted a system where opinion is weighted against fact.

Opinions do matter, of course. But the role of politicians is to represent the opinions of the people they represent. Getting a politician who consistently tells you their opinion is the equivalent of trying to buy a mirror and instead being given a cheesy stock image photo of some useless, posh twat in a suit.

Let’s say I want to make a decision based on a range of views. I decide the way I will collect the views is to ask people to write them on their foreheads. I will then read the views off their foreheads and make my decision. Then I decide that I will do all this from behind a six-foot wall. Sure, I will see some of the views, but only those of the people whose foreheads are visible because:

• They are genetically blessed with height
• They have bought a box
• They sit on someone’s else’s shoulders to show me their view at the expense of others
• They have enough motivation, energy or commitment to repeatedly bounce up and down in the hope that I’ll spot them.

Does this seem like a fair system to gather a range of views to you? Of course this system could work perfectly if I was looking into certain questions. For example, “Should it be easier to buy trousers with an inside leg of 41 inches or more?” but if the question was, “Would more affordable childcare make it easier for working families?” then I might get a skewed result.

Politicians may aim to represent, but many are skewed by views which come from people they would talk to anyway (their friends and associates), people who are able to buy time to be heard, people who are able to shout above the voices of others, or those who have other means or motivations for getting their attention.

“Getting a politician who consistently tells you their opinion is the equivalent of trying to buy a mirror and instead being given a cheesy stock image photo of some useless, posh twat in a suit.”

This system would only work if you wanted certain answers, for example answers which typically disproportionately represent people who are rich, privileged, articulate or very strongly motivated to change policy. Oh.

Politicians have access to a massive support structure of civil servants, research institutes and other sources of real information and fact. Wouldn’t it be lovely if they used it?

As the vaccines debacle dangerously demonstrated, there is only one scientifically valid and correct answer: vaccines protect children, save lives and have an incredibly low risk of side effects. This correct answer was treated like an opinion and was countered by politicians who argued that their constituents didn’t want vaccines because they cause autism (they don’t; they absolutely don’t).

When politicians do look at facts and evidence and use it to vary their response, we penalise them. Margaret Thatcher was “not for turning” and Tony Blair had “no reverse gear”. I had a car like that; it was useless and dangerous.

If we can’t have politicians who use actual facts, can we at least have a massive déjà vu klaxon installed for whenever a politician proudly tells us that they are willing to proceed with their own idea, regardless of any information or evidence which empirically proves it to be idiotic, deadly or likely to result in us leaving the EU?

It’s a bit of a mess but we’ve done this. We’ve created an environment where politicians tell us their opinions and we behave as if that is their job. We’ve created a political environment where we reward politicians for being compelling, presentable and articulate, rather than rewarding politicians for being right. We did this, and we need to undo it.

We need to start expecting politicians to explain why they are proposing something. We need to expect to see evidence. We need to reward people who use evidence even (especially) if that causes them to change their minds. Turns out that politics is one of many arenas where it’s not just ‘the thought that counts’. We could really do with a few more people who are willing to show us their working out.


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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.