It’s a Case of Legitimacy. Why Voters and Politicians Need Proper Debate

On Wednesday, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer was taken by the kind of intellectual inspiration that captures only a lucky few. With a need to share his profundity with British voters, John McDonnell took to Twitter: “Labour stands ready to take charge of the negotiations and deliver a jobs-first Brexit deal that works for the many, not the few.”

Several hundred supporters decided to share McDonnell’s message.

Why? What does this intervention in the debate reveal? What McDonnell is doing is spouting slogans. In no way is he making a case. For all the good it will do politics, you might as well share toilet paper. 

This is not an argument about how social media dumbs down politics. This is an argument about the fact that in politics we are no longer having arguments.

Maybe it is unfair - but fun - to pick on the Shadow Chancellor. His leader had more than 140 characters when he gave his conference speech. His speech outlined Labour’s programme for government. At times, he was received with rapturous applause.

He said that Labour would bring back into public ownership key public services. He stated why but he did not build a case. There was a wide gap between identifying a problem and the proposed solution.

Jeremy Corbyn instead attacked on his opponents. His speech reasoned that Britain is in its current state because the Tories want it to be so: they actively want the poor to get poorer, the vulnerable to remain powerless.

Attacking opponents is not the beginning of an argument. It is an attempt to shut down argument. Saying that Britain’s malaise is because the Tories are a bunch of wicked, greedy crooks means that opponents do not have to justify their own positions.

It is arrogant. Not only in its attempt to build windows into people’s souls, but by doing so, it refuses to make a case for an alternative.

The referendum was a series of focus group-tested slogans. It was not a debate, it was a shouting match

Unfortunately, this denial of debate is not confined to the left of the Labour party. Theresa May built her premiership on a series of slogans. “Brexit means Brexit,” she declared - but never declared what Brexit meant except Brexit. She based her whole election campaign upon “Strong and Stable” but never argued why she was the best person to bring that strength and stability. When confronted with a soundbite - "the dementia tax" - over her social care policy, May could have tried to calmly reason with voters. Instead she u-turned and pretended she hadn't. 

Had she levelled with voters, she might now be sitting on a healthy majority. As it is, when the structure failed - without a substantial argument - the emptiness of her politics was revealed.

What has been lacking from the whole Brexit saga is argument and debate. 

In his account of the referendum and its aftermath, Tim Shipman recounts a story where Michael Gove admitted that leaving the EU would mean leaving the European Single Market. Remain campaigners spotted a gaff. Their glee was misplaced. First, voters did not know what the Single Market was; second, Remain failed to build a case in its favour.

It was not until too late in the campaign that David Cameron made a detailed argument on its benefits.

It is a disservice to democracy to deny that voters were ill-informed. They were ill-informed not only because of their own efforts but because politicians refused to inform them. Maybe with more information they would have made the same decision. But at least they would be committing national self-harm in an informed way.

The poison is our politics is that a substantial proportion of the country do not recognise Brexit’s legitimacy. There are many factors here, including the closeness of the result and the dubious relationship with truth of Leave campaigners. Might it also be that Brexit was never tested? The referendum was a series of focus group-tested slogans. It was not a debate, it was a shouting match.

politicians are denying themselves legitimacy

Politics has never been a pleasant spectator sport. It has never been conducted as if in a university Senior Common Room. There is a faint irony though that, once again, politics is conducted at ideological polars, yet there is a lacuna of debate.

If you read any of Margaret Thatcher’s speeches they contain an argument. And actually very often, well-reasoned arguments. That does not mean she was right, but she constructed a case. It might be why - despite public scepticism of many of her policies - she remained in Downing Street for twelve years - aided, in part, because all voters heard from her opponents was abuse and name-calling.

Tony Blair was almost paranoid about making a thorough argument. In speeches, he takes the voter through each step, acknowledging counter-arguments before knocking them down until he finds the solution. He stays just ahead of any open-minded voter so they reach the conclusion at the same time.

Both Thatcher and Blair studied at the bar. They were used to building arguments and convincing doubters. Cameron, May and Corbyn had no such training. Each are creatures of their parties. May climbed the greasy poll as Tory activist; Corbyn has spent his thirty years in politics talking to rallies of converted.

Support in favour of policies, parties or leaders - whether from party members or public opinion polls - does not make reasoned debate redundant.

By failing to contest arguments, politicians are denying themselves legitimacy. They will win wars only to find that they are actually battles.

And voters should be asking one question: have they actually made a case or do I just want to believe they have?

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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