December 30, 2019

In the postmortem examination of Labour’s electoral disaster, the notion of “false consciousness” has been bandied around quite a lot. The accusation is that Labour, blaming the media and the Tories (and sometimes the voters themselves) for deceiving the population into voting against its own interests, is invoking the idea to explain why the workers and lower middle class — whom they think of as their base — didn’t vote for them. “Am I out of touch? No, it’s the voters who are wrong.”

“False consciousness” gets a lot of bad press these days, and you can see why: it’s a foundational concept of Marxist-Leninist communism, originally formulated by Friedrich Engels, and it can easily be seen as a way of blaming the idiot proles for not knowing what’s best for them and voting for the wrong lot. There is something a bit grim about telling working-class people — or black people, or gay people, or women, et cetera — that the only reason they voted the way they did is because they are idiots who got duped.

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It’s much easier, and probably more vote-winning, to go the other way, and declare that you “trust the British people”. Figures as diametrically opposed as Jacob Rees-Mogg and People’s Vote UK have both used that phrase in recent months: we trust the British people (and the answer they already gave us); we trust the British people (so let’s ask them again). The electorate is always right; in some formulations, they are guardians of a quasi-mystical knowledge and wisdom, and can see through the lies and machinations of duplicitous politicians to the deep truths beneath.

It’s probably a bit simplistic to boil this all down to “can the electorate be wrong?”, but that’s what I’m going to do. And I’d say of course they can — be wrong, and be deceived. They are not holy repositories of the ancient truths. It’s just that there’s another, equally important, sense, in which they are necessarily and tautologically right, and that fact needs to be acknowledged too.

There are two important ways in which the electorate could be “wrong”: they could vote against their own interests, and they could vote in ways that are morally faulty. It seems obvious that both of those things are possible. According to YouGov, 33% of all richer “ABC1” voters voted Labour, 43% Tory; 33% of poorer “C2DE” voters voted Labour, 48% Tory. Sure, not all C2DE voters or all ABC1 voters are alike, and there were divisions by age, ethnicity and sex as well. But for every Labour voter, there will almost certainly have been a Tory voter whose material and financial interests would have been near-identical. One of them must have been making the worse choice, from a purely selfish point of view.

The other way is if they can vote immorally. And again, of course they can, assuming that we agree that morality exists in some form. There was no referendum on slavery in 1800, but if there had been, most British voters might well have voted to maintain it. In that hypothetical referendum, most of us would say that the British electorate was unambiguously morally wrong.

And of course they can be deceived into being wrong, whether by the billionaire press or the lying politicians. For the record I think the actual impact of the media on voting habits is gigantically overstated. But it is still real.

But there is another sense in which the voters cannot be wrong, and that is an algorithmic one. The basic idea is that their votes are inputted into a big machine called British Democracy, they whirr around inside it, passing through little gates called “constituencies” and “first past the post” and “majority”, and they return an output of “Tory government” (usually).

By analogy: if you watch a game of football, one team can have lots of chances, all the possession, play the best football, generally be better. You could say they deserve to win, in one sense; “on the balance of play”, it would be the “wrong” outcome for them to lose. But if they fail to score and the other team nicks a grim own-goal at their only corner of the game in the 87th minute, then they will lose. The algorithm for determining the winning team is: Let A equal goals for Team A; let B equal goals for Team B; if A>B then Team A is the winner. That output can only be “wrong” if there is literal cheating; Calciopoli, that sort of thing.

Similarly, the outcome of a democratic vote can only be “wrong” if there is literal vote-tampering or other illegal behaviour. There have been accusations of such — the Tories worry about vote-stuffing, Labour about Cambridge Analytica — but I think they’re largely silly, and certainly not enough to have significantly changed this month’s thrashing.

If the electoral system returns something that doesn’t look “fair”, such as Donald Trump or George W. Bush winning the electoral college despite losing the popular vote, or the Tories getting one MP per 37,000 votes and the Lib Dems getting one seat per 350,000, then that’s just what the algorithm returns. It may be that you can convince people to rewrite the algorithm, but — under the system — it’s the correct output. It is tautologically true that what the electorate elects is elected.

Arguing over what is “fair” or “deserved” is a lot more fun than arguing over the outcome, obviously, because it’s subjective and thus can be argued about forever. That’s why football phone-ins are full of people saying that the better team lost or that VAR got it wrong, rather than arguing that in fact the score was 2-1 not 0-1 and everyone else has simply misread the numbers. Hence the great big row we’re having now, and articles like this one.

Where does all this get us? Well: obviously, voters can be “wrong”. There’s a whole subset of the electorate called “low-information voters”. God knows I don’t blame them; keeping up with political news is boring, is hard work, and does very limited good in the world. But still, I don’t imagine they do much better than chance at working out what the “right” vote would be. Once you throw in media misinformation — deliberate or otherwise — it would honestly surprise me if a large majority of voters got it “right” by any single metric you happen to choose. I would be totally unsurprised to learn that I got it “wrong”. And voters can be immoral, because, you know, people.

But they are still the inputs to the algorithm that you have to work with. This is the sense in which they cannot be wrong, and complaining that they have false consciousness or have voted against their interests or are all “entitled, embittered, sneering nasty selfish racist foul fuckwits” is missing the point. It’s like complaining that the goals are too small or the pitch is too wide. You have the electorate you have.

Again, imagine an 1800 referendum on slavery. If you had tried to win such a referendum by saying “we ought to impose laws mandating equal-opportunity hiring practices and push for black people to be proportionally represented”, you would have been laughed at. It might, though, have been possible to win by saying something that, to modern ears, is obviously and hideously racist — perhaps that black people and white people can never live “on terms of social and political equality”, as Abraham Lincoln would say a few decades later, but that they should not be enslaved.

That is not the best moral outcome, but it is better than the available alternative; the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. By comparison, I would personally vote for a party that offered 100% open borders and zero restrictions on immigration. I think that would be the best thing for humanity in general. But it is obviously unacceptable to the electorate, so I look for the party with the least draconian immigration stance and — all else being equal — I vote for that. I think the voters are wrong, but they’re the voters we have.

Labour may be right that large parts of the electorate voted against their interests; or that large parts of the electorate are racist or homophobic, howsoever defined. It may be that a perfectly moral electorate, or one that knew exactly what its interests were, would have voted Labour in a huge landslide, with only Arron Banks, Mike Ashley and the ghost of Bernard Manning voting for the Tories. Maybe they’re not out of touch; maybe it is, indeed, the voters who are wrong.

But at the moment those are the voters we have. Call it “false consciousness” or whatever you like, but arguing that you have the wrong sort of voter is precisely as silly as stopping mid-match to demand that you should be allowed to use your hands.