politics

What the People Really Want: Narrow Mandates in Politics

Last week’s by-election in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire saw a reduction of Boris Johnson’s government majority to just one, as Liberal Democrat Jane Dodds won the seat. The result was an interesting one: more voters went for No Deal-friendly parties (mainly Johnson’s Conservatives and the Brexit Party) than for the out-and-out Remainer Lib Dems. Dodds won not because a majority of voters supported her, but arguably because the pro-Brexit vote was split, and the Lib Dem vote was boosted by Plaid Cymru and the Greens declining to field candidates (it can’t have helped that the Conservatives also simply reselected their candidate whose unseating for expenses fraud triggered the election).

The result generated two sets of comments by Conservative Chair James Cleverly. Cleverly’s first claim was that the Liberal Democrats had engineered a “back room deal” with other Remain-friendly parties – Plaid and the Greens – in a way that was, he implied, undemocratic.

While Dodds is an MP for all constituents of her seat, the traditional logic of UK politics says that she has received a mandate to pursue everything she campaigned for, wholeheartedly. It’s the same approach which sanctions governments for whom a minority of voters opted, and even governments with a minority of MPs. Cleverly’s comments reflected a majoritarian way of thinking that has traditionally been opposed by the Conservatives – and Labour – and supported by minority parties. The First Past the Post system throws up these kinds of results all the time, and may do so even more frequently if the Greens and Liberal Democrats decide to pursue more of these types of deals with Plaid, the SNP, or each other. Labour and the Conservatives can hardly insist on the superiority of the current system, and then condemn smaller parties for working within the constraints of that system.

Perhaps by refusing to stand two candidates whom voters might have wanted to back, the Remain-alliance did something undemocratic. But it’s hard to see why that would be true. After all, the only reason the Greens and Plaid stood down was because they saw little chance of winning. Parties aren’t obligated to stand in every seat. I might like the SNP’s politics the most; but that doesn’t mean I’m disenfranchised by their ballot absence in my North London constituency. And if Brecon and Radnorshire voters who favoured the Greens or Plaid couldn’t stomach voting for a Liberal Democrat, they could have abstained.

Secondly, Cleverly noted that a majority of voters had opted for pro-Brexit parties and, after gently chiding the 3,000 or so who had gone for the Brexit Party rather than his own, said that delivering Brexit was “what the majority…in that constituency want”.

Ignore the fact that a turnout of just under 60% means that such a close result leaves us with no real idea of what “the majority” want. Does the result give Boris Johnson’s government a local mandate to pursue Brexit, because the majority backed pro-Brexit parties? Conversely, should Dodds be more cautious in her pursuit of her manifesto pledges – including opposite to No Deal – due to the narrowness of her win?

I’m inclined to agree that the result suggests that the majority of voters still back Brexit. But it would be harder to endorse a broader application of this kind of thinking. People vote for many reasons, both national and local. Even in Brexit-dominated times, we can’t conclude that any particular voters backed a party because of a single issue. Nonetheless, I think Cleverly has a point, though it applies far more widely than he might like to admit. Individual representatives and national governments need to recognise that narrow or minority electoral wins might give a political mandate to manifesto promises in an unrestrained way, but they don’t necessarily offer a moral mandate to do so. Politicians should always be concerned with the interests of electoral minorities. But those whose wins are narrow should be far more willing to consider how they might pursue compromise positions. Given the complexity of reasons for voting mentioned above, that might require considerable engagement by MPs with local constituencies to understand which parts of their manifesto turned voters off.

Compromise can’t be achieved at every level – you can’t both back No Deal and reject it. Still, moving constituency politics beyond a simple rhetoric of winners and losers might help to reconnect some voters with politics. If being on the ‘losing’ side isn’t to mean the end of a chance to engage impactfully in politics, MPs should recognise that a narrow win means, in moral terms, a narrow mandate. But that applies almost as strongly to, say, Boris Johnson’s narrow majority (50.8%) in Uxbridge and South Ruislip as it does to Jane Dodds’s narrow minority win in Brecon and Radnorshire.

Gene-Editing Mosquitoes at The European Youth Event 2018

By Jonathan Pugh

 

The below is a slightly extended version of my two 5min presentations at the European Youth Event 2018, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. I was asked to present on the following questions:

 

  1. What are the ethical issues surrounding gene-editing, particularly with respect to eradicating mosquitoes?

 

  1. Should the EU legislate on gene-editing mosquitoes?

 

Continue reading

Targeted Killing and Black Boxes

Written By Mitt Regan and Michael Robillard

            Various aspects of the US targeted killing program have attracted considerable attention and some criticism in philosophy and international law. One important aspect of the program that deserves more attention is how targeted killing reflects how the growing number of conflicts involving non-state actors are eroding conventions regarding the use of violence.  Those conventions are based on the paradigm of conflict between states waged by uniformed armed forces on segregated battlefields.  In such conflicts, an individual’s status as a member of the armed forces makes him/her liable to lethal force without examining his/her specific conduct.  Non-state actors, however, do not wear uniforms and seek to be indistinguishable from civilians.  What, then, should be the basis for their liability? Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: The Ethical Dilemma of Youth Politics, written by Andreas Masvie

 This essay was the runner up in the undergraduate category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017

Written by University of Oxford Student, Andreas Masvie

 

The West in general, and perhaps Europe in particular, tend to celebrate youth politics as a vital force of democracy. This is reflected in the current literature on youth politics, which appears to be almost exclusively descriptive (e.g. ‘What is the level of youth politics in country X?’) or positively normative (e.g. ‘How can country X heighten engagement in youth politics?’). Various youth councils and parliaments are encouraged and empowered by government as well as civil society, both at local and national level. This is also the case internationally. The UN, for instance, demands that youth politics be stimulated: “[Such] engagement and participation is central to achieving sustainable human development.”[1] I will approach the rationale of this collective celebration as a syllogism, defining ‘youth politics’ as organized political engagement of people aged 13–25:

P1        Youth politics increases the level of political engagement;

P2        Political engagement promotes democratic vitality and sustainability; thus

C1        Youth politics promotes democratic vitality and sustainability.

In this paper I am interested in challenging P2. Does the increased political engagement due to youth politics promote democratic vitality and sustainability? For the sake of argument, I will posit the trueness of P1. When it comes to P2: it would be difficult to argue that all forms of political engagement promote democratic vitality and sustainability (e.g. authoritarian neo-Nazism or revolutionary Communism). Hence, I shall take it for granted that P2 is constrained to activities and policies compatible with democracy. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Should we completely ban “political bots”? Written by Jonas Haeg

This essay was the runner up in the Graduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics 2017

Written by University of Oxford student, Jonas Haeg

Introduction

This paper concerns the ethics of a relatively new and rising trend in political campaigning: the use of “political bots” (henceforth “polibots”). Polibots are amalgamations of computer code acting on social mediate platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) so as to mimic persons in order to gain influence over political opinions amongst people.

Currently, “many computer scientists and policy makers treat bot-generated traffic as a nuisance to be detected and managed”[1]. This policy and opinion implies a particular ethical view of their nature, namely that there is something inherently morally problematic about them. Here, I question the aforementioned view of polibots. After presenting a brief sketch of what polibots are, I formulate three potential arguments against their use, but argue that none of them succeed in showing that polibots are intrinsically morally problematic. Continue reading

Cross Post: Liberal or conservative? Most of our beliefs shift around

Written by Prof Neil Levy,

Senior Research Fellow, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation

What? Okay, that sounds good. Justin Lane/EPA

One common reaction to the election of Donald Trump (and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Brexit vote) among liberals like me is an expression of dismay that some of our fellow citizens are more racist and more sexist than we had dreamed. It seems many were prepared, if not to support openly racist comments and sexist actions, then at least to overlook them. It looks as though battles we thought we had won, having to do with a recognition of a basic kind of equality, need to be fought all over again. Many have concluded that they were never won at all; people were just waiting for a favourable climate to express the racism and sexism they held hidden. Continue reading

Cross Post: Our political beliefs predict how we feel about climate change

Written by Prof Neil Levy

Originally published on The Conversation

The man who called global warming a fabrication invented by the Chinese to make US manufacturing less competitive is now president-elect of the US. His followers expect him to withdraw the US from the Paris climate change agreement and eliminate the environmental regulations introduced by his predecessor.

But recently, Donald Trump has shown a few signs that he might be open to being convinced that climate change is a real problem requiring action. In discussion with journalists at the New York Times, he expressed the view that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change, adding that he’s keeping an open mind about it. Continue reading

Should Rhodes stay or should he go? On the ethics of removing controversial statues

This is an unedited version of an article originally published by The Conversation.

Picture this: it’s 20 April 2021 and the charming Austrian village of Braunau am Inn – Hitler’s birth place – reveals a new statue of Adolf Hitler on the main square. In his inauguration speech, the mayor stresses that although Hitler obviously did many immoral deeds, he also achieved some good things, such as building motorways and railroads, and advancing rocket science. With the new statue, the village wishes to commemorate Hitler’s valuable contributions to Germany and Austria, contributions from which many still reap benefits.

If this scenario were to occur,[1] it would cause a public outcry. It would be considered offensive and disrespectful towards Hitler’s victims and their families. It would also be seen as conveying implicit approval or tolerance of the atrocities that were committed in his name, perhaps making the village authorities complicit in the continuing stigmatisation of those same groups targeted by Hitler. In no time, the village would succumb to the pressure to take it down.

If there are good reasons not to erect a statue of Hitler, are there also good reasons to remove existing statues that some find problematic, such as that of the controversial British imperialist Cecil Rhodes?

In January, after months of heated debate and Rhodes Must Fall activism, Oxford University’s Oriel College decided to leave a statue of Rhodes on his pedestal at the front of the college. But protests are continuing against Oriel’s decision – mixed in with calls to remove statues of other controversial imperialist figures. Continue reading

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Is Graffiti Ever Morally Permissible? written by Areti Theofilopoulou

 This essay received an Honourable Mention in the graduate category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford Dphil candidate Areti Theofilopoulou

 

Introduction

On March 4th 2015, the graffiti team “Icos & Case” covered the National Technical University of Athens with an enormous black and white mural[i]. The graffiti was viewed as a political statement regarding the country’s socioeconomic crisis. In fact, the University was chosen due to its history as a centre of resistance during Greece’s dictatorship. Although public opinion over the permissibility of the graffiti was divided, the media and the state overwhelmingly opposed it. Eventually, the state decided to remove it, claiming it was an act of vandalism.

This recent example gives rise to the following question: is graffiti ever morally permissible? In other words, are the actions of graffiti artists always blameworthy? Taking “graffiti” to mean writing or drawings created on a public building or other public surface, I will argue that, under certain circumstances, it is morally permissible. If we grant that all morally permissible actions should be legal, we may further conclude that governments should not prosecute graffiti artists. Even if one does not accept this corollary, however, the argument regarding permissibility still stands.

As addressing the issue of private property is not possible on this occasion, the discussion will be limited to graffiti on public buildings. Moreover, an abstract commitment to equality and liberty will be assumed. Continue reading

Guest Post: KILLER ROBOTS AND THE ETHICS OF WAR IN THE 21th CENTURY

Written by Darlei Dall’Agnol[1]

killer robot

I attended, recently, the course Drones, Robots and the Ethics of Armed Conflict in the 21st Century, at the Department for Continuing Education, Oxford University, which is, by the way, offering a wide range of interesting courses for 2015-6 (https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/). Philosopher Alexander Leveringhaus, a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, spoke on “What, if anything, is wrong with Killer Robots?” and ex-military Wil Wilson, a former RAF Regiment Officer, who is now working as a consultant in Defence and Intelligence, was announced to talk on “Why should autonomous military machines act ethically?” changed his title, which I will comment on soon. The atmosphere of the course was very friendly and the discussions illuminating. In this post, I will simply reconstruct the main ideas presented by the main speakers and leave my impression in the end on this important issue.  Continue reading

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