In her 2016 book, ‘ i Gen’ Jean M Twenge PHD analyses the attitudes of USA teenagers who have only ever known the iphone age. Born between 1995 and 2012, her analysis shows these teens are more anxious and depressed than any others. They also read books less if at all. They are highly individualistic as opposed to collectivist. All this, despite being ‘super connected’. The loneliness of these young individuals is being created by big tech companies who of course make money. Most of those young folk might struggle to read this article to the end unless it was part of some mandatory school work.
The cognitive changes that are taking place in the brains of teens favour the instant gratification of ‘likes’ and the short attention span of memes or videos. A number of young folk could be losing the capacity to hold long and complex concepts in their brains. The capacity to think as we currently understand it could be under threat.
Thinking and responsible decision making are, you might guess pretty key to being human.
It’s not always easy, even now, to hold your attention span through long and ‘boring’ concepts so if I inset the word ‘democracy ‘ here it will flag up yawns and a scroll past by many! Will you make it to the end? It’s a 2 minute read…Go on.
If we start with the given that democracy is imperfect and does not give you as an individual everything you want, right away, NOW! ,then we need to next look at what the process is, if you want to get the change most important to you. (e.g.how much rent do you pay?)
You first have to prioritise your own wants – those that matter most or are most urgent and those you could be prepared to drop or modify. Make a list. Of course you could be an ‘all right Jack (or Jill)’ and because you are fine, you feel there is no need be concerned about the problems of anyone else here or beyond.
If you were thinking collectively you might have a suggested list something like this: affordable housing, cheaper heating, youth clubs, free access to sports facilities, sustainable tourism, care for elderly people.
To effect change there needs to be a system that enables change– a gathering of the most important ‘wants’ ,not just your wants but those that most other voters share – which could be thousands of individuals.
A ‘party’ system has evolved to sort out these wants. There,individual wish lists and become compromised into group wishes.
But in non party systems, like our isles councils, there is no such process to enable the gathering of individual wants into a single group want or priority list.
Generally any party (as the word suggests a group of folk) will have a set of wants (policies) that have been agreed through some means of voting. ‘Wants’ might come from an individual and go to the local branch of that party, (Orkney has branches of the main political parties). The branch may like the wants and agree – or not all of them and agree together to change them. A first point of compromise. Crucially it is not the diktat or whim of one person, like an absolute ruler that decides. Policy must rattle through the machinery of democracy and eventually drop out the end.
The modified ‘want list’ will then progress to a bigger forum – usually a national party conference, or through a filtering (elected one might hope) committee where similar wants can be grouped together. The ‘want’ that started with the individual may get to the point of becoming the policy of the party at large. The initial want is more likely to have gone through something of a moulding process that may keep some of the original, modified it or it still might be totally binned.
It’s all in an effort to gain a compromise that best represents the many nuances of idea around a single want that can become the policy of whichever party.
Only when a party has established a policy want list or ‘manifesto’ can those wants be put to the voters in an election. At that point us, the voters get to vote on which ‘list of wants’ we think is best. It’s pretty unlikely that any party will fit our particular wants exactly. We compromise too.
When you have no process to establish wants democratically, you have a situation which occurs in Orkney. There is one Green party councillor (a recent second declared he was a Green after standing as an independent) and a group called the Manifesto group with 2 members.
Most of the councillors in Orkney call themselves, ‘independent’ councillors, which is supposed to mean that they have no link or allegiance to any established political party. This is not the true picture, as many OIC councillors are already known for memberships of different parties. Some have gone as far as to profess that it is none of the voter’s business to know where their allegiance lies.
Most important, there is no process whereby individual voters can put forward their wants for themselves or Orkney as a whole. If there was, voters would choose the plan they liked best, vote for it alongside the councillor that stood on that plan. There would then be different groups of councillors all voted in on different plans. The winning plan for the next four years of Orkney’s local government would be the one that voters chose and that was supported by the most voters through the councillors they elected.
Nothing like that happens though.
Even on an individual councillor basis, there is no requirement for any individual standing for election to OIC to announce their wants and give voters a chance to see if these in any way align with theirs’. Instead individuals are elected usually for their visibility as characters within the community on the basis of complete trust. Once they have been elected it is entirely up to them how they vote or what they do. The voters are pretty much out the picture for four years other than those who might venture onto social media to vent.
It is the job of those seeking election to give the voting population a choice. The voters should see this in writing before they vote. They can then see whether once elected, that councillor sticks to their promise or not. Aspiring councillors also have to be honest enough to nail their colours to the mast before the election. Of course voters have a right to know if someone they are voting for is an office bearer of a political party but too ‘shy’ to expose that publicly! Why so coy?
It is important that the voters of Orkney see a prospectus from every intended councillor for the next 4 years in office. Ideally a group sharing a prospectus would win the majority of seats in the OIC and then be able to elect a convener from among their group and be confident in implementing their policy for their four years. This would also give officers working for the council a clear idea of where things were heading over the four years instead of the vagueness that a directionless council takes and the knee jerks and reactive policies that become inevitable.
That is democratic process – it involves an adult attention span, the guts to say what you mean to do and have that checked by your voters against your written promises. Democracy should not descend into the ’wind as it blows’, facebook rant bullying, or ‘weel I spoke to a lot o folk an they telt me this…’
To have a grown up democracy in Orkney we need to check our attention span because it matters more than anything who represents us, the things those representatives are honest and up front about, what they choose to hide from us, or why they will not put their policy list in writing in front of us.
It’s time to move beyond ‘good guy’ ‘fine lass’ politics. We deserve a grown up democracy.
We are not goldfish.