Not Goldfish

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. ( 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.

The elected councillors for Orkney Islands Council in 2017

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8 replies »

  1. “It is important that the voters of Orkney see a prospectus from every intended councillor for the next 4 years in office.”

    And that’s where independent journalism can play it’s part, but – as with the precise Covid figures updates – those who don’t read The Orkney News might not see the declarations of intent from the prospective councillors.

    Knowing, and even liking, someone isn’t a good enough reason to make them a councillor.

  2. It is important that prospective councillors opinions on various issues are known and that once elected, their voting pattern is known. Thid does not need to be linked to national political parties. National politics at the moment is largely decided on the single issue of independence and nothing else. For a council to run the county, much more needs to be considered and much of the time, the interests of Orkney are not the same as the interests of the political parties based in the central belt. By all means have individual candidates state what their main objectives are, and allow them to join with other councillors on issues that they support but do not tie them to national parties who are only concerned about the big cities and connurbations where most of their voters live.

  3. Absolutely brilliantly and succinctly put – and also absolutely perceptive and true in my opinion!
    I am not a voter and supposedly will never be one, being a newly retired Swiss citizen with close ties to Orkney for over 30 years and the permission to reside on Orkney for 6 months every year. But I take a great interest in what is happening in my home of choice.
    Being Swiss, I come from one of the oldest democracies in Europe and have always taken my privilege to take part in national and local decisions seriously.
    What is put down in this article could be cited from our constitution, and it is the principle on which the Swiss confederation is built, down from the national political decisions to the local ones.
    Unfortunately, this doesn’t make our country into a political paradise. It is to be hoped (somewhat forlornly…) that Okney can avoid our pitfalls and tread a healthier political path…

    The two main reasons (in my own personal opinion) for the corruption of our fundamentally good system come both from the bottom and from the top of our society.
    At the bottom (meaning the fundaments) of our system is “The Sovereign”, which means “the citizens”, the voters, the people.
    Having spent my life as a teacher at primary, secondary and special needs schools I heartily commiserate with this article’s observations on the reading (and thinking…) abilities of the future and the existing young adults. But it is not only them who find politics too much of a bother to deal with. Success makes a civilisation complacent and in time careless and degenerate, as can be seen down through mankind’s political history. People get used to the good things they have and start taking them for granted. Worse – they begin to think life and their country OWE them a perfect life without them having to lift a finger.
    And this makes it easy for the second reason:

    Influence through money.
    Money is powerful. And people too lazy or too complacent to think for themselves and to take an active (even if only mentally active) part in what is forming the society they are living in are the easiest prey ever for political manipulation, which for a large part takes place through huge and expensive media campaigns. This means that the political parties and the interest groups with the most money behind them can afford the largest, longest and most expertly drawen up media campaigns, using all the media canals open nowadays.
    Persons no longer used to or too lazy to accumulate well founded information react beautifully to simple slogans, simplistic drawings or pictures and expertly formulated short and one-sided writings in easy language.
    So – the outcome of our luckily frequent votes quite often are not based on well informed, differentiating opinions but on gut reactions to expertly planned and financially well oiled publicity campaigns.

    Yes – politicians have the obligation to state their beliefs and agenda, so the voters have a clear idea on who they vote for.
    They also have the (moral) obligation to be truthful about what they promise and why – and, once elected, to stick to the promises that got them in!

    Elisabeth Sidler

    • I should add that I am the former ‘No Ticket’ candidate who intends to stand as a Green at the next election in May 2022. At the last election I had a 36-point manifesto highlighting what I stood for and what I hoped to achieve in my five years in office. I am delighted to say that all but four of these have been achieved to date with work on-going on most. The Greens are being brave and challenging the current Orkney clique system by standing politically. We will be fighting on community issues -issues that matter to communities – changes required in a post Covid era and pushing for Orkney’s role in green technology to be expanded. Openness and accountability will be crucial in the years ahead – something that the council has not been great at in the past. We will produce an Orkney Greens manifesto and hope for support for it. Onward and upward! En Avant!

  4. Fiona is, as ever, on the money. How can we ever make informed choices if know not where candidates stand?

  5. I would suggest that looking at that photograph that most of our councillors were born long before the goldfish generation. They should absolutely be required to publish any present or recent memberships of political parties, or organisations, in the same way as they should declare financial interests.

    • We cannot be ageist Chris but I could not agree more. We need more young people in the Chamber which is what our report ‘Being Heard ‘ was all about… I also agree on your point on declarations of interest.

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