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Does Misleading Messaging Devalue our Democracy?

Those who follow us on Twitter will be familiar with our ongoing quest to receive a reply from Councillor Graeme Downie, the Labour party’s Westminster candidate for the Dunfermline and Dollar constituency. We have asked Councillor Downie a legitimate and reasonable question on several occasions but have never received an answer. In this this article, we will analyse the relevant issue along with its democratic and constitutional implications.


1.      The issue


We received a leaflet which detailed Councillor Downie's ‘five policy priorities’ ahead of the next general election, two of which concerned devolved areas of governance; to “tackle the GP crisis and NHS waiting lists” (health), and to “raise education standards to match [the] ambition of young people” (education). These same priorities are replicated on the Councillor’s official campaign website.


Councillor Downie will be aware (at least we hope he is aware) that health and education are ‘devolved matters’, and that as such, it is the Scottish government, not the UK government, who control policy relative to those areas in Scotland. Again, we hope that the Councillor is aware that he is not standing as a candidate for the Scottish Parliament, and that if his party wins the upcoming general election, they will not form a Scottish government, meaning that they would not be able to implement policies in devolved areas.


An incoming UK Labour government could indirectly increase the Scottish governments available funding for health and education by increasing spending on those same areas in England. This is because the amount which the Scottish government receives to spend on devolved areas is calculated by the ‘Barnett formula’ and is based on a proportion of the amount which the UK government spends on the same areas in the rest of the UK. The way in which any additional funding was spent however (i.e. the specific investments & policies implemented) would remain at the discretion of the Scottish government, meaning again that Councillor Downie and the UK Labour government would not be able to implement policies in the relevant areas. Furthermore, it is of note that the Labour party have committed to maintaining a programme of austerity if elected, meaning that the Scottish governments available funding on the relevant areas is unlikely to increase by virtue of a Labour government’s election.  


According to this analysis, Councillor Downie is incapable of implementing policies in two out of the five areas which he identifies as his ‘policy priorities’, and assuming that he has a basic understanding of devolution, he must be aware of that himself. In a tweet just last week, the Councillor highlighted an awareness of relevant devolved competencies, writing that “education has been the sole responsibility of the SNP for the past 17 years”.  


We are therefore left with no other impression than that the campaigning materials were designed (not necessarily by the Councillor himself) to mislead voters in the Dunfermline and Dollar constituency by creating a false impression that by electing the Councillor, policies would be implemented in the mentioned devolved areas.


2.      Assimilation to a fraudulent misrepresentation.


In an electoral context, use of misleading campaigning materials could be seen to resemble the properties of a ‘fraudulent misrepresentation’ in the law of contracts; where one party misleads another for the purpose of inducing them to contract in a way which they otherwise may not have.


The Labour Party are seemingly hoping that voters will identify present issues with public services and interpret the flyer in a way which alludes to a vote for Councillor Downie being a vote to help resolve those issues through the implementation of certain policies - why else would these issues be presented as his “policy priorities” in campaign materials?


When employing this tactic, the Labour Party are operating under the assumption that voters in Dunfermline and Dollar won’t be able to see through it – do they think that those voters are stupid?


The Councillor himself may not, but from reading his own blog, those within the Labour Party may; on the 10th of June 2021, the Councillor wrote an article in which he says that “elected members, candidates, staff or activists” from the Labour party said that voters “don’t understand” when discussing why their party was rejected in prior Scottish elections. This suggests that those within the Labour party felt that their electoral losses may have been caused by the voting constituents themselves being unable to understand the issues and messages; an attitude from which future misleading messages could be deemed effective or even necessary.


At this point, it is important to highlight that (from my understanding) candidates of various different political parties have employed the devolved/reserved blurred lines strategy at some point, and that it is therefore not a uniquely Councillor Downie (or Labour) issue - although recently Scottish Labour have been especially prolific in their use of it. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Councillor Downie is the architect of the messaging in question, and he is instead more likely to be following party lines as set by Labours’ campaigning HQ.


Despite this however, the Councillor’s use of the materials should be questioned, because it is symptomatic of a wider issue in modern politics; one where the integrity of voter communication is being slowly eroded by misinformation, whether that be by foreign online attacks, skewed soundbite statistics, or public pledges which are never intended to be fulfilled. Instead of vigilantly battling misinformation, public representatives at the very top of the food chain are fuelling the fire as they adapt to the most effective methods of winning votes. It is (or at least it should be) the responsibility of every individual who seeks to hold public office to put the interests of their constituents above the interests of their own political career, and so it is in the public interest that we challenge the Councillor’s willing acquiescence to the misleading messaging which we have highlighted. While this is true, we must nevertheless recognise and accept certain fundamental facts; firstly, that in the context of the grand issue which we have outlined, this is a low-level contribution. Secondly, that Councillor Downie is far from the only individual who should be challenged on this basis, and lastly, that it is his parties campaigning team who are likely to be ultimately responsible for that particular messaging.


3.      Constitutional / democratic implications.


The value of a democracy is underpinned by the validity of its elections, for it is through elections that governing representatives obtain a democratic mandate to act on the public’s behalf by virtue of that public’s collective approval. Valid democratic mandates vitally ensure that a public is governed according to their consent, rather than by force; a concept which sits at the very core of democracy.


A voter’s consent (which is obtained through their participation in established democratic procedure) has to be given freely and on an informed basis. This is not to say that a vote is invalid if the individual who cast it does not have a thorough understanding of each and every position of the representative for whom they are voting, but it is (in one sense) to say that the information on which an individual’s vote is predicated must be legitimate and accurate insofar as it is provided by a candidate or campaigner. A voter is capable of being personally ignorant of information with no attributable intentional cause, yet if a campaigner or candidate wilfully intervenes and misleads that voter, they could be said to act with intention, thus likely inferring their liability for a vote being partially predicated on falsified authorities.


To follow the prior contractual example, a contract formed on the basis of misrepresentation is invalid and reduceable because the party which was induced to act by such misrepresentation cannot be said to have freely consented to the contract’s terms. If an individual’s vote is premised on misinformation, is that vote invalid?


A vote which is cast on the basis of misrepresentation is a vote extracted rather than one cast freely, and if the publics consent to a representative’s authority is constituted by a collection of these votes, the validity of that representative’s democratic mandate, and the value of the democratic process from which they were elected are both significantly undermined (or invalidated). For example, in the Brexit referendum ‘leave’ votes were predicated on misrepresented facts (e.g. the £350 million to the NHS per week), and when these misrepresentations were exposed, the validity of the referendum’s outcome was significantly undermined, and the public’s trust in the UK’s democratic process was eroded.


4.      Unanswered questions.


We politely asked the Councillor for an explanation of the misleading messaging via twitter DM on the 16th of January, following up again on the 17th and 20th of that same month all to no avail. We sent a lengthier email to his campaign address on the 20th of January to which we again received no response. We consequently made a public post appealing for a response on the 25th of that month which has since been viewed nearly 40,000 times and shared 200 times. We have still not received any acknowledgement or response.


The disregard with which we have been treated by a local parliamentary candidate is extremely disappointing. It is in the electorates interests that constituents are shown a basic level of respect and are not ignored or misled by candidates seeking to represent them. When legitimate questions are respectfully raised, they ought to be answered, and if a candidate can reply, disagree, justify their claims, or publicly explain why a misleading claim was mistakenly made, then such should be respected. Silence however is indicative of a lack of conviction in this particular issue, and a lack of desire to engage with those who have legitimate concerns.  


We would welcome any engagement from Councillor Downie, his campaign team, or any representatives of the Labour party to discuss the contents of this article.


5.      Councillor Downie's SNP Counterpart.


At the time of writing this article, Councillor Naz Anis-Miah, the SNP’s general election candidate in the Dunfermline and Dollar constituency launched his campaign website on which he listed the NHS as one of his four ‘priorities’ ahead of the election. This is a useful example to analyse because we have received comments on twitter which argue that the SNP use devolved issues in Westminster campaigns just the same as Labour. It may seem that Councillor Anis-Miah’s priorities can be directly assimilated with Councillor Downie’s in their use of the blurred lines strategy, but there are potentially differentiating factors which should be considered before making that conclusion.


For transparency, it is important to note that I am a member of the SNP, and that this is a strictly opinion-based article. Despite this, I aim to provide an honest and fair account of this issue and I do not wish to simply operate as a mouthpiece of the SNP. If the party is at fault for issues such as misleading messaging, then it is only right that I call them out the same as I would any other.


Councillor Anis-Miah’s first listed priority was independence, and it was stated that he seeks independence “so [that] the challenges we face in priorities 2-4 can be truly resolved”. The NHS was priority four and therefore should be read in the context of independence being sought to facilitate its fulfilment. This caveat is important, as it introduces the key distinction between the blurred line strategy as used by Labour and the SNP.


Independence could substantially affect the NHS in Scotland by enabling the Scottish government to

implement changes in funding which they currently cannot. If achieving independence is a precondition to the SNP’s Westminster candidates being able to act on their ‘priority’ of the NHS, then it is not (in my view) misleading to state such as a priority provided that the reasoning is outlined clearly. This contrasts circumstances surrounding Councillor Downies ‘policy priority’ to which he is not proposing any constitutional change which would enable that priority to be acted upon.


We would be interested to hear the thoughts of readers and representatives of other parties on this point – is it different when the party is seeking independence as a result of their election?


We contacted Councillor Anis-Miah via his campaign email address on the 12th of March, to ask for comments. We have not received a response but note that his website has been updated as was previously indicated by ‘coming soon’ notices. The structure of the ‘priorities’ list has changed with the NHS no longer being listed, however independence is stated as a priority, and the relationship between independence and the NHS is discussed within that priority.


Conclusion


The way in which political parties, candidates, and campaigners interact with voters has the potential to enhance or undermine the integrity of a democratic process. It is clear that the presence of misleading materials creates considerable concerns regarding the validity of a representative’s electoral mandate and the morality of their campaign, and so we must ask for better from those who utilise them.


The disillusion with which ordinary voters view Westminster politics can only be exacerbated if it is to be accepted that in the confines of elections, manipulations of the truth are (to some extent), fair game. This disillusion is fostered further by an electoral environment in which candidates find it acceptable to completely ignore questions which do not cohere with their image or message. Again, we must ask for better from all involved.

 

 

 

 

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