Democracy expert answers your questions!

Graham Smith.JPG

I am Graham Smith, Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. I run lots of research projects. One is on how to improve debates online. Another is how to involve ordinary people in big decisions like Brexit. I also teach students about democracy. I love teaching, researching and talking about democracy! You sent me some great questions. Thank you.

Q) Is voting the best way to solve issues? From quiet_horse, Arnhem Wharf Primary School

A) Voting is a good way to make decisions because everyone has the same power. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are. Or what school or university you went to. One vote per person.

But it only really works well if the people who are voting have considered the relevant information before they vote and learned about what other people think. Democracy works best when we are curious and open-minded about other people’s views. Too often we just listen to people like ourselves. That’s when bad decisions can be made.

It is also important that when we vote, it is in secret. Otherwise people can put pressure on you to vote in a particular way or someone can pay you for your vote.

So, voting is a very good way of making decisions. But before we vote, we should have an opportunity to learn about the issue and talk to other people about what they think. This is true for you and me – and for our politicians.


Q) We often see people fighting for their rights. Why do they have to this even though we are part of a democracy? From outstanding_wolf, Richmond Hill Academy

A) You would hope that democracies would protect everyone’s rights. But that is not always the case. The history of democracy is the history of different groups fighting for their interests to be recognised and respected.

The rights of women is one example. The idea that women should not have the vote seems crazy now. But for centuries, men have been sceptical about whether women could reason and make good political decisions. It took long campaigns by the Suffragettes and others for women to have equal voting rights. In 1918 women finally got the vote. But only if they were over 30 and owned property. Ten years later, in 1928, women were given the same voting rights as men. Now almost a century later, feminists argue that while women have the same legal rights, they are not equal. Only 32 percent of Members of Parliament are women. Surely in a democracy that should be 50 percent? Women also run less of the large companies in the UK and earn less than men.

It’s not just women. If we look at parliament, we can also see very few young, black and minority ethnic, working class, non-university educated or LGBTQ+ politicians. That suggests that these groups are not being treated fairly in our society.

The founding principle of democracy is political equality. People who believe they are being treated unfairly can appeal to that principle. This is what makes democracy better than other forms of government. In an authoritarian regime, you cannot protest for your rights. In a democracy, you can shout on the streets and lobby politicians. Democracies are not perfect in protecting everyone’s rights, but they can change over time.

Good decisions take into account the different viewpoints that people hold. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want. It means that everyone’s interests are considered.

Graham Smith, University of Westminster

Q) Is democracy the quickest way to decide things? From smart_journalist, Arnhem Wharf Primary School

A) Democracy is definitely not the quickest way to make a decision. But it is the best way to make a political decision. When it works well, democracy makes sure that everyone’s voice is heard. Good decisions take into account the different viewpoints that people hold. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want. It means that everyone’s interests are considered.

Authoritarian leaders can make decisions faster. But they don’t necessarily care what other people think.

Speed is not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes our politicians make decisions too fast, without considering everyone’s interests. They feel under pressure from the media to give a quick response. A slower, more considered process can mean that decisions are more widely supported. Slow is often better than fast when it comes to politics.


Q) Did Fake News cause Brexit? From blessed_computer, Graveney School

A) We haven’t left yet! At least not last time I looked.

Did you mean, did fake news impact on the Brexit referendum in 2017? If that is your question, then the answer is probably ‘yes’. Lots of untruths and half-truths were put forward by both sides. In some countries, they have independent officials who check the different claims that are made during referendums. Unfortunately, we don’t have that in the UK.

Fake news was posted on social media by both Leave and Remain supporters – and from outside the UK.

When I was young, social media didn’t exist, so it was harder to spread fake news. Now it is so much easier and quicker to spread a fake story.

The question I can’t answer is whether fake news changed the result. We don’t know which way it had an effect. We will probably never know whose fake news influenced most voters. All we do know is that in the age of the internet, fake news is a BIG problem for our democracy. We need to work out how to deal with it.

Comments (13)

  • Olivia-Avatar.jpg Olivia @ the BNC
    19 Mar 2019

    1. Graham says, "It is also important that when we vote, it is in secret. Otherwise people can put pressure on you to vote in a particular way or someone can pay you for your vote." Can you think of an example where this has happened for you, perhaps in school?
    2. Graham mentions that during the referendum, fake news was spread online from both the leave and remain sides. Can you give some examples?

    Reply to this comment
  • The-Ruth-Gorse-logo-250x250.jpg creative_sparrow | The Ruth Gorse Academy
    24 Mar 2019

    Misinformation from the Remainers (from The Independent)

    'Two thirds of British jobs in manufacturing are dependent on demand from Europe’ -
    This is an over exaggerated claim (perhaps more like 15%)

    'Brexit will lead to Scotland renewing calls for independence' -
    According to the 2017 General Election there was less support for the SNP (the Scottish Independent party) suggesting that it may not be so. I guess it will depend on how Brexit pans out.

    'House Prices will fall by 18%'
    At this moment in time it has fallen only slightly but definitely not this much, besides it all depends on were you are.

    Misinformation from the Leavers (from The Independent)

    'The money saved from leaving the EU will result in the NHS getting £350m a week'
    The amount was not taken into account of rebate or the spending that goes back into the UK, I guess it’s like paying for something with a £20 note but forgetting the change.

    'A free-trade deal with the EU will be 'the easiest thing in human history'
    The reality is, it’s tough and complex to negotiate a deal, especially as we are struggle to get even a withdrawal deal, which is only the first part of leaving the EU.

    'Turkey is going to join the EU and millions of people will flock to the UK'
    Turkey have been wanting to join since 1987 and all the EU countries have actually vetoed the idea ever since including the UK.

    Conclusion
    So with all this misinformation and fear mongering from both sides, it feels like those mis-sold PPI adverts; we should all claim our votes back. This is the reason why we should revoke article 50 or have another referendum. I think if we all had a reassessment with new, correct, clear information then this will be fair. We would have to accept the outcome of the 2nd referendum but perhaps with a bigger percentage gap or have something in place to make it more valid. Maybe a compulsory voting system like in Australia then ‘the will of the people’ idea can then be fairly represented.
    The positive outcome I think, is that more young people will be engaged with politics and go a little bit further in finding out the truth. Also, I believe political campaigns on digital medias should be banned to prevent the spread of false information. This way information can be easily fact-checked if it was published on traditional media. Alternatively, a law could be put in place on social media sites so the responsibility would fall on to them to fact-check and pull down any misinformation, otherwise, they would be liable if their sites were used to spread false information.

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/final-say-brexit-referendum-lies-boris-johnson-leave-campaign-remain-a8466751.html

    Reply to this comment
    1. Arnhem-Wharf-logo-250x250.jpg smart_journalist | Arnhem Wharf Primary School
      creative_sparrow's comment 26 Mar 2019

      I agree with u and I like the fact you wrote so much

      Reply to this comment
  • John-Ruskin-logo-250x250.jpg generous_banana | John Ruskin
    25 Mar 2019

    Answering question 2 .
    1) ‘Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market’ – Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan .
    2) ‘Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week’ – Boris Johnson .
    3) ‘We will need an emergency Budget to restore stability to public finances’ – George Osborne .
    4) ‘The UK loses out because other members favour a highly regulated and protectionist economy’ – Jacob Rees-Mogg .
    5) ‘Two thirds of British jobs in manufacturing are dependent on demand from Europe’ – Alan Johnson .

    Reply to this comment
  • Richmond-Hill-logo-250x250.jpg outstanding_wolf | Richmond Hill Academy
    30 Mar 2019

    Thank you for answering my question

    Reply to this comment
  • Arnhem-Wharf-logo-250x250.jpg quiet_horse | Arnhem Wharf Primary School
    31 Mar 2019

    Thank you for answering my question!

    Reply to this comment
  • Michael-Faraday-logo-250x250.jpg extraordinary_thought | Michael Faraday School
    03 Apr 2019

    Are people in prison allowed to vote?
    What will happen to things like the Eurostar when we leave the EU?
    Can people who live in the street vote?
    If prisoners can't vote, isn't that breaking a human rights law?

    Reply to this comment
  • Birchwood-logo-250x250.jpg fabulous_panda_bear | Birchwood C of E Primary School
    05 Apr 2019

    Is people allowed to vote if they are in prison or do they have to say sailent because if they do not have a say the might have rights to complain because they have had no chance to have a say but I can see that if they are in prison they should not have the rights to say only because the have been naughty to people not even that so this is what I think but people might disagree but they should have a right to say only if it does not hurt other people’s feelings. In addition to this people should have a right to say because either way people who do not vote have a right to complain and they will disagree but if they do not take part in a. Vote the you should not have a right to say because they had a chance and they never wanted to say.

    Reply to this comment
  • Boutcher-logo-250x250.jpg powerful_shark | Boutcher C of E Primary School
    05 Apr 2019

    I really do agree with the expert, Graham Smith.
    As I usually say, be scpectical, and don’t let others influence to the negative thing. And it’s true that you need to keep your vote a secret.

    Reply to this comment
  • Richmond-Hill-logo-250x250.jpg outstanding_wolf | Richmond Hill Academy
    08 Apr 2019

    Q) Did Fake News cause Brexit? From blessed_computer, Graveney School,
    I agree with you because when you said yes I also thought the same because it is linked with social media and that is were you get fake news from most of the time because people put up comments that are fake news and then people just assume it is real but it is not you could also find more about it because I wrote post about How to spot fake news and I wrote it because we in the BNC need to spot the difference between it as well and it did help me.

    Reply to this comment
  • Boutcher-logo-250x250.jpg impartial_panda_bear | Boutcher C of E Primary School
    09 Apr 2019

    I think Graham Smith is right by saying “That doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want. It means that everyone’s interests are considered”.

    Reply to this comment
  • Arnhem-Wharf-logo-250x250.jpg quiet_horse | Arnhem Wharf Primary School
    10 Apr 2019

    Is voting the best way to solve issues? - Thank you for answering my question!
    I agree with you Graham Smith because voting may not be the quickest way but it definitely is one of the easiest. People can vote on whatever they want, whoever they are! A vote is something that is in your hands, you decide what it goes towards. Also, I agree with you because there will be no point in voting if the voters don’t even know what the topic is about! What will be the purpose of that? If people don’t vote in private/secret then everyone will bribe you to vote for them.

    Reply to this comment
  • Weston-Favell-logo-250x250.jpg honorable_conclusion | Weston Favell Academy
    18 Apr 2019

    Did fake news have an effect on the Brexit referendum? I agree with Graham Smith because he has said that "lots of untruths and half-truths were put forward by both sides". This is true because Boris Johnson ,for the leavers campaign, previously said ,"‘Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week’. It is known this is false because ,although we were giving roughly this amount per week, this is a misuse of facts as it does not include how much money we got back from the EU. On the other hand, a remain campaigner has stated that‘Two thirds of British jobs in manufacturing are dependent on demand from Europe’ . This figure has been changed and is actually approximately seventeen percent. This shows that fake news was used by both parties. I think that Graham Smith answered the question because he explained about how people used fake news on both sides and how fake news has increased simultaneously with the rise of social media.

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