Jamie Tarlton, OULC member, argues that we should place a greater value on democracy and that broader efforts should be made to engage with our political opponents.
At a recent Oxford University Labour Club discussion on whether the voting age should be lowered to 16, a controversial argument was made. One person pointed out that young people tend to vote for left-wing parties, and argued that this meant that we, as socialists, should support giving them the vote.
Several others dismissed this argument, but the person proposing it passionately defended their point. They said that they supported socialism because “it saves lives, it makes people’s lives better”, arguing that if extending our democracy to younger people would help advance the socialist movement, then this should be done.
Setting aside the specific issue of our voting age, I found this speech both rousing and a little worrying. Rousing, in that the person quite eloquently captured my own reasons for supporting the socialist movement. Worrying, in that they seemed to be suggesting that our democracy should be a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.
It is hardly surprising that some people may see the victory of our political ideology as being of comparable, or even greater, importance than the nature of our democratic process. In recent years, society has been very polarised when it comes to politics, and there has been little meaningful dialogue between opposing sides. This is partly due to the phenomenon of “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles” on social media, where people are repeatedly exposed to articles and other material supporting their own views, and opposing perspectives are suppressed.
In the run-up to the 2017 General Election, my own echo chamber was briefly opened up: a friend of mine wrote a post saying that they would be voting for the Conservative Party. Others left a slew of comments expressing their horror at this decision, which prompted my friend to give a detailed explanation for why they were going to do such a thing.
This explanation did not feature any desire for poor people to go hungry, nor for healthcare to be for only those who could afford it, nor for the quality of our education to be based on the financial status of our parents. It included a belief that short-term austerity is a sensible economic strategy for our long-term societal prosperity, and a judgement that those in blue were better able to lead our country than those in red, with particular concern for one or two of the Labour Party’s more controversial policies.
We often assume that our political opponents have fundamentally different values to our own, and that this is the main reason for our disagreements. However, if we strip away the rhetoric and political point scoring, we may find a great deal of common ground, and that many of our disagreements are about how best to realise shared values.
Our democratic system should be more than just a tool for us to use to advance the socialist movement. It should be an arena in which we engage one another in political debate, seek a deep understanding of where we agree and where we do not, and perhaps learn from one another in order to further develop our vision for a better society.