The democracy myth

Cliff Mitchell - 08/04/2021
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When large proportions of an electorate are disillusioned, and see other people apparently doing very well, our country is moving into dangerous territory.

12 MPs, all Conservative

"When large proportions of an electorate are disillusioned, and see other people apparently doing very well, our country is moving into dangerous territory."

Staffordshire in the West Midlands has a population of over 1.1 million,  contains extremes of wealth, inner-city poverty and everything in between and is spread over historical market towns, rolling farmland, and post-industrial cities.

Divided into twelve parliamentary constituencies, in the 2019 general election 40% of the Staffordshire electorate voted Conservative and all twelve constituencies returned a Conservative MP, thanks to our first past the post, winner takes all, electoral system.

In a representative democracy such as ours, an elected MP is required to represent the interests and concerns of all their constituents, not just those that voted for them. Unfortunately, our party political system requires loyalty to their party such that MPs are expected to vote as directed by the party whips on most important matters, even if that vote would contradict the majority wish of their constituents.

In Staffordshire therefore, 60% of the electorate - the 25% who voted for non-Conservative candidates and the 35% who did not vote at all - have been left largely unrepresented and powerless until the next election.  Is this really the best democracy has to offer for our country?

Some will argue that those who didn’t vote don’t deserve to be represented. However, there are many reasons for people not to vote in elections. Among the top reasons given is the belief that their vote wouldn’t make any difference. This is particularly relevant in so called safe seats where one particular party has a seemingly insurmountable majority – very relevant in many Staffordshire constituencies. A second main reason for not voting is when people think their beliefs are not represented by any of the parties and candidates. It is not that these non-voters don’t have a view and a right to be heard, it’s  that our first past the post electoral system provides no mechanism for their views to be taken into account. According to the Electoral Reform Society, in the 2019 General Election 45.3% of voters cast their vote for a candidate that did not end up being elected.

Proportional representation

The UK is the only democracy in Europe still to use the first past the post system to elect its MPs.  Forty of the forty-three countries in Europe use some form of proportional representation to ensure a better representation of the range of views in their countries.

There is no doubt our first past the post electoral system should be scrapped and replaced by some form of proportional representation if we want more effective democracy in the UK, but that’s not all that needs fixing. Our unwritten constitution has a number of inbuilt checks and balances that are no longer fit for purpose.

Separation of powers: legislature, executive, judiciary

The ‘separation of powers’ is fundamental to the UK’s democracy with parliament (the legislature) holding the government (the executive) to account, and our laws implemented and interpreted by an independent judiciary. Unfortunately the Johnson government largely ignores parliament and, with a majority of 80 seats, can get away with it. From the prorogation of parliament, to gaming appointments to parliamentary committees, to attacks on the power of courts to review government decisions, the Johnson government will stop at nothing to get their own way, unchallenged by democratic process.

The upper chamber

In many democracies a second, higher chamber provides a check on the power of the executive by scrutinising, amending or blocking proposed legislation where it is seen to go against the national interest. In the UK this second chamber is the House of Lords, a wholly unelected, unaccountable body of nearly 800 (!) peers, largely appointed by the political parties. Lords are appointed for life except for hereditary peers who are born into a peerage – all 92 of them are male. As a UK elector you have ZERO say in the House of Lords and absolutely no democratic control over their activities. All parties, except the Conservatives, now support replacement of the House of Lords by an elected Senate.  

Law breaking, ministerial codes and misinformation

Regardless of all the other supposed checks and balances, being British has always implied a certain way of doing things, a certain moral code that prevented the worst excesses: ministers did not ‘mislead parliament’, breaking the law was a no-no, and ministers who broke the ministerial code of conduct resigned. We now have a prime minister who broke the law and misled parliament, and 11 current ministers who have broken the ministerial code and yet are still in post.

The ministerial code is based on the seven Nolan Principles that state anyone in public life should demonstrate selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. All very British, and hardly over-demanding, and yet our government is incapable of adhering to even these basic standards.

Political education

The 2019 General Election exposed yet again a generational divide in outlook. The future belongs to the young and yet their views are largely not heard in our democracy, partly because in England we do not allow 16-18 year olds to vote, partly because the views of young people are not reflected by the major political parties, and partly because they may lack knowledge of how the system works. The first two require action from the political parties while the third requires better education. Political education in our schools is woefully inadequate so it is perhaps not surprising that young people, indeed most people in the UK, don’t know enough about our democratic process to make it work for them.

An independent media holding the government to account

Professional, quality journalism can find and expose corruption, cronyism, and dishonesty in public life and, historically, has been instrumental in holding public figures to account. But if the media are deliberately used to influence political outcomes by peddling misinformation, failing to report important stories, and constantly pushing a single political narrative, then their influence can be far from benign. In the UK just three companies dominate 90% of the national newspaper market, and 80% of the market when online readers are included. What’s worse is that just three billionaire families – the Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – control an estimated 68% of national newspaper circulation and all three promote, and benefit from, right wing policies. Hardly a balanced media holding our right wing government to account.

Our democracy is broken

Given all of these problems, is it surprising the many people are disillusioned with our democracy, that they feel their views are not heard, and that regardless of how they vote nothing changes. Indeed, under this government things have got rapidly and significantly worse. When large proportions of an electorate are disillusioned, feel ignored and powerless, and see other people apparently doing very well, our country is moving into dangerous territory. Fixing our democratic processes should be a top priority: proportional representation, a written constitution, re-affirmation of the separation of powers, a fully elected Senate, media plurality, enforcement of the Nolan principles and better political education. That’s a big task and it’s urgent, so the sooner we start the better for us all.

“A great democracy has got to be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy.”
― Theodore Roosevelt, New Nationalism Speech by Teddy Roosevelt

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