Deconstructing and (re?)constructing democracy

So, it’s election time again here in the UK; that solitary period every half-decade during which this country’s political elite has to actually somewhat engage directly with ordinary people and we, for our part, are asked to actually participate directly in the political process. Though it must be noted that many individual MPs do work hard with and for their constituents, it is still clear there now exists a sheer chasm between us and our political parties and their leaders. How many of us can really claim any affinity with David Cameron the born-to-rule Etonian; with Ed Milibot the North London chameleon; with Nick Clegg the posh car salesman; or with Nigel Farage, Enoch Powell and Kermit the Frog’s lovechild cum City banker ‘outsider’? And beyond leaders, we are confronted by a set of parties all (with the exception of one) offering ‘realist’ visions of a bleak, austere, indebted future, all telling us who not to vote for…

It is, therefore, unsurprising that an increasing number of citizens have decided that even ticking a box every five years is pointless for them. They have disengaged with their ‘representative’ political system entirely. With the notable exception of some (primarily Latin American) countries, this trend of disaffection and disengagement is echoed pretty much worldwide. Here’s the trend among some of the world’s wealthiest nations….

Democratic disillusion

From negative to positive

I too caught a powerful dose of disillusionment and disempowerment when I attended my local ‘hustings’ recently to hear the seven local candidates speak. 200 people crammed into a church speaks of some kind of enthusiasm, but what followed was, for me, crushing. Pre-selected (presumably vetted) questions emailed in; negligible mentions of poverty, inequality, environment; the vast majority of the crowd having to sit in silence for two hours, able to express themselves only through the medium of hand-clapping.

‘What a wonderfully high quality debate conducted by such high quality candidates!’ chirruped the vicar chairing the event at the end. It felt like one of those moments, vital within an unjust society, in which we all came together to publicly retell ourselves the comforting lies upon which this violent system functions. It left me feeling angry and I ended up expressing myself quite violently before I realised I had to try to turn this negative into a positive. Therefore, I have decided to run a participatory public event called ‘What would a real democracy be like? And how do we start to build it?’ It’s going to be at the West Oxford Community Centre at 7.30pm on Weds, 6th May. Please publicise and come along if you are nearby.

What would a real democracy be like?

From deconstruction to re(?)construction

In a series of posts, I want to first deconstruct our current political system. I will try to show why this system can no longer seriously be called ‘democratic’. I will start in this post with a more narrow focus on political democracy, i.e. on the country’s political institutions themselves – the electoral system, the party system, and the legislative bodies (Houses of Commons and Lords). In a second post, I will widen the scope by considering the extreme inequalities of land, wealth, and power that render economic democracy or social democracy (i.e. social justice) an impossibility in the UK today. Finally, in a third post, I will report back from the public event I’m running, letting you know what was discussed and decided. So, on with the show…

Post 1: Political non-democracy

It’s a timely and worthwhile exercise to list the factors that reveal just how undemocratic our political system is. So, here, good voters of the UK and friends beyond, is just such a list. It is surely far from comprehensive. Please feel free to add to it or to critique the factors I’ve included…

(1) Political party membership

As of January 2015, the membership of the UK’s three main political parties was at ‘a historic low’ – The Conservative Party has just 150,000 members; The Labour Party has 190,000; the Liberal Democrats have just 44,000. We have seen recent significant rises in memberships in the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Green Party, but it remains the stark fact that fewer than 1% of people in the UK today are members of a political party! Furthermore, the few citizens who are members are ‘more likely to be male than the electorate in general, more likely to be retired, to hold either professional or managerial occupational status and to earn over £40,000 per annum’.1 So, in short, (though the Green Party surge holds promise) we’re voting for parties who no one apart from old wealthier white men give much of a toss about. We could perhaps call them ‘zombie parties’!!

party identification trends

Party membership levels historical

(2) The ‘Westminster’ electoral system

Oh how we love to sing ourselves to sleep with our own platitudes, one such being that ‘Westminster is the mother of all parliaments’. The only possible truth behind that claim is that our political elites have long known how to rig a system to successfully maintain the status quo and they have certainly been keen to teach others how to do the same. Or it could be the use of the word ‘mother’ in the same sense as it is used in phrases such as ‘the mother of all stitch-ups’!

More formally known as the ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) system, the UK electoral system is divided into 650 constituencies in which local voters choose their preferred candidate to represent them as their Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons. Each party is aiming for a winning total of at least 326 MPs in order to form a government with the majority required to put through its planned agenda.

This system is fundamentally undemocratic in various ways. First, MPs can get elected on very small amounts of public support. Second, not each vote carries the same weight. If you are a Labour voter living in a rural Conservative constituency, your vote effectively counts for nothing. What we will probably see in this election, for example, is that the Green Party will get a similar amount of votes than the LibDems but will get ten times fewer MPs! Third, we therefore get the depressing debacle of tactical voting: rather than positively voting for something or someone, people are reduced to feeling compelled to vote for the lesser of two evils in order to stop the person or party they definitely don’t want from winning. The greater the call by the main parties for tactical voting, the clearer the slow demise of this system becomes. They can offer no positive vision, but instead are reduced to trying to scare us into voting against their opponent. Fourth, this in turn has historically blocked smaller parties from seriously competing. However, the era of comfortable stagnation of two/three-party politics seems now irredeemably over with other parties now set to take a great number of votes, and a far smaller but still significant number of seats, from the big parties. In Scotland, of course, the SNP is set to all but destroy Labour right across the country. Fifth, the FTFP system actually disincentivises parties from even bothering to campaign in whole areas of the country they deem unwinnable, thus severely diminishing any real electoral contestation in many places.

(3) An undemocratic and corrupt House of Commons

Beyond this undemocratic electoral system lies an increasingly undemocratic House of Commons in which debates are all too often insufficiently brief and superficial; ‘whipped’ MPs tow party lines; and ‘backbench’ (i.e. non-ministerial/shadow ministerial) MPs face minimal opportunities to influence parliamentary business. We see an increasingly narrow demographic among MPs, a broad, long-term trend away from working class people toward wealthy businessmen and a professional political caste. After the last election, only 25 MPs had ever been manual workers – a 75% drop since 1979! – while over four times that number (107) had only ever worked in politics! Over a third of MPs were privately educated, though only 7% of the population go to private schools.

Beyond the obvious rightward ideological shift this has facilitated, we’ve also seen the rise of legalised corruption, a.k.a lobbying, and the growing capture of our parliament and parliamentarians by big business. The most egregious example of this relates to the National Health Service (NHS). An overwhelming amount of people in the UK oppose its privatisation. Yet, we have experienced its surreptitious piecemeal privatisation implemented by Tory and Labour governments alike. Over 200 parliamentarians (MPs and Lords) who voted to pass the malign 2012 Health and Social Care Bill had past or present financial links to the private healthcare companies which were to benefit from the Bill. The links between the health minister who pushed the Bill through, Andrew Lansley, and the industry are numerous.

Finally, lest we forget the 2009 MPs expenses scandal. The same MPs who now rally against the supposedly greedy and cheating poor milking the benefits systems were themselves exposed as profiteering in a truly shameless fashion from the parliamentary expenses system. Despite widespread systemic abuse, only eight parliamentarians were actually found guilty of criminal charges. MPs who stole luxury items via expense claims faced few sanctions. In stark contrast, youngsters who looted lesser items in the summer riots of 2011 faced stern prison sentences.

(4) House of Lords and the royal family

Then we get to the House of Lords, a 783-strong crew of largely unelected cronies – a mixture of religious leaders, former parliamentarians, party donors, old boy chums, and, (yes, still in the 21st Century!) hereditary peers – who collectively hold the power of scrutinising (i.e. strongly influencing) parliamentary legislation. The conservative right-wing bias within this privileged establishment is stark. The House of Lords is a ridiculous undemocratic anachronism topped only by the royal family.

The claim, of course, is that the royal family is ‘above politics’ and the Queen a mere figurehead. Yet, the old girl gets a private weekly meeting with the Prime Minister and, as has just been revealed in letters he tried to block from publication, the King-in-waiting Prince Charles intervenes politically by sending regular letters to senior political figures. But, the royal family is not just politically influential. As an institution it represents the very antithesis of the fundamental principle of democracy – its members enjoy disproportionate political power as a mere consequence of birth. Needless to say, their politics are deeply conservative and reactionary.

Democracy? You’re having a laugh!

So, all in all, we’re faced with a political system laughingly described as a democracy, but perhaps best described as what Robert Dahl famously called a ‘polyarchy’ – a system in which competing sets of elites vie for control of state power. In recent years, even this inter-elite competition has begun to break down with increasingly indistinguishable personnel, policies, practices, and partnerships. No wonder so many people feel disillusioned, disempowerment, and ultimately decide to disengage.

So, that’s the case against the UK as political democracy. In the next post, I’ll consider the broader socio-economic, gender, and racial dimensions to reveal conditions of extreme inequality that systematically undermine democratic possibilities.

1House of Commons Library, Membership of UK Political Parties, January 2015, p.2.

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