Tuesday, July 23, 2024
HomeDemocracy in DecayDemocracy in decay: How can we fix the system?

Democracy in decay: How can we fix the system?


‘I don’t do portfolio politics. I don’t take the line that because I think something about issue X I’ve got to think something about some unrelated issue Y. I try to look at each problem on its merits.’ Former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption, UnHerd podcast, February 2024

IT’S NOT common for us commoners to hear a member of the British establishment speak out against party political democracy. Lord (Jonathan) Sumption, one of the greatest minds of his generation, clearly thinks that binding political issues into a blue or red party manifesto is illogical nonsense.

There’s good evidence to suggest that UK citizens would agree. For starters, 98 per cent of UK citizens are not members of a political party. Being a member of a political party is now a niche interest on the fringes of the ideological spectrum – extremist, one could say.

Of course you may think that party membership numbers don’t matter, that it’s voting for political parties in general elections that reveals what the majority of citizens want. It’s true that general elections do indeed reveal what the majority of citizens want: NOT the elected political party! Over the last 75 years, 59 per cent of votes cast in general elections were for the losing political parties, so the winning political parties got a minority 41 per cent of the vote.

It gets worse . . . twenty per cent of UK citizens are not registered to vote and a further 20 per cent who are registered to vote choose not to vote. This means that the average UK general election win comes from just 22 per cent of UK adults.

And worse . . . prior to the 2019 general election, conducted a blind test with its one million users and found that, on average, users’ policy preferences spanned three different parties. In other words, voting for a single party would satisfy only 33 per cent of the policies a user desired.

Worse still . . . political parties are private organisations with limited transparency requirements. They are ideologically biased, so cannot legitimately claim to represent everyone when in Government. Unlike the Government, they are not subject to Freedom of Information requests.

Political parties decide what issues and policies they wish to prioritise. This is heavily influenced by their leadership, big donors, think tanks, lobbyists and the media. Making policy decisions democratically is not a party requirement. If you ever wondered ‘How did they come up with that?’ you’ll probably never know.

It’s possible that politicians don’t know either. Secretaries of State and their Ministers are rarely experts in their department’s portfolio and often change roles. MPs equally lack expertise compared with citizens with trade or professional experience, and they do not reflect the demographics of the general population. If they did, we might expect 180 MPs to be under the age of 35 instead of just ten.

The final nail in the ‘representative’ democracy coffin is that all elected MPs must swear allegiance to the King, not to the citizens. In fact, we are all technically subjects of the King rather than citizens as we live under a ‘constitutional monarchy’. The monarch even has his own version of Parliament with its own legislative powers – the Privy Council. If your MP is ‘Right Honourable’, they’re in it.

The word democracy means ‘people rule’ (Greek: demos kratos). In Ancient Athens that meant all the citizens could decide and vote on each issue. Political and legal administrations were populated by citizens chosen randomly (sortition) for short terms. The word ‘idiot’ originates from the description of eligible citizens who did not get involved.

Democracy, to quote author Roslyn Fuller, has long since ‘changed its meaning and lost its purpose’. Democracy of the ‘representative’ kind means that our elected politicians make political decisions for us. The day that we acquire political sovereignty, election day, is the day that we also give it away by voting. Even when you do not vote, you have your sovereignty removed.

Our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system is a key factor driving the maths behind our lack of political issue representation. It has helped to ensure that we have had a Conservative-Labour ruling ‘duopoly’ continuously in power for the last 100 years.

Since 1950, we’ve had 19 general elections totalling 11,700 contested MP seats. How many independent or minority party MPs have been elected in those 75 years? Just 13. In the 2015 general election, UKIP got four million votes but won no seats. Looking for an optimist? Join one of the 360+ political parties registered in the UK today.

The Make Votes Matter campaign is looking to fix this ‘portfolio politics’ democracy deficit and bring hope to independent and minority parties. They are campaigning (asking the duopoly) for a proportional representation system where political parties win seats in proportion to the percentage of votes cast.

PR certainly gives more political power to issue-based parties, and it is the system used in most European countries. The inherent problem with PR, however, is that Government policies are decided in backroom negotiations and coalitions before and after the election. Single issue parties vie with ‘full manifesto’ parties. With typically 8-16 elected parties involved, accountability is inevitably blurred.

In any case, in 2011 there was a UK referendum on whether we should switch from FPTP to the alternative vote system (a kind of PR-lite) and 67 per cent voted against the change. The ruling duopoly were no doubt delighted with the result, as they have no motivation to dilute their power by choosing to switch to PR.

More recently, there has been a growing movement for Citizen Assemblies to bolster our representative democracy with issue-based, deliberative democracy groups. At first glance, Citizen Assemblies seem appealing. Indeed some enthusiasts are calling for the House of Lords to be replaced with such a system; and some fanatics to replace voting.

The problem with Citizen Assemblies is that their agenda is driven by the politicians, not by the people; participants are highly malleable by influential experts; and the decisions have no power to force policy change. Assemblies also give politicians a route to influence social issues normally beyond their reach.

Why should opposing citizens be forced to deliberate and reach consensus before making decisions anyway? We don’t do this before general elections and neither do political parties. Party politics is about winning, not truth-seeking.

What about petitions? In 2006 the Labour Government nationalised petitioning with the first Government e-petitions website. This brought petitioning rules and regulations under Government control – along with data on all the signatories.

Petitions were redirected from actually fixing the issue to an informal debate at 100,000 signatures, if the politicians decide to do so. Despite their enduring popularity, petitions have no constitutional power to change policy and have limited influence.

Referendums, then? While the power of referendums is undeniable, it’s the ruling duopoly that decides if we have a referendum on an issue, not the people. In Switzerland, and half of US States, citizens can force referendums by petitioning. Here in the UK, the duopoly choose to minimise verifiable dissent, so referendums are even rarer than independent MPs: there have been just three national and five regional referendums since 1950.

Can protests help? Despite having no formal political power, our Government continues to find excuses to restricted our right to protest and march through the streets chanting. The media plays its part by ignoring or misrepresenting the protests it dislikes. The protest against the Iraq war on February 15 2003 was the largest global protest in history, with up to 2million marching in London. It didn’t work. The last protest that did memorably work was the Poll Tax rioting in 1990.

But why are we protesting anyway? Didn’t the ruling party say what they were going to do in their election manifesto? And wasn’t that ratified by winning the election?

One might think so. In practice, the party that forms a UK Government may do whatever it wishes, regardless of its manifesto pledges. This is as long as the media, big business and the Royal Family are happy. When I mentioned this fact to a senior Scottish National Party adviser, he reminded me that UK manifestos have almost no constitutional power to be enforced – and ‘none in Scotland’.

As one might expect, there is also no constitutional requirement for Governments to seek voter approval for significant new policies. For example, spending £360billion on covid measures (double the total NHS yearly budget), pledging £12billion to Ukraine or reducing road speed limits from 30mph to 20mph.

The reality of our representative democracy is that UK citizens must rely on the benevolence, honesty and integrity of the ruling political party in Government. Given that almost nobody votes for the ruling party policies in the first place, most citizens must graciously accept to suffer policies that we do not want. We assume that policy actions which may seriously harm or kill citizens are off the table.

Your biggest expense in life is not buying a house, it’s paying taxes to the Government. The median UK household pays £18,300 in tax per year. Do you understand what policies you are paying for? Or how you, your family or others benefit? It would be surprising if your answer is ‘Yes’ as there is no system that provides these answers.

So, what do we do when Government benevolence turns to negligence, corruption or even malevolence? Examples might include lockdowns, experimental jabs, cronyism, propaganda, censorship, warmongering, austerity, child poverty, woman-denial, ULEZ, protest restrictions, digital surveillance, sovereignty give-aways and carbon reductions.

Given that the ruling party controls the agenda for Parliament and has a majority, Parliament is normally unable to prevent such actions unless opposition MPs and enough rebellious ruling party MPs unite.

If the opposition party policies oppose such actions, we may wait for the next general election and hopefully change the Government. If there is little or no such opposition, or dissenting opinions are suppressed, then we citizens are out of luck. Authoritarianism is free to flourish and can maintain its grip for decades.

This is our British constitution. Unwritten, naturally. Our rulers know how it works and decide what tweaks we need, so you don’t need to worry. It’s tradition! Stay in your lane and expect a 23mph speeding ticket some time soon.

So, to what end are we bombarded 24/7 with bad news, troubling expert opinions, demoralising commentary and dystopian ‘entertainment’? We have no political way to respond to each trauma that we consume. This is the definition of stress. Political parties offer stress relief for our vote but the happy ending never comes.

To summarise: Our party-political representative democracy system ensures that Government policies do not reflect the priorities of UK citizens. A shortcut to knowing this truth is that a system for gathering the needs and wants of all UK citizens does not exist. Let’s call that system democracy (as opposed to representative democracy), and let’s call ‘the system’ the constitution. The question is: Should we create a UK constitutional democracy where the scope of Government policies verifiably reflects the aggregated priorities of the citizens?

With such a system, Lord Sumption’s opinion on his chosen political issues could move beyond media commentary and formally contribute to our collective political priorities. And we commoners could equally activate our opinions by doing the same.

This article appeared in Civilise on March 24, 2024, and is republished by kind permission.

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John Nugent
John Nugent
John Nugent is the founder of Civilise, a constitutional platform for manifesting democracy; Director of the Institute for Digital Privacy; internet software senior executive.

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