Over the last few months, in relation to Brexit, Trump, and the painful splutterings of the post-war world order, there’s been a lot of talk of “the end of democracy” or at least “liberal democracy” or even “Western democracy”. In October, for example, we were told that 40% of Americans had “lost faith in American democracy”, and last week British papers were awash with the garbled screaming of crazed leader-writers claiming that the High Court ruling on Brexit was a “war on democracy”.
Which might be just about true, if we’d ever had real democracy in the first place.
The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek words demos (“the people”) and kratia (“power” or “rule”, it’s not quite clear which, but each has a subtly different meaning). So at a very basic level, ‘democracy’ means ‘the power of the people’. It could be ‘rule of the people,’ but I think ‘power’ allows us a slightly wider base and sounds less severe, so we’ll stick with that.
And here’s the thing, I don’t think we’ve ever known true democracy. I don’t mean that in the glib or pseudo-philosophical sense that democracy is inherently flawed or impossible, or the Churchillian sense of democracy being the best of a bad bunch (or whatever the real quote is; it’s one of those quotes that sounds intelligent and pithy but when you actually look at it means bugger all, so I’m not going to do it the justice of quoting fully). No, I mean that all our current “democratic” systems are at best only a pale imitation of the word or at worst anti-democratic.
To my mind, one of the reasons why people are losing faith in so-called ‘democracy’ is because they’ve never experienced the real deal. We’ve been experiencing a knock-off pirate bin version of it for years in the belief that that’s how it looks in the cinemas.
So I have a few proposals to try and make real democracy a bit more within reach. The sad thing is, none of these suggestions seem terribly radical to me; as far as I’m concerned, they all feel like common sense. I’m not even proposing an overthrow or all-out change of our current political system; I’m willing to stick broadly speaking with our current system of representative, parliamentary democracy. It just needs a bit of looking at.
I still can’t understand what the Labour leadership’s problem is with this idea. If Corbyn et al had any ounce of foresight or of selflessness, they would realise that Labour is never going to reach a majority in this country again. The only way we will ever come anywhere close to achieving a progressive government in the UK is if we embrace the pluralism and openness of a European-style proportional representation. It’s as straightforward as that. Even from a right-wing perspective, the case could be made for PR — there are millions of votes in the UK currently unaccounted for in the Commons, and allowing those voices to be heard can only strengthen the significance of parliamentary politics. Cameron and his cronies did a great job of dirtying the word ‘coalition,’ but at an objective level, it’s a significantly better way of doing politics. It means that those we elect have to make compromises, talk to one another, and work for what’s best for everyone. There’s been talk of this amongst smaller parties for an age now, but it needs to become the top priority for anyone who wants to create a more functional system. And I’m sorry Corbyn supporters, but your man is too tribal to see that this is necessary — those of us who believe in proportional representation need to withhold votes from Labour until they agree to an electoral pact with smaller parties in order to eventually usher in a new system.
One of the main reasons people have so much of a problem with politicians in this country is that they seem to be a class of their own, full of individuals who have spent their whole lives working towards power. To this end, I propose that MPs should only be able to sit for a maximum of two parliamentary terms before they hand over. That way, MPs will be far less worried about holding onto their jobs for decades, meaning they’ll be more free to vote with their conscience instead of making decisions to secure vote in their constituency. Secondly, it would have the benefit of shaking up parliament with a load of new blood every five years; there are dozens of downright stupid and laughable traditions which go unchallenged daily in parliament, and a fresh stock every now and then would keep the place from being the staid and boorish place it currently is. And yes, I know there’s dozens of you screaming at this because it fails to recognise the importance of experience in the political system, but we have civil servants for that. Ministers and MPs are there to make laws and policy, and if we have a range of parliamentarians from all walks of life, I’m sure we can count on at least a few of them to put into practice useful and intelligent programmes. Put it this way: I’d much rather have an ex-headteacher running the Department for Education than ex-accountant Justine Greening.
Votes for 16-year-olds
Again, I’m shocked we still haven’t managed to sort this one out. One of Cameron’s major blunders this year was not allowing 16-year-olds to have the vote in the referendum, which no doubt would have won it for him. If you’re old enough to get married, work and pay tax, you’re old enough to vote. We give the vote to old, forgetful, racist 85-year-olds, so why not those who still have a full head of hair and working ears? As an adjunct to this, a thorough and wide-ranging political education should be taught on the National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 students.
Ban on polling in run-up to elections
Polling is anti-democratic. For the last couple of decades, we’ve seen the slow creeping of polling data into every political discussion we have in newspapers, on TV and on the radio. The thing is, there’s no read need for it. Yes, I understand that it’s useful for political parties to work out how well their policies are playing in key areas, but what purpose does it serve on a national level? What polling does is spread fear to either side of the political debate and, worse, removes the debate from front-line policy areas to one of abstract numbers and popularity. Maybe I’m being bitter (again) but I believe that if polling hadn’t been so wide-spread in the run up to the 2015 election, the EU referendum and the US election, the result could have gone the other way; instead, the numbers scared certain people into voting differently. Without polls, all that would matter is what politicians said before voting day and where voters placed their X in the safety of the booth.
And a fun (but not wholly unserious) one to end with. We need to reform the House of Lords. It is the world’s second-largest parliamentary house and is wholly unelected. That said, it is clearly an important part of our democratic system and provides useful checks and balances to government. I also think there’s something important about the fact it’s not directly answerable to the people, and thus takes a higher status, but it’s wrong that the majority of people there are rich, self-interested and unrepresentative. So, why don’t we find Lords through a lottery system? Just like jury service, anyone of voting age (which will be 16, remember) can be called up to sit in the house for a period of time (maybe a year, maybe five years, who knows?). A computer will ensure that those selected are representative of the UK as a whole; the proportion of BAME representatives will be the same as the country as a whole, just as it will LGBTQ+ and those who define as disabled. They won’t represent a particular political party, but will instead vote and discuss with their conscience based on experience. The symbolic gesture of this shouldn’t be underestimated; the government will in this scenario be democratically selected by the people as well as working under their watchful eye.
There’s dozens more ideas I could include here, from the disposal of referendums as a means of decision-making to the introduction of Universal Basic Income or the consideration of turning the UK into a fully federal system, but I’d worry they’d all be a bit too partisan. Those are things which can be fixed and debated at a later date. For the time being, we should work hard to fix our so-called ‘democracy’ so that it can be truly representative, truly accountable and bring meaning back to the word itself. Then, and only then, should we stop moaning when the outcome we want doesn’t materialise.
*America, I’m sorry I’ve left you out, but I’m still trying to get my head around your sprawling and complex political systems. What I will say though, is that any system in which a candidate can win more votes yet lose the election should take a long hard looking at itself before called itself a “democracy”, let alone “the world’s greatest” of that name.