Monday, 24 October 2011

Democracy - Time for Starting Over?

"If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly found in democracy, they will be best attained when all alike share in Government to the utmost."  - Aristotle, philosopher, Athens (384 to 322 BC).
Democracy come to Westminster in "V for Vendetta"
Tonight, in the British House of Commons, a farce unfolded, the latest of many to besmirch the self-proclaimed Mother of Parliaments (the moniker itself an utter denial of historical reality). Barely two months ago, the Coalition Government, loftily proclaiming its desire for a new, open democracy and keen to show its embracing of the twitterati, created its E-petitions website. Aside from crashing on its first day as a stampede of would-be hangmen rushed to ask Parliament to restore the gallows, the idea of the website was to introduce a direct link between People and Parliament to counter the widespread cynicism and disillusion about the political process. If your petition gets 100,000 signatures, it "could" be debated in the House of Commons.

But today, this would-be return to the Agora (where the Athenian progenitors of democracy gathered in the citizens' assembly to debate and vote on anything they liked) has fallen at the first fence. Although tonight's debate on whether to hold a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union was not a direct result of an epetitionit came just days after one calling for precisely the same thing passed the 100,000 signature mark.

E-petitions: how it doesn't work...
And how did our Masters respond? Why, they huffed that it was entirely the wrong time to discuss membership of the EU. Prime Minister Cameron, referring to the Eurozone crisis, today likened to proposal as akin to walking away from your neighbour's burning house rather than helping to put the fire out - although at least one neighbour would like Dave to keep his sand-buckets to himself. 

Ignoring opinion polls showing that two-thirds of voters want a referendum sometime soon, the three main party leaders imposed a three-line whip to compel MPs to vote down the motion or face serious consequences to their careers. And they duly did so, by 483 to 111 votes, albeit with a very large Tory revolt. So much for direct democracy - you can have it when we say you can. Socrates, a master of procedure himself, would have been given his cup of hemlock years earlier had he tried that out in the Agora.

And yet this doublespeak about reconnecting the rulers with the ruled is far from confined to the epetition scam. Cameron has played a clever game over the bloated cost of our MPs not by clamping down further on their expenses, which are back at pre-scandal levels, but rather by cutting their numbers from 650 to just 600 - approximately one MP for every 100,000 people. These must be in constituencies of nearly identical size, regardless, it seems, of the impact on the integrity of local communities and how their interests are to be represented.

On Saturday, I met with a Green Party colleague from our neighbouring city of Wakefield to look at how the boundary changes will affect us - my home town of Dewsbury, long represented in the Commons by its own MP, is being split up, with one part linked to Wakefield, which is split in three. Numbers count, not communities. And consequently, people will become ever further alienated from our legislators.

One underplayed feature of this supposed numerical rebalancing of representation is that the Government Cabinet is significantly strengthened in its hold over the Commons. The Government has the Payroll Vote - these are the 140 or so MPs who, as well as being MPs, also hold paid jobs in the Government as Ministers at one level or another. In votes like the one on the European referendum, they are considerably more reliable and loyal to the line decided by the Prime Minister as he has them by the money. If the Cabinet can start out with 140 votes it is nearly half way towards a majority in any vote in a Commons of 600 than one of 650. And so a measure presented as increasing democracy in Parliament is, in fact, one which centralises power even more in the hands of the Government elite and party leaderships.

Even more troubling are the Coalition's plans (steered by the oddly self-sacrificing Nick Clegg) to change electoral registration laws, relaxing the legal requirement to register and removing the obligation on local authorities to ensure that people sign up. It creates a situation where British electoral law will be similar to the pre-civil rights era in many American states, with fears that, as happened in the USA, many marginalised people, the poor, the disabled, ethnic minorities and elderly, will disappear from the voters' roll. Up to ten million voters, about 30% of the total, may drop off the register, MPs were warned - and guess which party will be least affected?

Demokratios - the rule of the people in Athens' Agora
The Coalition Agreement promises to extend transparency in political life and devolve power from central government to communities, but unsurprisingly, the political class is ensuring that any light that is shone on its murky hold over the rest of society is well filtered through the most opaque of prisms. The Liam Fox scandal showed how brazenly Ministers collude with fee-paying, contract-seeking lobbyists, yet the vigorous defence of Fox's behaviour by many Tories was matched only by the silence from Labour benches - no one rocked the leaky boat too much.

Of course, our leaders smugly think that all this will work, that people will buy it. Maybe even some politicians buy it in their own heads, reassuring themselves that they are still beloved of the nation. "Hey, what's up, I'm with you guys," a thoroughly deluded Colonel Gaddafi allegedly told his captors this week, moments before they shot him. Maybe he had listened to too many focus groups.

Our politicians may sneer at demonstrations like Occupy London Stock Exchange. They may think if they suggest the tents put off tourists or (as the dreadful Louise Mensche attempted) claim the protesters are hypocrites if they buy a Starbucks latte that somehow the status quo will prevail. Perhaps, for now, it will, but it may be a Pyrrhic success, a hollow victory which will leave the Commons as nothing but a teetering house of cards. Perhaps St Paul's and the open meetings of Occupy show we can yet return to the Agora and leave behind the jaded, gauche Victorian monstrosity that is the Palace of Westminster.


  1. I agree with your comments on the sham "democracy" that our current parliamentary establishment represents.

    However, matters are further complicated by the implication that a referendum to withdraw from the EU would in some sense suddenly restore "sovereignty" and everything would suddenly be alright again. It does not take into account that governments across the world are in the control of a very tiny band of largely invisible and unaccountable super-rich owners of global corporations and banks.
    A small country, such as UK, standing alone, will be even more vulnerable to their predatory behaviour.

    Whatever is done by way of solution will need to strengthen truly participative democracy. This is unlikely to happen with the current power structures in place, so I would agree we need to start again.

  2. Very much agree with you Andrew. the case for political reform is only one part of the solution in a world of gross inequality and international elites. We need international structures like a very, very different kind of Europe - a social Europe - to tame the financiers and change the economic system itself.

  3. Well let’s look at a modern European nation that has regular referenda – Switzerland. Minarets banned by referendum, conscientious objectors still going to prison, firearms must be kept in the home of every male, and immigrants automatically expelled if they commit a criminal offence.

  4. Anonymous, I don't disagree with your sentiment - I'm not in favour of Swiss style referenda on every subject under the Sun. The point is that the e-petitions are a stunt and a pretty cynical one, which provoke precisely the sort of campaigns you allude to - among some of the first posted, as mentioned in the blog, have been calls for capital punishment, benefits cuts and other unpleasant notions. The whole idea is a potentially dangerous gimmick, exposed by the Govt's reaction when the first one across the starting line was met with a "not now" response.

    Referenda should nevetheless be used for major constitutional issues - as for Scottish devolution and electoral reform. Our relationship with Europe is of this ilk, especially as the Union is now at a major crossroads with substantial further unification proposed as one solution to the Eurozone crisis. ALL the major parties slip and slide around the issue, calling for in/out referenda one moment,as Nick Clegg did in 2008 only to trash the idea the next, as he did today. Our political class is completely detached from the feelings of ordinary people - frequent referenda are not the answer at all, I agree. We need a much wider settlement involving politics moved by principles rather than populated by a bunch of ideology-free tacticians who get tied up in knots over their own attempts at clever populist wheezes that backfire on them, like e-petitions on European referenda.