It is easy to dismiss democracy as not working when in reality we lack a working democracy. Some components are in place, but there are serious flaws and gaps that urgently need to be addressed. Otherwise, the drift towards plutocracy will continue towards the point of no return. Here are ten points to note about the current state of democracy in the UK:
No.1: The 20%-backed Rule
In the elections held in 2001 and since, the average turnout has been 62%. But once we take into account that 15% are not even registered to vote, we realise that out of all those who are eligible to vote, 15% haven’t registered, 33% don’t use their vote though they are registered, leaving just 52% who actually cast a vote. And on average this 52% is split between 20% whose vote go to the party that forms the government (or the leading partner of a coalition government) and 32% who vote for some other party to run the country. In other words, the politicians who are setting the policies for us all are generally backed by just 20% of all those eligible to vote.
No.2: Two-Thirds Safe Seats
Almost 60% of the 650 seats (that’s 380 of them) are so safe that they are routinely predicted to remain with their incumbent parties, and they do. A further 10% are considered fairly safe as to attract relatively little attention from rival parties, leaving 30% (i.e., 194 seats) as marginals (these have majorities of 10% or less, and would change with a 5% swing against current MP). So for all the people living outside those 30% marginal seats, if they want to replace their sitting MPs, they know they are on a statistical mission impossible. Every vote cast against these incumbents, in every election, would be just another wasted vote.
No.3: Selective Devolution
More powers are to be devolved to Scotland’s 5.3 million residents. But British residents living elsewhere are told that they will have to go on accepting ‘Whitehall knows best’. London and six of the other eight regions in England have a population either similar to or substantially larger than that of Scotland’s. The citizens living in these diverse areas have no more faith that a remote political elite in Westminster will be responsive to their needs and concerns, but they are for now ignored. Would they have to set up an independence movement before their case for devolved powers is taken seriously?
All the talk of localism has less to do with reviving local democracy than to undermine it. Whitehall has the power to impose decisions on land use and commercial development, even if these will only serve a few big corporations at the expense of countless local people who have to live with the unenviable consequences. And while local authorities are handed all the cuts to sort out, they are firmly deprived of the powers to raise any tax revenue. Local people can vote for any party so long as the party does not seek to secure more resources to meet local needs.
No.5: Use & Abuse of Referendum
It seems that when people can see relatively clearly the arguments for and against something (e.g., fracking for shale gas), the government would rather push ahead with it than give the public a chance to decide through, say, a referendum. But when it is something so complicated such as whether the legal and economic arrangements, which the UK has put in place with the rest of the European Union, should be put aside through the UK leaving the EU, then we are offered a referendum even though few could vote with much understanding of the issues. Curiously, while the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership) also raises questions about our country’s sovereignty to decide for itself, it will not be put to a referendum.
No.6: Voting Rights of Vested Interests
Elected politicians in a local authority have to declare their interest if they stand to gain or lose personally from a proposal that has been put to a vote. In such a case, they have to withdraw from the debate and not vote on the proposal. By contrast, in Parliament, an MP or a member of the House of Lords can join in the discussion of any bill even if they may gain from it becoming an act, and they can vote on it without any hindrance, as many did when they voted for opening up the NHS by passing more lucrative contracts to private healthcare companies, in which these Parliamentarians owned shares.
Corporate money already buys media controls, advertising & PR, lobbying and lawsuits, secret tax deals, and of course policy influence via party donations. The Government has shown how much it welcomes this by ignoring the Electoral Commission’s recommendations and changing the law to allow a 23% increase on what can be spent in campaigning in the runup to the next elections. With the wealthiest corporate backers, the Government’s strategy is to win elections by promising behind closed doors what they will deliver for those with most money.
No.8: Blanket Ban on Prisoners Voting
At the other end of the social hierarchy, the UK is still alone amongst advanced democracies to insist on a blanket ban to prevent all prisoners from voting. There may be good reasons to deny those who have been convicted of some of the most serious crimes from having a say on who should govern the country, but there is no justification for claiming that anyone sentenced to jail should automatically lose the opportunity to vote. The offences which give rise to such sentences may have no bearing on whether the individuals concerned ought to have a democratic say about their country. Some of these offences may even be less objectionable than MPs cheating on their expense claims and defrauding the public, yet the vast majority of MPs voted to reject a bill brought forward to limit the ban on voting to just those prisoners serving over 4 years.
No.9: Prime Minister Question Time
The showcase for our democracy at work is supposed to be Prime Minister Question Time when obsequious members of the PM’s own party put forward ‘questions’ to enable the PM to reply by saying how wonderful everything is. It is also the occasion when the PM and Leader of the Opposition have to score media points against each other by sounding as rude, dismissive, and arrogant as possible. In effect, the centrepiece of the mechanism for holding the Prime Minister to account is a farcical non-event that reminds the country weekly that there is no executive accountability.
No.10: Parties Coming to an End
Back in 1983, almost 4% of the electorate belong to one or another of the main political parties. Now in 2015 that has dropped to well under 1%. Parties no longer inspire confidence of loyalty. To ordinary people, they are invisible except for once in a blue moon they come around to ask for your vote (assuming you live in one of those marginal seats). Even to their dwindling members, they rarely contact them apart from when they are asking for money. Once a compass for voting allegiance, political parties will become increasingly irrelevant unless they radically reform themselves to offer people something more.