Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Democracy - Indirect? Or Direct?

With this rather long post I crave your indulgence and ask: pray cast your mind back to 6th May 2010 when you made your mark on a ballot paper. What exactly, were you voting for? Yes, accepted that foremost in your mind was the wish to get rid of Gordon Brown and New Labour, but of the alternatives on offer I repeat my initial question - what exactly were you voting for? In asking that question, in effect a rhetorical question, I do not wish to know the party for whom you voted, nor what policies on offer made you choose the candidate that you did.

Initially, let us consider the form of democracy under which we now live - what may be called 'representative' or indirect, democracy. It works like this: every four or five years political parties present to their electorate a complicated list of proposals, called a manifesto. This document contains some items we like and also some we don't like - and those proposals are worded in such a loose 'form' as to be virtually worthless - yet we are forced to choose one party over others. Following that choice by the electorate usually one party will emerge with a majority over all the other parties and thus forms a government. 

The present British Parliament is an odd body in that it claims 'legislative surpremacy' when it suits it, yet is supposed to be subservient to the people. In fact the only time Parliament accepts subordination to the people is when it comes to the people for the people to exercise their periodic right to choose a new parliament. In the intervening periods it practices what I have in the past termed 'democratised dictatorship', in that Parliament decides what laws will be passed, often bearing no relation to those proposed in the governing party's manifesto including some laws that were not even mentioned.

It might be said that there is an illogicality at the heart of representative, or indirect, democracy in that the basic premise of democracy is that all adult men and women should have an equal share in deciding how their country is run. Those elected at election-time - the new Leaders of parties and their Members of Parliament accept this principle when it applies to their election. They accept that the voters had to make a complicated choice having heard from candidates and read long multi-issue programmes - aka manifestos - but, provided the votes were lawfully cast, those elected do not challenge the result. Yet from the day after the election these elected representatives of the people claim that only they are capable of making the decisions that produce the laws of our land - a claim which challenges the entire principle of democracy. 
'Representative' democracy, it can be argued, is bad both for the elected representatives and their electorate. Elected representatives only too often conceal from the electorate what they are doing with their power and become corrupted by that power - witness the last New Labour government 'gerrymandering' by allowing in unlimited immigration on the assumption that most immigrants will vote for them; and the new Liberal Conservative government attempting to change the rules by which Parliament can be dissolved, neither of which two 'ploys' were contained in their respective manifestos. Witness also the corruption of those Members of Parliament who 'twisted' and 'bent' the rules governing their expenses and in so doing made capital gains in the property markets by means of what is generally accepted as 'misuse of taxpayer's money'. For the electorate, it means they become 'divorced' from democracy with no means of questioning and correcting their elected representatives behaviour and decisions. Because Parliament only subordinates itself to the will of the electorate every four or five years, in between times the electorate grows increasing cynical and disinterested in politics.

Politics has changed during the last 20+ year, to the extent that previously the election of a government was always to some extent governed by a principled confrontation between the policies of socialism and the command economy and individualism and the free market. Unfortunately, with political parties now wishing to occupy the 'centre ground' there has been a dilution of ideology with the resulting consequence that the electorate's choice is limited. Whilst still having to vote for a party, some of whose views the voter may like and some not, the ideological difference to help make up the voter's mind has disappeared resulting in a 'spin a coin' situation.

In attempting to change the voting system to better reflect the voting intentions of the electorate, various methods have been suggested such as proportional representation as used in the European elections and the Alternative Vote. This would admittedly provide each party with an allocation of parliamentary seats much closer to its share of the actual vote although as Anthony King writes in today's edition of the Daily Telegraph (not yet online, it appears) "The promised referendum on the Alternative vote (AV) is another matter. If adopted AV might reduce the number of safe seats and also increase voter satisfaction by giving individual voters an increased chance of participating in the election of ultimately victorious candidates. At the same time, AV is not a proportional system and tends if anything, to discriminate against smaller parties." There is also the risk that parties would be encouraged to be even more ambiguous than they are, at present, in their manifestos in the hope of picking up votes from their opposition and thereby able to join the ruling coalition.

As part of attempts to change the voting system, referendums on selected topics are now being offered - the drawback being that the questions asked are drawn up by the elected representatives and do not address those topics that the electorate would wish addressed. Witness the Alternative Vote has been 'decided' by the 'representatives' as the alternative method, whereas if the voting method is to be changed then it should be the people that decide which method is used, their having had the pros and cons of each explained to them.

The current system of government is failing the nation as successive governments have increasingly taken responsibility away from civil society and local government, resulting in a situation whereby regardless of the party in power our public services, managed by politicians, are ineffective and costly. Through this Britain has become less cohesive, less caring, less respectful and a less self-disciplined nation. People are powerless to change anything as politicians do not appear to respect the judgement of the people who are only allowed to vote for parties not individual policies. The people have a right to determine the kind of nation and society they want and they should therefore have the right to vote on major policy issues. This brings one back to the basic problem with our democracy as it is - politicians should be the servants of the people, not their masters.

So what is the alternative to 'representative', or indirect, democracy? The answer, quite simply, is to take the 'in' out and consider 'direct' democracy. Direct democracy uses referendum and 'initiatives' to supply direct democracy. A true referendum or initiative is one which is put to the voters whether the government of the day wants it or not and it is through this means that the people control the government and negates the situation, as at present, whereby the government controls the people. The big difference between indirect and direct democracy is that the voters do not merely vote every few years to elect a Prime Minister and government and then leave it to them to decide their future, until they have the next opportunity. Under direct democracy there is still a Prime Minister and government, however at any given moment voters who have collected the requisite support can insist that a law proposed by the government, or elected representatives, be submitted to the electorate for judgement in a referendum. By utilising the 'initiative' aspect of direct democracy it is even possible for the electorate to submit proposals for a new law, one that may not appeal to the government or even appear in their manifesto. By both referendum and initiative the electorate stay in command of politics between elections and not just on a once-every-x-years basis. Direct democracy also encourages participation in politics by the electorate and thereby negates the apathy all to prevalent today.

To those sceptics that say direct democracy would never work and that people don't want it, one has to ask how the sceptics know that. It has never been put to the electorate; it is debatable whether the electorate even know another method of democracy exists. Also to those sceptics who maintain it will never work, all one has to say to them is go take a look at Switzerland! Therein lies the problem in that for direct democracy to become available, a change to our electoral system would be needed and it is hardly likely that our elected representatives would agree to loosening their grasp of power, privilege and position. Hopefully, as the system of direct democracy becomes wider known, in time, a political party will 'pick up' this idea and run with it and it is through this that the system will get adopted.

When one considers the mess in which our country finds itself, both financially and socially, having been run by our elected representatives, it can be argued that the people would hardly make as big a mess. People with 'property' - and I do not necessarily restrict 'property' to houses, but anything that is owned - are more independent and independent-minded people are better at making their own political judgements. It is worth recalling the words of a 'thinking politician, one on a par with Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph who famously stated: "When you take responsibility away from people, you make them irresponsible". Conversely the opposite may also well be true, that if you give people more responsibility then they become more responsible.

Just a thought for a Monday.................

Acks: Brian Beedham: The Case for Direct Democracy & Douglas Carswell: Taking the Initiative, the case for citizen-led decision making.

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