Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stretching the rainbow: addressing the UK's democratic deficit

A Poison Tree, by William Blake, from "Songs of Experience" (1794)

Drowned out

One of the first difficulties with modern democracy is scale and ratio. It used to take far fewer votes to elect an MP, which means that the individual voter had much more power. Granted, not many people had the vote in the nineteenth century, and no women.

The franchise has quite rightly been extended since then, but taken together with the increase in the size of the population it means that we now have much greater difficulty in influencing our representatives. They don't even bother to get us drunk at the hustings any more.

Before the Reform Act of 1832, some Parliamentary constituencies could have sat together in an open carriage (Old Sarum had 7 voters); even afterwards, the average seat had an electorate of about 1,236. Today it's around 71,300 and if (as Cameron and co. wish) the Commons is cut to 600 seats, your voice will be one in around 77,250 - more than could fit into Old Trafford stadium.

But in the old days, there were other ways to register one's feelings. Democracy is for averting these other methods.

During the 1991 phase of the Maastricht debate, Tony Benn observed:

"If people lose the power to sack their Government, one of several things happens. First, people may just slope off. Apathy could destroy democracy. When the turnout drops below 50 per cent., we are in danger.

"The second thing that people can do is to riot. Riot is an old-fashioned method of drawing the attention of the Government to what is wrong. It is difficult for an elected person to admit it, but the riot at Strangeways produced some prison reforms. Riot has historically played a much larger part in British politics than we are ever allowed to know.

"Thirdly, nationalism can arise. Instead of blaming the treaty of Rome, people say, "It is those Germans," or, "It is the French." Nationalism is built out of frustration that people feel when they cannot get their way through the ballot box. With nationalism comes repression.

"I hope that it is not pessimistic--in my view it is not--to say that democracy hangs by a thread in every country of the world. Unless we can offer people a peaceful route to the resolution of injustices through the ballot box, they will not listen to a House that has blocked off that route."

The unheard minority

We've seen from Dr Matt Qvortrup's paper that there is statistical evidence supporting the idea that barriers to political representation breed discontent that can sometimes lead to terrorist acts.

These barriers include:

  • A limited range of Parliamentary parties, perhaps none of which speaks for you
  • A weak or divided Opposition with little influence on government policy
  • A loaded-dice relationship between votes cast and Parliamentary seats gained, so that some parties (e.g. Liberal Democrat) are under-represented, and others not at all
  • Dissenting minorities within a constituency being permanently sidelined and muzzled by the dominant local political party.
Warped voting results
Under our current "first past the post" system, only 217 MPs out of 650 actually gained a majority of votes cast in the 2010 General Election (and only 220/650 in the 2005 GE). So in two-thirds of constituencies, the majority of voters ended up with someone they didn't want, or at least who wasn't their first preference.
Yet in 2011, when there was a referendum about the Alternative Vote (some call it the Single Transferable Vote), which would take into account second and third preferences, there was a powerful media campaign against it, especially in some newspapers (since unlike the BBC they have no statutory obligation to strike a balance on political issues). So we are left with the status quo, which favours the two largest parties.
For those who want a plebiscite on the EU, it also illustrates that a referendum is not enough: full information, clear explanation and unbiased coverage beforehand are also essential.
The system of Parliamentary representation developed in a time when much economic activity was regionalised and it took days to reach London from remoter parts of the country. There was also an economic shift from rural agricultural to urban industrial, so that constituency boundaries and voter eligibility had to be radically adjusted in 1832. Yet now, in an age when businesses and shopping have countrywide and international connections; when millions of viewers can vote for a showbiz act by phone or a button on their TV remote control; when many of us commute to work, fly to distant parts of the world for holidays but don't know their neighbours by name, our voting is still locally based - and quite possibly, our MP isn't!
The electoral boundary system is impossible to rejig so that every constituency has a range of electors reflecting the national spread of voting. So we get strange, unrepresentative results. For example, in the 2005 General Election, the Labour Party was returned with a Parliamentary majority: 355 seats on a total of 35.2% of votes cast nationally. Yet in 2010, the Conservative Party got more of the national vote (36.1%) and still ended up with only 306 seats, leaving them with no choice but to share power with the Liberal Democrats. And in both cases, the party of the Prime Minister only represented about one-third of voters.
Declining engagement
Worse still, democratic participation is shrinking dangerously. The landslide Labour victory of 1997 was won on the lowest electoral turnout in over 50 years (71.4%) - which subsequently plummeted below 60% in 2001 and has barely recovered since.

Source: UK Political Info
And again, in 1997 Labour had 64.3% of seats in the House of Commons, but based on votes cast by only 43.2% of those who actually voted (and only 30.8% of those who were entitled to vote).
Running ahead of the people
It is said by some that an advantage of "first past the post" voting is that we are more likely to end up with a single party having an overall majority in Parliament, so enabling it to pursue radical policies. Others may think this is actually a drawback, seeing the economic and social consequences of Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics over the last 40 years.
The Government majority after 1997 meant that it could afford to ignore not only a newly-impotent Opposition but its own backbenchers, and so it felt empowered to push through radical changes, especially on the constitutional front (e.g. the abolition of most of the hereditary peerage in 1999 - before working out what was to replace it!)
Raising the banners
So, absent an effective Parliamentary Opposition, we saw minority representation in the form of public demonstration. But there are problems with this.
The first, obviously, is that demonstrations are usually organised, so the question is who is behind them and why? As Burke warned at the time of the French Revolution, it is not always easy to see who is coordinating the activity, and what their long-term plans may be. A well-disciplined cadre can take control of and even tyrannise the majority: for example, under Communism only a very small fraction of the people in both Russia and China were in the Party, yet they ruled their fellows with fists of iron for decades. For democrats, it is far better to have one's rulers govern by consent and public scrutiny in the context of open debate and the ability to recall and replace one's representatives.
Another problem is that the media, our eyes and ears for things happening at a distance, can give misleading reportage either for or against the official line. For example, in 1990 the violent poll tax riots (which helped reverse Conservative Government policy) were top TV news, yet there were as few as 3,000 protestors in London; by contrast, in 2002 nearly half a million people marched peaceably through London on behalf of the Countryside Alliance and against the ban on hunting with dogs, and those of us in the provinces hardly knew of it, owing to lack of media coverage (and the Labour Government didn't give an inch as a result). Little wonder that some people think violence by the few is more effective than genteel protest by the many. Equally, small wonder that political parties now spend so much money on cultivating - in some cases, even bullying - the media; and on persuading journalists to turn from poaching to gamekeeping.
Enter the blogger. (That sounds a bit like Attack of the Killer Crabs, and in some cases there may not be much difference.) Thanks to Google Blogger and other providers, it became technically possible to become a "citizen journalist" and the attraction of having a go was boosted by the perception of an out-of-control Government and skewed news media. It was Hyde Park Corner a-gogo, with much swearing and tub-thumping and occasional stands occupied by people of wit and curious learning (some still declaiming, such as John Ward).
The blogger phenomenon has since dwindled. Perhaps some feel that now that Labour is out of power, their labours are at an end; maybe others have simply tired of the craze, like Citizen's Band radio. And there are so many more distractions on offer: if the Russians invaded, half the country would be too busy playing Candy Crush Saga to notice.
In any case, like "demos",  blogging was never going to be the answer, anyway, not for the masses. Unless you are blogging in China, your writing isn't going to get a newspaper-sized readership (except if you're a mainstream journalist who also blogs). But as with newspapers, you'll tend to be read by people who already agree with you, which is hardly the point of democratic discussion; and if you are in danger of punching above your weight you are likely to suffer "trolling" and other forms of organised counter-propaganda and disruption - including using the complaints system to get you banned from Google and Twitter.
The madness of minorities
The business of preaching to the converted has its own dangers.
One of them is ideological drift. This is discussed in a 2011 book by Cass R. Sunstein, "Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide" - the theme is explained in the introduction, which you can read here. Like-minded people who talk with each other not only confirm their prejudices, but deepen them, becoming more radical by degrees in a way that they themselves may hardly notice. The vast expanse of the internet allows the people to segment and segregate, just as some schools and places of religious instruction do.
Conversely, in Western politics, opposition can make strange bedfellows. In 1993, both Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher opposed the Maastricht agreement, not to mention Douglas Jay, Lord Blake and Dennis Skinner.
Elsewhere, heterogeneous dangerous fringe groups can be attracted to each other, perhaps on the basis of their being rejected by the mainstream. So for example it's said the IRA and the PLO worked together for a long time, attending the same training camps and exchanging information and resources, despite the fact that they were ideologically light-years apart, the IRA being Marxist-Leninists and the PLO not only nationalist but anti-Zionist and, of course, with an Islamic bent. In Iran the religious faction united with left-wing students and others against the Shah, but when he was overthrown the former then turned on their erstwhile collaborators to complete their Islamic revolution. 
Similarly in blogging, a fringe group promoting one view often attracts members who have additional obsessions, like Gerald Durrell's hermit crab that he put in an aquarium lined with semi-precious stones in order to watch it bejewel itself. Thus when I engaged with the English Constitution Group to look at historical arguments for an EU referendum and against what Albert Burgess calls the extended "power grab" of Parliament, I began to receive unsolicited emails expressing what are (to me) hateful and irrational opinions on racial and religious groups. Some of these come from the USA, where the intensity of loathing and denial of established fact seem almost insane. I have, of course, asked them to desist, but they seem to me to be good examples of this ideological drift into mounting hysteria and indiscriminate opposition.
Reaching for the pomander

Yet the way to deal with minorities is not simply to cut off communication altogether. Excluding them from dialogue is part of what tends to exacerbate them.
And you risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater - the comfortable consensus may be wrong. Think of Churchill's years in the political wilderness; or the way that all three major political parties have agreed that we should be in the EU.
I recently tried to organise some liberal public discussion of the referendum issue, and immediately ran into the mainstream-versus-extreme argument. The trouble is, some are unsure whether they are within the rainbow, or outside it. Those who think they "know better" simply raise the vinaigrette to their nose and pass on.
And so, cast out and disregarded, the resentment of the disenfranchised breeds in the darkness. Yes, they can be kept down with cyber-spying, infiltration, police, special forces, internment camps and so on; but not forever; and the cost of doing so is a less liberal society for all.
We need electoral reform.
On some great matters, especially Constitutional ones, we need ratification by the people through referendum.
We need unbiased news media to educate and inform the people, if their votes are not to be manipulated by cheap tricks.
We need those who think of themselves as educated, civilised and tolerant to step down from their carriages, roll up their lacy sleeves and engage with the people. And, perhaps, to agree a little less readily with one another.

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Wolfie said...

A very good post. I missed it due to holiday initially but an interesting read.

As far as I understand it, parliament is impotent with decisions now made in the EU. Anything else is left to the Press/Media class and NGOs.

The Post-Democratic Era. Your vote is meaningless.

Sackerson said...

Thanks, Wolfie. Hope you had a good hol. Write something here sometime soon?

Wolfie said...

I did.