“The number one problem in our country is apathy, but who cares!”
So what is the most serious problem affecting the country? Not necessarily what politicians and parties tell you it is, for they will only tell you what is in their interests, not yours. From The Guardian and worth repeating in full:
A study into the state of democracy in Britain over the last decade warns it is in “long-term terminal decline” as the power of corporations keeps growing, politicians become less representative of their constituencies and disillusioned citizens stop voting or even discussing current affairs.
The report by Democratic Audit shared exclusively with the Guardian notes there have been many positive advances over the last 10 years: stronger select committees of MPs holding ministers and civil servants to account; devolution of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and publication of much more information about politicians’ expenses and party donors. But it found evidence of many other areas where Britain appeared to have moved further away from its two benchmarks of representative democracy: control over political decision-making, and how fairly the system reflects the population it represents – a principle most powerfully embedded in the concept of one person, one vote.
Among its concerns, identified from databases of official statistics and public surveys, were that Britain’s constitutional arrangements are “increasingly unstable” owing to changes such as devolution; public faith in democratic institutions “decaying”; a widening gap in the participation rates of different social classes of voters; and an “unprecedented” growth in corporate power, which the study’s authors warn “threatens to undermine some of the most basic principles of democratic decision-making”.
In an interview with the Guardian, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, the report’s lead author, warned that Britons could soon have to ask themselves “whether it’s really representative democracy any more?”
“The reality is that representative democracy, at the core, has to be about people voting, has to be about people engaging in political parties, has to be about people having contact with elected representatives, and having faith and trust in elected representatives, as well as those representatives demonstrating they can exercise political power effectively and make decisions that tend to be approved of,” said Wilks-Heeg.
“All of that is pretty catastrophically in decline. How low would turnout have to be before we question whether it’s really representative democracy at all?” The UK’s democratic institutions were strong enough to keep operating with low public input, but the longer people avoided voting and remained disillusioned, the worse the problem would get, said Wilks-Heeg.
“Over time, disengagement skews the political process yet further towards those who are already more advantaged by virtue of their wealth, education or professional connections. And without mass political participation, the sense of disconnection between citizens and their representatives will inevitably grow.”
Membership of political parties and election turnout has fallen significantly in the last decade, with only 1% of the electorate belonging to a party, and just over six out of 10 eligible voters going to the ballot box in the 2010 general election and barely one in three in European and local elections. But the depth of public disillusionment and the range of ways voters are turning away from politics revealed by the latest study could shock even those involved.
Sadiq Khan, shadow justice secretary and former chair of human rights group, Liberty, said: “What I find really troubling is there’s no shortage of big issues which we must get to grips with – the economy, the future of our health, education and social care systems, our environment – many of which grab the attention of the public, but there’s a disconnect when it comes to party politics.”
For its fourth report in a series dating back to 1996, Democratic Audit examined dozens of data sets from Britain and other countries with democratic governments, legislation, public opinion surveys and research from other academics.
The report, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, found 74 “areas of improvement”, ranging from the increasing use of the 1998 Human Rights Act to growing membership of smaller parties such as the Scottish Nationalist party and the Greens, which gained its first MP, Caroline Lucas, in 2010.
However, there were 92 areas in which the authors had “continuing concerns”, such as the uncertainty over England’s constitutional settlement as powers were increasingly devolved to the other three parts of the UK, and increasing evidence of press harassment; and a further 62 “new or emerging concerns”, including electoral fraud and declining newspaper sales and audiences for TV news.
Britain also ranked below average compared with other wealthy democracies in the OECD and the EU, and even worse when measured against Nordic countries for issues from party membership and turnout to corruption, press freedom, income inequality and trade union membership.
This was “further evidence of the areas in which [the UK] falls short, not of an abstract ideal of democracy, but of what has been demonstrated to be possible,” adds the report.
The exercise was not intended as a “scorecard” since the issues covered ranged from lowering the age at which candidates can stand in elections to setting up a supreme court; but the combined result is “fine grained”, says the report.
“The sheer volume of qualitative and quantitative evidence we have collated, not just for our current audit but also for the previous ones, enables us to make informed judgments,” it adds.
Recent attempts to rejuvenate democracy had not had much success: last year only 42% voted in a rare referendum on changing the voting system for general elections, and in May  eight out of nine cities rejected the chance to have directly elected mayors like London. Among the changes that could stem or reverse the democratic drift would be stronger powers for MPs to hold ministers to account, and a written constitution to ensure institutions such as the Electoral Commission were not vulnerable to being abolished by future governments, said Wilks-Heeg.
A proposal to reform the Lords by having mostly elected members was also welcome, but would only work as part of a wider vision, not the usually “piecemeal” approach, said Wilkes-Heeg.
In short, the lack of accountability and abuses of our alleged democracy have left voters feeling disenfranchised and utterly irrelevant. Hardly surprising in a system where the constituents have reason to believe MPs pay lip service to the views and needs of their
Before I start do bear in mind that no manifesto is worth the (virtual) paper it is written on. They simply don’t tell you what a party will do in government (eg. no mention in the Tory or LibDem manifestos of the disastrous Health & Social Care bill!), but do tell you what they think you might want to hear in order to get elected. Personally I think they should be legally binding and to include ALL relevant details (eg. which areas of spending they will cut), which might change substantially what they say and how they say it. But that is by the by.
There are plenty of organisations campaigning for what should be done to return our democratic rights to where they belong – at the forefront of constitutional entitlements. For example, the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy. But this is a personal manifesto I’d be proud to stick by one that will, not that this is anything but a good start in the right direction:
- A fully proportional system that demands the Commons (and the new second chamber)
- Stopping parachuting candidates in and restricting selection to people who had lived in the area for a minimum of two years, ideally selected by primaries – and I don’t accept this has to be costly.
- Quorum established for minimum turnout in each constituency to make an election valid – say 75%
- Stop printing party labels on ballot papers. Candidates should be elected solely on their own merits, not by their party.
- Ban the use of whips and any form of party intervention in how an MP votes – they should justify their vote in advance to their constituents, not to their party.
- Give constituents an absolute right to recall an MP and force a by-election on the grounds of reprehensible behaviour, failure to consult their views, failure to perform their duties as MP on behalf of constituents, or any misdemeanour
- Every sitting MP should be forced to publish to their constituents their performance record, as follows: personal manifesto on which they were elected, voting record on those and other key issues, attendance record, speeches made, issues investigated on behalf of constituents, commercial and other interests influencing their decisions
- MPs should also conduct local debates on key issues to gauge the opinions of constituents, and local referenda if there are reasonable grounds to suppose that opinions of those constituents the MP claims to represent are being ignored.
- Ensure ALL lobbyists are registered, all meetings recorded and full minutes published, all payments and inducements strictly monitored and ministers who accept them prevented from being involved in decisions affecting that organisation.
- Instigate a fully-elected House of Lords without any let, hindrance, exception or other forms of weaselling, and provide the new second chamber with a constitution that enables them to provide effective and constructive review of proposed legislation without opposing for the sake of opposition.
- Furthermore, all members of the second chamber should be independent, standing for election on their personal merits, not their party allegiances.
- A fully codified and updated constitution, enshrining the rights and responsibilities of all citizens.
- The right of ordinary people to propose changes to the constitution rather than waiting for governments to agree.
- Cap on the size of all personal donations to political parties from any source, say £1,000 pa
- Ban on all corporate donations or from any large organisations, unless approved by 75% of shareholders, employees, members
- Cap on the amount of advertising expenditure locally and nationally to be strictly enforced
- Equality of opportunity for independent candidates to make their own case and request sponsorship for their deposit and base minimum campaigning charges.
PS. This article on democracy and freedom, and why they don’t always go hand-in-hand, makes for interesting reading. My view is that we are a relatively free society, though that freedom is being diminished almost by the day, but at times barely democratic at all – more like an elected autocracy.
Ps. Interesting idea!
British democracy is in crisis. We cannot wish this away. The cause is a precipitous decline in respect for Members of Parliament and for the governments they form. Trust in our rulers has never been lower; faith in their competence is approaching nil. Democratic states cannot function properly in such circumstances. To see what is happening, look at what the polling organisations report.
One of these, YouGov, surveyed more than 5,000 adults throughout Great Britain in January this year. It asked how well or badly people thought Parliament was doing its job. The YouGov pollsters asked which were the features of Britain’s political system that were liked the most and which were liked the least. Just over a third of the respondents couldn’t think of anything worthy of praise. The rest of the findings were dire. Over half the sample (53 per cent) was critical of the quality of our politicians. And there was (and is) a widespread belief that politicians tell lies. Some 62 per cent of respondents agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time – you can’t believe a word they say”.
When Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, saw the results, he gave this warning: “What emerges is a picture of massive discontent that goes far beyond a dislike of particular politicians, parties and policies.” A majority believes Britain’s political system to be fundamentally flawed. “The combined effect of these complaints is more profound than is widely realised. Unless action is taken to restore the reputation of our political system, its very legitimacy may be at risk.”
More recently, the Hansard Society published the results of its annual audit of political engagement and declared that “indifference has hardened into something more significant, and disturbing”. Trends in interest and knowledge are downward, sharply so in some cases. What is suggested is “a public that is increasingly disengaged from national politics”.
Then examine what British Social Attitudes has found. After each general election since 1987, the organisation has asked people how much they “trust British governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their political party”. The proportion trusting governments “just about always” or “most of the time” has collapsed from 47 per cent in 1987 to 20 per cent in 2010. When we compare this level of trust with our Continental neighbours, we find that in 2009 20 out of the 27 members of the European Union displayed higher levels of trust in their governments than we did. Notice also how much higher the turnout was at the recent French presidential election (80 per cent) compared with our last general election (65 per cent).
These warnings, however, rub against that part of our national character that holds it important not to get too fussed about things. While this is an admirable quality when the alternative would be panic in the face of a sudden threat, not getting too fussed can become dangerous complacency. It would be so now.
Return to the warning above: “Unless action is taken to restore the reputation of our political system, its very legitimacy may be at risk.” For “legitimacy” substitute a more familiar word that carries the same meaning in this context, authority. Authority is the most important quality that governments can possess.
Until recently, successive British governments had authority in large measure. That is why we are mostly law-abiding, why we tend to pay our taxes and why we are relatively uncorrupt – at least, we thought we were until the scandals of News International and the bad behaviour of the banks erupted into our midst. But if the government of the day loses authority, then the country risks falling into the same situation as Greece or Italy, where inconvenient laws like building regulations are habitually ignored, where tax-dodging is a national sport and where government officials must be bribed before they will do anything. That both these countries are now governed by technocrats rather than by democratically elected leaders shows the sort of fate that can follow a loss of trust in a country’s political institutions.
The explanation for the growing disillusion with our political system is twofold: incompetence and trust betrayed. There is a haze of incompetence that envelops ministers. So bad has it become that we have even had to invent a word for it: omnishambles. Exam- ples are the botched reorganisation of the NHS, the Budget that penalised pensioners and charities, the petrol crisis that wasn’t. How can you feel confident in people who frequently bring forward half-baked policies that have to be substantially changed within a few weeks of their announcement? But worse than all this is an economic policy that allows no hope for the future. On some forecasts, unemployment will go on rising for the next five years.
So far as trust is concerned, how can we forget that four MPs plus two members of the House of Lords have been imprisoned for dishonesty? In other words, out of the 1,500 members of the 2005- 2010 Parliament, Commons and Lords combined, six turned out to be criminals. At the same time, some journalists working for the national press, whose activities intertwine with politics, face a series of criminal charges.
Also widely noted is the way the political parties say one thing when they are seeking votes and then do the opposite when in power. To some extent, the Tories and Labour have always behaved like this, but it seems to have been more blatant since the 2010 general election. The Liberal Democrats joined in. They made a manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years and then, once in government, Liberal Democrat ministers voted to maintain them at a higher level. We can either accept a continuation of this – not get too fussed – or we can do something about it. Not to act is likely to have a number of adverse consequences. Younger people would increasingly wonder what was the point in voting in general elections. Instead they would turn to street protests to express their views. As trust continued to drain away from our institutions it would be harder to get things done. Governments would become more authoritarian to make good the missing respect. That is what awaits us.
But think of the advantages that are available to those who would try to turn this situation round. Britain has a strong democratic tradition, perhaps the most deeply rooted of any country. Creative use of digital media could equal if not exceed the power of the political parties to raise funds and organise elections. And there are plenty of people who care. Indeed there are plenty of people outside Westminster who have the Olympic spirit. In an article tomorrow, I will describe how these strengths might be combined to rescue our democracy and ask for your participation in exploring this route out of the crisis.