(Un)Representative Democracy

For those of you who didn’t do classics at school (neither did I, as it happens), we’ll start with a quick Greek lesson. The word ‘Democracy’ derives from the Greek words Demos (people) and Krates (rule). Thus, in the strict sense of the word, ‘democracy’ means ‘rule by the people’. However, by that definition, democracy does not exist, and never has exisited. Ever. What we call ‘democracy’ isn’t democracy at all, but, crucially representative remocracy. The theory is that the people have a free choice between competing candidates, and the winning groups of candidates implement the will of the people, but there are several key problems with this:
Problem 1: Do the winning candidates really represent the will of the people? In the 2005 General Election, Labour won 55% of the available seats with on 35.3% of the vote, with 60% of the population voting. Thus, only 21% of the people actively wanted Labour, but everyone got them. If the Liberal Democrats had got a number of seats proportional to their vote, 142 of them should be sitting in Parliament, instead of the 63 who actually are. I’m not going to go into the many boringly familiar arguments about proportional electoral systems, but I fail to see how a system which skews the stated will of the people so badly is that different from Mugabe and his chums stuffing ballot boxes in Zimbabwe.

Problem 2: What does it mean for our representatives to represent us? Time and time again (Poll Tax, Iraq, Top-Up fees) government backbenchers fall into line and vote through proposals that have been opposed by a clear majority of the public. With their future careers in the hands of the party bosses, there is no incentive for MPs to break ranks and vote their conscience or side with the people when there is a clear divide between the public and the government. Very few people know who their MPs are and even fewer know how they vote, so nothing is gained by taking a principled stand on an issue. Edmund Burke was (mostly) right when he said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”; being representative does not neccessarily mean MPs should always go along with the public, but exercising their own judgement should mean exercising their own judgement, not following the party line on each and every vote. Defenders of the current system have twisted Burke’s original meaning to suit their own purposes.

Problem 3: Who these people are, as well as what they think and how they vote is important. This doesn’t mean that we should positively discriminate left, right and centre to make 50% of MPs female and 8% non-white (white male MPs aren’t inherently unable to represent their female or black constituents). What I’m referring to here is the worrying rise of a new political class which monopolizes all the leading power centres in the British political system. In the 18th century and before, the upper classes dominated politics to the exclusion of everyone else. The new political class might be different in that they might come from a variety of class backgrounds, but our government and Parliament are now dominated by career politicians who spend their whole careers (from university onwards) in professional politics. This is really no better than politics being dominateed by an economic elite. I’m not subscribing to the view that they’re all selfish, corrupt, power-hungry bastards (though quite a few of them are), but they simply cannot be representative of the people if they spend their entire life cossetted within a party, and in the Westminister bubble, without living the lives of the people they are elected to represent. In times gone by, almost all MPs would have decades-long careers as bankers, teachers, academics, trade unionists, and so on, before entering politics.

Problem 4: If representatives are supposed to govern as representatives of the will of the people, how can they possibly tell what the will of the people is? Happening to be hated by less than all the rest of the parties by less than a quarter of the people cannot be taken as a sign of approval for every half baked idea cobbled together in some dreary corner of Whitehall. Governments push through policies that were never included in their manifestos, and, even worse, which were specifically precluded in their promises to the electorate (“We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them”; Labour manifesto, 2001). If ‘a week is a long time in politics’, then 4 or 5 years certainly is.

Not only has representative democracy not been particularly democratic, it was never meant to be. The USA is held up as the classic model of liberal representative democracy, but the US constitution was written as an explicitly anti-democratic document which sought to take power away from the popularly elected legislatures. The founding fathers would have been horrified had they been referred to as democrats, and the image of them as the inventors of democracy has been counterfactually imposed on them as the years have gone by. Policies are important – they have real impacts on real people, but the way in which policies are decided, the workings of our (I hesitate to say democracy) system is just important as what comes out at the end. Britain is not a dictatorship-the government (mostly) respects freedoms-but neither is it a democracy, and the sooner we recognise that, the sooner we can do something about it.


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