In which democracy isn’t working

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There is a well-known political saying, variously attributed to Joseph De Maistre, George Bernard Shaw and Alexis de Toqueville (if you’re a proper pedant, I *think* Toqueville is right, but feel free to correct me in the comments) that “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Looking at our current rulers I find this depressing. So just in case any of you were feeling prematurely bouncy with festive cheer, I thought a nice little blog post about the inadequacy of government might bring you all back down to earth.

Here’s how a representative democracy is supposed to work. Some people have ideas about how stuff should be and make those ideas public for the masses to consider. The ideas are scrutinised by other people with different ideas who point out the potential pitfalls. All of these people’s ideas are further scrutinised by an independent and rigorous free press, and by an informed and interested electorate. That electorate then pick the people whose ideas seem least likely to bankrupt the country. The winning people form a government and have a go at putting their ideas into action, all the time having their most foolhardy excesses checked and exposed by the opposing people, the judiciary and that lovely free press we heard about earlier. To break my own rule about never quoting a talking advertising animal in public, “Simples.”

But that whole system seems to have broken down. Rather than having politicians who believe stuff, we have a generation of politicians who see their role as being to identify what voters want and then present an impression that they agree, regardless of whether they do or not. We have no bravery in politics anymore, no willingness to say “I think this. Here’s why it’s a good idea,” and accept that if people don’t agree you won’t win.

We have reached a position where the suggestion that a politician has a definite ideology is seen as a weakness. Ed Milliband, for example, was elected Labour leader largely because he was seen as being willing to move the party back to the left of UK politics. That viewpoint won him considerable support amongst the trade union wing of the party, but he’s spent the months since trying to disassociate himself from the “Red Ed” tag. He hasn’t supported public sector unions on strike action. He’s been largely absent from the debate on cuts in areas like welfare benefits and legal aid. Reading his press coverage it is increasingly difficult to identify what Ed really thinks.

I’ve picked on Ed Milliband here. I could just as easily have gone for Dave or Nick or George or even Tony. None of these are politicians interested in standing out, in looking or sounding different, in making an impassioned case for a particular set of ideas. They’re interested in being elected. They may have passionate ideas about what they’d do if they were elected, but they don’t us to know what those ideas are.  

And that’s not entirely their fault. They are the babies of an informal system of political education that irons out difference and passion at every turn. We have a generation of politicians who attended the same schools, the same universities, worked in the same politics-related consultancies, and entered parliament with little or no work experience outside the Westminster bubble. They sound bland and samey because they are bland and samey.

A generation ago our Prime Minister was a grammar-school scholarship girl, who studied Chemistry and worked as a research chemist in the food industry whilst unsucessfully candidating in Dartford. Somewhere alongside the job and the political campaigning she also managed to qualify as a barrister. Voters also knew where she stood. She was, in my opinion, pretty much as wrong as one can be about most things, but at least you knew what she thought.

But that’s all changed. Telling voters what you think is no longer considered important. Getting the most favourable coverage, causing least offence and not making a gaffe are the new priorities. In political debate, meaning has been the primary casualty of the new media-savvy approach. Politicians are concerned about things like “hard-working families,” “the squeezed middle” and “creating a Big Society.” The broader the brushstrokes, the less specific the message, the less likely it is to offend.

And political reporting isn’t helping. Rather than questioning and scrutinizing politicians, journalists often simply copy and paste the pre-approved quotes from the press release and crack on with the rest of their day. There are reasons for this, ranging from commercial pressures in the newspaper industry to individual networks of friends and contacts too precious to displease, but too little political journalism is currently focussed on scrutinizing policies and ideas. (There are some exceptions – I know I’ve bigged it up before, but please allow me another quick plug for C4’s rather brilliant FactCheck blog). 

Where people outside the mainstream political parties attempt to throw open the discussion, news coverage still tends to engage more with the people and the side-controversies, than with the content of any real debate. Thus, coverage of the Occupy London camp focusses on whether the protestors really are using their tents overnight, which members of the St Paul’s clergy have resigned, and what legal action is being proposed/taken, rather than on what the protestors are asking for and how/if politicians are responding.

There are options to how we fix this inadequate state of affairs. We could jettison the whole democracy thing and just have a dictator. I’m more than happy to volunteer for the role, providing I can be known as Queen Alison, rather than President or Prime Minister. It just sounds so much foxier, and implies ownership of good jewellery, which I like.

However, populaces all over the world are currently rising all up and getting a bit fighty to try to win for themselves the voting rights we have taken for granted for too long, so maybe we should give democracy another shot. To make it work you all need to agree to make yourselves informed voters. It’s tricky but doable. Google will help you. Even mainstream newspapers will help if you teach yourself to read them with a critical eye (Andrew Marr’s book My Trade has a great section on how to sift the content from the fluff in an average newspaper article.) I’d also warmly encourage you to ask questions of your own representatives. We can all do this. Come the revolution I’ll be at my computer sending a tersely worded email to my MP.

At the same time, journalists need to start doing some actual journalism. Between us we might be able to start to pressure our elected representatives into saying what they really think.

Finally, our politicians need to collectively agree that, on balance, they probably ought to get out more and talk to people who don’t look and sound just like them. They could all agree to get jobs for a few years and only stand for future election after a full decade of doing something completely different. That might give them time outside the Westminster pressure cooker to grow a personality and, maybe even decide what they really think.

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3 thoughts on “In which democracy isn’t working

    richardmollowenwriter said:
    December 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Alison – maybe you’ve started channelling richardmollowenwriter.org

    I agree pretty much entirely! There has not been a domestic politics of ideas since before Blair. This may seem just a bland state of affairs, but I think it’s actually very dangerous. Nature abhors a vacuum, and we have a pretty good idea what would like to pour in: Clarkson + his executioner; white supremacists; and the “underclass” (new name for the Poor, whose fault it all is) breaking shopfronts for Nike (Just Do It).

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    clive eardley said:
    December 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    alison / whole-heartedly agreed with the substance and enjoyed the style which i found concise, coherent, articulate and humorous. you would enjoy, i think, a piece by marina hyde that i found thru’ a tweet by ‘ianaitch’. / clive
    ps if osborne brings marie antoinette to mind, visit my blog.

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    […] eons ago I had a little rant on this very blog about the rise of the career politician, and Michael Gove is a prime example of why this matters. […]

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