In which democracy isn’t working

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.

Where I think about whether referenda are ever a good idea…

This afternoon in parliament MPs will be debating whether to offer the British people a referendum on our future in the European Union. There’s minimal chance of the pro-referendum group winning the vote, and if they did it wouldn’t necessarily be binding on the current government, so the debate itself is only really interesting to political nerds of the highest order, who can work themselves into a state of geek-frenzy debating whether the number of votes against the party line should be viewed by the respective leaders as an irrelevance, an irritant or an actual embarrassment.

The whole debate does raise a bigger question though. Are referenda themselves a good idea? Referenda – a single vote on a single issue – can in many ways be seen as the purest form of democracy. There’s a decision to be made. People vote. The majority view wins the day. Everyone has a chance to have a say, and everyone’s vote is weighted equally.

But I have some reservations. The UK is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. We have opted for a system whereby we all go out on an appointed day and pick people to represent us. We then get periodic opportunities to get back together and pick someone new, just in case the first one turned out to be a useless, unimaginative, expenses-fiddling, faceless party drone. To switch between one form of democracy and another seems problematic, and it seems problematic for reasons. Those reasons are fourfold.

1. MPs get to avoid responsibility

And this is probably the main thing that drives governments to have referenda in the first instance. It’s not that they genuinely can’t decide. It’s that deciding is difficult and any decision will be unpopular with someone. A referendum means that Prime Minsters and cabinets don’t have to be responsible for the decision. In 1975 Harold Wilson supported continued UK EEC membership, but much of his cabinet and his wider party disagreed. The referendum saved them from having to make a decision, allowed Wilson to placate his anti-European colleagues and also strengthen his own position by demonstrating public support for his stance. Britain was already in the EEC, so nothing was actually changed by the exercise. Similiarly with this year’s AV referendum, David Cameron needed to form a coalition, but knew that electoral reform was a dealbreaker for both sides. Agreeing to a referendum parks the issue over there somewhere, where it’s no-one’s actual responsibility.

2. The public don’t have to take responsibility

There are a few constants in political opinion. Generally we would like better quality services at lower costs. If you ran a referendum on the question “Would you like to pay less tax?” the answer would be a clear “Oh yes!” Similarly if you asked “Would you like to wait less time for a hospital appointment/be able to send your kids to a better school/have your bins emptied every twenty minutes?” the answer would also be “Yes.” If you’re a member of the public your ideas and wants do not have to be consistent. If you’re the government you have to make the sums add up. If you want to offer more in one area, you need to either spend more across the board or spend less on something else. Voting in a referendum, simpy putting a tick in a box for YES or NO on a single  issue, you don’t have to worry about the knock-on effects. That potentially makes for really bad policy.

3. What question do you ask?

The current debate about an EU-referendum gives us a really good example of this problem. The proposal is for a three question referendum with options to: a) Stay in the EU as we are at present, b) withdraw from the EU or c) renegotiate our settlement with Europe. It’s hard to know where to start with the wrongness of that approach. Firstly, if it’s a three option referendum it’s perfectly possible that no option will see a majority, in which case you’ve really not moved forward. Secondly, what do the options mean – if you don’t really want to be part of a formal political union but do see some advantages to a broad free trade agreement, do you vote b) or c)? If you are actually a big fan of the whole united Europe concept and would like to see more integration and greater political control from the centre, then logically you should vote c), as at no point is a specified what the aim of a renegotiation would be. To hold a referendum the issue has to be stripped down to ideally two choices – it has to be black or white, no complexity, no debate, no qualifications or amendments. Again, I would suggest, over simplifying makes bad policy.

4. Where’s the scrutiny?

Parliamentary democracy is built on scrutiny. It’s the less sexy, more workmanlike element of being an MP. It’s all the select committee processes and debates on multiple amendments to bills, which is designed to mean that by the time laws are passed the majority of the inconsistencies and practical difficulties have been identified and amendments made to strengthen the bill. Referenda take out the potential for scrutiny. The issue has been pared down to a simple Yes or No and all the complications and debate is stripped away. Simplicity wins over accuracy.

So there are my four reasons that I’m deeply dubious about the usefulness of referenda in a Parliamentary democracy. Sorry it wasn’t particularly amusing. I promise I shall try to find something funny for my next post, and knock all these political musings on the head. I can’t imagine they’re doing anyone any good.