Opinion Politics

Power to the people: it’s time to upgrade our democracy

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Abraham Lincoln once declared that government should “be of the people, by the people and for the people” however our current democratic system is failing to deliver on those eternal words. A wave of anti-parliamentarianism and populism has gripped many western countries, riding in on a righteous wave of anger and an anti-establishment sentiment due to the fact that the lives of many communities have been in terminal decline since Thatcher (and neoliberalism) came to power.

We live in a representative democracy meaning that the population does not directly make decisions or laws, instead electing representatives to a parliament to do so on their behalf. I believe that this system is no longer completely working, nor was it ever truly meant to. Just like first-past-the-post (FPTP), our democracy is an outdated system being used in a more complicated world than could have never been taken into account by those that created it.

Our democratic system is decrepit, and the cracks that have been showing now threaten to tear our society apart. It’s time for a change, an upgrade if you will, to bring power truly to the people that have been deprived of it for so long.

An obvious critique of modern democracy is declining participation. The UK is the best example of this; in the 1950 UK general election, turnout was 83.9% while in 2001 just 60% voted. That means four in every 10 people in Britain declined to partake in elections; that is, more than 25m people in a UK population of over 64m effectively did not consent to be ruled. This voter apathy undermines the very thing elections stand for; if the people refuse to exercise their power to elect a representative, the whole belief that this is the way people can have a say in how a country is run is void. Indeed, at what point is a low turnout ‘undemocratic’?

Declining voter turnout is a serious danger to our modern form of democracy because it shows people no longer have a faith in their representatives to represent them. Politicians are the least trusted profession in the country (only 7% trust them according to some reports) and are often privately educated white, middle aged men with a degree from Oxbridge. People have grown sick of seeing MPs who almost all look and sound identical, saying the same pre-practiced sound-bites as each other and failing to provide any real answers or ideas. To many that is the appeal of ‘controversial’ and ‘oddball’ characters such as Nigel Farage, Trump and (whilst not of the same ilk) Jeremy Corbyn as well.

On top of that, it has grown clear in recent years that Westminster lives in a bubble; Owen Jones describes this mentality as being best summed up by the L’Oréal slogan: “Because I’m worth it”. It is MPs belief that they deserve the power they have, as well as higher wages and hence become susceptible to lobbying from their rich business friends – representing those eccentric interests rather than those of their constituents.

This is underlined by the expenses scandals, Plebgate, and the general revolving door mechanism with which a privileged individual can jump from university to an intern’s role for a politician, become an MP and then, when they lose their seat, ascend to a top managerial role at a business or maybe a big name media institution.

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics”; in a UK general election around £35m is typically spent by parties, according to the Electoral Commission. It’s no wonder that everyday people, independent candidates or small parties find it nigh on impossible to get elected. But notice how not many women get elected, or BAME individuals or disabled people – and neither are people under the age of 40 often voted into office. Representative democracy is not representative- not of the people at least.

Another problem is that it is not effective. Representative democracy is designed to achieve merely good legitimacy and efficiency, as the two could be subject to polarisation; total legitimacy would be every person being able to propose legislature and there being a referendum on each one whereas the most efficient form of government would be a dictatorship – one man decides what happens and that’s it.

As we have seen, representative democracy is not representative or legitimate, and it also fails to be effective. Due to elections, the goal of a government is rarely ever long term; in order to be re-elected, they must make the electorate feel that within the five years of their term, life has improved in some way.

This means short-term changes, with no care about the long term impacts and also no solution to long-term problems. Climate change and demographic issues are cast aside and ignored for another headline-catching change to education or a big bold speech from the prime minister on how hard her government will be on immigration.

Because of the need to be re-elected, politicians are rarely the biggest experts on certain areas of policies – especially secretaries of state. In order to get into office, an MP must be good at public speaking, socialising and brokering deals, but these are not necessarily skills that would allow someone to run an effective state office. Therefore, if many of the recent education secretaries have never had any direct contact with the education sector (barring their school years), how can they be expected to suddenly have the expertise and ability to lead an office in charge with the entire education system of the UK?

In his book “Against Elections”, John Van Reybrouck suggests that “Elections are the fossil fuel of politics. Once they gave democracy a huge boost, now they cause colossal problems”. But if this is the case, what is to be done? Modern representative democracy is no longer efficient, nor representative and it is clear that some of the problems we face today are either caused by it or are not solved because of it. To upgrade our democracy we must first look at what we define democracy as and begin to understand something; that the presence of elections does not necessarily mean democracy.

Elections are a beautiful democratic act. The right to vote was fought for passionately and nobly by so many, that it means so much more than placing a cross in a box. For some, like suffragette Emily Davison, that fight led to their deaths.

When you vote you honour the men and women that fought for you to be able to have that option and elections allow a greater picture to be drawn of current public opinion. But elections are not the only democratic way of having the people’s voice heard:

“Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?”

Van Reybrouck articulately makes a key point – beyond marking that cross, our interaction with decision making is minute at best. People have little contact with the laws being passed and no way to directly consult or amend them.

Take that in for a moment. Democracy is the idea that the power is invested in the people and representative democracy aims achieves to achieve that with representatives of the people debating and deciding legislature. But MPs are clearly unrepresentative, the adversarial nature of the House of Commons combined with the fact politicians toe the party line means that a government bill rarely fails and so suffers little scrutiny.

Furthermore, in order to be re-elected representatives need money and therefore are susceptible to the lobbying of big business who can use their leverage to kill any bills they don’t like. An MP who wants to make it must also cosy up with a few media barons to get air time as well. The House of Lords is even less representative than the House of Commons and yet is the only other real opportunity to scrutinise legislature; that means unelected older people appointed by past and present governments are the only other individuals beyond MPs who can have any direct impact on legislation.

Now ask yourself – does that sound democratic to you?

The solution, I believe, to so many of the problems caused by our current democratic system is to introduce a new second house to replace the Lords, but one that is not elected nor appointed and is unlike any democratic body in the world; A House of Citizens, if you will.

The first democracies did not use elections. They were not considered democratic until after the American and French revolutions where members of the intelligentsia wished to prevent the lower classes gaining too much control. Before elections, democracy primarily used sortition.

Sortition is the process of the drawing of lots, taking a name out a hat. It was the original democratic process; democracy has been around for thousands of years but we have only been playing around with elections for a couple hundred and yet they are accepted as synonymous with democracy.

In truth, taking lots has much more historical authority. This article will not try to suggest explicit details and ideas regarding how the process would work; for further detail I would suggest looking up Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck and the numerous essays and works of Terry Bouricius.

However, for example, Athenian government was a complex organisation of different bodies, all filled up with Athenian citizens selected by lot. These individuals would then perform the roles of the various bodies, receiving training and information by experts. Athens was no paradise; women were not allowed roles and the mass majority of the population were servants, therefore not considered citizens.

However, the fact is Athens worked. Aristotle said that “It is thought to be democratic for the offices of government to be assigned by lot. For them to be elected, Oligarchic.” Do our elections, driven by money, lobbying and an all-powerful corporate media not lead to an oligarchic, revolving-door-system between the media, business and the privileged in our society?

In short; elections help create an establishment. Elections, when used as the sole interaction between government and people, oppress rather than uplift the masses by keeping power in the hands of a select group. Rousseau goes so far as to suggest elections are nothing but a form of aristocracy: “The drawing of lots is more in the nature of democracy. In an Aristocracy, voting is appropriate”.

This article is not meant to go into explicit detail over the different ideas and ways in which a sortition process could work, but I do want to give a brief overview of the main thoughts.

The House of Citizens aforementioned could retain many of the same powers as the current House of Lords, but use them more freely and with much more legitimacy – and could even garner more. This would include the power to create, amend and delay legislature. The House of Citizens (or ‘Citizens Assembly’) would go beyond red benches in Westminster and be so much more, in so many places. It would be one institution, but within that would be many different organisations working in harmony and bouncing off each other to provide a real voice of the people.

It would stretch from small, voluntary opinion panels across the country to a body that actually voted on legislation. Individuals could be randomly selected much like you are for jury service, they would be paid generously for their time which, depending on the organisation, could be more than a year.

For those type of bodies, a system of “sortition, volunteering, sortition” would take place where individuals were randomly selected, then could choose to agree to attend or not. Those that did agree would then be randomly selected again to try to create a representative body; training would be provided for the important roles, unbiased experts would provide clear and concise education on the issues to be debated and amended. A Citizens Assembly, if it was to work (which it must), must be so much more than randomly selected people sitting in chairs and debating stuff with no training or mediation. What would emerge from that, would be an assembly dominated by the same old figure; the white, middle class, well-educated, well-spoken man.

Many of the main arguments against sortition, centre on the idea that it would put power in the hands of the uneducated, the ‘chavs’ and those with no inherent interest in events outside their own lives.

These are, in fact, essentially the same arguments used against enfranchising working class men and (eventually) women at the turn of the 20th century. The suggestion that the majority are stupid, therefore increasing their role in democracy will mark the end of good government is ludicrous – because the truth is that when people actually have the power, things can, and do, change for the better.

To keep politics from the masses is merely oppression. Did democracy end when all were granted a vote? Did society cease to be? No! It in fact greatly improved – the post-war Labour government, riding in on a wave of hope, ushered in the beginnings of a new social democratic country where even the Tories were ‘One Nation’!

Giving people greater power and ways to engage in democracy will uplift, not destroy, society. They will be able to form their own opinions and ideas. Political engagement will inevitably increase as more and more people ‘discover’ it through the enthusiasm of being able to choose their own destiny. Is that not why we saw so many people vote in the EU and Scottish referendums, when they never had before? They believed their opinion actually counted as opposed to in everyday politics; they’re disillusioned with a system that seems not for them – but for some middle-class intelligentsia.

The House of Commons is all too often an ‘old boys club’. There is no point having a representative house full of the high and mighty, if it is not representative. In Van Reybrouck’s words:

“What is the use of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the price of bread? Sortition produces a legislature that includes a greater cross section of society”.

On the other hand, as aforementioned, all too often our representatives are not the most qualified for their jobs.

Even then, a ‘House of Citizens’ would not stand alone. It would invite experts for knowledge, be able to request copies of any government or outside institutions’ reports and have professionals ensuring all knowledge is unbiased. For those roles assigned every few years, over time the people would develop increasing expertise and ability to work with one another to amend, compromise and create legislature.

The consultation between the state and its people is hugely beneficial. It ensures that the latter can hold the former directly to account, it guarantees politics stays in touch with what the people want and it allows things to run smoothly. Van Reybrouck suggests we look to Ireland for proof of this:

“In December 2012, a constitutional convention began work in order to revise several articles of the constitution of Ireland. Its members were not just a committee of MPs working behind closed doors, but a mixture of elected politicians and ordinary people: 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, from both Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

The grouped looked at, among many things, the subject of gay marriage. The consultation between people and politicians meant that the new articles of the Irish Republic’s proposed constitution allowed gay marriage, and in the subsequent referendum the yes vote won; traditionally conservative Catholic Ireland was one of the first countries in the world to approve gay marriage via a referendum. In liberal France, where there was no such direct conference with the people, the approval of gay marriage took a year of political unrest, and 300,000 people had to march in Paris to have their voice heard. A consultation with the people would have avoided all of it.

It’s a futuristic idea, utopian perhaps, to have sortition play a part in our democratic system. But once, so was the idea of all men and women being enfranchised, a democratic Russia and peace in Europe. So what if the idea is futuristic – for we are in the future!

However, representative democracy and elections have failed us – robbing our future of so much. The long-term solutions to climate change, the NHS, and an unequal economy could have been found, but they have not – and in fact the problems are getting worse.

Representative democracy has proven to be unrepresentative and not effective; modern elections simply put the power in the hands of an establishment. For too long, too many communities have been isolated from the political world and dictated to from above.

The truth is that real, progressive, social change almost always comes from below, from the people. Jeremy Corbyn’s latest slogan is ‘people powered politics’ and anti-establishment populism claims to speak for the people too.

But while everybody wants to be the people’s voice, no one seems to want to give them their own. It is time to update democracy for the 21st Century, so that we, the people, can lead and not be lead. Only then, can democracy and government “be of the people, by the people and for the people”.


Follow me on twitter for more political musings of a radical democratic kind; https://twitter.com/Patrick_EG_Ryan

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