(Or is it too late?)
We do hear a tremendous amount about “our democracy” these days. For instance, we keep being told that Brexit is “implementing the democratic will of the people”, or that refusing a second Scottish Referendum on independence is “undemocratic” – but this country has never been governed by referenda – and nor should it ever be!
What we are supposed to have in the UK is a “Representative Democracy”. That means that we elect MPs to represent their constituencies, just as we elect local councillors to represent their wards. These people are supposed to represent everybody in their constituency, not just those that happened to vote for them.
One would hope that our MPs also realise that they have a duty beyond that – they should try to do what is best for the country, even if that might conflict with what is best for their constituency – and they should also try to do what is best for the world and for humanity as a whole, even if that might not be in the best interests of the country! To put it more simply, we should really elect the people that we think or believe have the most wisdom, integrity and decency, regardless of any petty (or party) political interests or persuasions. However, the public is constantly being persuaded and propagandised, by all and sundry but particularly by political parties and the media, to vote according to a host of other, mainly spurious criteria.
Quite a while ago (1878 to be exact), W. S. Gilbert poked a bit of fun at the political establishment, in Sir Joseph Porter’s song in HMS Pinafore:-
“I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into parliament.
I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
Now, we don’t have “pocket” or “rotten” boroughs any more – or do we? There are certainly still some constituencies where a monkey might get elected if they happened to belong to the right party. However, it’s the last two lines that are more to the point. “Party politics” is the biggest problem with our so-called democracy.
It is a fact, in this country, in all elections (apart from those for the European Parliament) that we actually vote for the person, not for the party. A lot of people don’t seem to realise this – probably because almost all the media and almost every political party keeps on saying (e.g.) “Vote Conservative” or “Vote Labour” without even mentioning the actual candidate.
Of course, as a result, the great majority of people probably do vote along party lines and this has been the case for many years. Just think about it. You do not need to belong to any political party to stand for election – and, if Fred Bloggs is elected as a Conservative but, after the election, he has a major bust-up with the Tories and is either kicked out or leaves the party voluntarily (yes, it does happen – Douglas Carswell is a good example!), he does not necessarily lose his seat, nor is there any statutory requirement for him to stand down, or for there to be a new by-election. The seat belongs to him, not to the party – and that is how it should be.
I doubt very much if any politician actually agrees with absolutely everything that any political party stands for, or even everything in its election manifesto but, of course, in order to be selected by any party as “their” candidate, they have to convince the party that they do. Inevitably, this leads to a certain amount of hypocrisy (or even dishonesty) and, once selected and elected, it then follows that the most hypocritical (or dishonest) politicians are the ones who are most likely to win favour and advancement within the party system. Is it really surprising that “party” politics breeds corruption?
How many times, in interviews (especially on programmes like the BBC’s Question Time) do we hear senior politicians refusing to say what they actually think and merely spouting the party line on any number of important issues? If we can’t find out what politicians actually believe, how can we possibly make any reasonable judgement about how to vote? Is it any wonder that more and more people are becoming thoroughly disillusioned and frustrated by the way that politics is conducted in this country?
It is also quite illogical to suggest or to assume that any party winning an overall majority at an election actually has some kind of “mandate” to implement its manifesto. Apart from the fact that things change over time, it may well be that a majority of the electorate simply do not agree with a particular aspect of a manifesto. To reiterate: it is the duty of all elected politicians to try to do what is best for the world, their country and their constituency, in that order, regardless of party politics. All we really want is for them to be honest about it.
The idea that a referendum constitutes a “mandate” to act accordingly is even more farcical. Yes, conducted sensibly, a referendum might well indicate what the public want – but that does not mean that the public are right! Surely, it is part of the job of politicians to lead public opinion, not merely to follow it. One has only to look at the sheer hypocrisy (or dishonesty) of all those politicians who campaigned to remain in the EU and then changed their minds after the referendum (mainly for party political reasons) to see how stupid, undemocratic and corrupt the system has become.
Corrupt? Yes, absolutely! Just look at the recent scandal about election expenses. Why do parties (or people) spend so much money during elections? It is because they think (they know) that it will buy them votes. It does work. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t do it. As a result, it is the richest – those who have and are prepared to spend the most money – who are most likely to be elected. Is this “democratic”? Is it surprising that we see so much corruption? Surely, it should (must) be a fundamental tenet of our electoral system that every candidate be treated equally and fairly, and be able to compete on a “level playing field”.
In order to restore some vestige of true democracy in our country, first of all, we need a fair degree of electoral reform. This is not a new idea. For example, many people have been arguing for proportional representation for years – but this is definitely not the answer. Proportion of what? The problem with most forms of PR is that they actually strengthen the party system. What we really need is politicians who actually say and do what they honestly believe to be right and in the best interests of us all.
Is that possible? Will it ever happen? I doubt it – but here are a few ideas that might just give some food for thought . . .
Our first-past-the-post, one-man-one-vote electoral “system” is actually pretty fair and straightforward. There are certainly strong arguments in favour of a preferential voting method but that might become unnecessarily complicated. It seems to me that it is not really our voting system that needs reform; it is the whole manner in which we conduct our elections.
What if . . . candidates in elections were not allowed to declare allegiance to any political party? Each candidate simply prepares their own “manifesto” (let’s say 2 sides of A4 or about 1500 words) and this is published in all local press, on public websites and printed (at taxpayers’ expense), with a copy distributed to every household in the constituency. That is all.
What if . . . it were to cost candidates nothing to stand for election. Yes, we do need some measures to prevent stupid or pointless candidates from standing. Perhaps we should increase the number of nominations required, increase the deposit and increase the percentage of the poll required to save the deposit. No great changes there – but, apart from this deposit . . .
What if . . . it were made illegal for any candidate (or party, or agent, or supporter) to spend any money at all in connection with an election. No adverts, no posters, no notice boards, nothing! Nor should it be allowed for any other person to canvas or to speak on behalf of any candidate. Only the candidates themselves should be allowed to canvas door-to-door or to speak at public meetings or hustings.
What if . . . (during the period of “purdah”) the media, including the BBC, were required to give each candidate equal amounts of coverage and equal opportunities to speak to the public? For example, if BBC Question Time were to be broadcast from York, the only people on the panel should be the actual candidates for the York constituency. How else will the public even get to know who the candidates are, never mind assess their suitability? Well . . .
What if . . . it were incumbent upon each returning officer to organise a certain number of public “hustings” meetings around the constituency, at which every candidate would have an equal amount of time to present themselves and to answer questions.
And then, what if . . . as a result of all these changes, we were to end up with a parliament that consisted of significant numbers of independent members, quite a lot of small parties, no party with an overall majority and little chance of forming any meaningful coalition? Would that lead to weak or ineffective government?
It’s interesting that even members of the government have a tendency to say that it is a good thing to have a “strong opposition”. No it isn’t. What is important is for there simply to be strong opposition. The idea of coalition government isn’t so bad – lots of countries have them – and, in effect, this gives an element of opposition from within the government. However, it doesn’t have to be like that.
Just as we, the voters, don’t elect parties, we elect people as MPs; similarly, we the electorate do not elect the government. There is absolutely no reason why parliament shouldn’t simply elect its own “government”, including prime minister, other ministers, cabinet and other officers, along with select committees and other working parties. If we were to move with the times and adopt an effective, electronic voting system in the House of Commons, this could be done in a matter of hours, certainly in less than a day, on the first day of each new parliamentary year. Parliament could even elect its own “opposition” too! (Electronic voting might also make the House of Commons much more efficient!)
What if . . . we didn’t have General Elections at all (except, maybe, in an emergency or a constitutional crisis)? Why not have elections spread throughout the year? Let’s say, if we had 600 MPs, we could elect each one for a fixed term of 3 years. That would mean 200 “by”-elections each year, which amounts to about 4 each week – ideally in different parts of the country. This would enable and encourage more consistency, fewer extreme changes of policy and a longer-term, less polarised and divisive approach to government and to politics in general.
What if . . . we were to completely outlaw the practice of “whipping” in parliament – and make it illegal to either threaten or to offer any incentive (=bribe) to any member of parliament to vote in any particular way?
We could go on forever with the “What ifs” – but what else could we do to clean up politics, to get rid of corruption and dishonesty and to allow the “people”, all of us, the chance to be heard, to feel that we can make a difference and that our views are properly respected in a truly “democratic” way?
Let’s start with the House of Lords. There is a general and growing consensus now that our “second chamber” does need reform. Many people would argue for a directly elected second chamber and they do have a pretty good case. Do we really want even more elections? Well, it could be quite simple if we elected our “peers” at the same time and as part of the same process as when electing members of the House of Commons. One elected peer for each constituency. This would certainly get rid of the hereditary peers and the bishops and it would also get rid of all those undemocratically “appointed” peers. (Most of whom are “party” politicians!)
This would also be a good place to start getting rid of the inherently corrupt and undemocratic “party system”. Let each candidate for a peerage stand as a complete independent, without any declared party allegiance. Ideally, they should be elected according to their expertise in a particular field and/or the contribution they have made to society.
It is always a good idea to work from the bottom upwards as well as from the top downwards. If we are going to try to get rid of (or at least decontaminate) the party system, then the other good place to start would be in local elections – parish, town, borough, city and, in due course, county and regional elections. Yes, quite a few of the “what ifs” listed above might very well sound like mere wishful thinking but there is already one part of the British Isles that actually uses many of these conditions and rules in their electoral system – the Channel Islands – and I don’t think that channel islanders complain much about any democratic deficit! OK, the Channel Islands are pretty small but most parishes and many towns in the UK are even smaller. Party politics and the power of money to buy votes are an abomination in local politics and the sooner we get rid of them the better.
The other major “democratic” issue affecting us all at the moment is devolution. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have each been granted their own assemblies, with tax-raising powers and a fair degree of autonomy. As a result, mainly because of the Brexit issue, there is a danger of all these three regions striving for independence from Westminster and the consequent break-up of the UK. What about England?
In England, we don’t have our own regional parliament at all. Projects like the “Northern Powerhouse” may be a half-hearted attempt to address this “democratic deficit” but will they work? If we must have regional assemblies and more devolution in the UK (not at all a bad idea) then why not divide England into 4 or 5 equal-sized regions and give each their own regional assemblies on the same lines as those in Scotland and Wales? “Federal” systems like this already exist in the USA, Germany and various other countries – why not in the UK?
I speak as a staunch Yorkshireman (born in Lancashire but conceived in the north of Scotland, with Greek, French, Scottish and mainly Viking ancestry). I am quite happy to describe myself as British (or even as European) but the one thing I will never admit to being is English. (Not because I dislike England or the English – but simply because I am definitely not English.)
However, that’s just me. I hope we all abhor discrimination of any kind, but the world (including the UK) is, sadly, becoming increasingly nationalistic and intolerant of all those people who might be described as “foreigners”! It is well worth noting that, under the Equality Act of 2010, according to the government’s own website, it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of . . ."race, including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin”.
How is it possible that we have a government, political parties and many campaigners and activists who are not only breaking the law itself but actually encouraging and inciting others to do so as well? Discrimination on the grounds of nationality is every bit as stupid, pointless and inherently immoral as racial discrimination!
Nationalism is one of the great scourges of modern society and it seems to be on the increase all over the world, notably and worryingly in the USA, the UK and in many parts of Europe. The other “ism” (not entirely unconnected with nationalism) that is creating serious problems in our society is “populism”. There may be many and various reasons for both of these insidious trends but there is really only one answer - and that is Education!
We have to teach our children to think! As long as we have an education system that is obsessed with testing and examinations - requiring all our children to jump through the same hoops and focusing almost entirely on the regurgitation of facts and the demonstration of techniques – we are never going to teach people to think, to question, to engage in rational debate, to try to understand, to be considerate, to work together, to help each other instead of just competing with each other, to make the most of their natural and innate talents and, most of all, to respect and listen to those who might think otherwise. That is the biggest threat of all to our democracy!