Representative democracy is specifically meant to empower the individual citizen over the interests of the state, big business and the ruling elite. Has it failed to do so?
The central underlying concept of democracy is equality; the idea that all citizens have an equal right to participate in the political and economic decisions that effect their lives. In small village communities, or a small city state like classical Athens, all the citizens’ can have a direct input into the political discourse and their vote plays a significant role in determining the outcome.
However, in a society of millions of citizens it is generally accepted that this form of direct democracy is impractical and unmanageable. The proposed solution to these practical problems is to have smaller groups of citizens elect a single representative who will then sit in an assembly of hundreds, rather than thousands, of representatives, with each representative having one equal vote. In this theoretical model the job of the representative is to represent in the assembly the views of the community that elected them.
Thus in the rhetoric of liberal democracy the decisions of the assembly are said to represent “the will of the people”, and government becomes not an oppressive expression of coercive power but becomes the expression of popular will.
This sounds like a reasonable compromise that resolves the contradiction between the direct involvement of citizens in government and the impracticalities of articulating that in a population of 60 million.
However, surely for this type of representation to be meaningful two preconditions would need to be met:
(i) That the overall demographic range of politicians in parliament itself corresponds to the overall demographic of the population as a whole.
(ii) That the elected member of the community represents the views and interests of that community in the assembly, parliament or legislature.
So far so good – except that it is not what happens in any modern democratically elected assembly.
In case of the first of the pre conditions above the make up of democratic assemblies across the world is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, middle-aged and male. The demographic of parliaments corresponds to the demographic of the ruling elite, not the population. Constituencies are also far too large for any representative to represent the competing interests of diverse communities in a meaningful way.
What has actually happened in democratic assemblies is that like-minded representatives come together in pressure groups to make sure that particular legislation they support gets a majority. Over time these groups become formalised into political parties and then the nature of the relationship between the electors and the elected changes fundamentally.
As a result it is sad truth that in all elected democratic assemblies in the world today the elected representatives do not represent the views of their constituents; they represent the views of the political party to which they belong.
In the UK, the salient features of the party system that ensure that a MP’s first loyalty is to their party rather than their constituents include:
(i) The system of party financing of election campaigns.
(ii) The system of patronage whereby the party leader of the winning party appoints the members of cabinet and junior ministers.
(iii) The whip system whereby party members are forcibly directed to vote in specific ways on specific issues.
To become an MP without being a member of major party is not impossible but it is very difficult. To become a member of the cabinet without being a member of the ruling party is simply not possible.
This dominance of party has combined with the development of careerist professional politicians to seriously undermine the direct relationship between electors and their representatives.
For example, it is common today for a professional politician to have no previous connection with their constituency before being adopted as a candidate. Clearly in these cases the representative has not emerged organically as a spokesperson for their community, on the contrary they are manifestly and primarily representatives of the party.
Thus, instead of policies emerging from the concerns of citizens and then being taken to the assembly by the representative of the concerned citizens, the opposite actually happens; the political parties put together a manifesto that they hope to sell to the electorate. It is of course in the interests of parties to devise policies that are popular with the electorate but in a general election their policies are by nature national and have to appeal to a very broad constituency. Manifesto’s are also extremely long and highly technical documents that ordinary citizens are clearly not expected to read. As a result parties use the manipulative techniques of advertising to sell themselves as a brand, as a cloud of vague concepts, rather than specific policies and candidates for election are in effect dependent upon the party for the effectiveness of the campaign.
It is also undoubtedly true that due to the need for the high costs of political parties and election campaigns to be funded, individual rich people and wealthy commercial corporations have an undue influence on the policy of political parties. And in many specific cases the interests of big-business and the rich are NOT the same as those of local communities or individual citizens. As a result the policy of a political party, which a professional elected representative has to support out of loyalty to his party and leader, can be directly contrary to the interests of those he represents.
The influence of the press then comes into play with “party unity” and “strong leadership” becoming the defining features of a successful party, as if political parties were the same type of organisation as an army battalion or corporate business. All internal party dissent or even discussion is reported as a split and as a result all dissent is suppressed all discussion covert. It is simply not possible for a political party to publicly engage in a meaningful way with the general public because the press will report on any negative comments as a sign of imminent electoral disaster. Thus all interaction between politicians and the electorate become highly managed and highly abstracted.
Of course one could justify this world of political parties and career politicians by arguing that governing a country successfully is a very specific skill and very, very difficult to get right and that therefore elected politicians should be experts at governing, and to achieve this they need to be full-time, professional politicians. But this is to describe democratic politics as equivalent to an instrumental skill like driving a racing car or managing a factory. It is also logically an argument for oligarchy or monarchy rather than democracy.
It is certainly true that a civil service can and should be efficient; that government should spend taxpayer’s money prudently. But democratic representation in itself is not about efficiency; it is about freedom and justice! The corporate business model of organisational efficiency that has become dominant since 1979, is profoundly anti-democratic because it is so hierarchical and values obedience and pragmatic action above discourse and principle.
One could also argue that if I feel so strongly about all this why don’t I join a political party? Well, as I have already indicated I regard the three main parties as representing basically the same position; they all seem to believe in the need for the increased power of business and the markets and in the end all they argue about really is the matter of degree. I can’t support that position and it is so far from my own position that I feel my chances of significantly influencing any of the mainstream parties in my direction are remote. So joining a mainstream party is not really an option for me.
In addition to this all the main parties have modernized their constitutions in order to minimise the power of the ordinary party members – who had an irritating habit of voting for policies that the party leadership did not believe in. But rather than the party leaders resigning because they didn’t represent the views of the party they basically hijacked their parties and imposed their views on a powerless membership. So I have to say that I do not have high hopes of engaging politically through one of the three main political parties.
I could of course join one of the minor parties, The Socialist Party, for instance. The problem with this is that a marginal political party is just that – marginal; and by being active in on the margins I am not engaging with mainstream politics and the actions of my government. To be an active democratic citizen I need to be able to influence the policies of my government not play politics on the margins.
The consequence of all this is that the influence that any individual citizen has on government has become almost entirely procedural. Every 4-5 years a citizen gets to choose between the national policies of 2 or 3 parties, who have all moved to the middle-ground in order to try to secure a majority. Thus rather than active democratic citizens we simply become “a statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care”.
The political philosopher, Michael Sandel, calls this the Procedural Republic and he makes clear how damaging it is to Western democracies. Is it any wonder that so many of us have become so disconnected from the political process that we can barely bring ourselves to vote? No one votes because all the parties are the same; there is nothing to vote for or against and even if we do find something to engage us once elected our party dominated representatives often don’t listen to us anyway.
The unpleasant truth is that our system of government is not democratic in any meaningful way; it is a highly elitist system that bears more similarity to, an elected oligarchy or occasionally, as with Tony Blair’s decision to take us into the Iraq war, an elected dictatorship. The citizens of our country will not reengage with politics under the present system unless or until there is a catastrophic crisis of the system. By then it will be too late and the move to some form of totalitarianism would become all the more likely (as happened after the financial crisis in the 1930’s). So fixing this is, to say the least, not a trivial matter.
One alternative democratic vision is called deliberative democracy. Under such a system citizens would be directly involved in a public political discourse that feeds formally into the decision making process. Much as citizens fulfil the duties of being a Jury member in the legal system, under a system of deliberative democracy citizens would be obliged to contribute to a democratic deliberative process that would have a regulatory hold over the government.
In any event a truly representative and deliberative democratic system would look very different from the existing systems. For a start the phenomenon of the professional politician would need to be discouraged, perhaps by limiting service in parliament to one or 2 terms and making say 5 years residency in the constituency as a minimum qualification for candidates.
Then a radical form of proportional representation with much smaller constituencies, and thus more representatives, would need to be introduced that would give the marginal parties a chance of being part of the national assembly and increase the diversity in the demographic profile of elected representatives.
In addition a severe limit would need to be put on the amount any individual or corporation could donate to a political party, I’m thinking £5,000, which would force political parties to raise funds from ordinary citizens, to use cheaper but more dialectical methods of campaigning like the public meeting and to try and significantly increase their membership.
There would also need to be a significant and meaningful devolution of power from central government to a system of regional, county and local deliberative assemblies that have a formal and regulatory relationship with the national assembly.
These measures are perfectly affordable and logistically perfectly doable. The reason they won’t happen is because they would not be in the interests of the current political elite. But remember there is such a thing as society, there are alternatives and resistance is rational.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society