The Illusion of British Democracy and the Need for Change

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According to the rhetoric of our political elite and the patriotic egos of a large percentage of the British electorate, democracy has provided us with our very own heaven on earth.  Each and every one of us has a vital role in legitimising our political process, and our views define and set the structure and agenda which this system takes.  As such, the democratic process reflects the will of the people.  The electorate appears to revel in this perception, with the endless starry-eyed blather about our great and glorious free society continuing to stoke our sense of self-importance and moral self-righteousness.  Unfortunately, this perfect society is nothing other than an illusion.

The imperfect nature of our ‘democracy’ was finally highlighted in the recent elections, with electoral reform gaining some prominence as an issue of importance.  It seems like everyone had been asked to ‘vote for change’, or were offered ‘change we can believe in’ and ‘a new way of doing politics’.  If we have an electoral system which more accurately reflects the will of the electorate, then surely we can fully justify our insistence on being labelled a democracy?  Reality of course, is never that simple, and the extent to which electoral reform is but a small part of the road towards true democracy in Britain has been ignored by most in the political mainstream.  Whilst a truly pure democracy – entailing total equality of elective and discursive power amongst the electorate – is improbable, we nevertheless must accept that British democracy is needlessly distant from such an ideal.

This is certainly not to say that electoral reform is pointless.  After all, the ability to cast a vote to decide upon the political agenda of our next government is seen as the central tenet of democracy.  Unfortunately large numbers of people choose not to vote, and our political representatives will not reflect the true ideology of the electorate regardless.  Indeed, in 2005 the Labour Party won their third term in office, gaining 35 per cent of the votes cast.  That is 35 per cent of the 61 per cent of the electorate who actually bothered to vote.  It appears that our democratic system is sustained by a blind faith in its existence, rather than by any rational evidence.  For this reason, it is of vital importance that our current First-Past-The-Post voting system be replaced by something which more accurately reflects the will of the electorate.  Ensuring greater equality of representation would hopefully encourage political enfranchisement and popular beliefs in the power of the electorate, helping to combat political apathy and voter disillusionment.

However, whilst electoral reform is necessary, it only scratches the surface of the democratic deficit.  The domination of our political system by special interest groups is a far deeper and systemic problem which has effectively stifled democratic discourse.  Indeed, the ability of the business community to replace rational democratic discourse with avaricious myths should not be underestimated.  The current obsession of the media and much of the electorate over the need for strong government to stabilise the private sector is certainly indicative of the effectiveness of the corporate lobby.  Our ever trustworthy bankers, financiers and business people are delivering a stern lesson on the consequences of electoral reform upon the economy. The business and financial community has certainly not been timid in making it known that they – and subsequently the economy as a whole –would react badly to a hung parliament.  That the largest economy in Europe – Germany – has certainly not done badly for itself over many years of coalition governments has been lost in the money-making malaise.  A systemic problem is therefore apparent within British democracy, namely the ability of the corporate sector to dictate the legitimate terms of debate.

Consider the recent arguments over the economic measures needed to tackle the budget deficit.  The electorate as a whole does not wish to see mass cuts in public services, especially not to those held so dearly in the public consciousness as the NHS.  Yet recent discourse has homogenised around the immediate necessity for swingeing cuts to the public finances, with the Conservative Party campaigning hard on this issue.  This obsession is ever growing, yet the fact that it was the greed and disgraceful practice of the banking and corporate spheres which created the need for a fiscal stimulus package in the first place is being mostly ignored.  At a time when radical reform needs to be enforced upon the private sector, mainstream discourse is acquiescing around the massive and immediate cuts to public services pushed forward by corporate interests.  Any disagreements with such an approach, even if only to suggest continued investment for the present followed by cautious cutbacks, are met with a sneer and usually an allusion to naive idealism.  That the need for continued public investment has been highlighted by such figures as Joseph Stiglitz – the Nobel Prize winning economist and ex-Chief Economist to the World Bank – is lost in the centralisation of ‘acceptable’ debate around the wants of the corporate sphere.  This is far from the egalitarian discourse of true democracy.

The key determinate here appears to be wealth.  Wealth ensures not only a voice, but a much louder and more forceful voice than everybody else.  This both ensures the interests of the corporate sphere dominate political discourse and also perpetuates the elitist nature of our political representation.  The Sutton Trust survey of the educational backgrounds of British politicians in 2005 reveals that only 42 per cent attended comprehensive schools; 32 per cent attended independent schools and 27 per cent attended Oxbridge.  Furthermore, the figures reveal that on the front benches, 42 per cent were privately educated and 34 per cent attended Oxbridge. Our politics is dominated by a disproportionate number of white, middle class males, often privately educated and cultivated as budding power hoarders in the dreamy spires of Oxbridge.  The cycle of poverty is well cited by those who sympathise with the political left, but the symbiotic cycle of wealth is the omnipresent elephant in the room for our Anglo-American model of democracy.  The endless cycle of privilege breeding privilege has left us with an oligarchic society where power is centred upon a small elite, rather than dissipated throughout society as a whole.

This is not to say that the British electorate are essentially no better off than a protesting Iranian facing military fire.  It is simply to understand that we are a long way from the equal discourse and representation of true democracy.  Electoral reform is a necessary step in the right direction, but only a small one.  More decisive moves towards true democracy require radical structural changes within our politics and society, ending the dominance of elite interests and reintroducing the majority of the electorate back into the processes and discourse of democracy as equal partners.  Through his column in the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman has argued that, ‘we’re seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite.’  His warnings over the state of democracy in America unfortunately ring equally true here in Britain.

Article by Joe Sutcliffe. Edited by Marc Geddes.