The Failure of Representative Democracy in Britain
The recent launch of the Coalition Government’s ‘listening exercise’ with regards to the planned NHS reforms re-raises an interesting philosophical question on the nature and state of politics. Once elected leader of the Labour Party, Miliband promised to produce a full bodied and comprehensive Party manifesto that was to be drawn up after extensive consultation with party members, charities, and experts. The Coalition, upon formation, declared it had put an end to ‘Punch and Judy politics’, in favour of more practical and considered debate and argument. Why stop there, should legislative policy become more influenced by direct democracy, is politics too detached from the real world?
Back into context, the basic argument behind the necessity of an NHS shake up asserts that with the rising cost of drugs and an ageing population, the current system and funding will simply not stretch enough to provide full and comprehensive care to any acceptable standard; therefore costs must be cut. The best way to do this, according to Lansley, current Health Secretary, is to outsource administrative work and give GPs more power to shape and influence the NHS budget. Clearly his opinions are not widely shared, enter stage left: staggering opposition and criticism. Even the Liberal Democrat Conference voted overwhelmingly against the party supporting the plans. Hopes of passing the Bill have swiftly vanished and at a press conference on Monday (attended by both Cameron and Clegg), Lansley declared he wanted to “engage with the people” over his reforms, and that the bill was to be given more time in Parliament.
As a ‘child of New Labour’, I have not witnessed much people-politician engagement beyond the basic vote-scoring techniques that drive populism which is key to effective electioneering. Dogmatism and arrogance were certainly the theme of much politics under the successive New Labour Governments who pursued so many policies outside of their manifesto commitments; rushing them through Parliament with the help of the WHIPs Offices. This whilst opposition leaders attempted to engage in childish smear campaigns, and scampering for the ‘moral high ground’ on every issue. Party figures and Spin Doctors heavily influenced media reporting, Alastair Campbell weaved and manipulated stories to the press to sell to the public, whilst others such as Jo Moore (Spin Doctor to former Minister Stephen Byers) controlled the flow of news to the public in an attempt to “bury bad news”. Experts who disagreed with the opinion of the Executive’s opinion were simply dismissed and sometimes even ruined, as Professor Nutt and the family of Dr Robert Kelly will testify. All true, but what is wrong with this form of distant, strong governmental politics?
A distant politics breeds arrogance, corruption and bad policy, it’s simple. A politics where politicians are more concerned about implementing their own personal manifesto and ideology, upon a mandate of just over 40% in most cases, claims of representing the views of the electorate are inadequate. Where there is an aura and smell of ‘one is holier-than-thou’ simply wreaks of corruption, and by openly abusing the public purse, the recent Expenses Scandal does much to highlight just how unconcerned and detached the political class are from the electorate. The complete dismissal of the mass rallies against the Iraq War by Blair in 2003 and the spending cuts in 2010 by Cameron demonstrated how governments of the day simply dismiss public opinion and protest as perhaps simply ‘wrong’ or ‘foolish’, and instead work right on toward their own goals. Surely these ministers and MPs are not representing the constituents who give them their mandate?
It should not be to play slave to international status quos or ‘the perceived greater good’. Indeed if we take an extreme view, surely no government has a mandate on policies brought in or decided outside of their manifesto? Surely we should elect a government on principles and manifesto pledges, then each new bill should be put to the people for a referendum after the Parliamentary process? One may argue that the act of electing a political representative is so that they ‘represent’ you in politics and vote on the issues on your behalf. However, when it is clear that so many politicians don’t even have the approval of half their constituents, let alone actually represent their views when the Whip system constrains them so much, surely this idea is intensely fallible? Is the solution merely perhaps making politicians more accountable to their policies; perhaps the ‘Right to Recall’ idea the way forward, but furthered to include election promises?
Whatever the potential solution, it is clear that British politics is a shameful, even undemocratic despair. There is too much power in the executive, and there is not enough public consultation on policy. If politics is supposed to be democratic, then we need more referendums or legislation to pin manifesto commitments to governments. If politics is supposed to be representative, then we need more powers for constituents to express their dissatisfaction with their MP and a loosening, if not abandonment, of the Whip system. Politics needs complete upheaval, power should be in the hands of the people, and then perhaps the state of politics can improve.
Article by Patrick English. Edited by Sam Neagus.