After May’s election I questioned how democratic it was.
I was not motivated by partisan considerations but by the way the electoral system distorted the result. The majority party was opposed by 63% of those who voted. SNP won 56 seats with 4.5% of the vote whilst UKIP won 1 seat with 12.6% and the Lib Dems won 8 seats with 7/9% of the votes. What do these results do for citizen respect for and involvement in British democracy? A case was made for a weak form of electoral reform in 2011 and rejected by 68% so perhaps we have only ourselves to blame but that does not mean that democracy in Britain is healthy.
There is widespread public distrust of politicians and disaffection with politics. Party membership has declined to no more than 1% of the adult population. A third of the electorate did not vote in the election. This detachment from active participation is in stark contrast to the increased connectedness through digital and social media. Facebook, Twitter and texting mobilise and express public opinion but are largely ignored by the decision makers. People engage on issues that matter to them but a growing number are disengaged from the traditional machinery of democracy. These symptoms should concern us. Democracy depends on a healthy relationship between the governors and the governed. We give the Government legitimacy and power and they have to secure our trust in the way they exercise that power. When that breaks down democracy is damaged and forces may be unleashed as in Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1930’s.
The devolution to metropolitan authorities with directly elected mayors could help to rekindle local democracy in those communities so long as the mayors and their officials consult the people and listen to their hopes and aspirations. The 90% turnout in the Scottish referendum was a positive sign. In May’s election 71% voted in Scotland compared with 66% in England. But turnout in local authority elections is regularly less than half that number despite the fact that voters are more likely to understand local issues than the more complex problems of national government. If we want a healthy democracy we have to accept that we cannot abdicate all responsibility to ‘them’ and then complain when they exclude us. At the same time those in office have to see themselves as our servants and not exclude us.
Healthy democracy requires that we all need to seek the common good rather than always seeking what is in our personal interest. For example, as a nation we need to make less use of carbon fuels to prevent more global warming but proposals to install wind turbines, solar panel farms and tidal barriers are frequently opposed by nimbies. The same has been true of plans for HS2. Those seriously affected should be properly compensated but also be prepared to accept that it is sometimes right to make sacrifices for the common good.
Our democracy may not be broken but it needs a major overhaul. What changes would motivate more of us to take our civic responsibilities seriously?