What is democracy (2)

Following my first post in this series, Richard North, EUReferendum, in the second of his series of posts leading up to the ‘Harrogate Gathering’, notes that The Boiling Frog has joined the debate on this subject. While I am a believer in Direct Democracy (and tailored to suit the needs of the United Kingdom) it would appear that The Boiling Frog wishes to retain the present system of representative democracy, albeit slightly amended – so, in the interest of debate ahead of Harrogate, perhaps we should look in greater detail at the proposals of my fellow attendee.

First, TBF maintains that democracy, translated as ‘people rule’, can easily lead to two wolves and a sheep having a vote on what to eat for lunch. Two wolves and sheep having a vote on what to eat for lunch is exactly the situation we have presently where the two main parties (Lab/Con) and the electorate are involved. If we accept the idea that democracy is but ‘people rule’, as I defined democracy in my first post (linked above), then surely what we would have is 60 million wolves and 2 to 4 sheep debating what to have for lunch – a much more interesting and worthwhile scenario!

Second, TBF further maintains that propositions of reform of our current system are likely to gain far more traction to a British public largely afraid of substantial change than suggestions of abolitions or wholesale upheavals. This suggestion does not ‘hold water’ because, on the basis that our governments (over the last how many decades?) has been formed by Labour or Conservative administrations; have we not suffered substantial change and wholesale upheaval based on the point that one party believes in private enterprise and the other believes in state control. Has the country not been pulled from one ideology to another and in the process suffered substantial change and upheaval? In fairness, where TBF is quite right is in stating that the constituents of Witney have been disenfranchised by their Member of Parliament also being Prime Minister and that he conducts his surgeries de facto as a Prime Minister, one elected to that position not by Witney but by his own party. This leads neatly onto my third point.

Third, TBF talks of representative democracy, but while the political class are allowed to continue acting in accordance with the definition provided by Edmund Burke nothing will change, because Burke’s definition is what allows our political class to act as dictators:

” …it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” (emphasis mine)

It is because of adherence to Burke’s beliefs that MPs are prone to be a party to TBF’s complaint about how they act and behave that has led to the dire political straits in which we find ourselves – and thus ‘bastardizing’ the system of representative democracy.

Fourth, let us now consider TBF’s proposal that the Parliamentary term, at 5 years, is too long and that we should consider one of 3 years and that, presumably after an initial period of 3 years, every year thereafter there is a general election whereby a third of any parliament is up for re-election. Let us extrapolate that proposal wherein, initially, a government (let us say Conservative) is elected with a small majority of say 20 seats (one could, in this example, call it a ‘Major’ majority). In year 4 a third of the parliament that are up for re-election are changed by the public vote to an extent that the majority who are elected are Labour thus causing that party to then have a majority in the House of Commons. At a stroke the Conservative government would have to fall, allowing a Labour administration to take office, which would then result in yet another situation whereby the country -and the electorate – would then be pulled another way, ideologically. Let us assume also that the following year the situation is reversed. Such a ‘see-saw’ of political fortune cannot be to the benefit of either country or party.

Fifth, a binding referendum on any budget is a ‘given’ on the basis that politicians should and must obtain agreement from those that are providing the funds for political objectives. This, however, raises the question that if the public has a right to control taxation, then should they not also have the right to control any political proposition that a government proposes? Such an argument, whilst logical, would be totally unworkable when considering the time that would be involved – the country would be virtually in a state of ‘continual referendum’.

Sixth, the question of whether political parties should be ‘banned’ and only the names of candidates allowed on ballot papers. It is logical to assume that were the present incumbents in our politics to stand as independents that the electorate would not know that Ed Miliband is of the Labour Party; that David Cameron is of the Conservative Party and that Nick Clegg is of the Liberal Democrat Party? It is accepted that independent candidates have won parliamentary elections and have, at most, lasted one maybe two terms only to lose their seats. I do not recall any election where one independent candidate has been succeeded by another – invariably the seat in question has always reverted to a party candidate. Why is this? I would offer the suggestion that voters believe in an ideology and, in order to express their views, they need a candidate of similar belief, consequently they need a ‘banner’ or political party to represent said views.

Seventh, TBF believes that important issues cannot simply be dismissed based on the colour of the rosette but would have to be discussed on merit – but discussed with whom, the public or ‘stakeholders’? If it should, as it logically should, be with the public because they are the ones affected either nationally or locally, then we are entering the reasons why direct democracy is the only way to proceed.

It is agreed that presently there is too much government and that its costs are excessive – therefor any system that halves both the amount of government and its cost must surely be welcomed, whilst also putting power back in the hands of those to whom it belongs. Representative democracy is a system that has had its day, it is broken beyond repair and no amount of ‘tinkering’ will repair it – in which case let us discard it into the dustbin of history.


15 Responses

  1. Cheers WfW, I respond to your points more fully a little later. I will say briefly regarding point four that I have no problem with ‘see saw’ politics.

    MP’s only ideology in general is power, the threat ‘real or otherwise’ of losing it concentrates their minds wonderfully. It’s no coincidence that MPs in marginal seats were less inclined to fiddle their expenses, nor that suddenly before elections we get voter friendly tax policies.

    The problem is that with 5 years in between elections the balance is their hands because they can ignore us in the meantime. But by altering that so there’s the constant threat of losing power at any time shifts the balance most decidedly in our favour. Constant elections – a running commentary – will make constituents wishes shoot up their priority list – listen to us or you’re out on your ear pronto.

    So I don’t really have an issue with the switching of Government’s – either real or at least the threat of.

    • david says:

      I wasn’t talking about MPs ideology – I believe I wrote people…..

      However I agree that MPs want power and that power has to be curtailed. It would seem that all your suggestion does is reduce their dictatorial habits from 5 years to 3 years – I want to curtail their dictatorial habits, period.

      Having a government change on almost a yearly basis does nothing for the country or the people. It may well result in Bills being rushed through with little or no thought (although that is not new) only for the next mob to repeal them. Chaos………

      • I’m not suggesting at all reducing dictatorial habits from 5 years to 3 years.

        Currently we have an election every 5 years with nothing in between – i.e we have the ‘fixed’ parliamentary term with the big bang of a GE at the end. But I don’t want the fixed term to merely be reduced to 3 years.

        Instead I’m suggesting we abolish GEs (the big bang) completely and instead we have constituency elections which take place every year with a third of seats up every year on a 3 year rotational basis – similar to the process of the US Senate.

        In effect this creates constant by-elections all year, every year and thus subsequently puts significant pressure on the government to listen to the people by virtue of possibly removing their power.

        I’m not convinced it will lead to bills being rushed through. More time, aka a 5 year fixed parliament, has not lead to a better well convinced version of the House of Lords bill at the moment.

  2. I am not now coming to Harrogate David (health reasons), however, I am with you in this respect… A representative tends to represent himself or his ilk, and whilst that might have been OK in times (and places) where enfranchisement was not universal, when the ruling classes were from similar backgrounds and with similar incomes and living standards, it is not OK when there is universal suffrage and widely differing living standards, for all the reasons that you argue, money starts to talk to loudly.

    Personally, I wonder why MP’s need to be elected at all… Under the current system, they can just carry on ignoring us, and under a DD system they can be appointed as in “jury service”… Something that people would rather avoid than a career choice. The purpose of an MP is to serve the interests of the people, and to appoint/re-appoint (up to a point 🙂 ) them is not without sense, it is more likely to wipe out the idea of grift that seems to be normal for them these days, when they select themselves.

    Also, it is always good to remember that a properly functioning system, should not need that many referendums/popular initiatives, because the constitution (the real one) does most of the governing. As you say David, amongst all of the other good reasons for DD, it will be cheaper too.

  3. john in cheshire says:

    This discussion has triggered one thought; namely, every proposal for new public spending must be presented to the people of country (national spending) or the county, etc (local spending), with an independently audited cost/benefit analysis together with details of who will be paying. In addition, there should be some form of personal accountability by those who represent our interests, such that when things go wrong, they pay an appropriate price (up to and including execution for treason).

  4. Derek Buxton says:

    Good post WfW. I had briefly thought of more frequent elections but not as much as TBF. But now I think it better as it was, where if the ruling party lost the confidence of parliament, they resigned and an Election resulted. The current fixed term is not a good idea.
    Good luck on Saturday, have a good time.

  5. Andy5759 says:

    Firstly; I wish you all well at Harrogate, please try not to come to blows!

    One of the scourges of Contemporary politics is the ‘career’ politician. Many of these people have gone from union representative to SPaD to candidate before the backs of their ears have dried. It would be rather undemocratic to require any candidate to have worked in private enterprise, or to be of a certain age before entering the stage. Limiting the time a person can serve as a Member would help towards ridding us of the ‘career’ politicians. Whilst that may not lead to an immediate improvement of the quality of Members I will expect there to be less toeing of the party line.

    There is much that can be done to reform our current system before making wholesale changes. The electorate will be very wary about seeing too much too soon and many who rely on BBC/Dead Tree Press will not be getting the message either.

    Coming up with the perfect solution is one thing. Selling it to the country another. I fear you may have embarked on a sisyphean task, yet to not make the attempt is far worse than not trying.

    • david says:

      The career politician is something that needs killing once and for all.

      Re too much change – we’ll have to see what the response is if Harrogate does go down the DD route……

  6. letmethink says:

    I do feel that your Burke quotation misrepresents his general view and could probably be considered as having been taken out of context.

    The quotation is part of his speech to voters in Bristol as part of his election campaign in 1774 and was given in response to a speech by his opponent who had more or less stated that he would do whatever his constituents requested of him.

    The point of this part of the speech (and indeed the complete response to the point made by his opponent) was that if elected, he would be in parliament some 300 miles away from those who had voted him into office and that their trust should reside in his judgement once he had listened to and taken account of their views.

    He also went on to say that “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

    So Burke was living in a time when Parliament was not operating at the behest of some distant supranational body but theoretically representing the interests of the country as a whole.

    In his mind he was being elected as a member of Parliament NOT a member of Bristol.

    I entirely agree that the present system of governance is completely broken and needs to be reset. However, I am not persuaded that an acceptable way to achieve that has been defined.

    • david says:

      I accept the point you make, that I may have taken the quote out of context (which I don’t believe I have), however:

      If an MP is a representative of those who elect him, then any decision he makes can only be made with the consent of his electorate.

      If he did believe he was being elected as a member of Parliament and not a member of Bristol then he also believed in a system of elective dictatorship.

      Members of Parliament should only be able to guide people as at the end of the day, if the people so wish on a particular subject, only the people can say yea or nay.

  7. james Higham says:

    Can we get a list of the rebels against Lords “reform”? I can’t find any.

  8. DP111 says:

    This is worth reading

    Rag-doll cabinets

    Should the prime minister include himself in his next cabinet shuffle? He won’t of course, but should he? After all, he’s a cabinet minister. Why is the question never asked?


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