As a country, we generally like to pride ourselves on our democracy. The idea may have been born in ancient Greece, but the modern and most influential practice of it owes its conception to Great Britain, where it developed earlier and with greater stability than anywhere else, whilst the rest of Europe was subsumed in revolution and political turmoil. Yet our early embrace of parliamentary democracy has a dark side to it too. It was the child not of popular uprisings and freedom fighters (although these would come later), but primarily of an aristocratic and wealthy elite fighting for a degree of control over an unelected monarch. Whilst we have come a long way since the Magna Carta, we live in a political system that still places stable government and elite sovereignty above accountability and direct people power, facts painfully evident in the culture pervading current political debates.
Even if Theresa May had won an outright leadership election, it would hardly have been a rigorous exercise in democracy. The party members do not get to decide who stands: you first have to be nominated by fellow MP's, and then even this lot are whittled down by the 1922 committee to just two candidates. Even then, even if absolutely any member of the Conservative Party had been able to stand unimpeded and every single member voted for one candidate, our new Prime Minister would have only been decided upon by 0.2% of the population.
No legal necessity for this new, unelected PM and her newly decided Cabinet (some of the most politically powerful people in the country) to be voted on by the electorate either, or for those who will now be negotiating the most important deal in decades (Brexit) to attempt to secure any sort of mandate for their priorities via a general election. Nor can we look to the previous general election as a proxy for assuming she has a mandate, with British elections typically being a confusion between electing local representatives, deciding which party policy is best for the country and who you want to be PM- our current political system breeds confusion and compromise, not legitimacy.
Her Majesty's glorious Opposition isn't stacking up much better either. The Labour Party is engulfed by a coup birthed by a party elite at clear odds with its members and fuelled by vague notions of 'electability' and 'leadership', platitudes as detached from the pressing needs of the country as they are from reality. A clearly aloof cadre of parliamentarians kept in position via a lack of reselection procedures and a central party filter, many rebellious MP's secretly hoped that Corbyn would be kept off the ballot by 'legal means', essentially desiring to bypass the expressed wishes of the membership. Whilst such hopes were dashed with the NEC's decision, the sting in the tail was the revelation that new members will be retroactively stripped of their voting privileges unless they pay another £22 within a laughably short time frame.
What both travesties highlight is the stranglehold the political elite still holds over our democracy. They are the most visible cracks of a political system that wears a thin veneer of democracy and accountability, but underneath the surface it is riddled with plutocratic, archaic and corrupt fissures. There are the obvious, yawning chasms of democratic deficits such as our hereditary monarchy and an unelected second chamber, but the most structurally unsound features lie in a plethora of practices and policies that reduce the control all but a few have to enact change.
The scandalous state of party funding in the UK, where just 76 people accounted for almost half of all political party donations is evidence of how the rich still maintain enormous power over political processes- if you think it unlikely such donations wield any power, just check out the percentage of donations obtained to the percentage of votes won. Further evidence of the sway of the rich is how much of our 'free' press, the part of society that plays a vital role in informing political debate, is owned by just a handful of billionaires, providing a powerfully distorted lens through which we are able to view contemporary issues. Chuck on top the aforementioned flaws in party candidate selections, the fact that we never choose our PM and their Cabinet who hold power over both the legislative and executive, and our antiquated first past the post system that grants a party of over a million votes a solitary MP, and it's a wonder the whole mirage hasn't fallen down.
Recent government policy has led to a reduction in our democracy too, from the infamous 'Gagging Bill' that restricts the ability of NGO's and charities to campaign on certain issues, to proposals to stop academics that receive state-funding from using their research to criticise government policy, to reductions in opposition party funding and gerrymandering seats. When not actively dismantling our democracy, this government has been busy trying to dodge the last vestiges of it instead, raising the possibility of radical reforms to the public funding of the NHS through the unelected House of Lords (with zero mandate from the public to do this) and passing a huge chunk of their higher education policy through backroom deals and committees, rather than submitting to full parliamentary scrutiny.
Beyond the traditional conceptions of 'political' democracy are notions of economic democracy. Whilst many on the right trumpet 'free enterprise', precious few seem willing to ensure workplace democracy- the majority of economic activity takes place within firms, rather than between: if these firms are hierarchically and rigidly controlled from the top, in what real sense do we have a free market? Why do we allow only a handful in the financial sector, the energy sector and the media make decisions that affect millions, with little to no democratic oversight?
A structural analysis of our democracy presents a seriously unsound foundation, a creaking, archaic system, riddled with inconsistencies and weaknesses, protecting tradition and elite sovereignty, at the cost of true accountability. These fissures have already begun to destabilise the surface of the political world when the inevitable impoverishment they spawn finally led to a rejection of the status quo and the political class in the form of Brexit.
Many hesitate at trusting democracy amidst a time of surging popularity for far-right parties across Europe, the rise of Donald Trump and the shell-shocked post-Brexit climate. We are told the average voter is selfish and uneducated, yet we need to question whom such a narrative benefits. It plays into the hands of the elite that wish to keep politics in the club- a raging battle of individual fiefdoms and ambitions, rather than an open and transparent conversation about what the majority think is genuinely best for our future. Our democracy is long overdue an upgrade, but it will only get it if people are willing to fight for it, if we're willing to trust ourselves and our own judgements, and challenge the undemocratic traditions our political system harbours under.
Suggested For You
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more