THE BLOG

Voting Down Theresa May's Queen Speech Isn't Antidemocratic, It's Democracy In Action

21/06/2017 09:25
Bloomberg via Getty Images

We need to talk about democracy. To be more specific, we need to talk about what is and isn't democracy. Democracy is voting, yes. But democracy is also protesting. Democracy is also anger. And democracy is also finding a way to defeat your opponents in the House of Commons.

A lot has been made about democracy lately, chiefly by right-wing pundits and activists who contend that people protesting Theresa May's deal with the DUP - or demanding her resignation following her shameful response to the Grenfell Tower fire - are somehow undermining the will of the people so soon after the election. Never mind that the Tories only won 42% of the vote share and don't even have a majority. No, an election is over and so everyone should just shut up.

These same people said this after the 2015 general election, when people took to the streets to express their anger at Tory austerity. They said it after the EU referendum, when "remoaners" were told to shut up and accept "the will of the people." And now, the Telegraph is alleging that Labour, the Lib Dems, and the SNP are seeking to undermine May's as-yet-to-be-agreed deal with the DUP by adding amendments to today's Queen's Speech.

Literally all of this is a feature, not a glitch, of democracy.

In a healthy democracy, the electorate does not participate solely on election day. They remain engaged, active participants throughout the life of the parliament. This means that, even the day after the country has voted, they are registering their anger, their frustration, and their discontent at the governing party's policies. After all, the right to petition your government, to demonstrate your opposition to its policies, are cornerstones of democracy - and frankly, the surest way to change them.

Protests aren't meant to make you comfortable. They're not meant to be polite. They are, by their very nature, disruptive. But this is democracy at its purest - noisy, brazen, and organic. Even "paid protestors" - right-wing jargon for community organisers - are part and parcel of a thriving democratic system. The Chartists didn't sit down after the 1847 general election. The suffragettes didn't stop demanding the vote because consecutive governments were elected opposing their rights. Gay and lesbian people didn't stop demanding equality because John Major won in 1992.

Similarly, opposition parties shouldn't stop trying to form a government - or defeat the government - just because they don't have as many seats in parliament. Britain isn't an America-style presidential system. The party that wins the most seats doesn't automatically get to govern. They have a shot, which is what today's Queen's Speech is, but unless they command an outright majority other parties have a chance to try to enact their own agenda. They are under no obligation to support the majority's agenda without compromise.

Leaving aside the constitutionality of it all, though, it makes sense from a numbers perspective. The Tories won 42.4% of the vote. Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and the Greens won exactly 52% of the total votes cast. That's enough to take Britain out of the European Union, but not enough for many right-wingers to accept an attempt to tank a Queen's Speech.

The majority of the country didn't vote for Theresa May's manifesto or the Conservative Party. Yet because of the nature of British democracy, she as first go at forming a government. This is right and fair because these are the rules - by convention and consensus - we have agreed to live under. But it is equally fair that other parties, though not in government, have a right to propose amendments. If, because of that, too few MPs vote in favour of the government's agenda, whelp - that's democracy.

Theresa May assumed she had a right to be in Number 10. The country told her otherwise. Now she's scrambling to find a way to maintain her grip on power. There's nothing wrong with that; British democracy grants her that privilege. But for the Tories, after a bruising electoral rebuke (if not outright defeat), to pretend they are uniquely qualified to govern is disingenuous, at best, and undemocratic, at worst.

The truth is that British democracy is a weird thing. You can lose the popular vote yet still win the election. You can form a government yet be unable to govern because your opposition outvotes you. And you can triumph at the polls whilst losing in the court of public opinion. Some people will elect you; more yet may protest you.

Whatever happens today, it is democracy in action. People will protest one way or the other. A government will form one way or the other. We will keep calm(ish) and carry on one way or the other.

None of this - not protests, not demonstrations, not amendments, not votes of no confidence - is undemocratic. It is, truth be told, the heart of democracy. And we are better off because of it.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS