Monday, 9 July 2012


With less than a week to go before the Harrogate meeting, Richard North has a number of thought-proving posts on the meaning of democracy and power. A question that's essential to try to resolve if we are to change anything about our present predicament. As Richard argues power is difficult to define. It's also constantly fluid, and one overriding consideration is that no-one should have too much of it. That applies to the people as well as to governments - otherwise the outcome will always be the same. Democracy, translated as 'people rule', can easily lead to two wolves and a sheep having a vote on what to eat for lunch. 

I'm inclined therefore to stick with the model, and idea, of representative democracy, for two reasons. It (still) has the potential to find the correct balance of power between governments being able to make necessary decisions yet also remaining accountable for those said decisions. Also 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. Notably, Chartists, women's suffrage and more recently the EU have facilitated changes within the current set-up. It's a tactic we can reproduce successfully.

The major problem thus far is that it is debatable whether we have ever had true representative democracy in this country. I would conclude not. So-called representative democracy in its present (and past) guise is not and has not been fit for purpose, Witterings from Witney rightly argues that currently:
...representative democracy, as we know it today, is not democracy in any manner, shape or form; but a bastardized version of ‘dictatorship’
WfW experiences a more enhanced version of the current flaws - Witney has elected Cameron as their MP yet he conducts his surgeries de facto as Prime Minister who was elected in such a position not by Witney but by his own party. Thus this effectively disenfranchises his own constituents. A process Cameron is reluctant to alter.

Despite its reputation, history has shown that Parliament has bestowed true democratic progress most unwillingly -  the Chartists' and the Women's suffrage movements took years to take effect often against hostile Parliamentary opinion. Representative democracy hitherto on evidence has not meant representing the people's interest but instead representing an MP's own personal interest. We've yet to see a working example of true representative democracy, it's for this reason that Saturday has the potential to be a continuation of the Chartist movement - to try to finish what they started.

The delicate balance of power has always been distorted - MP's know which side their bread is buttered. Loyalty to the party members who help select them, the party members who will vote for them regardless, who will help to fund them and the party where if you vote loyally, even against your own convictions, stands you in good stead to climb the greasy pole. 

Conversely the electorate only have the power to maybe throw them out after 5 years, which is too lightweight in comparison to make a difference. Therefore MPs understandably look at their priority lists and make the relevant selfish judgements.

Power therefore needs to be recalibrated in favour of the people by essentially on the principle of not trusting an MP to reflect his or hers constituents' wishes. Instead to force them to make their constituents top of their priority list- in order for representative democracy to work. So my tentative propositions for improvements can be made as follows:

Firstly the electoral cycle needs to be shortened. 5 years is far too long; after 4 weeks of empty election promises the people can be safely ignored for another 4 - 5 years. Conversely annual elections put forward by Chartists in my view is too short - not only would we seem to be in a perpetual round of elections but there is the danger of election fatigued, acute enough as it is during the 4 week period prior to a General Election. A balance has to be sought between accountability yet the ability to have to make necessary long-'termish' decisions. A period of 3 years (the usual term of a University course ironically) is a possibility. This allows the first year to get used to the process and bed in as a first time candidate, the second year to get things done and the third year to concentrate the mind on the upcoming election.

Abolish General Elections as per Richard North:
Crucially, by getting rid of the "big bang" drama of a dissolution, and the general election cycle, we re-focus attention on what parliament does, rather than on choosing its members. So much of modern politics these days is devoted to the process of election, and the attendant beauty contest.
With 3 year election cycles and a third of parliament up every year, this would have the added advantage of effectively keeping a running commentary on the Parliament's and the Government's position

Annual binding referendum on the budget, again via Richard North.

And finally to abolish party politics. At only around 1% of the population being a party member, it's an irrelevant and seemingly outdated mode of politics. This means it becomes an increasingly obscure activity and in response political parties instead of reaching out, resort to raising funds from an ever decreasing circle of supporters mostly those with ulterior corporate agendas.

Therefore to stand as an MP it must be a condition that they are free from any affiliation of a political party - meaning the legislature has to be made up of independents. This is not unprecedented. There are already unaffiliated crossbenchers in the House of Lords and the Speaker of the House of Commons is elected on a non-party affiliated basis.

The candidate therefore is not reliant on a party or the party machine for election support nor nomination, but instead has to fund themselves individually - making donations based on local issues and views of constituents far more important. Constituents views as a result would soar up the priority list.

There would be no loyalty to a party nor its message which can often be contradictory to a MP's personal view, giving the side-effect of seeming to be a liar.

Ballot papers consist of candidates names only - which not only negates the 'voting for a dead donkey with a red/blue rosette' syndrome due to the party name but actively encourages candidates to campaign vigorously to get their name known so as to be recognisable on the ballot paper. Safe seats would become as a consequence vulnerable or irrelevant.

Important issues cannot simply be dismissed based on the colour of the rosette but would have to be discussed on merit. And at a stoke it would negate the partisan nature of the fourth estate and also the use of parliamentary whips.

Anyway that's my starter for ten


  1. TBF, as I've posted on other blogs, best wishes to all of you who are attending the Harrogate meeting; I wish you every success.
    If there's a place for suggestions, then I'd ask that the USA set up be considered as a starting point for changes to how we govern ourselves.

  2. Thanks for the link, TBF. I shall blog my response to you - and boy, do we have much to discuss while I sit back while you drive me to Harrogate....... Oh, hang on.......

  3. I'm looking forward to the outcome of your Harrogate shindig BF.

    There are some good points in this piece that need 'bullet pointing' - as it were.

    For what it's worth:

    I believe in broad-base politics at local level - I don't like power being concentrated in the hands of cabinets or mayors, where the electorate are excluded.

    I also like the idea of doing away with 'the party or Buggins turn scenario'

    The Whip system has no place in democracy.

    Transparency - at all levels, every committee, every council meeting.....

    Good Luck

  4. BJ, thanks. You have just made the case for direct democracy!

  5. Reading the blogs of the 'opposition' "direct democracy" is what they are terrified of WfW.

  6. BJ, I wonder why???? I am in the process of responding to TBF and his proposals - be patient, its taking a bit of time.........

  7. The idea of no party affiliation has an immediate appeal but I find myself opposing it because it prohibits something. I think we should prohibit as little as possible. Perhaps it would be enough to say that only the candidates name appears on the ballot slip.

  8. I wish the Harrogate Meeting all possible success. If the imperative of keeping a small business, employing 12, going, I'd have wished to be there too. I will certainly be there "in spirit", and I'm truly grateful to all those who are able to make the time to attend.

    I'm not sure if you can remove party affiliations from those wishing to stand for parliamentary election - would that not be a horrible restriction on personal freedom of association and also mean that only the wealthy could promote themselves in the campaign before an election?

    I think there should be MUCH more open-ness in the area of candidate selection - open primaries might be a place to start. And the malign influence of the whips should be curtailed - an end to party bloc voting enforced by whips, perhaps?
    And to make MPs work hard for their constituents' interests, how about linking MP salary to, say the top 10%ile income in their constituency - no MP to earn more than, say, 10% more than the average of the top 10% of constituents. The more prosperous a constituency becomes, the more the MP earns, but not wildly so.
    The central tenet of Referism, the citizen vote on proposed government spending, could well be the "magic bullet" (if such exists) that could put politics and democracy on a true and confident footing for the future of this nation.

  9. PT1

    before I comment let me preface what I have to say.

    Firstly, I bow to nobody in my desire for individual freedom and, in the context of this post (and the H/gate meeting), particularly with regard to freedom from the behaviour of our 'leaders' through the non-democratic process which allows them to introduce rules and regulations within a system where the democratic nexus between the general population and those creating those rules and regulations is now almost non-existent. They can pursue their grandiose schemes because they know that they have legal authority to print/borrow as much money as they please and then harvest our hard-earned in the form of taxation in order to pay for it.

    Secondly, I am likely to be in a minority of one when I say what I have to say and therefore expect the normal brickbats to follow when I step out of line with what seems to be the general consensus on the matters of 'direct democracy' and 'referism'. The thing is, I know what I think about this and if I don't say what I think then I won't have said what I think . . .

    So. I don't agree that either 'direct democracy' as it seems to be suggested nor 'referism' (which itself seems to be a class within direct democracy) will provide anything positive in the pursuit of public officals being held accountable for their actions by private individuals or financial probity.

    Since the dawning of the digital age I have often said that everyone should 'have a button' and that everyone should vote on everything. Having researched what this means and the impact of such a form of democracy I no longer feel this is right. I refer to great thinkers of the past who have considered this and, in my opinion, none greater (on this particular subject) than James Madison who believed that 'pure' democracy (as he called it would create 'factions' as he called them.

    Madison defined a 'faction' as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

    To quote Wikipedia on this "He [Madison] saw direct democracy as a danger to individual rights and advocated a representative democracy in order to protect what he viewed as individual liberty from majority rule, or from the effects of such inequality within society. He says, "A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party. ".

    This is a slight misrepresentation of Madison from Federalist 10 but strikes at the heart of the matter. It is precisely the two wolves and a lamb syndrome touched on by TBF.

  10. PT2

    The US is not a democracy but a constitutional republic but in the sense that democracy is being discussed in terms of people power, the US is (in my opinion) the greatest democracy the world has ever seen. It also has the greatest vitality in its political debates. Even so, the US form of governance still requires 'good men' to hold public office without which no democratic system will succeed. Equally, if all people appointed to public office are 'good men' then almost any form of governance will be successful. The key to me seems to be, how to hold public officials accountable for their actions because (again) the US constitution attempts to find a way round the fact that you can't expect public officials to behave in any way other than their own self-interest.

    The TeaParty movement in the US attemts to hold all candidates for public office accountable by getting them (before the election) to sign up to three rather modest principles of fiscal probity, the free market and adherence to the constitution.

    With regard to 'referism'. Again, I see this as a subset of 'direct democracy' and as such has exactly the same failings of the overall system, namely that factions will prevail. In fact having a popular referendum on the annual government budget is a surefire way to demonstrate in microcosm how 'direct democracy' will undermine the greater good. Imagine a scenario where the 'government' proposes to cut disability benefits within the budget. The vast majority of recipients of this benefit are likely to vote the budget down. Ditto child benefit; housing benefit; income support; tax credits; penion credits, etc., etc., etc.
    Conversely, suppose the budget proposed increasing these benefits and also increasing pensions and other forms of largesse to be paid for by borrowing which will only need to be paid back in years to come when the economy is expected to grow blah, blah blah.
    It would take a very determined individual who would be personally disadvantaged by a particular measure to vot against that measure and vice versa.

    There. I've said it :-)

  11. @JiC Thanks, I suspect the set up of the USA will come into the debate

    @WfW Have seen and partially commented - am now worried you'll chuck me out of your car half way up if discussion gets heated ;-)

    @BJ Fully agree about the Whip system - it's one of the worst aspects and yes transparency - expenses row would have been prevented largely by full disclosure from the outset. Simple and effective

  12. @Paul Coombes, I do agree to an extent. I'm uncomfortable with 'banning political parties' it looks somewhat undemocratic - however the alternative though is little better.

    Loyalty to one's party, sometimes with the threat of physical violence by whips - tactics used during various EU treaty debates - is something that needs to curbed or ideally eradicated.

    Perhaps the idea of being a member of a party shouldn't bar a candidate but campaigning as one should be prohibited, may be a useful compromise?

  13. @BulloPill Thank you. See, partly my comment above. I'm also trying to eliminate the other flaw - voters' tribalism which also infects our politics. As an example; "I vote Labour 'cos my Dad did and my Grandad did..."

    I think Bercow as Speaker is a good example of potential. We know what his politics are (and indeed his wife's) but he had to campaign on an independent ticket and stay neutral in the Commons. Maybe this can apply to all members of the legislative?

    So yes be a member of Greenpeace, Didcot Bowls Club or a Tory but you have to campaign on a neutral ticket.

  14. @letmethink Thanks for your very thoughtful posts. I can assure you you're not the only one to have reservations about Direct Democracy.

    That's not to say it doesn't have a place in what we're trying to do, but in my view Richard North's 'restrictions' on a annual referendum on the budget (i.e the same wording and time every year) is an acknowledgement at least of some of the flaws.

    That said, referism purely in terms of controlling the budget has a lot of appeal to me.

  15. "am now worried you'll chuck me out of your car half way up if discussion gets heated ;-)"

    Fear not - at least not before you have bought me a drink..... :)

  16. @WfW Ahhh there's always a drink involved... :-)

  17. @TBF

    " . . . referism purely in terms of controlling the budget has a lot of appeal to me".

    Controlling the budget DEFINITELY appeals to me also however, in my humble opinion, even an annual referendum is flawed by virtue of the fact that factional interests are still likely to prevail. In addition, I would hazard a guess that not one in twenty of the eligible voters in this country would sufficiently understand something as large and complex as our national budget at a level of detail to make their vote truly meaningful.

    More important still, in my eyes, is the need to control the budget of every public body (local and district councils; NGOs; regulators, schools, police stations, etc.) that is funded from our hard-earned and potentially has jurisdiction over our activities.

    My personal view, in preference to an annual referendum on the national budget, would be to have a clear and tightly defined framework for the appropriation and use of public funds at ALL levels. All public bodies could be compelled to publish online the manner in which their funds where appropriated and exactly how those funds were being spent. This would provide for a level of scrutiny and challenge, based purely on procedural probity, that would allow budgets to be rejected and 'fraudulent' spending to be dealt with accordingly.

  18. An end to party affiliation should be the result of real changes not an end in itself. Political parties are a consequence of our system and therefore a symptom of the disease, not the underlying problem.

    Linked to your point about presidential nature of the PM, Parliament was designed at a time each candidate could in principle take to the hustings (obviously even then the system was abused through rotten boroughs) and win his seat. Today all the modern powers of marketing and propaganda are used by national parties against which independents stand no chance. So it is the political landscape/relative power of the various political parties which determines whether Basildon or Bradford are red, blue or yellow. And it is then the party leader who chooses the individual candidate. In short, he has power of patronage.

    If candidates could be thrown out by power of recall, they would immediately behave differently. Instead of blindly obeying whips they would have to consider that voting for war with Iraq or for the Lisbon Treaty would result in them being slung out of Parliament by their constituents within three months. Sometimes if you change just one ingredient the entire flavour is transformed.