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