Journalist: Mr. Gandhi, what
do you think of western civilization?
Mahatma Gandhi: I think it would be a very good idea!
Gandhi might have said the same about western democracy.
When hunt supporters invade the House of Commons
it is a threat to democracy. When 19 Saudi nationals murder 3,000
Americans it was said to be because they oppose democracy. Our
leaders bomb and invade countries like Afghanistan and Iraq in
order to bring democracy to them.
This question has become even more pressing since
November 2004, when there was clear evidence of systematic poll
rigging in the Ukraine and the United States of America.
Democracy is very important idea that is shaping
modern history in a big way. For this reason we should closely
examine the real nature of democracy and compare it to the claims
of the politicians who claim to be acting in its name.
Democracy is that form of government in which
the sovereign power resides in the people, exercised either directly
by them or by officers elected by them (representative democracy).
It implies that all citizens have equal rights.
Direct democracy is the purest form of democracy,
but is so rare both in theory and in practice that there is little
to be gained by discussing it in non-anarchist circles.
Representative democracy in the UK boils down
to the fact that every four years the electorate is invited to
choose a person to represent them in Parliament. Most voters believe
that they are choosing the next Prime Minister (PM). This is not
the case. The power of the vote in the UK is limited to the constituency,
and in normal political circumstances only the vote in marginal
constituencies has a chance of changing the status quo. The Prime
Minister is chosen by his or her political party as leader of
the party. If the voters give that party more MPs than the others,
the leader becomes Prime Minister, and proceeds to appoint a Cabinet.
Even here power is slipping away from the Cabinet, into the hands
of the PM and a few appointed advisers, who seemingly hold 99%
of the effective decision making power.
Parliament, which is supposed to represent the
will of the people, can inhibit, obstruct and criticise the Government's
plans, but has negligible power to initiate legislation. The unelected
House of Lords can further delay and obstruct legislation, but
in the end, sovereign power rests with the PM, and the degree
of power held by the PM is increasing all the time, as the office
of PM becomes more similar to the US presidential model - without
the checks and balances to power built into the US system.
The office of PM is already three steps removed
from the "sovereign power of the people". It gets worse.
If, as is usually the case, the governing party collected 40%
of the vote cast, and there was, say, a 60% turnout, the government
was chosen by only 24% of the electorate. Worse still, the UK's
First Past the Post (FPTP) system means that the effective vote
that actually makes a difference to the outcome of the election
is usually restricted to the floating voters in a few marginal
constituencies. This is because in FPTP, the electoral outcome
in "safe seats" is predetermined in all but the rare
occasions when there is a landslide change of support between
the dominant parties. The general election in safe seats in normal
circumstances is little more than an expensive opinion poll. Some
voters are aware of this fact, since the turnout in the 2001 UK
general election was inversely proportional to the majority. The
larger the majority, (and hence the less the chance of a change
of MP), the greater the proportion of the electorate that did
not bother to vote (see Fig 1). Elections are not won or lost
in safe seats, but in the marginals. The typical number of voters
in key marginals who determine the political colour of the next
Government has been calculated at 66,000 - about 0.16% of the
(c) Richard Lawson
During elections, there is an enormous amount
of sound and fury about the differences of policy on offer, but
the fundamental assumptions of major political parties are identical.
New Labour, Tories and LibDems are all agreed that the needs of
business to make profit is paramount. The Green party's basic
proposition that economics must be harmonised with ecology means
that they are effectively written out of the political process.
So the PM is chosen by a cabinet that is chosen
by MPs whose colour is often determined by less than 1% of the
electorate. This is already a far cry from the notion of sovereign
power residing in officers elected by the people, but there is
worse to come.
The PM may be obliged to keep half an eye on the
mood of the electorate, but that is not by any means his sole
consideration. Civil service, media, business and Europe all overshadow
the needs and wishes of voters.
The influence of the Civil Service has been famously
satirized by the evergreen TV satire Yes Minister. It is also
encapsulated by the old adage "No matter who you vote for,
the Government always gets in".
There is a real tension between the professional
civil service who advise and implement elected ministers and the
ministers themselves. Their influence shows in the fact that when
the colour of the government changes it is often obvious that
the new opposition criticises the government for doing exactly
what they would have done do if they had been in power. One of
the best examples of the way perceptions change in office is the
need for a Freedom of Information Act. Opposition parties of either
hue routinely call for freedom of information because their work
is continually hampered and frustrated by their inability to access
information held by the civil service. Yet as soon as they are
in office, they either lose, or seriously water down their proposals,
bowing to the wishes of the civil service.
Government officials are protected by the system
of Ministerial responsibility. If a government department fouls
up, the officials who made the mistake may be rebuked or moved
sideways, but it is the minister who loses his job. To have a
system where mistakes can be made with impunity is a recipe for
inefficiency and stagnation - or worse.
The media are the second non-democratic influence
on the PM. Before his election, Tony Blair famously flew half
way across the world to meet with Rupert Murdoch. Having convinced
Murdoch that a Blair government would be friendly to the aims
of free market capitalism, he was granted the support of the Murdoch
press and broadcast media, which undoubtedly helped to secure
Blair's huge majority.
It is fashionable to talk down the influence of
the media on voting patterns, but any objective study of the matter
must conclude that journalism has a major influence on public
opinion, irrespective of the low esteem in which the profession
Business is the third non-democratic influence
on government. Major political parties are obliged to spend millions
on advertising campaigns during elections. This money cannot be
met by jumble sales, but comes instead from large donations from
business. Blair's political hymen was quickly ruptured by the
Eccleston affair, when his government's principled and rational
intention to stop tobacco advertising was delayed at the wishes
of a major donor to the Labour Party. Examples of this kind of
influence can be repeated ad nauseam. The comparative powerlessness
of the democratic vote is underlined by the fact that all major
political parties are funded in the same way - so although voters
have the option of voting for the Green Party, which receives
no donations from industry, their wishes will not be represented
in Parliament, since the UK electoral and broadcast system effectively
excludes that group from UK politics, notwithstanding their slow
advance at the local authority and European level.
Canada has begun to address this problem. In Manitoba
it is illegal for political parties to receive donations from
The European Union (EU) is the fourth constraint
on the freedom of the British PM to enact the will of the UK electorate.
The European Parliament is an elected body, but it has less power,
if that is possible, than the House of Commons. European policy
is framed by appointed bureaucrats of the European Commission,
and by the Council of Ministers who have at best a distant relationship
to the electorate initiate European policy. The European Parliament's
powers to initiate policy are negligible, an its power to amend
policy is minimal.
It is clear therefore from this analysis of the
current state of affairs in the UK that our political system falls
far short of the target of real democracy. The UK is perhaps generally
worse than other countries that describe themselves as "democratic",
particularly in its lack of proportional representation, which
transmits the will of the people more accurately than the UK electoral
system. But democracy is not an accurate term to use for any of
the "western democracies". The prevailing system should
be better described as "Plutocracy" or "Monetocracy".
"Democracy" is a word that should be reserved for political
systems where the will of the people is truly effective in determining
political decisions, and progressive people and movements should
routinely challenge the "democracy" word as used by
journalists and politicians, and should campaign for real democracy.
Saturday, 16 October 2004