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 full electorate.

Fig 1

(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 is held.

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 business.

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.

Richard Lawson
Saturday, 16 October 2004

© 2001 R. Lawson This page was last updated on 13.11.04