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Stewart Hotston

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Democracy

Democracy isn’t broken but the ships sailing on it are sinking

I’ll start this post by saying it’s not about Brexit. It’s not about the ERG’s contemptuous hankering after full throttled no holds barred capitalism to feather their already overflowing beds. It’s not about the Labour party’s utter lack of morals while in opposition – being populist and opportunistic while appearing to have no real sense of what it means to represent the people who vote for them.

Oh no. It’s about about what the hell the above means for us one year from now, five years from now and when my children are old enough to think about voting for themselves.

I contend that democracy remains one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Representative democracy across two chambers with an independent judiciary and free press puts it up there with the ECHR and the US Constitution. Human society is an amazing thing – a repository for our learning, for checks and balances which can bring benefits to everyone that no individual could ever accrue for themselves (despite what baffling morons like Ayn Rand believe).

Gav Smith recently posted how no one would ever vote for the conservatives again. He’s probably partially right. There’s a discussion there about how, even if that were the case, Labour would find it hard to win a majority. 

The question I want to ask is this: what are the current political parties for?

Labour’s history is amazing – its genesis and the ideas behind it were ground breaking and challenging to the whole of society. 

Conservatism, even if we can afford to be a bit more jaded about it also has a history well worth thinking through carefully and not dismissing out of hand. The world looked very different 50 and 100 years ago.

However, I would contend their peak impact, socially and culturally, is past. All major parties are on the decline – both in terms of membership but also because the things they care about more vociferously appear to be of decreasing relevance to people like you and me. 

Stated policies are often unachievable (despite being popular) and then abandoned. People demand honesty but then crucify those who make mistakes. Perhaps most difficult is that most people don’t belong to political parties, don’t attend meetings and don’t act on behalf of those parties even if they are members. 

However, this isn’t people’s fault. That would be to mistake parties having a god given right to exist. They don’t. Parties that don’t represent us should die. Actually, they should be taken out and shot before they start doing us harm because poorly populated parties become the province of the extremist and the incompetent – often because those two types of character find meaning and safety within the identity of political parties. 

We’ve seen, with the rise of populism (and all the incoherence associated with it), a genuine disgust over the ineffectiveness, hypocrisy and perceived corruption of the major parties. If populism tells us one thing worth knowing it’s that our major parties are dead and they just don’t know it yet. 

So back to the question – where do we go from here? With increasingly damanging and irrelevant major parties the challenge for the ordinary person is who to vote for. Do I vote for a party which doesn’t represent me (for instance, I have witnessed outright antisemitism in the labour party and more generalised classism, sexism and racism among conservatives), hold my nose and hope it is, on balance ok or is there another alternative?

I’d love to see the rise of an alternative, centrist, party. One that supported universal basic income, the rights of entrepreneurs, scientific and social innovation and the protection of our most needy. Who wouldn’t? However, of the recent attempts to see parties like this launched every one has disappeared without trace. 

We appear to be stuck with two major parties (and the SNP and LD as minorities) because the system they are a part of gives them some kind of vulcan death grip on airtime, funding and organisation. Yet I’d say there’s an equally important reason why nothing’s growing up in the middle – because we, as a society, have stopped congregating together, stopped having common enough experiences (in work especially) to provide the necessary fertile ground for a new party to emerge based on common understanding and policies. 

This leaves me bewildered. Not because I don’t understand the reasons for why we don’t appear to be able to replace our current sinking ships with something better suited to the modern society we live in but because I don’t see any way to replace them without some major upheavals in the way we live as British citizens. 

Let me put this another way. I’m a natural labour voter. In principle at least. But I can’t vote for Corbyn. I also can’t vote for a party which refuses to act as effective opposition. So who do I vote for? 

I don’t want to vote for the Conversatives for reasons I hope the utter farce they’ve made of Brexit makes obvious. Indeed, their average voter is literally not going to exist within two decades, leaving them quite literally dead in the water. 

I don’t want to vote for the Lib Dems or the Greens who are basically ideologically hollow and unforgivably naive respectively and can’t vote for the SNP (although I’m not especially happy about voting for any nationalist party). 

Let me lay out some of the issues I wish would form more substantial parts of policy:

  1. How we fund increasing social costs with an aging population while admitting this may well be a circle than can’t be squared
  2. How we look after our weakest most vulnerable people rather than assuming they’re scroungers and chancers
  3. Climate Change – God we need serious politicians on this and literally anyone other than Lord Lawson
  4. The labour market increasingly appears to be operating as a panopticon with no rights for average workers (and certainly no funding to take on abusive employers). We appear to be volunteering for this rather than challenging the rights of employers to police our morality
  5. Public space is disappearing faster than during the enclosures but we say nothing as those representing us close down our rights to congregate and travel freely with no accountability or right of challenge
  6. Law and order. Science says a lot of things about this but we’re stuck with firing world leading scientists who dare to speak the truth about drugs, incarceration and institutional racism
  7. Access to law – legal aid is a vital component of an independent judiciary. Too many people can’t access legal redress because they can’t afford to it. This MUST change. If we believe all people should be subject to the same laws we must invest in a system that allows it

There is no party focussing on this. They may have policies, I’m sure I’m going to get people mansplaining to me about the party they’re signed up to. Guys…I’m pretty smart. I’m also pretty widely read. I understand what’s being said and if you can point to where these are actually being implemented I’ll sign up. Seriously. 

The title of this post was about sinking ships. If it’s not obvious by now I think our parties are those ships and they’re doomed. yet there aren’t other ships to transfer onto. Which leaves me with a huge conundrum – democracy only works if the demos participates. Yet without a compelling set of representatives many people will opt out rather than feel compromised. They see their representatives not representing them and they feel robbed of power. This isn’t apathy – this is powerlessness. Because we’re less organised than before (even if more connected) we tend to lack the ability to challenge our representatives effectively when they stray from what we want them to reflect of our views. In a world where most of our representatives are disconnected from the challenges we face (mainly because so many of them are independently wealthy, privileged and highly educated) it’s an easy route to take to turning away from them completely. 

Can democracy reinvent itself with new, compelling, reasons to participate? I really, really hope so because right now I can’t see what comes after the current ships sink. 

My own prognoses for this would be as follows:

  1. double the number of MPs – the original number was set to be able to realistically engage with local communities. This was when the population was half the size. Ergo, more MPs actually means better representation
  2. Double their salary. Crikey – there’s just a few hundred of them. We spend more money on keeping the crinkle cut yellow buffoon safe when he comes visiting. It’s a drop in the ocean and, if we truly value democracy, we should be prepared to invest in the system that keeps it working in our favour. It would also mean that we can attract good people from backgrounds who can’t afford to give up other careers (including looking after their children) for what might be just five years in office. 
  3. Create a democratic second chamber with longer terms (say 10 or 15 years) which operates a little like the US Senate only without the gerrymandering. It has shown itself to be a very effective check and balance on the short-termism of the parliamentary executive.

I suspect the above would help only a little. The bigger issue is how we develop new parties who reflect what the majority believe and desire rather than listening to the extremes on both sides. I’m not suggesting referenda – please save me from the tyranny majority rule. I’m suggesting hoping, praying for a system where my representatives reflect my positions more than half the time rather than substantially less. 

If the above doesn’t happen a democratic deficit we’re only just now beginning to observe will grow like a disease, eating at the bones of our society until we’re left ripe for authoritarianism of one form or another and we’ll be defenceless to resist. 

Democracy not what it’s cracked up to be?

I have to confess that I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that the UK voted to leave the EU in June. I’m disappointed that the USA voted Republican across all three branches of elected government. Neither of those were my preference. Having said that, I don’t actually have a franchise in the US, but you understand my point.

I’m reading a lot of discontent from those on the sides that didn’t see their preference win out in the elections. I’m also seeing a lot of crowing from the side that did win. I don’t really want to talk about that too much – there are always bad winners and bad losers. In today’s world where so many of us simply block those we don’t agree with we live in as polarised a world as we ever have done. After all, the imprecation to never talk about politics or religion at dinner is much older than the internet so I don’t feel it’s all that smart to blame social media for giving us a megaphone for issues that we’ve always struggled to debate effectively.

It was in the 1950s that Niebuhr said that democracies had to have the consent of all the governed otherwise they become tyrannies. This has always cut both ways for a form of government that is really startlingly new and like a sheet of glass – strong in some directions, brittle in others.

The point of this post is for me to talk about democracy. Not mob rule but the type of democracies we have in the UK and the US (which although constituted very differently are both of a specific type) – that is representative democracies.

I also want to debunk a number of facile arguments made by both sides about the results.

  1. We won, get over it. The country voted our way. This is disingenuous at best and miserable at worst. Representative democracies are not mob rule, they are a way of voting in people to make the complicated social and fiscal decisions for us. They may come with ideologies that we share or dislike but in the end their job is simple enough – rule in our stead. It’s never a case that a candidate is going to agree with their entire constituency, or even those who voted for them. It is massive overreaching to claim that ‘we won, get over it’. Politics is the art of achieving the possible with an underlying aim, for most, of improving society. Whatever your view of ‘improvement’ actually is. To suggest that winning an election is akin to winning the 100m sprint is to misunderstand both races. For elections it simply means the HARD WORK STARTS NOW and part of that hard work is to represent ALL THE PEOPLE. For the 100m dash, well, you may have won, but next week there’s another race and, frankly, you’re only as good as the last one. We should NEVER assume that the story’s over just because we’ve won a stage.
  2. The world will fall apart. Look, let’s be honest here, it’s pretty unlikely. It can happen and it does happen. But it remains pretty unlikely. We can make it more likely, on which more later, but overall, we have a complex and powerful system of government which means that most excesses have been anticipated and curbed before they can be started. Sure, there are always exceptions and issues that break the rules (campaign funding) or simply can’t be contained by the rules (climate change) but these are the cutting edge of how society organises itself and we should be absolutely expecting to fight hard on these battlefronts.
  3. The result wasn’t valid because so many people didn’t vote. I’m sorry, but I don’t care about this. It’s pure speculation to suggest those uncounted masses would vote any differently than the rest of society if they did vote. In fact, statistical evidence suggests they’d vote along the lines of those who did within the margin of error. So this doesn’t invalidate the vote. Now, Clinton may have lost because she couldn’t persuade people to vote for her, but that in itself is a valid message about the candidates.
  4. Particularly for the US, more people voted for Clinton than Trump. Yes they did. So what? We all knew before the election how the electoral college system works. For goodness sakes, it’s what did for Gore. It was deliberately set up to stop mob rule and for the most part it does that job really well. It means that just because California votes overwhelmingly one way it doesn’t mean the other 49 states get overridden. It’s an excellent example of constitutional checks and balances working well.
  5. Tyranny will follow!!!1!1!111!. Tyranny can always follow. So what? Right wing ideologues, of which it’s not clear that Trump is, tend to favour liberty more than left wing populists and although they have several views with which I disagree, fascism is NOT the same as Republicanism or Conservativism. (He may be a populist buffoon but check your judgements because another blond haired politician also presents that way but is far smarter behind that guise than most people credit him for).

I hear a lot of people saying that there’s something wrong with the system, that people on the other side are stupid or ignorant or elite or liberal as if these things invalidate their views. They don’t. That’s the entire point of universal suffrage. The democratic system is NOT broken even if the sponsors of that system on all sides have had their noses bloodied this year on both sides of the Atlantic (including Germany and probably France next year). I am unconcerned about vested interests getting a punch in the face.

I have never seen people more engaged with democracy. I mentioned to someone the other day that I almost wished for the time when we could rely on feckless apathy because it was less exhausting.

Almost.

Yet the point is, our society is worth getting engaged over, getting emotional over. We should be talking, arguing and debating what we think we want from society. If we aren’t involved then that’s the real tragedy and that’s where the disasters we truly fear, the bogeymen themselves, can get their foot in the door. Political volatility has been blessed absent for the last twenty years in English speaking democracies. However, that minuscule interlude shouldn’t let us believe this is the norm.

I am proud to be part of a democracy. I am proud to be English, British, half-caste. I have views that I’ll champion but crucially, when the democracy I’m a part of chooses otherwise I will accept that decision all the while seeking to make my voice heard. Attacking the system is pointless, possibly even disastrous, because what if we succeed in truly dismantling the thing that’s kept debate and speech open in the post war period? What then? Who gets to rule then?

Get engaged in politics. Organise yourself. If you don’t like the parties on offer change them or replace them. Wars have been fought over less and we have a blessed society in which we are far from such danger. Make your voice count but talk about the right things – not the failure of your argument to persuade others, not the success of opposing points of view, nor how you couldn’t game the system but about what you believe in.

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