Monday, 20 September 2010

We are all idiots: thoughts on democracy and representation

Since the lovely Anna Raccoon featured my ancient little piece praising idiots on her blog recently I feel inspired to a little update on the philosophy of idiocy – and its goodness. At least in part this is because a thought struck me – namely that representative democracy is looking a little old and tired these days. Or rather our Western European version of representative democracy has become rather like grandma’s stair carpet – fine at a glance but decidedly threadbare on closer examination.

In Europe (and for that matter in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia) we choose representatives through the proxy of the party system. In most places political parties have sufficient brand equity to be able to prevent the system becoming too fragmented. And even where the nature of the electoral system encourages schism and division, the election of representatives is predicated on them being from a political party. Yet – and I really think this is very important – nearly everybody isn’t a member of a political party. Our representatives are – in effect – chosen by a tiny number of people who happen to have paid across £25 or so to their favoured party.

Which brings us to our good idiots – let me remind you:

So let’s look at our typical idiots. Round here they’re probably in their thirties or forties, employed at a middle management level in business and industry. They worry about how well their kids do at school, they concern themselves with making their family safe, they grumble a bit about paying taxes but have enough cash afterwards for it not to really matter. Such folk are ordinary, hard-working and inherently conservative. But they also see little or no link between the act of voting in a politician from one party or another and the significant things in their lives.

The final sentence here is central to the argument – the act of choosing a representative and the deeds of government are not connected. Our representatives – MPs, MEPs and Councillors – really aren’t in charge. And just to stress this point let’s remind ourselves how decisions are made:

The truth is that decisions in local government aren’t taken in the manner most ordinary people – including quite well-informed ordinary people – believe is the case. Us councillors no longer sit on various committees in numbers reflecting the political balance of the council. Eight or ten councillors make up a (usually) one-party executive – often pompously called the ‘cabinet’ – and it is here that the decisions are taken. But understand that any discussion takes places away from the scrying eyes of the public – in Bradford we had a thing called “CMT” consisting of Executive Members and the Council’s “Strategic Directors” where the real decisions were made. You must also understand that most of the decisions are made under “delegated authority” by one or other ‘strategic director’.


The particular flavour of Councillor you elect doesn’t really matter and, even if you are lucky enough to have a “cabinet” member as your representative, most of the everyday decisions that affect you aren’t made by Councillors and only get our attention when you’re upset enough to shout at us.

So what should we be doing? Can we fix representative democracy – by, for example, banning political parties – or is it all rather too late and has the sheer scale of Government got too much for any effective system of representative government to manage? Certainly, those anarcho-capitalist folk would argue that we should abolish such indulgences as elections in favour of that most efficient of choice-based systems – the free market. However, despite a degree of sympathy with this view, I am not convinced of its merit and am convinced of the need for there to be a guarantor of the rules – which you may choose to call ‘government’.

I am also convinced of the need for this guarantee of fairness (by which I mean the equal application of the rules) to be provided by citizens rather than by experts. Hence common law, juries, parish councils and elected officials (as opposed to elected representatives). And in this system there is no real need for members of a parliament who take up their role on a permanent basis – in times past we selected parliaments for a specific purpose and on a time limited basis (just as we did with judges) and can do so again.

Our current system is broken – when barely 50% of those who can vote did vote in the most tightly fought election for decades and where local by-elections are decided by less than 15% there is something wrong. And it isn’t ignorance, apathy or idleness – they’ve rumbled us. They’ve worked out that the system is ramped up to favour political apparatchiks, they’ve spotted that, however people vote, the same nannying, interfering decisions get taken and it’s dawned on them that democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And who are they? They are the good idiots the ones who, to quote George Bailey “…do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.”

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1 comment:

Phil said...

I don't think our current system is broken, though I don't think it works very well. However if we change to PR or any form of PR then the power will be permanently in the hands of the parties. At least with FPTP we have the possibility of our elected representatives being more afraid of the wishes of their electorate than their party.