Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

The Crisis of Indirect Democracy and its Consequences

Indirect democracy is a fragile child. In effect we say we (“democratically”) elect representatives to a body that then “does governing for us”. This is in stark contrast to direct democracy – which in its most extreme state has everybody having a vote on everything.

Parliaments should be shining examples of indirect democracy at work. They consist of “representatives”, not mandated delegates, who collectively form a body that should be recognised as “representative”. Their legitimacy depends, I believe, on three factors.

  • Whether elections to the parliament are recognised as “free and fair”
  • Whether the resulting parliament is recognised as “representative”
  • Whether the parliament through its collective actions and the actions of its members retains the “respect of the people”.

In the UK, I think we are, to a degree, failing on all three of the above.

Free and Fair Elections

The electoral process served us well until a few decades ago. It was felt that there was comparatively little electoral fraud and with a two-party system each MP could claim a substantial mandate.

The effects of a multi-party system under First Past the Post need not be repeated here other than to note that an election result where

  • an individual can be elected with 72% voting against them, or
  • a party with the support of 24% of the electorate wins an absolute majority in terms of seats, or
  • a party in one region can get about 50% of the vote and virtually all the seats

doesn’t look right – the result doesn’t look “fair” or even reasonable.

UK elections are also becoming increasingly “American” – where big money talks and the media (and its small group of owners) can have a huge influence. This undermines the idea that elections represent the “free choice” of the people.

In the UK, election ballots have been traditionally recognised as fair – in that they are not subject to corruption. In this respect we are a very lucky country compared to some others. However, this  reputation has to be nurtured.

Postal and Proxy votes used to be very rare. They are becoming increasingly common. With postal and proxy votes it is very hard to be certain that the choice was either made by the voter in question or that it was not a coerced choice. Having to turn up at a polling station, have your name crossed off and go alone to a voting booth to vote is a little old-fashioned, but in terms of ensuring a vote free from personation and coercion, it has a lot going for it.

Electronic voting – either through voting machines (such as in the United States) or via the internet could further undermine confidence in the ballot. In the United States we have seen a lack of audit trail and complaints that votes are registered incorrectly. It is not reassuring to know that many of these voting machines are manufactured by companies that are major donors to one of the main political parties.

A Representative Parliament

Periodically we get complaints that Parliament “does not look like us”. These complaints are usually couched in terms of the traditional dimensions of discrimination; race and gender.

Whilst a parliament that is overwhelmingly “male, pale and stale” is not good, the problem is deeper. For a parliament to be representative it also needs to represent the political diversity of opinion within the country.

The current political system squeezes out diversity. Party selection systems tend to select “mainstream” candidates and with the electoral rotten boroughs that are so many of our constituencies these mainstream candidates are virtually certain of election. The diversity of opinion within parties (let alone within the country) is not truly represented within Parliament. This has to be bad for parliamentary democracy.

If we were to (hypothetically) select our MPs by lot we could expect to find a wide diversity of opinion not just on the classic economic left/right dimension but also on other dimensions such as:

  • Europhile/Europhobic,
  • Libertarian/Authoritarian,
  • Collaborative/Individualistic,
  • Environmentalist/Non-Environmentalist,
  • Internationalist/Isolationist,
  • Racist/Non-racist,
  • Corporatist/Communitarian,
  • Centralist/Devolutionist,
  • Multilateralist/Unilateralist
  • etc. etc.

That diversity is seen in the country – but (apart from a very few exceptions) is not seen in our parliament.

A Respected Parliament

For a Parliament to be respected its processes have to be transparent and it must be seen to act in the interests of the people and not in thrall to lobby groups.

It also helps if the members of that Parliament are individually respected. They need not be saints (if they were, would they be representative?!) but they do need to be seen to be operating freely and not subject to outside pressure.

Our politicians

It is probable that our MPs are not significantly worse than a few decades back. There always were rogues, liars, adulterers, scoundrels, hypocrites, chancers and mere greasy pole climbers. But we now have a less deferential system and a media that thinks nothing of exposing every human foible of our representatives.

Leaving aside personal failings, political failings tend to undermine respect. If a politician publicly signs a pledge not to do something and then when in government promptly does just that thing, it is hardly surprising if cynicism about politicians increases.

Excessive whipping of votes (where party members are instructed – even coerced) to vote with “the party line” also undermines trust – unless you are completely tribal. Whipping highlights how most of our politicians owe their position not to us, but to their parties.

Our political processes

Much of what goes on in the UK Parliament is antiquated and has been criticised by the likes of Caroline Lucas (see Honourable Friends? Portobello Books 2015) or by the SNP’s Tommy Sheppard (see Tommy Sheppard’s top 10 most ridiculous things about Westminster Guardian Website 3 October 2015).

Some of these practices are ancient ways to try and ensure good behaviour (!) in the chamber, but some, such as whipping, corporate lobbying, packing failed MPs into the House of Lords and government secrecy undermine our confidence that Parliament is our parliament representing us.

The use of processes such as secondary legislation – which is subject to less scrutiny – to make major changes such as to tax credits or student maintenance grants not only confuses the voters who try to follow the process but also tends to leave them feeling “a bit cheated”.

Statutory instruments (SIs) were first introduced at the end of the 1940s as a way of freeing up parliamentary time by allowing procedural changes to laws to be made without a full debate in a vote in the Commons.

Over the years their use has mushroomed from just 1,100 in 1982 to  more than 3,000 today. …

But what concerns critics is not just the number of SIs being introduced but the significance of the legislative changes that they are introducing.

Since the 2015 election the SIs that have been introduced by the Government include changes to the electoral register that could result in more than a million people being denied the chance to vote, allow fracking under national parks and heritage sites and withdraw winter fuel payments from British pensioners living abroad.
The Independent, 19 January 2016 : Government accused of ‘waging war’ on Parliament by forcing through key law changes without debate

It looks as if our Parliamentary processes are creaking and failing.


So what happens when there are doubts about :

  • whether elections to the parliament are recognised as “free and fair”
  • whether the resulting parliament is recognised as “representative”
  • whether the parliament retains the “respect of the people”?

People look elsewhere to feel represented. They look either to “single issue” organisations that fit with their strongest opinions – whether that is the Taxpayers Alliance or Greenpeace – or to more extreme organisations.

Single issue organisations of course “lobby” parliament – which is one of the processes that cause us to distrust parliament!

More extreme organisations whether parliamentary like UKIP, or extra-parliamentary such as some of the radical organisations that are meant to occupy the attention of our Home Secretary, tend to polarise. Polarisation makes indirect democracy more difficult because it depends on us believing that a body which may not reflect our political views is none-the-less sufficiently representative that we are willing to be subject to it.

The other reaction to this crisis of indirect democracy is a turn towards more direct democracy whether such as through metropolitan or even regional mayors, police and crime commissioners, and health trust governors. This represents an Americanisation of our political processes – where we could end up electing our judges and our dog-catchers.

Is this what we really want?


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One thought on “The Crisis of Indirect Democracy and its Consequences

  1. Pingback: Referenda as a decision making process | Outside the marginals

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