Whose democracy is it anyway?

February 18, 2010

Political dry rot has firmly taken hold in the foundations of
British democracy. The Houses of Parliament once inspired a
democratic principle to be exported around the world. To most British
people today, they have become a symbol of alienation where a small
elite rule without accountability.

How healthy is our democracy in Britain in 2002? Hundreds of
thousands protest on the streets while politicians and media worry
about apathy and the lowest election turnout since 1918. We teeter on
the brink of war without any effective public forum providing a voice
for those many people who have profound misgivings about an invasion
of Iraq. We live in a curious world where the civil liberties agenda
has been successfully hijacked by a cadre of the old establishment
primarily concerned with their ability to carry on fox hunting. A
political era in which the worst excesses of the sleaze era have not been repeated has done nothing to restore trust in our elected
politicians.

Yet this New Labour government can claim to have delivered more on
constitutional reform than practically all of its post-war
predecessors put together. But where the government has failed not so
much on the ingredients of constitutional reform, but in failing to
make any sense of them.

Having committed themselves to a large programme of constitutional
reform under the late John Smith, they have wearily carried out these
reforms in the spirit of ticking off a list of tiresome commitments.
They have singularly failed to create any strong democratic
narrative. Because the Government’s heart is not in it, their reforms
often disappoint in the detail. Devolution for Scotland, less for
Wales, even less for the English regions. A House of Lords to be
partially elected. Not so much as a whiff of proportional
representation for Westminster. Little discussion of the lack of
democracy or accountability in any of the international institutions -
the European Union, the WTO and the World Bank.

Where the reforms have been impressive they have gone largely
undefended. Instead of heralding a new era in which rights are taken
seriously, the Human Rights Act has languished as the kicking boy of
everybody from the Daily Mail to Prince Charles in his letters to
Ministers. The lamentable failure of most on the left to speak up on
its behalf leaves the Act fated to be both toothless and vulnerable
to demolition by a future government, even less likely to support it
than the current one. Creating a separate Human Rights Commission
would, it seems, simply cause Ministers too much inconvenience in the
courts. It is essential, therefore, that human rights should now have
a major function at the heart of a new single equalities body, and
are not merely tacked on the end.

Politicians worry about apathy but refuse to recognise the many ways
in which our current political system increases apathy. When the
political parties only care about scrambling for a select few swing
voters in the marginal key seats, most voters know that their votes
don’t really count or matter under our current electoral system.

On public services, the debate over public or private funding
continues to be hotly contested. But only organisations like the
World Development Movement have drawn attention to the fact that real
future of public services lies not in Westminster or in the regions,
but in the GATS agreements Britain has signed up to at the WTO. These
agreements open our public services to investment and influence from
private companies, British and foreign, in the name of free trade.
While we argue about public ‘ownership’ of hospitals and schools, we
may be fighting the battle without being told that the war has
already been lost.

But more important than the detail of arguments about GATS or
electoral reform, the democracy is in the debate. But the government
is simply too complacent about democracy and not open to debate about
the future of our politics. Ironically, they now favour the
introduction of a democratic constitutional framework for Europe
while still resisting the debate at home. Surely our government
should be equally interested in transparency and legitimacy here in
the UK too. Jack Straw announced that a common statement of values
for the EU was necessary as no one understood how Europe worked, but
that most people did understand British democracy as embodied by
familiar images of the Houses of Parliament.

Really? It would be difficult to find a member of the public who
could explain many of the mixed and confused principles of British
democracy – the royal prerogative, the function of the second
chamber, the proposals for devolved assemblies in some parts of the
England but not others, the role played by the Lord Chancellor, or
their own rights as subjects. People may have a weak grasp on the
technicalities of power, but they do understand that it is held by a
very few, in Westminster and further afield. People understand that
these decisions are not influenced in any way by them, or even by the
majority of their elected representatives, treated by the government
as mere lobby fodder.

Our unwritten constitution and system of government has managed very
well up to this point to exclude the majority of people from the
small political elite which understands how decisions are made.
Strong governments can, and do override at whim the unwritten
conventions that determine how our country is shaped. A written
constitution is not merely a ‘statement of values’, created to paper
over enormous areas of democratic deficit in institutions like the
EU. Nor is it a piece of paper in a museum. A written constitution is
a clear contract with every citizen, which is never subject to
unquestioned renegotiations by any government.

This current government may be well intentioned, but it is
overwhelming in its strength and its ability to ride roughshod over
our democratic traditions while the opposition is pitifully weak. The
current issues we face are critical in determining our global and
local future. Progressives need to realise that the arguments for
democracy are now more important than ever. By campaigning separately
we have made it far too easy for the government to ignore us. For too
long we have campaigned alone on issues which share an underlining
concern; the lack of democracy, transparency and accountability in
the decisions which affect our lives.

We must create a coherent democratic framework that links the
concerns people feel over war, Europe, sleaze, the media, local
government, and the power of multi-national companies. These links
have not yet been made. It is up to reforming groups and individuals
to create this agenda, and act together to serve notice on the
political establishment that people throughout the country demand to
be listened to

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