Monday, April 10, 2006


I've not written much about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill here. This bill, for anyone who hasn't heard of it, says a great deal about the kind of democracy Blair and his cronies believe in. Jenni Russell has been writing about that over at the Guardian blog and it's interesting that she received such a huge response. It seems that there are a lot of people who are genuinely concerned about the state of democracy in this country.

Perhaps more worrying is the fact that so many people don't seem to care. (These people, of course, are highly unlikely to be reading Jenni's articles on the Guardian's fancy blog.) Many of the people I ask really don't believe in democracy anymore. They don't say so in those terms but when you think about it, that is exactly what they mean. "Politicians? Well, they're all the same aren't they? I don't bother with any of that crap these days. What's the point?" Ask ten random people in Britain and I'll wager that close to half will give you an answer like that. Even many who do vote don't actually pay any attention to politics anymore.

In other words, people are starting to not care about democracy. A growing number of people no longer believe that voting serves any purpose whatsoever. Almost 72% of people voted in 1997. In 2005 it was 61.4% (it was even lower in 2001 - 59.4%). Direct participation in party politics is also falling.

More than one person I know argues, only half-jokingly, that what this country needs now is a benevolent dictator, someone who can get on with the job of running the country without worrying about all that ghastly politics and public opinion nonsense. This, I find rather troubling, even when said only half seriously. The historical precedents are not easy to discuss without sounding alarmist and hysterical. Perhaps that'd be no bad thing. I won't spell them out here though.

So what is the problem with democracy? It's true that turnout is falling in almost all mature western democracies. Interestingly, this is not so in Italy where turnout is usually high. It's expected to be around 85% this time which is quite normal apparently. Perhaps more corruption is what's needed (he joked). It's clear that there are no easy answers and that different countries experiences of democracy are not directly comparable.

Why then, in a country like ours, has turnout fallen so dramatically? It is, I believe, a function of the type of democracy that we currently have. The voting system itself is obviously part of that. If you live in a safe seat and you don't support the encumbant, you are quite right to believe that your vote serves no purpose whatsoever. This system must surely be changed. I remember a manifesto commitment on that once. Whatever happened to that?

The voting system is only part of the problem though and possibly not even the biggest part. The issue is the democratic process itself. Democracy is about more than putting a cross in a box every five years. The democratic process is about debating the issues in a public forum, arguing your case in a rational manner and listening to and respecting the views of others. It is about consulting with the public and taking their views into consideration. It is even, yes, about changing your mind on occassion*.

That vote in a box once every five years does not give carte blanche to the leader of the majority party to ride roughshod over people's genuine concerns. It does not give a mandate to rule by decree. And it is not an absolute endorsement of every hare-brained scheme added to the party manifesto by a clique of prime ministerial licky bum sucks.

That's not the kind of democracy we want. You could categorise it as an elected dictatorship. (one in which 22% of the electorate can deliver the neessary dictatorial mandate). It's particularly odious in an electoral system which only ever realistically offers two options for government. It is not proper democracy.

And this is where we get back to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. This bill, if passed into law, will allow the prime minister to rule by decree to a greater extent than ever before. Parliamentary scrutiny will be severely damaged. Wider consultation with the general public will be a luxury we'll be expected to do without most of the time. The democratic process, already severely weakened by Blair and Thatcher before him (Major probably didn't quite make the grade though), will be in tatters. Public engagement in the democratic process will undoubtedly fall still further to new record lows.

This isn't something anyone should want. That Blair does is worrying enough. That his lackeys are enthusiastically supporting him is more worrying still.

A wee while back, David Cameron made a reference to Gordon Brown as an "analogue Chancellor in a digital age". Pretty poor for the man who says he wants to put an end to Punch and Judy politics. That aside, the analogue/digital comparison can be of some use.

For anyone not familiar with gamepads, analogue controllers are the ones you want. A digital controller has buttons which are either on or off. In a driving game, for example, this can be a pain. Imagine if your accelerator on your car worked that way - full speed or no speed. Yikes. Analogue controllers, on the other hand, are like real accelerators. The harder you push the button, the greater the acceleration. This gives you much greater control (if you've spent many hours wasting your life honing your skills like I have).

For Blair, democracy is like a digital controller. We, the public, get to push the button once every five years. We push and the government is ON. After that, we should just sit back, shut up and enjoy the ride if we can. Real democracy is like an analogue controller. It requires constant inputs and reacts well to them. That's the sort of democracy we want. That's the sort of democracy we need. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, if passed, will essentially banish the analogue gamepad from British politics. One push of one button every five years is all we'll be allowed.

This would, of course, make the ruling prime minister's job a whole lot easier. But it's not supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be democracy.

Save Parliament


Charlie at perfect is thinking what I'm thinking. And at pretty much exactly the same time too. What are the chances of that happening?

* Regular readers might have noticed that the Elect the Lords banner has disappeared from my sidebar. In fact, I've not changed my mind about that. I just don't trust the current prime minister to attempt any more constitutional reforms. The rules for elections to a second chamber need to be set up by a non-partisan group, not by a man who can't tell the difference between his own best interests and those of the country.

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