A Post on the Failure of Representative Democracy



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@PaulJRobinson edited democracy.md - almost 7 years ago

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How can we improve the democratic process, and citizens' engagement with it?

How can we improve the democratic process, and citizens' engagement with it?

The Failure of Representative Democracy

One of the central roles for the Open Politics project should be to enhance public participation in the democratic process.

It is a sad feature of 21st century British politics that engagement with the political system is at an all time low. Turnouts at elections are low [citation needed], membership of political parties is at an all-time low [citation needed], disdain for our politicians is increasing [citation needed], and yet, despite all of this, the funds parties are able to raise from big donors is at an all time high [citation needed]. This disparity between declining engagement and increased funding means that, whilst the electorate is turning their collective back on politics, they are allowing a select few wealthy donors and party grandees to wield ever greater influence. Thus it is no surprise when the sort of politics we get doesn’t match the expectations of the wider public. And so the spiral of decline continues as more and more people feel alienated from the political process and choose to disengage.

The problem has many causes but is chiefly related to representation. People feel the political class doesn’t represent them, and so they turn off. But that’s not what’s supposed to happen. We have a representative democracy. Members of Parliament are elected specifically in order to represent their constituents. But how often do you feel as though your own MP, even if you did vote for them, actually take decisions that you would have taken in their place? If you’re a natural Labour voter you're probably still angry about the manner in which the UK entered into a war in Iraq. Lib Dem voters are likely to feel betrayed by their leadership reneging on their pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Many Conservative voters have an intense dislike of the leadership’s role in legislating for same-sex marriage. So it doesn’t matter where your views lie on the political spectrum, the chances are that you feel ignored by those to whom you have pledged your vote, your money, or your campaigning time.

And that is the crux of the problem with representative democracy. MPs aren’t representatives in the sense that they make decisions that you or I agree with - they aren’t supposed to be our delegates. Instead they’re expected to represent the interests of their constituents. It was a concept that made sense when first described by Edmund Burke over 230 years ago. In the late 1700s it simply wasn’t practical to seek the views of far-flung constituents on each and every Bill going through Parliament, particularly when coach and horses were the fastest means of communication.

But representative democracy is more than just a practicality from an age of slow communication. It also gives MPs justification to completely ignore, or even to go against, the views of their constituents. Burke suggested that “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” MP’s opinions are, basically, better than yours or mine: constituents are either uneducated and ill-informed; too fickle and prone to change their minds with each newspaper headline; or they’re likely to prefer populist self-interested measures over the national interest.

In 2013 the electorate have grown up. We are no longer ill-informed or uneducated. You’re more likely to find it’s Ministers who make policy u-turns with each passing headline than the general public. As for self-interest: that particular charge against the electorate would have more credibility were it not for the various lobbying, expenses, and cash-for-questions scandals that have been the mark of every Parliament for the last 20 years.

Much of what is wrong with our representative democracy can be blamed on the political parties. The parties are supposedly justified on the basis of grouping like-minded candidates together to make it easier for voters staring at an unfamiliar names on a ballot paper. Parties require candidates to compromise their views - we know that their personal opinions don’t match every aspect of the platform on which they are standing. It is therefore impossible to select a candidate, or a party, with whom you’re going to agree on every single issue.

But in the 21st Century we are spoilt for choice in almost every other aspect of our lives: online shopping means there is a retailer to cater for every possible consumer need; music streaming allows us to buy the best individual tracks, rather than the whole album; we can read (or even hear) magazines, books and newspapers on numerous types of devices; online dating allows us the unprecedented ability to broaden or narrow our choice of potential partners. Skinny flat-white (extra shot) coffees; the designs we stick on our mobile phone cases; the colour of Converse trainers we choose - the examples are endless. Our lives can now be uniquely-tailored in almost every respect - something that simply wasn’t possible 25 years ago. Why should we have to compromise our political views when we’re used to making bespoke choices that suit our individual needs, almost every single day? When it comes to democracy and politics, to misquote Apple, there really should be an app for that.

There are any number of reforms and tweaks to the current system that would be an improvement: an elected Upper Chamber; reform of party funding; the ability for constituents to recall errant MPs; and of course a system of proportional representation to elect them in the first place.

But each of these changes, as welcome as they would be, would continue the concept of representative democracy. We would still be compromising our views by voting for candidates and parties with whom we all disagree on any number of issues. We would still be relying on MPs to sit and make decisions on our behalf, and be keeping our fingers crossed - for half a decade - that we chose wisely.

There is an alternative. We no longer rely upon coaches and horse to send messages to Parliament. There are tools available to allow the electorate a much greater and more direct say in our Parliamentary Democracy. We no longer need representation. We can, and should, be taking decisions directly, as they already do in much of Switzerland.

It is therefore proposed that the Open Politics project discusses the merits of such a system of Digital Democracy, and how it might operate in practice. It is also proposed that the project investigates ways to contribute towards the Speaker’s Commission into Digital Democracy announced to the Hansard Society on 27 November 2013.


@PaulJRobinson - almost 7 years ago

This pull request has been automatically generated by prose.io.


@Floppy - over 6 years ago

This is very good, and I agree with what you've written. However, in the interests of keeping the policy itself short and focused on the actual proposals, perhaps the bulk of this would belong in a blog post, and change this into an actual policy proposal, perhaps with a few components? We could create a blog section easily enough, and link to the policy proposal from there. I'd suggest the policy proposal itself take a few steps, with digital direct democracy as an end goal, but with shorter term stuff like an elected upper chamber, changes to FPTP voting etc along the way.


@Floppy - over 6 years ago

@PaulJRobinson what would you like me to do with this? I think it's too long for the manifesto as it stands, but it's worth publishing somewhere...


@PaulJRobinson - over 6 years ago

Don't worry for now. I shall revise it into something more useful!

with kind regards, Paul Robinson


On 29 January 2014 00:09, James Smith [email protected] wrote:

@PaulJRobinson https://github.com/PaulJRobinson what would you like me to do with this? I think it's too long for the manifesto as it stands, but it's worth publishing somewhere...

Reply to this email directly or view it on GitHubhttps://github.com/openpolitics/manifesto/pull/14#issuecomment-33543022 .