It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Winston Churchill
The quote above is often used by many who find the whole idea of democracy becoming more and more perplexing. What is it? Why is it a method of governance that we should follow? Are we aware of the dangers of swallowing it whole?
Was Churchill alluding to some of the contradictions inherent in the democratic process?
In 2014, we allowed the democratic will of the people in Scotland to decide on whether or not to become independent from the rest of the UK. Despite a negative vote – 55% to 45% – the result fuelled a nationalist drive which, even now, seems to be constantly simmering just below the political consciousness. It was followed by a general election in 2015 where the electoral seats won by the Scottish National Party (SNP) was 56. This was against only 3 seats won by all the other parties put together, although the SNP polled under half of those that voted. Funny thing, this democracy…
Then, in 2016, we had a UK referendum on staying or leaving the European Union. To most people’s surprise the Brexiteers won forcing a new government to lead a messy withdrawal from Europe. This was based on only 52% wanting out of the EU and 48% wanting to stay in. A small margin, but the majority of voters wins for absolute change and a change that will affect generations to come.
In the USA Donald Trump’s election was even more bizarre as he managed to become president with only 46% of the popular vote when his rival, Hilary Clinton had 48%.
So what is going on? I am going to argue that we should not idealise ‘democracy’ as it possesses a number of faults or contradictions. So here goes with nine contradictions or potholes to consider.
- Democracy is often dependent on a geographical area where the inhabitants have the right to vote. A person who is chosen to represent that area is elected by a majority of the people living within specified boundaries. However, it depends on the definition of that area and where the borders have been drawn.
- There is often the problem of access to a vote amongst the electorate. Many people are excluded from the electoral roll, some choose to be. The roll may be out of date or there may be a transient population. The electorate is not always a true representation of the people who live in the area.
- There are lots of people who appear on the electoral register who do not vote. Some countries make it compulsory to vote but most do not. So we follow the will of only those that actually vote.
- There is a belief that voters elect someone to represent their wishes and desires at a higher level of government. In most democratic countries, this does not happen as prospective candidates usually align themselves with a particular party or grouping. Political parties have policies which reflect the party’s values. This is all very well but local issues tend to get lost in the expedience of party interests.
- There are differing democratic systems to consider. In the UK general elections, we have a first-past-the-post system which has the advantage of giving a clear result where only slight swings in opinion from one political party to another can result in clear parliamentary majorities. It has the disadvantage of not being a true reflection of the feelings of the whole of the electorate. An alternative is proportional representation where seats in government, generally speaking, are divided according to the numbers of people who have voted for particular parties. On the surface this appears to be fairer but in countries where this system is in place it usually results in an over-abundance of parties and the minor parties tend to have a disproportionate amount of influence in government as they hold sway on tricky or closely divided issues.
- There is a belief that those politicians that have been democratically elected, actually govern. In established democracies, there are often other governing bodies. In the UK, the civil service, with its hierarchy and powerful mandarins, unelected persons can influence the decisions that emerge from the well-trodden corridors of power. Similarly, people are often appointed by those who possess power into positions of authority that can dictate their decisions to the mass of the population.
- There is a danger of forming a dictatorship of the majority where the minority’s wishes are over-ridden by politicians elected by slim margins. They then push for major societal changes that do not take account of the wishes of all the people.
- Democracy is not inherently fair or inclusive. Within a democracy single-minded people can form pressure groups to lobby government and political parties trying to influence the debate if not the outcome on particular issues. Resources can be used to by private companies and others to disproportionately influence policy. Money talks and those that have it recognise this completely and use their money to influence decisions or policies.
- Under multi-party democracy there is always a fight for the middle-ground. The battle over the centre of the political landscape in the UK is all very well – but is there any real choice left with previously principled parties sacrificing their values to gain power by attracting the middle ground?
This brings us to the question of relevancy. Is parliamentary politics relevant to the average person whether “in the street” or aboard the No 29 bus to Auchtermuchty?
In theory it certainly is relevant and can affect the lives of all the citizens but in practice people only want to get on with their lot and barely see the importance of party politics. On the other hand, organisations want to know that they are operating ‘democratically’ and in a way that reflects some form of social equity or social justice.
And what about social impact?
Community-based enterprises and local organisations serving the communities they are located in have tried to demonstrate their democratic credentials by counting how many people came to their AGM; how many members they have – regardless of how active they were; and the level of engagement by local people. This all adds up to something that goes beyond casting votes and looking at majority margins.
Organisations who apply social accounting and audit as a process to monitor and evaluate an organisation’s effectiveness and ‘social impact’, have used all the above factors in describing their links to their constituents. They go beyond counting votes and look at local involvement, opportunities where local people can engage with others and develop connections.
It can be argued that democracy works best at a local level where there are much clearer channels of accountability between an organisation and the community residents. Perhaps organisations have to get closer to communities and people, allowing them the chance to take more control over their own destiny. This might be through more active community politics with more decisions devolved to local people.
So Churchill is right, I think, in recognising democracy is ‘the worst form of government’. What we need to try is more local involvement and community development, not focussed on ‘democracy’ as an ideal, but rather on social and economic justice.
Alan Kay, Social Audit Network (SAN) www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk
- government by the people or their elected representatives
- a political or social unit governed ultimately by all its members
- the practice of spirit of social equality
- a social condition of classlessness and equality
Collins Concise English Dictionary (2012)