Democracy is not just about elections: there is so much more at stake

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Ask people what they understand by ‘democracy’ and I am guessing that most will say that it means voting or elections. And it does. In part. But there’s a whole lot more bundled up in this word that we bandy about so freely, and that we all assumed described the political system under which we in the UK live. We assume the antithesis of democracy to be a dictatorship and, again, that would be a good answer; but not the only one.

We also tend to assume that the UK’s democracy is unassailable and that, as home to the mother of parliaments, we are the very last place on earth to end up ruled by corrupt despots who will suppress dissent and abuse power.

We also console ourselves with the notion that democracy dies with a bang – a coup d’état, possibly violent and bloody, tanks on the streets etc. We forget that it is possible to be on the electoral road to the death of democracy. The boiled-frog approach is more insidious, harder to spot, harder to stop until it is too late, because people at first cannot see what is happening, then begin to feel bizarrely comfortable with changes they have been made to believe are for their own good; and then, when they finally see it for what it is (a boiling to the death), they are either too ashamed, too invested or just too defeated to care.

That window of opportunity to get out of the pot before our legs are boiled to mush is still open…just.

You might read this and think I am, once again, being melodramatic. So let me just walk you through some of the things that are being done in our name and which are dismantling democracy – yes,  with a screwdriver not a sledgehammer, but the end result is the same. Our democratic institutions are in pieces, leaving us without shelter. And winter is coming.

So let’s start with voting and elections.

Voting system:

We are one of only two countries in Europe to operate the first-past-the-post system (FPTP). The other is Belarus. Hmm.

Does FPTP give us representative government? No. Sure, it feels like it when the guys (and they are mainly guys) you vote for win. If you are a Conservative, you will have felt happily represented in 18 of the last 27 elections (during the period 1922-2019). If Labour, only 9 times. If LibDem…well, holding the balance of power and going into coalition was perhaps not the best thing the party has ever done from the perspective of future prospects. Vote Green? UKIP? Brexit Party? Independent? You’ve never felt represented(except in Brighton by Caroline Lucas). Oh, and only two of those 27 elections were won with more than 50 per cent of the votes. TWO: 1931 and 1935.

Two big points to be made here. 1) The Conservatives have been in power a lot, and despite their constant efforts to pretend the last eleven years are nothing to do with them, they have been in power for those eleven years. Johnson would quite like you to erase that fact from your memory. 2) It’s a helluva battle to wean the two major parties off FPTP, because it keeps the others out. But the fact is, democracy is very ill-served by FPTP. It divides and polarises and disenfranchises. Add to that, that the progressive vote is split across a number of parties while the Conservatives, having effectively annexed UKIP and the Brexit Party, garner all right-wing votes. PR also means no more safe seats. Do turkeys vote for Christmas (apart from Brexit, that is…)?

Voter Suppression: This government is hell-bent on introducing a requirement to show photo ID at the polling station. Fine if you have a passport, driver’s licence or even a senior travelcard. Student card? Nah. Not valid. Besides, students tend to vote for progressive parties, so best they don’t vote, eh?

“Evidence from around the world shows that forcing voters to bring photographic ID to the polling station just makes it harder for people to vote – while doing little to increase faith in the integrity of the system.” (Electoral Reform Society.)

The government appears to have clocked the ID card approach as a win-win…disenfranchise a whole swathe of the population who would almost certainly NOT vote for them AND generate some nice fat contracts for their mates, to produce the cards and readers etc! Bingo!

OK, bit of conspiracy theory here, but what if the operators of these systems also had access to your social media data and could fix things so that when you came to vote, you weren’t able to do so…mysteriously. Facebook have already allowed companies like Cambridge Analytica access to people’s data, so that they could bombard them with ads (lies) and messages to influence voting. Would Facebook use your data to help rig a vote? Again?

Joint campaigning in elections

In every election there are special interest groups who may campaign for a particular party because they feel that party will be better for their cause – environment, the NHS, funding for local schools, re-joining the EU etc. This government is almost certainly pretty windy about the possibility of local people getting together to push a progressive alliance to remove the incumbent Conservative (– and it will be an anti-Conservative strategy in the next election). In future elections, such arrangements may be geared towards removing a party of a different hue, though if electoral reform to proportional representation has been achieved, such pacts, formal or informal, should not be needed.

Anyway, as we have seen recently and I will discuss in Part 2, we have a government that breaks rules and changes laws to suit its own agenda and to hang on to power. Using the Elections Bill to stomp on ‘joint campaigning’ is a good example. ‘Joint campaigning’ is broadly defined as an activity that can ‘reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve a common purpose’…. like a progressive alliance, for example, to get the ruling party out for whatever reason. Your motivation to join an alliance might be because you want a more enlightened approach to spending on overseas aid, for example; and here is the Bond Organisation, the UK network for organisations working in international development: 

“This could capture a considerable amount of activity undertaken by charities, who often work through coalitions, networks and partnerships to deliver change. What’s more, if a joint campaign spends money on a regulated activity, then all parties involved have to record the entire cost of that activity towards their individual spending totals, regardless of how much each organisation contributed.  

This will discourage many organisations from taking part in activities that could be defined as joint campaigning, leading them to withdraw from existing coalitions and partnerships throughout the regulated period. This will be true for both small organisations, who do not have the capacity to cope with the regulatory burden associated with registration, and large multi-mandate organisations, who are members of multiple coalitions working on different issues.  

Findings from our recent survey support this, where: 

Almost half of campaigners said the new lower tier would deter them from collaborating with other organisations.  

A further one-in-four campaigners said the changes could “possibly” deter them from campaigning with others.  

And 23 per cent said it would not deter them from working with other organisations.” 

Well, the government will be thrilled to read this. People put off campaigning together for the greater good. Job done!

Changing boundaries to favour Conservatives

Here’s the Independent:

“The Conservatives will gain five to 10 seats under a planned shake-up of Westminster constituencies, according to a leading election expert.

The Boundary Commission proposals will see England gain seats, with the bulk of those in the south of the country – where Boris Johnson’s party is expected to benefit most.”

Oh dear! Do we smell a strong whiff of self-interest? Again?

In Part 2: I will look at the strategy of undermining the institutions which protect our democracy and the rule of law, plus the moves to curb peaceful protest and therby suppress dissent.

Democracy is in danger! It really is!