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The Sunday review:How democratic is the UK? The 2012 audit by Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Andrew Blick and Stephen Crone for Democratic Audit

The Sunday review:How democratic is the UK? The 2012 audit by Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Andrew Blick and Stephen Crone for Democratic Audit

🕔08.Jul 2012
Curated from Labour Uncut, written by Editor

by Anthony Painter

In the time before everyone on the centre-left and beyond was talking about Amartya Sen, he wrote a book called Development as Freedom. The reason for bringing this up is that the book was a powerful reminder of why democracy is important –something we seem to have forgotten. In some parts of the world as well as in our own historical experience, it is a matter of life and death. Here is Sen on politics and famines:

“Famines have occurred in ancient kingdoms and contemporary authoritarian societies, in primitive tribal communities and in modern technocratic dictatorships, in colonial economies run by imperialists from the north and in newly independent countries of the south run by despotic national leaders or by intolerant single parties. But they have never materialized [sic] in any country that is independent, that goes to elections regularly, that has opposition parties to voice criticisms and that permits newspapers to report freely and question the wisdom of government policies without extensive censorship.”

For Sen, the reason for this is democracy is a basic human capability. It is part of being human in an enlightened sense, it enables us to press for our needs to be met and the process itself helps us to understand what we need and how we can cooperate or support collective provision to ensure that those needs are met.

Now, the UK is not despotic, no longer imperialistic and it is has a free press and democratic choice. No famine is on the way. Yet Sen’s perspective still should raise our alarm bells that, in its latest four yearly report, Democratic Audit comes to the conclusion that the UK’s representative democracy is “in long-term, terminal decline, but not no viable alternative model of democracy currently exists.”

Not only is our democracy faltering and floundering, our democratic reformers have, since Labour’s early reforms in the late 1990s and early 2000s, largely failed to find a convincing story of why that should concern us.

For centuries, democratic reformers understood that social and economic transformation were bound with political reform. Without the latter, there could be no sustained improvement in socio-economic conditions. Democracy wasn’t only a good in itself. It was about what democracy could do.

The growth of freedom and the spread of opportunity experienced in democratic societies in the twentieth century was one product of political change. Nick Clegg’s attempts at democratic reform have been utterly pathetic precisely because they are meaningless. They are not a component of wider story of justice and national purpose.

A democratic second chamber is seen as a good thing just because it would be democratic. It’s a nonsensical tautology. That type of argument deserves to stay exactly where it currently resides – as a concern of a minority within a liberal minority.

Opponents of democratic change are having it easy as a result. Democratic Audit’s 2012 report the fourth of the series – sounds a klaxon for change. The public service it provides as a result is critical and persuasive.

It paints a picture of an etiolating democracy. People are losing faith in not only the performance but the integrity of the political process. Corporates have embedded themselves deep with the system – a staggering 46% of top 50 firms have a direct connection with an MP or minister.

In a set of fifteen other EU democracies that proportion is 7.1 percent; 2.5 percent in the Nordic countries. Those who live in devolved regions have greater access to local and national democracy than those living in England. Our political institutions remain unrepresentative and distant.

The audit establishes two basic features of democracy – popular control and political equality. As people turn away from formal party politics in their 100,000s, popular control is weakening. We will be left with either a democratic paternalism, an elite-ocracy or an irrelevant parliamentary political game  – witness the exchanges on a proposed public inquiry in banking in Parliament this week or Prime Minister’s Questions on any given Wednesday.

England is by some way the most centralised state amongst western European democracies. None of these options are remotely satisfactory as we face the greatest challenges as a society for at least a third of a century.

In some ways, political equality presents even graver concerns. When turnout amongst ABs is 76% compared with 57% amongst DEs, the political system becomes skewed in its outcomes. The weakening of working-class representation further compounds this skewing effect. Those aged over 65 turnout at a rate of 76% in general elections compared to only 44% amongst 18-24 year-olds. In a tight fiscal environment, these inequalities of turnout have an even more profound set of consequences – including an unequal fight between different generations which can’t be healthy.

So people are turning to small parties – now with combined membership somewhere in the region of 50,000 compared with around 150,000 for each of the two main parties. Many aren’t voting at all. In the future, they may turn to all sorts of political parties and movements that we can’t even conceive of yet. Or they will just visit their nearest National Trust stately home instead. At least that offers something that party membership doesn’t – unless you are one of the 0.1% of the country who are activists. And still the major parties seem incapable of facing the big democratic challenges we face whilst connecting democratic reform to positive social and economic change.

The report’s authors argue that the UK needs a ‘fresh constitutional settlement’ – a new, written constitution. I would go further. Without a fundamental appraisal of how our democracy needs to change in order to provide people with a rationale for participation, then we will be incapable of properly facing up to our national challenges.

By moving beyond myopic and self-interested status-quoism or Clegg-like purposeless, piecemeal reform, the process of reconnecting political with economic and social freedom can begin. It needs a bigger argument than is currently being offered. Democratic Audit forensically diagnoses the disease and suggests a course of medicine to treat it. It’s now up to political leaders to explain why we should want the patient to recover.

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic

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