For those of you not entirely fed-up reading about politics…
I doubt that any of us could have predicted the events of the past week. A Prime-ministerial resignation, a re-enactment of Brutus’ betrayal of Caesar, and a Shadow Cabinet rebellion are only some of the fall-outs following the EU Referendum on 23rd June. Throughout the past week, I’ve read and heard a lot about democracy. In particular, those who voted to leave the EU have ensured we all know how democracy works. Even many of those who campaigned to stay have shrugged their shoulders and said of the general public’s advisory vote, “Well, what can we do? We live in a democracy and the people have spoken.” It got me thinking about democracy and the various guises and forms it has taken throughout the centuries. The more I looked into it, the more I wondered:
Is democracy dead?
The EU referendum was as close to direct democracy as we get in the UK. Direct democracy originated in Athens during the 5th Century B.C. and at this time there were two prerequisites necessary for its success: 1. the community must be small enough for citizens to attend debates and to vote. 2. citizens must be afforded enough leisure time to engage in politics. It is clear from these two conditions that there was an emphasis on the ability of participants to engage, not just in a vote but in the entire political process. We can say, therefore, that participants in a direct democracy must have the ability and the opportunity for politics to play a central role in their everyday lives. Neither of these conditions are met in our modern society.
Recent research has shown that up to 7% of Leave voters regret their decision and would change their vote if they had another opportunity. The reasons for this are varied. Some feel they were mislead by politicians and their promises of extra money for the NHS and a reduction in immigration, promises swiftly retracted following the referendum. Others simply thought their vote wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, it appears that sections of the general public were ill-informed (the blame for which lies both in the provision and reception of information) and apathetic towards the democratic process. If we don’t think our vote makes a difference, do we really live in a democratic society?
I live in Northern Ireland, where the majority of citizens voted to remain within the EU. What I found interesting is that we voted in a referendum brought about by a party which had a 0.4% share of votes in our 2016 elections. The referendum was not desired in Northern Ireland, nor was its eventual outcome. It is unsurprising therefore, as we now face leaving the EU, that many people feel their vote would not and did not matter.
But the referendum isn’t the only problem. The party political system in the UK simply does not work. It isn’t democratic, in the true sense of the word. The last time any single party obtained greater than 50% of the vote was in 1931. Time and time again, we end up with governing parties who have roughly one third of the vote. Parties don’t even have to have the largest, or even second largest share of the vote to form a government. Look at the Liberal Democrats in 2010. They formed part of a coalition government, having acquired just 23% of the vote. Labour on the other hand, had 29% share of the vote and did not form part of the government. In simple terms, it didn’t matter that the Labour Party enjoyed greater popularity amongst the general public. The democratic vote didn’t really matter.
It seems to me, then, that we live in a sort-of democratic oligarchy. Every few years, the masses get a chance to ‘have our say,’ on who we want to represent us. But after that, it seems as though this small group of representatives can act independently of our opinions and desires. One only has to look at the current disarray in the Labour Party. Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey, has been one of Jeremy Corbyn’s main detractors in recent days, and has repeatedly called for his resignation, despite Wallasey’s CLP voting against any attempt to remove Corbyn and relaying their opinions to Eagle. She has simply ignored them. This is the story in many constituencies; Corbyn continues to enjoy significant grassroots support. Yet the man who, in September 2015 was voted leader of the Labour Party in a landslide victory, is facing political ruin because of the actions of a few.
It is clear therefore, in a time when just 36% of young people actually voted on their future either within our outside of the EU, and with many feeling powerless and disengaged from politics, that our current political system must change. Now is the time for brave and sincere leadership, a leadership not afraid to let go of the decaying structures of the past in order to build a new, representative, and effective democracy for our future. The time to act is now. If left any longer, one thing is certain: democracy in the UK will die.