Posted by: secretperson | April 27, 2010

Has Representative Democracy Failed?

All the electoral reform talk so far has been of vote-counting systems, and how to transform votes into seats. There has been little mention of, say, an English Parliament (at least amongst the main politicians). And there has been only a brief mention of more direct forms of democracy.

But surely the real issue driving all these reforms is the failure of the model of representative democracy. In a constituency-based election there are two basic models of MP, the MP as representative, who we choose to represent our interests in Parliament, or the MP as delegate, who simply conveys the opinions of his voters, without much need to think for himself.

The UK has very much seen itself in the former model. There are good arguments for it, in a more direct system contradicting policies could be supported by the electorate (low tax and high spending being an obvious example), whereas it was hoped that the representatives could thrash out a solution. Parties exist to present consistent policy packages. However this system also has its problems.

One of the most common complaints about MPs is their lack of independence from the party machines (although this is not such a new phenomenon as often assumed). It seems clear to me that it is political parties and not constituents who are represented in a representative democracy. Behind this lie the calls for PR, a recognition that those whose chosen candidate/party doesn’t win are unrepresented.

But while PR might provide a fairer representation of our current party-run system, given party-based voting intentions, might a more complete rethink of the whole concept of representative democracy be in order?

One proposal offered by Labour (and maybe others I have only heard Brown mention it) is the use of petitions from voters to put ideas before parliament. I have my doubts about how far this would be allowed to go, and whether the politicians would offer real power, as in Switzerland. However, it at least shows a concession to the idea of direct democracy.

The most exciting possibilities are offered by technology. It is now much more practical for people to vote regularly and to make sure they are informed on what they are voting for. A strong local element, combined with devolution of powers down to the lowest practical level, would also increase accountability and allow people to see the true effects of their votes. Some kind of compromise is obviously needed, in terms of knitting together potential policy clashes, but this is clearly an idea whose time is coming.

One might feel disenfranchised voting for the Lib Dems, say, and they come third in a constituency. PR would help this. But what are the chances one also supports all their policies rather than their just being the least bad package from a bad selection? In that case, even with PR, the exact stitch up of which policies get selected and which sacrificed in forming a coalition will happen after you have voted, behind closed doors. (Those politicians who think discussion of coalitions is arrogant and ‘second guessing’ the electorate should think they are also depriving us of the chance to make a fully informed vote). Our hypothetical voter might support the Lib Dems on raising the tax theshold and civil liberties, only to find they’ve been abandoned in the back room deal for the price of greater EU integration, or simply a cabinet seat.

The real answer is more direct democracy. More chance to be enfranchised on individual issues. Yes, there are potential problems, but good systems work in Switzerland and on a local scale in many areas of the US. I am sure many people would agree with me that party whips are too powerful and people not powerful enough. PR won’t change this, but direct democracy might.

I am sure you can guess my answer to the original question – has representative democracy failed?


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