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The Problem with our Democracy

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Jeremy O’Grady, writing in an editorial for The Week magazine last week, argued that, ‘to rescue political seriousness we need a more local kind of democracy.’

VotingHe believes ‘democracy of the highly centralised sort we have here’ is responsible for the dumbing down of politicians, citing David Cameron’s banal interview with Now magazine as evidence. O’Grady is partly right, but he does not go far enough in his critique of democracy. There is far more merit to local democracy than merely the salvaging of political seriousness.

Modern general elections in the UK now closely resemble US-style Presidential races, with greater focus on personality than policy (hence Tony Blair’s popularity). The introduction of television debates in the 2010 election were fêted as an effective way of letting party leaders eloquently propose and explain their policies on a range of issues, allowing the electorate to make an informed, rational decision with their vote. In reality, the debates were won and lost on character, as we saw Nick Clegg’s likeability rocket him to the top of the polls, whilst Gordon Brown’s apparent grumpiness left him bottom of the pile.

None of this is surprising, nor is it the primary issue at stake. The emphasis on character hides a deeper, more disconcerting fact about our democracy though: that votes are cast, and elections won and lost, on party leaders. One person and their persona can determine the outcome of a general election. This hardly seems the best way of determining who is to rule the country, and how, to me.

The focus on party leaders forces these politicians to be completely and utterly uncontroversial. O’Grady brings this under the heading of ‘political seriousness’, but the reality is more worrying than that. Modern politicians are required to be as bland as possible in order to appeal to the greatest number of potential voters; any hint of a deeply held principle or belief is hidden under the umbrella terms of ‘equality’ or ‘fairness’, words politicians love because of their inherent ambiguity. The less specific a politician has to be, the better, because it offers them less risk of causing offence or upsetting the public.

Politicians like appealing to ‘the squeezed middle’, a phrase which refers to to pretty much anyone earning under £100,000 and not on benefits. It is a term the Financial Times has deemed ‘wonderfully inclusive’ and indeed it includes around six million households in the UK. The fact all three main party leaders have used this term in their discourse shows the transparency of politicians’ attempts to show themselves as fighting for certain people in parliament, when really they are appealing to most political-minded voters.

The result of this is a lack of distinction between parties – as all the main parties close in on the centre-ground, with fewer and fewer areas of disagreement – and an electorate that isn’t quite sure what any party really stands for. Commentators have obsessed over Ed Miliband’s rebranding (or should that be un-branding?) of New Labour because they are desperate to discover what ideological ground he stands on. His flat-out refusal to display any particular principles or policies shows that he understands the political game that our democracy demands, one in which conviction and principle is disregarded for the general and the vague.

The solution is, on a general level, a more localised form of democracy. Politicians such as Boris Johnson and Tony Benn are popular because they represent certain interests proudly, and people know exactly what to expect when they lend them their support. By contrast, working-class voters in Wigan and bankers in London can vote for David Cameron for entirely different reasons, with the likely result that neither will be entirely satisfied by his performance. This is not to advocate a return to class politics, or a reinforcement of the north-south divide. It is counter-productive to want all working-class voters to vote Labour simply because of a tribal allegiance. The point is that local politicians have more scope to be different, and to project themselves as a particular kind of politician, rather than one whom anyone can vote for.

It’s understandable, if lamentable, that the three main party leaders (and to a lesser extent, all politicians) seek to broaden their appeal as wide as possible. They have to in order to win elections, due to the nature of our democracy. What we should strive for is a political system in which we can vote for someone who truly represents our specific interests and concerns, rather than the ideological chameleons we are forced to vote for now. Voter apathy is explicable in a political climate where many feel that there is no real choice between candidates.

The Additional Member voting system (AMS), used in Scotland and Wales amongst other places, is an interesting method, in which people vote for their chosen local candidate and also for their desired political party. The advantage of such a system is that people can feel their local concerns are represented through their choice of preferred regional candidate, whilst their overall ideological view can be expressed through their party vote. Many choose to vote for the same party in both votes, of course, but there are those who may be staunch Labour supporters but who are particularly impressed by their particular Liberal Democrat MP.

The AMS is far from perfect, though it does entrench a more localised democracy in the political framework than our current system in England. Ideas such as this are useful in solving the problem of ‘broadening appeal’, which inevitably and necessarily leads to increasingly broad and elusive beliefs, and we should encourage similar innovations. Whilst political seriousness is a significant issue, it is not so pertinent as the issue of ideological slipperiness, the repercussions of which are severe and damaging to our democracy.

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