Is Representative Democracy Accessible?

In Democracy

And when I say 'accessible' I mean the ability for citizens to make their feelings known, and have government act upon them.

To start with a warning. I'm not asking for government to react to every Twitter storm that breaks out, nor to react to every call for laws to be changed because of some specific case that existing laws already handle, nor to react to every pressure group that rocks up, whatever the the validity of the campaign. At least, not immediately. We need to remember that any form of governance, whether an allotment association or a state must have procedures where knee-jerk reactions are tempered by time and consideration. It is a key function of governance to be predictable. People to be affected by a change should be able to see the change coming. Overnight fiddling around the edges is one thing. Digging over the whole plot needs some notice. At least, that's the ideal; dictatorships and populist governments may be less careful of people's sensitivities.

I'm also making an assumption: given that, in the UK, the franchise extends to the majority of the population there is an expectation that the views of the populace as a whole should be taken into account. Having said that, in a situation of climate emergency, loss of biodiversity, limited resources and destructive agriculture, the franchise matters in that all impacts are felt locally, but, these issues cause significant problems that should be seen and responded to pro-actively. Either way, we need to examine how citizen views are presented to the government.

Let's start with our MPs. They represent us, and they operate regular 'surgeries' where they listen to submissions or questions from their constituents. They also read emails and letters. We need to remember here that our once in 5 years vote is not at stake at this point. A single issue is unlikely to change voting patterns, and in any case, we want action and there's no reason to believe that another MP is going to be any more effective. MPs, then, should have a picture of what constituents want, and they will, on occasion, present these views in Parliament. If enough MPs present a view then change may be possible. What normally happens, though, is the MP talks to someone behind the scenes and some aspect of a broken system is bypassed, for now. Rarely does this fix things.

Left to themselves, MPs will do something between what they want to do and what their party wants them to do. They have been voted in to represent us, and, in this case the term 'represent' indicates a free-lance you-voted-for-my-opinion type of representation, which is not the same as a negotiator who needs to keep checking back with base to see that the negation is going in the right direction. Even then, the reality is more a case of voting for the party, as we saw earlier.

The obvious follow-on from this would be to increase the number of citizens raising an issue. If enough people contacted enough MPs, so the argument goes, then change would happen. And so it does. Petitions and mass mailings organised by special interest groups have been known to work. Recently, the Government removed funding for domestic solar power, and, at the same time created a situation where there was no payment for domestic generators exporting energy to the grid. Campaigns such as this have been at least partly responsible for instituting a payment system to redress this error. A similar campaign for better planning support for on-shore wind met with less success when a group of MPs campaigned to keep the current planning restrictions.

Work by special interest groups is a key way to bring an issue to the government and hope for change. There are three different ways this can be done. Groups like 10:10 work through petitions, non-disruptive public activism and local project support. On the other hand Friends of the Earth work through local semi-autonomous groups, and by direct lobbying and cooperation with government. Lastly Extinction Rebellion work largely through more forceful activism, designed to be instantly news-worthy without doing damage to property. For many special interest groups, the fact that they have a built-in constituency means that they know who they are working for, and they know they have full support from that constancy. These groups range from business interest groups, general and industry specific, to health related groups (such as the Alzheimer's Association as a lone example) and all are useful. The three groups I mentioned above are special in that they have been started by activists and they have to address their proposed constituency as well as government. They are in the business of persuading citizens that there is a problem.

Persuading citizens is clearly going to be needed in many cases, and both mass media and social media have a part to play in disseminating biased and outright false information, whether through ignorance or not. For now, that does not affect the accessibility of our representative democracy.

Let's see what we have now:

  • MPs are constrained by the party system in that they need the party to retain their seat. To this end they are more likely to try to work around an issue on behalf of constituents rather than addressing the issue itself.
  • MPs are only human in that they can be swayed by arguments that fit with the prevailing ideology, making new thinking difficult.
  • Cabinet ministers are also MPs, with an addition of power (and a higher salary). Their interest is largely personal.
  • Cabinet ministers are party to new knowledge concerning the background to a particular issue. It may not be possible to do something because... They may not divulge this information, making it difficult to address.
  • Cabinet ministers are only human and may be reluctant to rethink something because it might be seen to reflect badly on them.
  • Governments are reluctant to address long term issues. This could be because long term issues may conflict with the immediate short term position.
  • Ministers and MPs are reluctant to look at real life.
  • Lobby groups can work, though they take a long time.
  • Activism can work by giving the impression that more people are interested than is actually the case. Activism is a metaphor for riot and can therefore be a warning to government that something must be done. Of course, one possible reaction would be to suppress the activists, but that might backfire.

It looks difficult, but doable. So why are people dissatisfied? The poorer regions, in the south as well as the north, are feeling left out and unrepresented, and the United Nations confirms everyone else's view that austerity doesn't work1. There should be something better.

  1. Philip Alston: Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 23 April 2019 Downloaded 25 July 2019