The UK’s democracy is already compromised. We need to address that before we concern ourselves with the threat posed by ignoring a flawed plebiscite.
One of the candidates currently contesting for the leadership of the conservative party, and thereby Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently said that however much suffering might be caused should Britain exit the EU without a deal, failure to leave is not an option because of the damage that (he believes) will be caused to democracy.
Let us suppose, then, that democracy is under threat, either in the UK or elsewhere. How much suffering is it worth enduring in order to resist that threat? To answer that question we need, first, to understand what is meant by “democracy”. Abraham Lincoln famously defined it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” A phrase that seems easy enough to understand until you start to analyse it.
To begin with, we need definitions of “government” and of “the people”. There is a great deal of difference between the government of, say, a golf club or a nation. And a wide range of intermediate possibilities; parishes, cities, counties, states, provinces. Beyond the nation sate there are, in the modern world, trans-national organisations of which the EU is one. “The people” has to be defined within the context of the organisation under consideration.
For any club the most usual definition would relate to membership of the organisation. Within that there might be differrent voting rights depending on the type of membership and the accompanying level of subscription. At which point I’ll introduce another famous phrase: “No taxation without representation”, the cry of American colonists ahead of the War of Independence.
In the not too distant past the only people granted the right to elect representatives to national governments were those who owned land. They, after all, were the people paying taxes. Later the franchise was extended to all males over 21. Then it was further extended to women over 21 and, within my lifetime, to anyone over 18. We have established, therefore, that for local and national government “the people” usually excludes certain categories of citizen. In most western democracies that means prisoners and anyone under 18 years of age.
Having established what constitutes “the people”, some system has to be devised to enable the people to determine which of them will constitute the government and what will be the competencies of that government. It has become well established in most western democracies that elections are held from time to time to choose representatives for each of many constituencies.
Those representatives are usually members of a political party. Each party holds a different view as to the legitimate competencies of government. Broadly these are, from the right, as little as possible in order to protect individual liberty, or, from the left, as much as possible in order to defend the individual against the power of capital.
Constituencies are usually defined in geographical terms with roughly equal population numbers. In some jurisdictions “constituency” can be defined by other criteria, such as profession. This is often applied in the case of an “upper house” or “senate” with powers of revision. Thus, for example, Judges and Bishops have a role in the UK’s upper house. When I was a member of a local education authority in England, members of the teaching profession and clergy shared representation alongside elected county councillors, although they were not able to vote on budgetary matters.
It is not unusual for geographical constituency boundaries to be reviewed from time to time, to take account of population movements and housing developments, a process which offers the unscrupulous the possibility of defining the boundary in order to maximise the representation of people sympathetic to a particular political ideology.
More generally in the UK the demographics of constituency boundaries create a situation where a considerable proportion of seats remain loyal to the same party for decades, with the choice of governing party in any general election determined by the results in the relatively small number of seats which change hands regularly.
Within Europe, this is a feature unique to the UK, since elsewhere some form of proportional representation is used, ensuring that the number of party representative in Parliament is roughly equivalent to the number of votes cast for that party across the nation.
Such systems introduce a conflict between the role of the member of parliament as a representative for his or her constituents and as a follower of a particular set of policies as set out in the party manifesto. Given the whipping system which ensures that MPs vote in line with party policies this might seem to be a spurious argument, especially when, under first past the post, the MP could have been elected with the support of fewer that 50% of the local electorate.
Lincoln’s principle is compromised
We can now begin to see that, in the UK at least, the principle defined by Lincoln is compromised. And that is before we consider the question of coalition government which is often the inevitable consequence of a proportional system where there are multiple parties contesting an election. The negotiations that take place after an election, which residents of Ireland, for example, have become used to, mean that certain manifesto commitments have to be discarded in order to reach a compromise.
This happened in the UK in 2010 when the Liberal Democrats were forced to ditch their promise to oppose tuition charges for students in third level education in order to reach an accommodation with the Conservatives. A decision that angered many Labour supporters who had voted for them, a fact which I’ll come back to in a moment. The point I am trying to make here is that a coalition between two or more parties means that a large part of the electorate gets something of what they voted for. Which has to be better than the usual situation in which most of the electorate gets nothing of what it voted for.
Those Labour supporters who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 were attempting to influence the outcome of the election by tactical voting. The idea behind this is that, where the party whose policies you like has no hope of winning in your constituency, you vote instead for the party that does have a chance of defeating the one whose policies you despise.
All of the argument so far is predicated on the principle of representative democracy: you elect someone from your area to represent you and your fellow citizens in that area. You accept the result, even if it means that the party with the most seats turns out not to be the one you voted for or the one that most people across the nation voted for. It’s clearly not democracy as defined by Lincoln. The representatives may be “of the people” but the government of which they are part is not representative of all the people.
Another way in which democracy can be compromised is by the lobbying of special interest groups. Where representatives are chosen on a geographical basis it is not unreasonable to put in place some means by which the interests of, for example, certain kinds of business, employees, or people suffering from certain illnesses, are enabled to inform legislators of the possible impact on them of proposed changes in legislation. That is, arguably, a legitimate exercise of democracy on behalf of a particular section of “the people” not otherwise represented.
What is not acceptable is the exertion of influence by offering rewards to representatives in return for the introduction, or repeal, of laws which favour one group over another. It is not yet illegal in the UK for a representative to accept financial or other inducements in order to influence his or her voting intentions, although it is generally frowned upon. It is common practice for businesses and individuals to make donations to parties whose policies are sympathetic to their own personal or business objectives.
Such donations enable the recipient party to campaign more successfully, ensuring their message reaches the maximum number of potential voters. The whole question of party funding is another way in which democracy is compromised, since smaller, poorly funded, parties are unable to present their policies in as professional and persuasive a manner as are the well funded large parties.
And so we come to the role of the media, both main stream and via the internet. In the UK there are rules about ensuring balance in coverage in the few weeks leading up to an election, at least in the main stream media. Outside of that period, television, radio and print media are free to be as partisan as they like, extolling the virtues of one party or leader and denigrating those with an opposing view.
If elections are conducted in a way that compromises democracy, what role might there be for a plebiscite or referendum, in which all the people vote “yes” or “no” to a proposition, by-passing their representatives? Should the representatives subsequently act as delegates, upholding the result of the plebiscite despite any misgivings they may have about the consequences? Or should they continue in their role as representatives, prioritising the well being of the people they were elected to represent?
Many people share Jeremy Hunt’s view that if they act as representatives they are putting democracy at risk. Whereas to perform the role of delegate, upholding the “will of people” as expressed in the 2016 referendum, will save democracy and is therefore worth all the suffering he acknowledges will be caused.
I do not share that view. Not only because it has been well established that the referendum was flawed, or that the misgivings of those who argued against leaving were dismissed as “project fear”, or that only 37% of those eligible to vote supported the proposition, but because I believe in the kind of democracy in which government “for the people” means government in the best interests of all the people.
As I have shown, we already accept that our democracy is compromised in so many ways. We need to address some of those before we concern ourselves with the consequences of ignoring a flawed plebiscite. Few now doubt that leaving the EU will damage Britain and her people, that there is no deal available that could be better than the one we already have as members.
Some advocates of leaving acknowledge that the damage to the economy and, therefore, the well being of the people, consequent upon leaving without a deal are enormous. I believe, too, that for our representatives to inflict such damage would constitute a far greater threat to our democracy than would be incurred by remaining in the EU.