The Sunday review:How democratic is the UK? The 2012 audit by Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Andrew Blick and Stephen Crone for Democratic Audit

by Anthony Painter

In the time before everyone on the centre-left and beyond was talking about Amartya Sen, he wrote a book called Development as Freedom. The reason for bringing this up is that the book was a powerful reminder of why democracy is important –something we seem to have forgotten. In some parts of the world as well as in our own historical experience, it is a matter of life and death. Here is Sen on politics and famines:

“Famines have occurred in ancient kingdoms and contemporary authoritarian societies, in primitive tribal communities and in modern technocratic dictatorships, in colonial economies run by imperialists from the north and in newly independent countries of the south run by despotic national leaders or by intolerant single parties. But they have never materialized [sic] in any country that is independent, that goes to elections regularly, that has opposition parties to voice criticisms and that permits newspapers to report freely and question the wisdom of government policies without extensive censorship.”

For Sen, the reason for this is democracy is a basic human capability. It is part of being human in an enlightened sense, it enables us to press for our needs to be met and the process itself helps us to understand what we need and how we can cooperate or support collective provision to ensure that those needs are met.

Now, the UK is not despotic, no longer imperialistic and it is has a free press and democratic choice. No famine is on the way. Yet Sen’s perspective still should raise our alarm bells that, in its latest four yearly report, Democratic Audit comes to the conclusion that the UK’s representative democracy is “in long-term, terminal decline, but not no viable alternative model of democracy currently exists.”

Not only is our democracy faltering and floundering, our democratic reformers have, since Labour’s early reforms in the late 1990s and early 2000s, largely failed to find a convincing story of why that should concern us.

For centuries, democratic reformers understood that social and economic transformation were bound with political reform. Without the latter, there could be no sustained improvement in socio-economic conditions. Democracy wasn’t only a good in itself. It was about what democracy could do.

The growth of freedom and the spread of opportunity experienced in democratic societies in the twentieth century was one product of political change. Nick Clegg’s attempts at democratic reform have been utterly pathetic precisely because they are meaningless. They are not a component of wider story of justice and national purpose.

A democratic second chamber is seen as a good thing just because it would be democratic. It’s a nonsensical tautology. That type of argument deserves to stay exactly where it currently resides – as a concern of a minority within a liberal minority.

Opponents of democratic change are having it easy as a result. Democratic Audit’s 2012 report the fourth of the series – sounds a klaxon for change. The public service it provides as a result is critical and persuasive.

It paints a picture of an etiolating democracy. People are losing faith in not only the performance but the integrity of the political process. Corporates have embedded themselves deep with the system – a staggering 46% of top 50 firms have a direct connection with an MP or minister.

In a set of fifteen other EU democracies that proportion is 7.1 percent; 2.5 percent in the Nordic countries. Those who live in devolved regions have greater access to local and national democracy than those living in England. Our political institutions remain unrepresentative and distant.

The audit establishes two basic features of democracy – popular control and political equality. As people turn away from formal party politics in their 100,000s, popular control is weakening. We will be left with either a democratic paternalism, an elite-ocracy or an irrelevant parliamentary political game  – witness the exchanges on a proposed public inquiry in banking in Parliament this week or Prime Minister’s Questions on any given Wednesday.

England is by some way the most centralised state amongst western European democracies. None of these options are remotely satisfactory as we face the greatest challenges as a society for at least a third of a century.

In some ways, political equality presents even graver concerns. When turnout amongst ABs is 76% compared with 57% amongst DEs, the political system becomes skewed in its outcomes. The weakening of working-class representation further compounds this skewing effect. Those aged over 65 turnout at a rate of 76% in general elections compared to only 44% amongst 18-24 year-olds. In a tight fiscal environment, these inequalities of turnout have an even more profound set of consequences – including an unequal fight between different generations which can’t be healthy.

So people are turning to small parties – now with combined membership somewhere in the region of 50,000 compared with around 150,000 for each of the two main parties. Many aren’t voting at all. In the future, they may turn to all sorts of political parties and movements that we can’t even conceive of yet. Or they will just visit their nearest National Trust stately home instead. At least that offers something that party membership doesn’t – unless you are one of the 0.1% of the country who are activists. And still the major parties seem incapable of facing the big democratic challenges we face whilst connecting democratic reform to positive social and economic change.

The report’s authors argue that the UK needs a ‘fresh constitutional settlement’ – a new, written constitution. I would go further. Without a fundamental appraisal of how our democracy needs to change in order to provide people with a rationale for participation, then we will be incapable of properly facing up to our national challenges.

By moving beyond myopic and self-interested status-quoism or Clegg-like purposeless, piecemeal reform, the process of reconnecting political with economic and social freedom can begin. It needs a bigger argument than is currently being offered. Democratic Audit forensically diagnoses the disease and suggests a course of medicine to treat it. It’s now up to political leaders to explain why we should want the patient to recover.

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic

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9 Responses to “The Sunday review:How democratic is the UK? The 2012 audit by Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Andrew Blick and Stephen Crone for Democratic Audit”

  1. Nick says:

    We have no democracy here. I’ve never been asked to vote on any issue.

    I’ve just been allowed to express a preference for an MP, or how the next thief gets elected.

  2. Nick says:

    Without a fundamental appraisal of how our democracy needs to change in order to provide people with a rationale for participation, then we will be incapable of properly facing up to our national challenges.


    Even that is twaddle. Nothing gives me a say.

    The move to small parties is an irrelevance. People are moving to single issue parties. The reason is they want a say on issues, not the next thief.

    Look at all the ‘unions’. The only unions left are citizen versus state. From the BMA to Unison, its employee versus the state. At the other end you have fathers for justice or any other pressure group. Citizen versus the state.

    The reason for this, is that the state dictates, rather than act democratically.

    e.g. Why can’t we have a vote on taxes?

  3. wg says:

    I say this with all sincerity.

    What is the point of voting for somebody to go to Westminster when our laws can be overruled from Brussels.

    At street level we are so aware that our fate is not in our own hands – it is a wast of time voting.

    It’s all very well for the Kinnocks and Mandelson to swagger about in our Lords, but these people have taken an oath to the EU – they receive pensions from the EU.

    I ask again – would voting for these people make any difference.

  4. paul barker says:

    As a libdem I make no apologies for supporting democracy on principle but doesnt it occur to labour minds that the Lords are a bastion of establishment privelege, stuffed with directors, lawyers & ex-mps – all the great & the good.
    Labour will once again support the principle of reform while working against the actuality. On this the right, centre & left of labour can all agree – the right are against reform because they like things as they are & the left because they want revolution.
    As for the centre – at least they can annoy the libdems.

  5. Felix says:

    “But they have never materialized [sic] in any country that is independent”

    Poncy Painter takes offence at American spelling of Harvard professor.

  6. Peter Kenyon says:

    Dear Labour Uncut

    For an alternative review Democratic Audit 2012 – write off political parties? What a cheek!

    Peter Kenyon

  7. Rallan says:

    There is a lot of truth in this article BUT I have to to say that the author needs to look hard in the mirror before looking to take the moral high ground.

    It was New Labour more than any other political force in history that discredited and devalued British democracy with cynical short-termism, spin, stealth, deceit, misdirection & paranoia.

    Consider Mandleson, Campbell, Draper, McBride and Martin. You even ruled through deceit. Tony Blair says clearly in his book that New Labour was elected by “talking right and acting left”.

    Public concerns were treated with contempt and dismissed as unimportant – to be suppressed & overruled rather than addressed. These disgraceful attitudes to official duty have become the political norm. They have infected every political party.

    Labour, a lot of this is your fault and you should be utterly ashamed.

  8. swatantra says:

    We need to move to a Presidential System’ for there to be true democracy, where the vote of every citizen counts for the elected Leader. And none of this nonsenceof electoral colleges. I know it means placing an enormous power intot he hands of one individual, and you could eg end up with a clown like Boris Johnson which the gulliable people of London voted in just recently. But that is the chance you have to take and at theend of the day if the People want to commit collective suicide then its up to them. But there should be controls like eg in the USA with powers of the Legislature and Judiciary separate and again ussing the eg of London not a toothless London Assembly.
    In our present case the 2nd Chamber should be 80:20 elected and nominated, so that the question of supemacy does not arise and the Commons remains supreme.
    Having said that, there has always been the residual power in te People to rise up and challenge any kind of Govt, which has been use quite recently in the Arab Spring rate belatedly I must say. The dictatorship of the prolitariat is aways there nomatter what type of oppressive Govt it challenges, even if it weret o be a democratic Govt.

  9. uglyfatbloke says:

    Why should the commons be supreme? So long as we are denied a democratic electoral system the commons will never be representative of the electorate.
    Equally, why should the lords be appointed? Why should bishops (of all people) get seats in the lords?

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