Saturday, 3 March 2012

Moving Beyond this Representative Democracy

We live in a supposedly representative democracy, where we elect officials to govern us. There's no denying that this system reflects the wishes of the people more than the totalitarian regimes in other parts of the world, some of which are not elected, others of which rig the elections. But do our elected officals truly represent us?

In Bath and North East Somerset, our elected official is Don Foster, who famously campaigned against a rise in tuition fees and then voted in favour of them. Let me tell you about the time he came to the Occupy Bath camp on one evening back in November. That night he was invited to attend a meeting about the NHS reforms, hosted by Dr Wendy Savage. Around 200 people attended. Instead he arrived at Queen Square just after dusk, and just after a talk entitled "War and Capitalism". The person giving the talk immediately recognised him and gave him a big lecture on his voting record. Looking nervous, he then said loudly - and I quote - "I have no objections to this camp." He then made promptly for the exit, commenting on the way that he had a sports event to go to. Later, when interviewed by Breeze Bath, he commented "I think it is wrong that - as a country - we support banks, not only if they get it wrong in terms of lending mortgages but many other issues. The other thing we are trying to do as a government is to try and do more to support the least well off in society." Well said Don, now some actions would be nice.

Don Foster, Bath and North East Somerset MP (Lib Dem), giving the Occupy Bath camp his approval

The following morning, scores of people turned up at the camp - Dr Wendy Savage had expressed her support for the Occupy Movement and had recommended that people come to the camp to support us and find out more. When we told them about our visitor, they were appalled. Don had the time to visit Occupy Bath on a whim, but didn't show up to a meeting he was invited to weeks ago. Of course, he knew he'd be ripped to pieces, and probably thought he would have an easier time at the camp. I'm proud that we gave him hell too.

I don't recall Don talking about NHS reforms before the election. Like all other politicians, he was elected based on a manifesto and pre-election pledges. As far as I am concerned, in a representative democracy the elected official's job is to uphold these things. Unexpected things will almost certainly arise during their term, and in which case the democratic thing to do would be to consult the people - perhaps even hold a referendum. If there really is a good case for doing what they want to do, then surely the public would vote in favour of it.

On the subject of referendums, a simple yes/no is not always the best choice. Since 1973 there have only been 11 referendums in the UK, and most have been regional referendums on devolution. The most recent referendum - on the Alternative Vote - was a shambles. Not only was the Conservative smear campaign out of hand, but even the Liberal Democrats didn't really want it. Why were we not given the option to vote for other voting systems, such as some form of Proportional Representation?

Was the war against Iraq in Labour's manifesto? No. I was among the many thousands marching in the street back in 2003, and felt disgusted when Tony Blair didn't acknowledge us. If there had been a referendum, I am in no doubt that we wouldn't have gone to war. I also don't recall being given a vote on bailing out the banks - hands up who would have voted "NO!".

Now, in 2012, we are facing a potential war with Iran, privatisation of the NHS and the police force, and cuts left right and centre. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats won the election, so they have even less right than the previous Labour administration to go to war in our name without consulting us first. Rather than giving us referendums on the big issues that none of us voted for, they are even reducing our right to oppose them via our remaining options - the petitions service and protests.

There are many untrustworthy politicians, but even among the more honest ones there is another barrier to a true representative democracy - the three-line whip. When a party insists that all of it's MPs vote a certain way on an issue, they issue a three-line whip - which means that anyone who rebels against the party line is expected to resign from their position. So here's a scenario - what if an MP gives their constituents a vote on an issue, promising to vote whichever way the people decide. The party then issues a three-line whip requesting that they vote the other way. Through being democratic, the MP could potentially lose their job. Is this why we don't have referendums at the level of a constituency in this country?

This is 2012. We now have the technology to crowdsource and to use wiki platforms to create a new constitution (and a written one - this country doesn't even have one!) - this worked for Iceland. Let's bring in a new era using the tools we have available to us, tools we didn't have until recently, a new era where democracy is truly a government of the people and not run by elected officials who can go against the will of the people whenever they feel like it. Occupy, the Indignados, the Quaker Movement and many other groups around the world have advocated more direct forms of democracy. Let's move this forward this year, and make the old ways irrelevant.

Previous post on Occupy Bath: Do the right thing - Move Your Money!
Next Post on Occupy Bath: Occupy the UK. That's at Least What The Shittro Thinks (Guest Blog)

Further Reading
Don Foster visits Occupy Bath -

House of Lords report "Referendums in the United Kingdom" -

Guardian article on the Iceland constitution -

A major reference for the kind of democracy used in Occupy camps and by other groups worldwide -

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